Making first impressions last

Putting your house in order before putting it on the market pays dividends, as Kim Dungey finds out.

Before putting their house on the market earlier this year, Stef and Dave Wade painted inside and out, laid new carpet, tidied the garden and called in a professional home stager.

The hard work paid off. The couple received six offers in just a few days and the Dunedin house sold for significantly more than its asking price.

''It made a huge difference,'' Mrs Wade says.

''It's very hard to put a figure on, but I think first impressions stick ... ''With more houses on the market in spring and summer, homeowners are doing all they can to ensure their properties stand out from the competition.

For the Wades, this meant spending several months catching up on ''deferred maintenance''.

Outside, they painted the concrete basement, waterblasted paths, weeded the garden, then spread pea-straw and bark on top.

Inside, they modernised the 1970s Waverley property with fresh paint, and new carpet and vinyl.

They carried out minor repairs and removed a temporary wall they had used to create a study area in the lounge.

However, they drew the line at installing a new kitchen, not wanting to overcapitalise.

''They were all things we were going to do anyway and we should have done over the years but you put it off and you just put up with it, I suppose, when you live there,'' Mrs Wade said.

''Then you suddenly go, 'actually, these things need to be done'.''

Having already moved with their three children to their new house was ''awesome'' as they had cleared out their clutter.

But they knew buyers looking at empty homes tended to focus on every flaw and that was one reason for calling in a home stager.

The woman brought in ''beautiful'' furniture, adding artworks and accessories to create a welcoming atmosphere: ''For us, it was the final touches. Yes, we could have sold it empty but I don't know if people are that good at visualising [how it could look].''

''The house was lovely when we sold it. It was like, 'oh, I'd love to live here','' she says, laughing.

Across town, Tracey and Grady Cameron were also preparing for open homes.

The couple had found their dream property and, in order to buy it, had two to three weeks to achieve an unconditional sale of their Maori Hill villa.

''The first thing we did, which I think was the most important, was decluttering, taking away a lot of things that filled up the rooms that didn't need to be there,'' Mrs Cameron says.

''We're a family with young kids ... and that means your garage and storage areas tend to fill up with toys that the kids aren't using at the moment, Portacots and prams, and seasonal things they're not needing that month, but will need in the future. So there's a lot of stuff.''

Their salesman advised them to keep their former sunroom as a play room but to clear away some of the toys.

And that principle was applied throughout the property, the couple removing some artwork and small items of furniture from the house, also making sure their wardrobes and pantry had some empty space.

The second step was to rearrange their furniture to give each room a sense of space and a purpose, while the third stage was to tidy the house from top to bottom.

This included cleaning the windows, hiring painters to touch up chipped paint and weeding the garden. Finally, they bought some bunches of lilies to put in a vase and went on holiday.

Their salesman held several open homes while they were away, which Mrs Cameron says was ''fantastic'' because keeping a home tidy with young children was a big effort.

Dunedin property stager Lynne Hellyer, whose Makeovers business helped the Wades prepare their Waverley home for sale, says first impressions are ''massive'' and the No 1 priority should be the entrance.

''You want people to be in a positive frame of mind and if you have an untidy, messy front entrance, they're already feeling negative before they've walked in the door.''

The second priority is to declutter, says Ms Hellyer, adding she sometimes helps owners remove gadgets from kitchen benches and box up surplus books and children's toys to be stored in a friend's garage or basement.

She also recommends putting away ''bathroom bits and pieces'' and having as little ''personal stuff'' around as possible.

A few family photos on display is fine but too many make buyers feel like they are intruding: ''You want people to start imagining it as their home.''

Using mirrors, removing net curtains and rearranging furniture can all make a room appear larger, while lamps, fresh flowers and having a console table in the entrance help create an inviting atmosphere.

Painting a room can ''make the world of difference'' but neutral tones are best and that also goes for drapes, kitchen splashbacks and carpet.

''A lot of people buy the cheapest carpet on special, and nine times out of 10 it's blue and it's cheap because it's blue.''

Empty houses present their own challenges. Rooms look smaller, many people cannot visualise how they would use the spaces and buyers are ''in and out really fast''.

In those cases, furniture hired from a property stager gives potential buyers more to focus on than the home's shortcomings and helps them envision themselves living there: ''Even though they're not buying the bed linen or the furniture, it creates a positive vibe.''

Craig Palmer, an owner and salesman at Metro Realty, suggests having the house warm for an open home and soft music playing, but says cleanliness is the most important thing: surfaces should be wiped, windows clean and carpets cleaned if they need it.

Strong food smells will turn people off and many buyers request reports from the council so any building work should be signed off.

He also asks vendors to write a little about how long they have lived in the house, what they have done to it over the years, why they have enjoyed living there and why they are moving.

Not surprisingly, Mr Palmer believes having a good tidy-up will add value in dollar terms.

''There's nothing worse than walking into a house when it's a mess. It will ultimately cost you money because it just won't attract everyone.''

Darren Wilson, of Wilson's Property Maintenance, says some prospective buyers will drive up to a house and not even get out of their vehicle if it doesn't impress.

In many cases, Mr Wilson recommends waterblasting footpaths, driveways and spouting.

Lawns should be mowed, gardens weeded and overgrown plants trimmed back to let in light and keep paths clear.

He also suggests storing rubbish bags out of sight, cleaning windows and fixing any cracked panes.

Buyers like gardens to be low maintenance but get suspicious if a makeover looks ''too fresh''.

Tracey Cameron says homeowners should put themselves in buyers' shoes.

''Pretend you're a prospective buyer going around your own home. Ask trusted friends and see what they think about things. And listen to the experts because they know what they're doing.''

''Don't be afraid of [the process] because even if you do two or three little things, that's better than doing nothing. It can be a bit overwhelming, but start somewhere.''


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