8 'must-do' steps to sell your home this year

Most sellers dream of a stress-free sale where they simply list their house, quickly find a qualified buyer, collect the cash and hand over the keys. The reality is that selling a home includes many moving parts -- some which you can control and some that are out of your hands.

For example, geography might influence how long your house lingers on the market and how much mark-up you can get away with.

In places where inventory is low, odds are you'll be able to sell faster and command a higher dollar amount. Conversely, in places where home sales have begun to cool, homeowners will likely have to wait longer and work harder to make that sale.

Before you feel helpless in this home-selling machine, what you can control turns out to be pretty substantial and will likely have a noticeable impact on your bottom line. Things like hiring an effective listing agent and maximizing curb appeal can convert effort into dollars. Here's what experts say homeowners should do if they want to sell their homes in 2019.

1. Recognize that every market is different

You can't really compare your state, town or neighborhood to what's happening miles away, says Louise Rocco, realtor for Exit Bayshore Realty in Florida. She explains that, above all else, pricing your property around the average sales price in your neighborhood is a good starting point.

"If you put your house on the market for $25,000 more than the average sales price in that area, it's probably not going to sell," Rocco warns.

Similarly, a house three miles away might be scooped up in a week whereas your neighborhood market might move slower. This could be because of school districts, nearby amenities and even age of the homes in the neighborhood.

An effective way to value your house and prove that value to buyers is to get comparables, or "comps." These are data sheets about recently sold property in a specific area. At a glance, you can get an idea of what houses are going for around you and you can price yours accordingly. This is a good starting point and will help you manage expectations throughout the process.

2. Get your home inspected

"Before I would even call a real estate agent, I'd have my home inspected," says attorney Diana Brodman Summers, author of "How to Buy Your First Home."

According to Home Advisor, basic inspections range from $270 to $378. Although some real estate agents advise against spending the money because the buyers will get one anyway prior to closing, Summers believes it's often better to be proactive..

"I would rather know what the inspector is going to find and be able to fix it -- and pick who will fix it," she says.

By being a few steps ahead of the buyer, sellers might be able to speed the selling process by doing repairs in tandem with other home prep work. This means, by the time the house hits the market, it should be ready to sell relatively drama-free and quickly.

3. Spruce up your space

Let poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's words be your battle cry when attacking a well lived-in house: "In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity."

Experts agree that less is more when it comes to staging your house to woo buyers. In other words, your refrigerator magnet collection and assortment of antique dolls might need to find another home during open houses.

By decluttering your space, you're allowing prospective buyers to imagine their stuff in your house. Alas, this is your ultimate goal: their stuff in your house, in exchange for money. If shelves and bookcases are overrun with personal photos, framed diplomas and vacation souvenirs, then it still looks more like your space and not their future abode.

Spend a few hours clearing off your shelves, tucking away wires and cords, and simplifying counter spaces -- that includes your electric toothbrush and excessive kitchen gadgets. Likewise, tidy up your outdoor space. Toys, lawn equipment and sporting gear shoved in every corner will make your lawn and patio area look smaller, darker, dirtier and older. It's better to put everything in one hidden spot than to scatter it around throughout your property.

If your home isn't appealing and in good repair, potential buyers might not even stop. You might even lose the chance to negotiate, says Eric Tyson, co-author of "House Selling for Dummies."

"You want to put your best foot forward," Tyson says.

You don't need to renovate, but make sure everything looks great and works well.

There are some things you can do to make your home stand out:

New paint. Paint the whole house, if it needs it; otherwise touch up the trim, shutters and doors for an easy-to-achieve fresh look.

A clean entryway. Sweep or pressure-wash the front walk and porch. Polish the outdoor metalwork; clean the windows and glass; and replace any burnt-out bulbs in outdoor lighting. And, if you can, add planters with healthy flowers or plants.

Lush landscaping. Think new mulch, sharp edging, a healthy lawn and beds of flowers.

