The average homeowner will live in a place for 13 years before selling and moving on — a long time to fill the closets, stuff the pantry, put holes in the walls and let the weeds take hold. So when you decide to move, give yourself plenty of time to prepare. This one-year-countdown plan to open house day is based on interviews with experts.
You’ll live in the home until after it’s sold, you’ll be moving to a smaller place, and you have a reasonable budget for getting your home ready.
You’ll receive top dollar for your home, you and your family will maintain your sanity, and your sale and subsequent move will be as easy and cost-effective as possible.
Create a storage plan. Even if you are merciless with decluttering, chances are you’ll have lots of possessions you’ll need to store during the sales process. Having a dozen neatly stacked bins in your garage won’t hamper the sale, but if the overflow includes furniture, bicycles and/or extra TVs, look into a storage rental or pod. But not for the long term. “If your daughter’s husband is coming with a truck in two months to pick up that riding mower and humongous cabinet, store them,” says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Specialty & Senior Move Managers. “But don’t move stuff to storage indefinitely — it’s better to get rid of it!”
Start the official decluttering process. Buy, boxes, bins and other containers, and schedule at least one working day for each room, with a firm yes-or-no mindset about what to keep. (“Otherwise, the maybes will take over your life,” Buysse warns.) Have those boxes and bins ready, and decide on ways to mark and categorize them. The “no” possessions should be sorted into Donate, Family, Toss or Sell boxes. One trick is to consider tossing every object you haven’t touched in at least a year. “If you’ve been a good housekeeper, you’ve been purging things away in the ‘backstage’ areas of your home — drawers, cupboards, closets, attic, basement and garage. People in our studies told us that dealing with all this, under a moving deadline, was extremely stressful,” says University of Kansas professor emeritus David J. Ekerdt, author of Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life. Your goal: Have each room decluttered by month three.
Begin taking photos. “In a competitive market, your house needs to show well in snow, in moonglow and in pool season,” notes third-generation Realtor Richard Stanton of Stanton Company, in Montclair, New Jersey. He recommends capturing the exterior of your home when leaves change color, when spring flowers bloom and, on trend right now, at twilight. Snap shots inside, too. Stanton adds, “It’s wonderful having a complete record of your house as you lived in it — not just as you sold it.”
Get a house inspection … An early once-over by a reputable company will buy you time to fix leaky pipes or a rotting foundation, or at least to make a contingency plan. “This is your ticket to preempting last-minute surprises and increasing home value,” says Corinne McKeown, a real estate broker and the author of Forward Move: A Guide to Housing Options and Trends for Seniors.
… And a yard inspection … Trees, shrubs and lawns take time to recover from installation, big trims and cleanups. It’s best to get those projects done and out of the way.
… And a pest inspection … Obvious.
… And take care of the big issues. If something emerges, don’t wait to get it addressed: Workers and materials remain in short supply because of current economic conditions. “The rule of thumb with fixes and upgrades post-pandemic is that everything’s going to take twice as long as you think,” Buysse points out.
Start the Realtor-selection process. This might seem early, but the longer you have to work together to prepare the house and the marketing for it, the better. Get full presentations from at least three real estate professionals, including an initial estimate of how they’d price your home and why. Note that Realtors can take training that leads to a senior real estate specialist (SRES) designation, meaning they’re expert in meeting the specific needs of older clients.
Next, build the rest of your team. In addition to having the help of a Realtor, you’ll also likely need an attorney, possibly bank involvement, and perhaps a stager, personal organizer or senior move manager.
Modernize where you can. At this point, don’t bother with a major kitchen renovation, but consider throwing some cash at market red flags: drippy, unattractive faucets or toilets; swirled or cottage cheese ceilings; melamine cabinets; 1960s pink tubs and tiling. “It doesn’t take long to reglaze a bathtub white to bring it up to date,” Stanton says. A few thousand spent could net you a few tens of thousands; ask your Realtor first, though, if the upgrade makes sense.
Gather your paperwork. Land surveys, deeds, manuals, warranties — good home sellers have excellent documentation ready for a potential buyer. Getting some documents might require some digging or a visit to city hall, so start early.
While at city hall, check your permits. If you ever needed a permit — for a fence, pool or deck, for example — from your local government to get work done, there’s the risk that it was never properly finalized and closed. In many places, you can’t sell your home if any permits are still open.
Be sure to show your efforts. A three-ring binder brimming with value-adding docs and receipts for recent big-ticket improvements “demonstrates how much you care about your property and makes great reading at the open house,” Buysse observes.
Smart Home Selling Tips
Advice from Realtors, professional home stagers and senior move managers
1. Your taste isn’t the key. You’re selling someone’s future home, not your current one. The goal isn’t to make them fall in love with your colors, decor and taste but to let them easily see how they can apply theirs.
2. Less is always more. Strip down your stuff to beyond what you think is appropriate. Cutting back at least 50 percent of what normally sits on a surface, for instance, is a good rule. Give viewers as open a canvas as possible.
3. First impressions matter. A pop of color on a front door, a healthy lawn and a lack of weeds in garden beds could be worth many thousands of dollars.
4. Make it spotless. Cobwebs, dust balls, floor stains, rust and refrigerator funk can dim a switch in a buyer’s mind, costing you higher offers.
5. Lighten up. There’s a reason Realtors want you to paint everything white and turn on every light before showing a home: People respond well to bright, well-lit places. Consider painting dark walls or old cabinet faces, and let the sunshine in.
