In today's super-competitive real estate market, any little edge to help potential buyers envision themselves in the house you're trying to sell can make a difference.
That's why Milwaukee-area Realtor Beth Jaworski winced recently when she showed a client a house that the owner apparently hadn't considered "depersonalizing" when he put it up for sale.
"It was clearly a hunter's house," she said. "It had the deer heads. And it had guns and camouflage. The average person, if they're not a hunter, that is not a turn-on. That's a turn-off."
But it's not just the hunting trophies that need to be packed away to make a home more appealing, real estate professionals say. There are key steps -- besides putting a realistic, post-housing bubble asking price on the property -- that can make a house stand out amid an immense inventory of "for sale" signs.
"Keep in mind that the buyer has a lot of choices in today's market," said Colleen Sprague, co-owner/broker with Firefly Real Estate in Wauwatosa. "It's most likely the shiny apple that's going to get picked. It's the same with houses. It's to a seller's benefit to make their house shine. It absolutely is."
How do you make it shine?
For starters, take down the wallpaper. Buyers don't like it, real estate pros say.
"Removal of all wallpaper is huge," said Steve Bergelin, a sales associate with Realty Executives Integrity in Hartland.
Jaworski said wallpaper is too individualized to the current owner's tastes.
"Buyers just do not like wallpaper. It's so personalized. If you go into a wallpaper store, there are thousands of patterns. Why is that? It's because people are very particular," Jaworski said.
Still, some buyers are trying to sell houses with a different kind of wallpaper in every room, real estate agents said. That puts them at a disadvantage to a seller who has "neutralized" personal tastes by removing wallpaper and repainting with warmer colors -- not white.
"White is not a color," said Brian Wickert, who is managing broker of Accunet Realty Advisors LLC and president of Accunet Mortgage in Butler. "And no matter how much you might like that passion-purple bedroom, your house needs a fresh coat of paint in warm neutral colors to win the real estate beauty contest."
Clutter also has to go.
"Decluttering is a real important step that I think a lot of sellers overlook," said Sprague. "We live in a house differently than we sell it, and packing away things that you don't use gives the buyer the opportunity to walk through and mentally put their things in the house."
Said Wickert: "People also get blind to the clutter. Ninety-five percent of sellers need an honest but tough assessment of what needs to get put in storage."
Carpeting is another issue. Buyers frown on houses that have a different color of carpet in every room. If the carpet would cost too much to replace but it has hardwood floors underneath, the best option probably is to pull it up and show the floor, Sprague said.
But if you can afford to replace it before you put the home on the market, it makes a big difference, Jaworski said. She estimated the cost at $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the areas that need to be covered.
"It doesn't need to be real expensive carpet, just mid-grade," said Jaworksi, recommending "Realtor beige" as the color. "Realtor beige that flows right through, that will change the house's appearance like you wouldn't believe."
Dave Schmidt, of Dave Schmidt Realty in Milwaukee, said evidence the house has been well-maintained is important, right down to the front doorbell. With inventories high in a slower market, buyers expect to be able to move right in and not face neglected maintenance issues, he said.
"It sounds corny, but make sure your front doorbell works, because everybody rings it," Schmidt said. "It's one of those signs that, 'Hey, if you're not willing to have your front doorbell work, what other things don't work?' "
A likely sale killer, agents said: Pet odors.
"Smelly properties don't sell," Wickert said.
In the end, it usually comes down to a house in the best condition at the best price.
"Homes that are priced right vs. their immediate competitors that are in great condition are the ones that get 30 showings in the first week on the market and three offers. It happens," said Wickert.
He added: "Properties that are in so-so condition and priced the same or higher than other competing listings are going to sit for a really long time and may never sell."