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"Quick fixes before selling always pay off. Mammoth makeovers, not so much.
You probably won't get your money back if you do a huge improvement project before you
put your house on the market. Instead, do updates that will pay off and get you top dollar."
~ Pointer #5 for selling your house, from the HGTV website

(Continued from the previous page.)


Once we made the decision to list our house for sale this spring and came up with a long, tentative list of things to do to make it more appealing to buyers, we had to narrow the list to the most practical projects -- things that would be cost-effective and allow us to get it on the market in mid-April, a pretty and popular time for new listings to appear in our area of southwestern Virginia.

Our timing to leave our rather warm snow-bird location in southern Georgia and return to the house was good for completing all the work we needed to do to get it on the market when we wanted but it was definitely still *winter* in the Roanoke Valley when we got back on February 19:

Snow in our yard our first day back; this is the kind of weather we try to avoid.  (2-19-14)

The area had recently received near-record amounts of snow -- a foot in our neighborhood, two feet in Roanoke -- and enough of it was still on the ground when we got back that we couldn't maneuver the camper into our driveway or back yard. We knew the conditions before we got back so we arranged to store it a few miles away. We've always parked it at the house when we've been there between trips, so this was a first for us.

We dropped the Cameo off at the storage place, then drove the truck to the house. It took several days to get everything we wanted with us out of the camper and into the house.

Another disadvantage of not having it near the house was not being able to use the solar panels to help power things in the house as we've done previously. That always saves us a little money on electricity.

After the snow melted it was easiest to just leave the camper in storage until a few days before we closed on the house. It was close enough to be convenient to clean it and do some maintenance on it, and not having it in our yard made the property look better for showing to prospective buyers. Once we were 99% sure of closing, we brought the camper back to the house for final maintenance and packing.

Another view of our yard on 2-19-14

Although we'd refined our long list of Things to Do to Make the House More Marketable, our ideas were bigger than what we wanted to spend. And despite all the hours we'd watched relevant HGTV shows about buying and selling homes in today's market, we didn't know what would be most appropriate for our area.

That's where those seven local real estate agents and brokers came in -- literally. Two had seen our house previously but it'd been a year or more since they'd been there. The others were new to us.

We explained what we wanted and made appointments with each of the agents to come out to the house and go through every room with us. Not only would this help us narrow our choice of a new agent to hire (unfortunately, the one we worked with last year -- and loved -- had moved out of state), we also wanted to pick each person's brain re: what improvements would be most effective in getting top dollar for our home.

We knew there was a fine line between under- and over-improving the property and that it's very specific to a house's location.

This system worked very well for us. We discussed with each agent the ideas we had for each room and the agent gave his/her opinion about its effectiveness cost-wise and appeal-wise to buyers of country property in our area. I took extensive notes as we walked through the house with each agent.

This process was useful because all of the agents agreed with our top priorities (validation is good!) and some came up with other ideas to save us time and money.

We got more snow in early March. This view is from the woods toward the back of the house. (3-7-14)

At that point in late February we didn't get new comps or even discuss a possible list price because it would have been a waste of the agents' time. We had a lot to do first, and hopefully more houses in our area would sell in the next couple months so the comps would be more valid in April when we were ready to list.

The agents agreed with our assessment of what were already great selling features for our target buyers -- a very quiet location near the lake, ample square footage, good layout with the open-concept kitchen-dining-living-family area most people want, lots of natural light, three bedrooms and three bathrooms, two fireplaces and a woodstove, handsome red oak flooring in the living area, like-new carpet in the bedrooms, neutral wall colors, a fairly new HVAC system and water heater, plenty of storage, a finished basement, spacious outdoor entertaining and play areas, veggie and flower gardens, 12 mostly-wooded acres with beautiful hardwoods, and other desirable features.

Beautiful fall color in our woods

The agents also verified the major downsides we already knew about and helped with ideas to overcome them -- comparatively small bedrooms and bathrooms, out-dated kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures, a discolored roof that had a life expectancy of just another couple years, and a lot of yard/gardens for some potential buyers to maintain.

For some people the privacy, quiet, and beauty of the yard and forest would be a positive feature. It is one of the things that appealed to us the most about the place when we bought it. We hoped another family would fall in love with it, too.

We had a variety of bearded iris colors bloom every spring.

Our buyers did. They were excited about hiking, hunting, and four-wheeling in the woods. Not so sure they realized how much work the yard and flowerbeds will be, though!

YMMV  (Your Mileage May Vary)

One thing we learned from the real estate agents we consulted is the importance of knowing what features would be desired or expected by the potential buyers who would most likely want to live out in the country near Smith Mountain Lake. We were a little surprised by how specific a seller's choices re: updating, upgrading, renovating, and staging need to be while it's still more of a buyers' than a sellers' market.

The real estate mantra of "location, location, location" doesn't just apply to home values; it also affects buyers' expectations of features and quality. Despite having sold eight previous houses in various states, I don't remember agents emphasizing this before.

Oh, my! A late spring storm (3-25-14). This is what we try to avoid by going south in the winter!!