Have a monthlong sale. So your son-in-law never picked up that mower and armoire? Interesting. Sell them now, before the real home-selling crunch begins. (“With family, set a hard deadline on collecting any giveaways,” Stanton advises.) Posting items on local social media such as Nextdoor and Facebook Marketplace is often the best approach. As manufacturing deliveries slowed during these past couple of years, a crafty cottage market has bloomed, with millennials snatching up clunky brown furniture pieces and restyling them to resell online. Garage sales? They rarely move much or yield big dollars.
Start the giveaway. Once you’ve put forth a good effort at selling your overflow, move on. Even beloved family pianos don’t sell these days unless they’re Steinways or Baldwins. It’s time to call the charities that will pick up your stuff and happily haul it away.
Fill out the seller’s disclosure. Be honest. Property-line disputes, water damage and septic clogs don’t make winning copy in For Sale ads, but hiding problems you know about is illegal.
Get fresh eyes. You want a candid evaluation of your home from someone who doesn’t know your house well — a friend of a friend perhaps. “If you’ve lived in a place for 20 or 30 years, it’s too easy to ignore scuffed carpets, gaudy drapes or light bulbs with hues that don’t match,” Stanton says.
Maximize your curb appeal. If you didn’t do a big yard cleanup earlier, now’s the time. Trim trees away from the house. Replace snaggletoothed fences. Freshen up your address numbers, and improve the lighting around doors and walkways. Call in the painters.
Declutter even more. At this point, focus on the knickknacks: refrigerator magnets, family photos, vintage trains, awards, plants on windowsills, collections. “Pick your four or five favorite miniature teacups and take photos of the other 81 before you give them away,” Buysse recommends. Then make a poster, frame it, and you can hang it in your next home and admire the whole collection without eating up any square footage.
Bring in a home fix-it pro. In a day or two this person can unsqueak doors, patch holes and replace missing tiles in the second bathroom. “Ensure cupboards open and shut and that no taps are dripping,” says veteran home stager Debra Gould, founder of the Staging Diva. “Look in all rooms for things like loose door handles and other annoyances that potential buyers might fixate on.”
Set your sales strategy. It’s time to work through the micro-details with your Realtor. Are you open to all offers? What happens if a buyer asks for fixes or is not approved for a mortgage? “As an older seller, you want contingencies that are in your favor,” McKeown explains. “You can specify you want only buyers who come preapproved for mortgages or who’ll pay in cash. This helps ensure the buyer won’t back out with their deposit at the last minute.”
Deep dive clean. Scour kitchens and bathrooms. They get the dirtiest, and potential buyers focus on these rooms the most. “Countertops, taps, sinks and bathtubs should be shiny and free of water spots,” Gould notes. “If you have a pedestal sink, don’t forget the dust that collects on top of the plumbing where it attaches to the wall.”
Photo shoot time! Your house sells on pictures. “Real estate photos are the new Sunday open house, since almost everyone will see your home for the first time in a real estate ad,” Stanton says. Your Realtor will likely hire a professional for this, but here are a few tips: Clear all counters. Move trash bins out of view. Low-hanging art makes ceilings look higher. Fresh flowers always add class.
Book a mover, and start packing. Get estimates from moving companies, and check their reviews, references and insurance. “You’d be surprised how many movers misrepresent themselves. Companies are out there without licenses or protections,” cautions Greg Gunderson, president of Gentle Transitions. Gather boxes, tape, packing materials and labels to begin packing up, moving things to a storage rental or pod. Focus first on heavy-volume clear outs (the attic, garage and basement), then move on to bedrooms and closets. “Get 75 percent out,” recommends hoarding expert Matt Paxton, author of Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff, published with AARP. “The potential buyer needs your home to look like they can fit their stuff in it, so storage areas and closets should be nearly empty.” Also, pare down what’s in kitchen cabinets to make those areas feel roomier, he says. “Only keep enough plates and cups for four to six people. The more space, the better.”
Get specialty cleaning done. Have the windows and exhaust fans professionally cleaned, for instance. Use a power washer to remove grime from driveways, patios, outdoor stairs and mildewy siding, or hire someone to do this.
Rehearse the crazy days to come. Open houses mean you and your pets need to clear out. And moving day is even busier. Recruit family and friends to help you cope with the craziness ahead. “You need to know where you’ll take your pet every time someone wants to view your home and who’s going to handle the dog or cat on moving day,” Gunderson points out.
Final polishing. It’s time for a final, professional indoor cleaning, including waxing and polishing the floors. Be certain to deeply clean the fridge and oven one last time. Cooks will look. Focus on making the kitchen a place where people will love eating and gathering.
Store the goods. Bring precious valuables, extra cash and your most important documents to a trusted friend or family member for safekeeping under lock and key.
Firm up the price. “The last week is when you get the most marketing intel,” Stanton says. “Your agent may know current buyers in the area who are willing to make an offer, and there could be pent-up demand.”
Make a final sweep. Neaten the closets, the freezer and the garage; inspect for unsightly cords, nicks or smudges. Make your home pristine, as in a magazine spread.
Prepare to be away. Ask your Realtor when you should leave and when you can come back, and plan a nice diversion for the time. If appropriate, bring a go bag with medications, food and items such as your laptop, charger cords and checkbook.
Take a deep breath and one last look around. Get a good night’s rest. The bidding war is about to begin!
David Hochman, a contributing editor to AARP The Magazine, is a journalist and features writer based in Los Angeles. His December 2020 AARP Bulletin story on nursing homes, “18 Weeks,” has won several national awards.