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How to get more house for less

I’ve been browsing real estate listings, going to open houses and buying home decor since I was about 9 years old. I ripped furniture and drapery centerfolds out of the J.C. Penney catalog and put them on my wall like posters. I filled not one, not two, but four hope chests by the time I was 18. (Turns out, 1980s mauve housewares do not age well).

Long story short, I’m obsessed with houses.

So, whenever my friends or family say they’re looking to buy one, I spring into action. “What’s your budget? What are your must-haves? What neighborhood?” Then I gleefully scour the MLS for good buys and send them to my friends.

Then, most importantly, I give them my spiel. I tell them to search for a home with their brain as much as with their heart. “You’re going to be dazzled by a lot of crown molding, some farmhouse sinks, maybe even a clawfoot tub or two,” I say. “Don’t lose sight of what matters. Keep your eyes on the prize.”

To help them do just that, I always give them these same suggestions.

• Look past the decor, the ugly curtains, funky furniture and dingy carpet. Instead, look for a home’s “bones,” such as its space, dimensions, natural light, closet space and floor plan. It’s difficult to look at an ugly house and picture it looking any other way, but you’d be amazed at what a few coats of paint will do. Besides, there might be gleaming hardwoods waiting under that avocado green rug. And you can always put up your own crown molding.

In fact, ugly, dated decor is a big plus when it comes to your budget. Why do you think all those reality shows on HGTV make such a big deal about staging homes and getting them looking just right for buyers? Because people will pay more for it. But what difference does it make if a place has Eames chairs or a beautiful mahogany desk? They’ll be gone by the time you move in.

It works the opposite way, too. If a house looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s (or earlier), it will likely have a lower price tag and less competition from other buyers. Score, you!

• Look at the list of home improvements that increase a home’s value, then turn it on its head. Remodeling a kitchen or bathroom can increase a home’s resale value by as much as three times the cost of the renovation. That’s great if you’re a seller, but not if you’re a buyer. When buying, you’re better off looking for a hideous kitchen or bathroom that you can gut. Paying for your bathroom or kitchen as a remodel after you close can save you as much as two-thirds of the cost.

If you don’t feel like dealing with a large-scale remodel, keep an eye out for a bathroom that could be spruced up with some paint and updated fixtures. It’s a small tweak that can likely save you thousands of dollars.

Similarly, look past overgrown landscaping, popcorn ceilings (just test for asbestos) and worn carpets.

• Look for sound mechanics. I love gingerbread trim and pocket doors, but you know what I love even more? New, safe electrical and plumbing, reliable HVAC systems and a house that is insulated within an inch of its life.

As a homeowner, mechanics are more important to your everyday happiness than a Lisa Vanderpump closet will ever be. Don’t believe me? Wait until your furnace dies during a snowstorm. But sellers tend not to recoup their investment on such home features, which means you won’t pay more for them – even though they’re what really matter.


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