How to Sell a House that Needs Work Without a Complete Overhaul
Selling a home involves putting it out there to attract buyers. Yet if your patchy lawn and peeling paint look shabby compared to the chic walkway lights and lush landscaping down the street, you might feel like hiding it. So, how do you market your house, stage a house, take real estate photos, or amp up curb appeal? Take heart. If you’re wondering how to sell a house that needs work, we’ve got tips from real estate pros who have seen houses in various conditions to get you to the closing table with confidence.
“Most of the time, sellers think their house is in worse condition than it actually is because they’re living in it and seeing it every day,” says Eli Joseph, a top real estate agent in Hartford County, Connecticut. “They just need assurance that the house is going to sell, and that someone is going to buy it in that condition.”
Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of selling a fixer-upper or an old house, then drill down into what attracts buyers for these types of properties.
Learn more about your buyer pool
It’s natural to wonder how a home that needs TLC can compete with turnkey properties, especially when the median existing-home sales price have soared in the last few years. Yet the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) notes that the typical home purchased in 2022 was built in 1986 — hardly the newest kid on the block.
While 41% of recent buyers who bought homes last year wanted to avoid renovations or problems with electricity or plumbing, 31% of those who bought previously owned homes most often considered getting a better overall value.
Maybe you haven’t maintained your home regularly or you’ve inherited a house and want to sell it. Regardless, your house doesn’t have to be perfect for these buyers. It just has to show the potential for them to make money, build equity, or obtain the lifestyle they want within their budget.
Possible buyer #1: The real estate investor
What’s a real estate investor?
Real estate investors can be individual house flippers, small or large scale rental landlords, or even house-buying companies such as We Buy Houses.
You also may have heard of the tech-enabled cash buyers such as Opendoor, Offerpad, and HomeLight (our Simple Sale platform connects sellers with competitive cash offers) that use technology to value homes and make near-instant offers.
How do they operate?
These buyers usually pay with all-cash and prefer to buy homes off-market. Many will purchase homes “as is,” meaning the seller isn’t expected to do any work to improve the home’s current condition.
For this type of buyer, a purchase is generally all about how the numbers shake out since they don’t plan to live in the property. Would the costs of buying and rehabbing the property allow the buyer to resell it at a decent profit? Or, alternatively, would the cash flow cover their expenses should they aim to rent the property?
What do they look for in a home?
Daniel Close of Louisville, Kentucky, a real estate investor for 15 years, says his main calculation is a home’s value after the cost of repairs. In Louisville’s starter-home range of about $150,000 to $200,000, he aims for 80% after-repair value, or ARV. In general, investors offer about 70% of a property’s ARV for a house they plan to flip.
Close also considers how the home might appeal to future buyers. “I look at the neighborhood a lot. Is it trending in the right direction or the wrong direction? What’s this neighborhood going to look like in 5 years or 10 years?” he says. “Room layout is a big one for me. Is the flow appropriate? Do I have to knock down walls, or redo a bathroom? … Do I need to move the kitchen, or move the bathroom? That’s a lot of money.”
Possible buyer #2: The bargain hunter
Who are the bargain hunters?
This type of buyer would love to live in a specific location but hasn’t been able to land their dream home, either because they can’t afford the average home prices there or because someone else — like a cash buyer — has snapped it up first. This buyer may be a first-timer who is unable to tap into existing equity to buy a new home, or a DIYer who isn’t afraid of a house that needs some TLC.
How do they operate?
According to a survey of over 2,000 adults from Coldwell Banker, 80% of Americans say they would prefer to buy a move-in ready home over one that requires renovations. In addition, 70% of millennials and 71% of Gen Xers would be willing to sacrifice the size of their home for one that required no updates. Deal-hunters, by contrast, go against the grain. They are likely to ask their real estate agent to share listings of a lower price point for the area that may require some work.
What do they look for in a home?
A bargain hunter is looking for the potential to create their dream home on a limited budget. A house that needs cosmetic updates and some elbow grease to be move-in ready is OK with a deal-hunter, so long as it has decent bones and a location they love.