We were told that buyers interested in country property with acreage like ours tend to have different expectations (usually a little lower) than buyers in urban or suburban Roanoke neighborhoods located just 15 miles away -- and certainly different than someone purchasing a house in a major metropolitan area like Washington, DC.

Agents from both Roanoke and the lake area agreed on this and it's one reason we chose a lake agent to sell our house.

Buyers' expectations can vary significantly even within a small area. Our own neighborhood is a good example. Of the ~20 houses on our road the majority have lake frontage or access. Ours didn't. Even though we had the most acreage of any those properties and more square footage than some of the lakefront houses, our property value was assessed at half or less of the properties on the water -- simply because of their water views and/or access.

Sellers of those houses would be expected to have more upscale features than we would. 

In addition to the location, the price range of the property for sale also makes a difference in what upgrades or renovations a seller should consider before listing the house. In our area buyers of homes priced under a particular point don't expect high-end appliances and expensive quartz counters in their kitchens, for example, or massive four-piece master en suites.

They'd expect features like these in the lakefront homes down the road . . . but not ours.

This large perennial bed has a succession of color from March to October. (4-4-14)

We didn't know whether to be offended by that or grateful for the money we'd save by not having to upgrade to more high-end features!

Initially we had bigger ideas of potential renovations than we were advised to do by the real estate agents who came out to assess our property -- and our ideas. For example, we wondered if we should replace our Corian countertops with granite or quartz since all the HGTV shows seem to use those more expensive materials now.

All seven agents saw how good the Corian countertops looked and said "no"-- just polish them and leave them as is. However, they all liked our idea of a coordinating tile backsplash to modernize the kitchen and add more interest to it. We got rather expensive glass-and-stone mosaic tiles and saved money by doing the installation ourselves. The folks who bought the property loved the look.

We are grateful we followed the agents' collective advice re: what level of updating/upgrading to do. It's as easy for sellers to lose money by over-improving their house as by under-improving for their particular neighborhood. 


After talking to all the real estate professionals Jim and I narrowed down our long list of possible updates. We prioritized projects based on what we'd learned from the agents, a trusted neighbor who flips houses nearby, and our other research about successfully selling a house.

This was our "final" plan, which we continued to modify along the way -- renovation projects have a way of getting out of control:

NEW ROOF:  The least glamorous but most expensive change was a new roof. Ironically, I was the one who initially wanted it more than Jim did. Most women probably aren't all that concerned about the structural stuff; I disliked the old roof mostly for aesthetic reasons.

Roofers who'd examined the roof both inside and out said there were no leaks and the roof should last another couple years.

It was so streaked, however, that I knew handsome textured architectural shingles with more (but subtle) color variation and a long warranty would 1) noticeably improve the looks of the house from the road -- first impressions online and in person are critical -- and 2) reassure buyers that they wouldn't be facing the cost of a new roof anytime soon.

The old roof, shown above, was stained and too similar to the color of the siding.
In this photo taken 3-10-14 the roofers are working on the back side of the house.

This is a closer view of the new roof.  (5-3-14)

We had the roof done professionally. The work was completed in mid-March. We accepted one of the lower of seven bids after thoroughly vetting the roofer and were pleased with the quality of the materials and labor.

While the roofer was up there we also had him replace the skylight over one of the bathrooms because the old one was pretty scratched up. Again, it wasn't "necessary," but it's one less thing that didn't cost us too much and made less for a buyer to worry about.

NEW KITCHEN APPLIANCES:  This was the second of our two top priorities.

Although the existing white appliances all worked fine and looked OK (next photo), they weren't popular stainless steel and they ranged from 12-25 years old. We knew buyers in our price range would expect newer appliances.

Before some updates:  3-30-13

We ordered the Frigidaire Gallery series from Home Depot soon after returning to the house so we could take advantage of Presidents' Day sales. The store delivered the refrigerator, range, microwave, and dishwasher to the house at no extra charge and Jim installed them.

Installation was complicated by the fact that we had to move a long row of upper cabinets to accommodate the taller refrigerator and to install a wall-mounted microwave the proper distance above the range; there was a range hood over the stove previously and we had a smaller microwave on the counter.

We removed the range hood, moved all of the cabinets higher (the ones above the microwave and range several inches higher than the ones on either side), and installed the new microwave.

The row of cabinets looked better after we staggered them (compare to the "before" photo above):

Above and below:  After installing new appliances and backsplash and raising/staggering
the cabinets.  (these two professional photos taken in April, 2014 by Graphic Dimensions, Inc.)

Installing the appliances, especially the microwave, wasn't much fun but we finally got them all in. Every time Jim complained I'd say, "Maybe we should have paid them to install this stuff!"

Jim was still adamant that we could do it ourselves and save the $$$. He was right. He takes pride in figuring things out and doing a good job on his projects. I'm proud of his skills and tenacity. He saves us a lot of money in a lot of ways.


Those two projects -- a new roof and new kitchen appliances -- were the most expensive of our updates but undoubtedly two of the more effective ones in getting a good offer quickly.

