So, you're selling your house. Of course you want to get as much for it as possible, but how do you go about doing so? Part of the answer depends on why you're selling. If time is of the essence and you have to make a fast sale, then the top dollar you can get is almost certainly going to be lower than if time is irrelevant and you can afford to wait for the highest possible offer, even if it takes a year or two. Be completely honest with yourself as to how long you can wait for a sale and what your absolute minimum price can be, then keep it to yourself. Don't let anyone else know what your bottom line is or it will be used against you in negotiations. But the balance between speed of sale and top price affects your sales strategy.
When setting your asking price be sure to do your homework. You need to find out what similar homes in your or similar neighborhoods have been selling for recently. In most communities, you can get recent sales information from the public records at the City Hall. Or your realtor can provide comparative sales figures. An experienced realtor can be especially helpful in determining asking price when dealing with older homes in older neighborhoods, where there frequently are no comparable houses, especially with recent sales records. Sometimes getting a formal appraisal is the way to go (and having a current appraisal shows prospective buyers that the house can be financed). The downside to an appraisal is that it costs out of pocket money and has a limited life—and you might not like the value it sets. (Note that tax assessments are based on a number of factors not always tied to property value and so are not a good guide to the true value of your home.)
Prospective buyers don't as a rule look for a house at a specific price, but rather within a price range set by price points usually expressed in $5000 or $10,000 increments. You can adjust your asking price relative to these price points in two ways. If rapidity of sale is more important, drop the price to just below the previous price point. This will add another group of prospective buyers whose range fell short of your original price. On the other hand, if optimizing money is more important to you, then you can raise the price to just below the next price point without losing any prospective buyers. For that matter, instead of setting a specific asking price, you can draw in more prospects by using value range marketing. Set the low end of your range at what you'd consider a minimum starting point for negotiations and the top end at a price you'd accept immediately without negotiations. You'll get more offers than for a single asking price and so improve the chances of getting your optimal price.
Having decided on an asking price, you're now ready to place your house on the market, and that means showings for prospective buyers. It is far better to hold showings while you still occupy the house, as an empty house looks forlorn and forgotten to the viewer. But face it, you don't want buyers to see your house the way it looks on any normal day. There's a reason corporations spend billions on package design and product appearance. If you want to sell something you have to appeal to the buyer's senses. The look and feel of a place evokes more emotional response than any other factor, so make them as appealing as possible. Before any showings for prospective buyers, you need to optimize your home's appearance, from the outside curb appeal to the most minor detail inside. Improvements fall into three basic categories: renovations, upgrades and repairs, and reorganization and maintenance. Major renovations, such as adding another bathroom, are expensive and, especially in the current market, seldom add as much value to the property as they cost. But minor renovations (perhaps replacing a small front stoop with a more spacious porch) can add appeal and value.
So-called curb appeal is important in establishing the character and quality of a home. Landscaping should provide the best possible setting for the structure. Properly pruned bushes, neatly manicured lawns, well-placed flowers (and of course an absence of weeds) all play their part in attracting the eye, but they can't cover for a poorly maintained house. The paint doesn't have to be fresh but it must be in good shape (and it never hurts to put a fresh coat on door and window trim). Make sure windows are washed inside and out. The street number should be attractive and easily visible. And make sure such things as loose shingles or sagging shutters have been repaired.
Moving inside, you might consider upgrading worn or out of style features such as kitchen cabinets and counters, bathroom fixtures, or flooring. A generation or two ago the fashion was covering wooden floors with wall-to-wall carpeting; today people want hardwood floors (or a reasonable facsimile). If your house is an older structure, it might be possible to tear out the carpets and refinish the original hardwood flooring for a fraction of the cost of new flooring. When new flooring isn't feasible, make sure what is there is at its best, whether that means newly polished or freshly shampooed.
Be sure to make all those little repairs that tend to get put off for another day—dripping faucets, sticking doors and windows, loose tiles, squeaking hinges, etc. Replace cracked mirrors and damaged wainscoting—and burned out light bulbs. Touch up the paint on trim and heavy traffic areas. In fact, if any room has an unusually bright or eccentric paint job, it might be best to repaint with a more neutral color. Houses sell when buyers can picture themselves living there, and that's easier to do when the color scheme of the rooms doesn't clash with their self-image. An even bigger hindrance is the accumulated detritus of someone else's life, so declutter. Those shelves or table tops littered with knick-knacks lovingly gathered over the years might tell the story of your life, but the buyer wants to feel what his life would be like there, so replace them with a few neutral items—a bowl of potpourri, a vase of flowers, a few books. And don't forget to clear out closets. Prospective buyers want to see how roomy they are, but not how much stuff you managed to cram into them.
In fact, clean, scour, and dust everywhere. Think of it as spring-cleaning on steroids. You never know where people are going to poke and pry during a showing, so be sure the dust bunnies are gone from the back of the picture frames on the wall and the leftovers are removed from the refrigerator. At the same time, you don't want to present an antiseptic, unlived-in house. Rather, in each room set the stage by providing a focal piece that fits the space—a set table in the dining room, an open book on the nightstand in the master bedroom, an unfinished picture puzzle on a table in the family room, etc.
Once you have an offer, it's back to the financial considerations. Just as you hope to sell your home for the highest possible amount, so the prospective buyer hopes to get it for the lowest possible. Therefore it behooves you to find out as much about the buyer's motivations and intentions as possible (just as you want to keep your own private). How large a mortgage can he handle? What is the down payment his financier is accepting? In other words, can he afford to pay your top price or will you have to come down significantly to reach a deal with him? Can you afford to wait for another prospective buyer still in the wings? Does the buyer have a deadline? Does he need to move in quickly? Is his preferred closing date actually his must-close-by date? Knowing the answers to these questions can give you a significant advantage in negotiations.
Finally, when a contract is prepared make sure it is complete. On your part as the seller, that means be sure that you have disclosed every known problem and defect. In fact, it is best to go beyond the law and make full disclosure in writing—you can't be sued for a problem the buyer has provably been made aware of. Double check and be certain that every term, cost, and responsibility is spelled out. And once they are, resist all temptations to go back and agree to any deviation from the terms—that will only create a last minute headache you don't need.