4. Don't waste money on needless upgrades

If you're going to go beyond a deep clean

and actually invest money into costly upgrades, do your homework. Make sure that the additions or updates you make have a high return on investment. It doesn't make sense to install new granite counters if you stand to break even or even lose money at sale.

Here's where a good real estate agent can help guide you. They often know what people expect in your neighborhood and can help you plan upgrades accordingly. If local shoppers aren't looking for super skylights or a steam shower, then it doesn't make sense to add them.

Generally, updates to kitchens and bathrooms provide the highest return on investment. So if you have old cabinetry, you might be able to simply replace the doors and hardware for an updated look. For example, you can swap out those standard-issue kitchen cabinet doors for modern, Shaker-style doors in a weekend, without breaking the bank. The same goes for outdated fluorescent lighting, which can be swapped out for more attractive track lighting or pendant lights.

5. Spend the money on professional photographs

Now that your house sparkles and shines, schedul

e a photo shoot to capture its best side. A professional photographer, with a strong portfolio, knows how to make rooms appear bigger, brighter and more attractive. The same goes for your lawn and outdoor area.

Dimly lit, grainy mugshots can turn off home buyers before they even have a chance to read about the lovely bike path nearby or the new roof you just installed.

A package of 50 or more photographs, with aerial shots -- courtesy of those handy drones, cost about $400 or less, says Matthew Kalb, broker at Commercial & Residential Realty in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"If you don't need to show off a golf course or mountain view then you can skip the drone shots and get a photo package for as low as $200," Kalb says.

6. Hire an agent -- particularly one who knows the market

Homeowners might be tempted to save on broker fees and commission by forgoing a real estate agent and instead selling their homes themselves. This is known as "for sale by owner," or FSBO.

The amount they stand to save on those fees can be thousands of dollars, usually 6 percent of the total sale price. On a home that sells for $300,000, for example, the agent will make roughly $18,000 if they charge 6 percent.

Tempting as that extra cash might be, the risks usually outweigh the benefits, especially for novice sellers, says Kalb. For one thing, your house won't be exposed to the broadest possible audience and that may cut the number and size of any offers you do get.

"There are certain disclosures sellers have to make and rules they have to follow, which vary from state to state. Inexperienced sellers could end up breaking laws and jeopardizing the sale," Kalb says.

If you're among the majority of homeowners who hire a listing agent, find one who knows the local market. Agents who are in the neighborhood day in and day out have relationships with other local agents (who represent buyers in the neighborhood) and can help you price your home competitively for the specific area you're in, Rocco says. This kind of local advantage can save you time and money.

7. Interview real estate agents

Asking potential agents the right question could be the difference between a great experience and miserable one. Rocco recommends asking prospective agents about their recent listings. If the agent hasn't sold property in a few years or has listings but few sales, these could be red flags.

"My advice is to get referrals. Don't just rely on an ad," Rocco says. "There are a lot of agents who are busy so you might not get the attention you need. Find out how much time they can devote to your property and how they plan on marketing it so you can meet your sales timeline."

8. Set a realistic price

Even in competitive markets, buyers don't want to pay more than what the comps show, so it's crucial to get it right the first time.

"If a house lingers on the market too long, it gets stale," Rocco says. "Agents will use this against sellers when negotiating. Homeowners need to listen to their agent when it's time to price their home."

If you're not using an agent, check the local paper or sites like Realtor.com to see how similar houses in the area are priced. Tracking actual sales prices may give you a better picture than asking prices.

Christopher Dyson, founder of real estate company The Pocket Listing Service, says that getting the price right the first time can save sellers a lot of money and frustration. Dyson and his partners designed the PLS tool, which allows sellers to list their property privately on a website that only agents have access to. This gives sellers a testing ground for prices before they list their property on the market.

"As an agent, I know how tricky it can be to walk the line between getting the maximum value for property and going over," Dyson says. Sellers using the tool learn to adjust their asking price when they're not getting hits.

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