Numerous other projects kept us very busy during the two months before we listed the house for sale. We wore ourselves out as much from the endless decisions about projects and products and searching to get the best prices on items as possible . . . as we did doing all the work ourselves.

Fortunately we collaborated well and agreed on our decisions. Some couples don't do well together during renovations or traveling extensively in the confines of an RV -- we do. 

Here are some of the other projects we did ourselves (there were even more not listed here):

MORE WORK ON THE KITCHEN: We knew the kitchen was the most important room to update so we focused on it first.

Before and after the appliances were installed I painted the walls -- twice, because I didn't like the first color after we added an attractive glass and stone mosaic tile backsplash:

Jim cuts a sheet of mosaic tiles for the next section I needed.
We used Simple Mat to adhere it to the wall.  (3-26-14)

The backsplash was something new we learned to do and it was mostly fun. We watched online videos and went to a workshop at Home Depot to learn the different methods of setting tile. There was enough left over to make some small wall decorations in the kitchen. The buyers liked those.

We also installed a handsome new faucet and new cabinet hardware to coordinate with the new appliances.

The existing hardwood floors, oak cabinets, Corian countertops, and sink were in good shape; all the real estate agents said to just clean/polish and not replace them. That saved us a lot of money.

BATHROOMS:  The condition, function, and looks of bathrooms are usually second in importance after kitchens to buyers.

The good thing is that we had three full bathrooms in the house. The bad thing is that the two on the main floor were somewhat outdated and small -- no way for us to make a spacious master "en suite" here so we did the best we could with what we had.

All seven agents recommended that we dress up the main floor bathrooms with new mirrors, lights, and other fixtures. I did the painting and staging. We both chose the fixtures, a time-consuming job to get the right fittings for the integrated tubs/showers. Jim had the more difficult job of installing everything. We put in new brushed nickel faucets, lights, towel racks, bathtub-shower fixtures, towel and curtain rods, cabinet hardware, and framed mirrors in both bathrooms.

Fresh paint, new towels, new decor items, and a new valance in one of the bathrooms completed the look we wanted.

View into one of the bathrooms  (professional photo by GDI that was in the online slideshow
when the house was listed; the pro took much, much better photos inside than I did)

Thankfully, most of the agents discouraged us from over-updating the bathrooms with new cabinets, tubs, and tiled walls and floors. That saved us a lot of $$$, time, and effort. We kept the solid-surface sinks/counters that we installed ten years ago and just polished the cabinets. We also kept the like-new molded fiberglass tubs/showers and vinyl flooring.

The third full bathroom, located in the basement, was newer than the ones upstairs. All we did there was update the vanity lights, per the recommendation of most of the real estate agents.

OPEN-CONCEPT LIVING AREA:  The view from the entry to the house stretched about 50 feet through the living room, kitchen, and combination dining-family room (and extended through the glass back door to a covered screened-in porch):

Open living area (another professional photo by Graphic Dimensions, Inc.)

This area needed less work than elsewhere in the house. The main projects in the living room, family room, and dining area were cleaning everything thoroughly and painting the ceilings and walls before doing the staging:

The ceiling in the living room and kitchen were vaulted.  (3-25-14)

We kept the ceilings the same off-white color but at the suggestion of the agent we hired, added more warmth and interest to the walls by painting them a light caramel color that is popular in our area. You can see that the color behind me in the photo above is lighter than the color in the foreground.

The red oak floors throughout this area were in great shape and only needed some polishing.

BEDROOMS:  The three bedrooms had lots of natural light and plenty of closet space (for us) but were relatively small. To make them look as large as possible I re-painted the walls the same off-white color they've been since we painted them ten years ago.

We had new beige wall-to-wall carpeting installed in the bedrooms when we purchased the house ten years ago. Because the house has been so lightly lived-in since then, the carpets were still in great shape so all we had to do was clean them thoroughly and they looked good as new.

Master bedroom with one of two comforters I used for staging (another one shown later in this entry).
This is another fabulous professional photo by Graphic Dimensions, Inc. for the slideshow.

We also installed decorative curtain rods in the master bedroom for new drapery panels. We were happy with just the mini-blinds while we owned the house but our selling agent recommended adding the panels to dress up the rooms. She approved of the existing embroidered linen Paperwhite cutwork valances in the other two rooms.

BASEMENT LEVEL:  Our ranch house was built into a slope, with the front entry at ground level:

View of house showing how it is built into a slope   (5-3-14)

Walk-out part of unfinished basement with woodstove  (professional photo by GDI)

The finished part of the basement was underground. The large two-car garage and less-finished part of the basement were "walk-out" with lots of windows and doors.

Projects in the finished parts of the basement -- large open all-purpose room, bathroom, laundry area, and storage room -- included painting and replacing some insulation. Most of the agents who saw the house advised against installing new flooring or buying a new washer and dryer since many people already have their own.

One view of finished part of basement (professional photo by GDI)

We just painted the interior of the garage last year and put in a new side door so the main things we had to do there and in the unfinished part of the basement were cleaning and de-cluttering.

Continued on the next page:  improvements to the exterior and landscaping, de-cluttering, and staging the house for sale

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2014 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil