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RISMEDIA, Oct. 23, 2007-(MCT)-Dan and Susan Klotzbach know one secret to selling a house is to make it look like new.

It was a lesson that came after it took them about a year to sell a home in Kenosha, Wis. “That took forever and a day. That’s when we learned how to sell a home,” said Susan Klotzbach of Bloomington, Illinois. “We learned the hard way.”

It also was a lesson that came in handy this fall as they received an offer on their 4,580-square foot home in east Bloomington’s Hawthorne II subdivision after 56 days — less than half the average time for a home in that area to sell in the past year.

Home sellers who neutralize, declutter, depersonalize and update their homes will have a better chance at a quick sale at a top dollar price, agree real estate professionals.

Their advice is important throughout the year but even more so during the fall and winter seasons when the housing market typically slows down — and maybe even more necessary now since sales have been down so far this year.

“If it’s clean, if it looks more modern, they’ll get much closer to their asking price,” said Georgean Fish, a real estate agent with Bloomington’s Coldwell Banker Heart of America.

“It’s just more vital than ever (at this time of the year).”

Seasonal slow down

The worst time of the year to sell a house is from Thanksgiving through Christmas, Fish said. Her sales in that one month are down 45 to 50%. Sales from Sept. 1 to March 1 typically fall about 30%, she said.

Plus, homeowners are simply waiting a little longer for a sale these days.

Existing homes sat on the market an average of 81 days in Bloomington-Normal in 2006. So far in 2007, homes have been for sale an average of 102 days, according to statistics from the Bloomington-Normal Association of Realtors.

So, list your house in the fall or early winter, this year in particular, and you have to be prepared that it could be a little harder to find a buyer, said Sandi Arnold, a real estate agent with Prudential Snyder Real Estate in Bloomington.

“It’s even more important to be in tip-top condition,” she said. “You have to really shine over your competition.”

And since sales are down a bit around Bloomington-Normal this year — 5.6% for existing sales and 9.2% for all sales — homeowners need to get “back to the basics” even more than usual, Arnold said.

Fix anything — little or large — that’s broken first. Then neutralize, declutter and make “smart money” changes if possible, Arnold said. Don’t install all new cabinets because you won’t recoup your cost, but do strip any wallpaper, clean carpets and update light fixtures and countertops, she said.

“It’ll pay you back. You’ll make money on it,” Fish agreed.

Remove wallpaper and paint a 3,000-square-foot home for $3,000, and you can probably increase your home price by $10,000, she said.

“And it’s going to sell. It’s not going to sit on the market,” Fish said.

Buyers want a house to be move-in ready, even over a lower selling price, she said. Arnold, on the other hand, said “price cures all,” especially if sellers can’t update their homes.

No matter what, though, real estate agents agree a home won’t sell if it’s not priced right. Sellers should never overprice their homes, but they especially don’t want to make that mistake now, said Will Grimsley, a real estate agent with Prudential Snyder Real Estate. Homeowners don’t have the luxury of time they might have in the spring to list at a higher asking price and drop it 30 days later, Arnold said. Even fewer buyers will be out as snow and the holidays get closer, she said.

Maximize opportunities

Fewer shoppers isn’t always bad news, though.

“During the winter time, if you do have people looking … they’re motivated buyers,” Grimsley said.

Grimsley tells his clients to maximize their opportunities and take advantage of those buyers and the fewer new listings at this time of the year.

Sellers can follow some season-specific advice to make their homes stand out, he said. Keep snow shoveled and walkways free from ice, make sure the thermostat is at a comfortable setting and turn on all outdoor and inside lights, Grimsley said. Beware of overdoing the Christmas decorations; they’ll distract from the home, he said.

Sellers also can give potential buyers a good first impression with a freshly painted door, or have a fire in the fireplace if possible, he said.

Such smaller touches are Lyn Westhoff’s specialties.

Westhoff, a home enhancement specialist and president of Fresh Impressions Ltd. in Normal, sees a lot of people struggling to sell their homes in today’s buyer’s market. Staging, or highlighting the property’s best assets, can help, she said.

“Homes that are staged sell faster and typically for more money,” Westhoff said. “Right now, it’s a very tough time to sell.”

She looks at homes’ curb appeal and checks for dirty windows and weeds. The right landscaping or some wind chimes can minimize such flaws as a bad view of a neighbor’s yard or street traffic, Westhoff said.

Inside, decluttering will help a home look more spacious, Westhoff said. Sellers have to be in the mindset that they’re moving, which means pack up personal items. The right placement of some soap and towels on display in the bathroom sets the atmosphere for a relaxing evening after work, she said.

“When you have your house on the market, it’s not fun,” Westhoff said. “You have to keep your house clean and neat and presentable.”

Success story

Susan Klotzbach knows it’s hard to keep a clean house with two children and dogs, but real estate agents who call when they’re outside the front door will keep you on your toes.

“You do vacuum every morning before you leave,” she said. “This home is always showable.”

In the three years she and her husband lived in their home, they also made improvements they knew would be helpful whenever they wanted to sell.

For instance, they redid the kitchen sink and upgraded from laminate countertops to quartz last year. They also replaced an outdated brass light fixture with a stylish bronze one in the kitchen, put new carpet in the dining and living rooms and added bushes and trees in the backyard.

In total, Dan Klotzbach estimates they put $30,000 to $40,000 into the home, but says they made that investment back.

“They made it look like a brand new home, and that’s why we got an offer faster than the average,” Fish said. “They did everything just right, and it made a difference in their sale time.”

Ticking clock

The numbers tell the story of how much harder it can be to sell a home in the fall and winter versus the spring and summer. The following is a breakdown of closed resale properties in Bloomington-Normal and how many days they had been on the market before a buyer and seller agreed on an offer. Keep in mind, the normal time between a pending and a closed sale is 30 to 60 days, so, for example, homes that closed in the third quarter could have sold late spring or earlier in the summer.

Fourth quarter 2006: 117 days
First quarter 2007: 136 days
Second quarter 2007: 107 days
Third quarter 2007: 63 days

SOURCE: Bloomington-Normal Association of Realtors

Changes for the “upper hand”

1. Styles can change quickly. A modern look will likely attract buyers and help sellers compete with new construction.
2. No one wants wallpaper today. Replace it with neutral, earth tone paint colors.
3. Get rid of old flooring, such as blue or green carpet. Tile or hardwood floors are also more popular.
4. Brass is out. Pick a dark brown light fixture.
5. Updated kitchens — granite countertops are popular — also are a plus.

Back to the basics
— Neutralize — Stick with neutral colors when it comes to paint and carpet.
— Declutter — Don’t let your bills pile up on the kitchen counter, keep your refrigerator cleared and pick up after yourselves. Put some things in storage if necessary. Clutter makes a home look smaller and will cause people to worry they also won’t have room for their belongings.
— Depersonalize — Put away family pictures. Make your house look like a model home, so people can picture their belongings.

SOURCES: Georgean Fish, Coldwell Banker Heart of America; Sandi Arnold, Prudential Snyder Real Estate; Lyn Westhoff, Fresh Impressions Ltd.

Copyright © 2007, The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.