Statistics show that median-priced single-family homes became less affordable in 79% of counties that Attom Data Solutions analyzed in early 2022. That means more buyers are having to sacrifice their expectations for a home’s condition to make homeownership a reality.
“They just need the vision of what can be done and how it can be done,” says Joseph.
We always walk the property and do a smell test. If the smell is off, most of the time, that’s a deterrent. That might cause someone to not even buy the house.
How to sell a house that needs work to an investor
Because price drives the investor, you don’t have to stress about looking through paint or flooring swatches. However, you should still prepare the house so it’s presentable, especially for your peace of mind.
1. Spend a few hours cleaning up
When you sell your home to an investor, you skip the process of staging and showing your home. However, an investor is still likely to perform a digital or in-person walkthrough of the property. The investor may arrange to stop by or send a representative of their business to perform an assessment.
Do what you can to make this a good experience. Clean dirty dishes, run the vacuum, and make the beds. Clear countertops and use a multi-purpose cleaner to scrub the bathrooms. Even when you sell “as is,” a little sprucing up never hurts.
Arrange for a dumpster if you have a ton of junk. Close says in his area, most sellers don’t realize that they can rent a dumpster for about $300 for a week, including a company’s drop-off and removal fees, which can expedite the process.
Along with your home’s looks, focus on its smell. “We always walk the property and do a smell test,” says Joseph, whose office has cleaners ready to help before listing. “If the smell is off, most of the time, that’s a deterrent. That might cause someone to not even buy the house.”
2. Get a home value estimate
Do a little research on your home’s value before you accept an offer from an investor. You can start with a free estimate from HomeLight’s Home Value Estimator (HVE).
Our HVE combs public data including tax records and assessments and pulls recent sales records for other properties in your neighborhood. Using a short questionnaire, we also factor in specifics about your home such as the property type and described condition.
Input your address, and we’ll provide you with a preliminary home value estimate in under two minutes. Although it’s not a substitute for a real estate agent’s CMA, an online estimate can provide a benchmark for determining whether any offers you receive are on the high or low side.
3. Collect contractor estimates
Joseph collects estimates from a team of contractors, plumbers, and builders to help set and negotiate a price. An investor himself, he appreciates having numbers handy, even for low-cost projects such as painting, to make the calculations easier.
An investor who has contractors on staff might pay less for repairs and renovations than someone hiring contractors a bit at a time, Close adds. However, he finds that having estimates available helps sellers gain a fuller picture of their property’s condition when he’s ready to negotiate.
“Some people just see the house as, ‘Oh, it’s cosmetics. It’s 10 to 15 years old. It’s dated.’ You can look at that house, and you can look at a house that’s in massive disrepair. But the costs could be similar to repair both,” Close says.
“If the house is dated, you still have to redo everything: the whole kitchen, the countertops, the cabinets, the flooring, paint the walls, remove wallpaper,” he explains. “If the house is in disrepair, you’re still going to have to do all those things.”
“The only real difference is the mechanicals,” he adds. “Is it in such bad repair that you have to replace and redo the electric, the HVAC, and all that? A house can look awful and a house can look dated, but you’re probably looking at the same rehab costs.”
4. Request a cash offer and sell ‘as is’
Now that you have an estimate of home value and an idea of what repairs to your home might cost, you’re ready to see what an investor would pay.
Consider requesting a cash offer through HomeLight’s Simple Sale platform. Simple Sale allows sellers to close in as little as 10 days and provides cash offers for homes in almost any condition.
“I think the big advantage for the seller with a cash offer is the convenience factor. You close in as little as two weeks; there won’t be an inspection, just me walking through,” says Close, who works with Simple Sale sellers.
“I get some houses where someone has lived there for a long time and the house is in good shape. I also see homes with major disrepairs where someone hasn’t lived there in five years or kept up with it. It’s a pretty big variety.”
How to sell a fixer-upper to a bargain hunter
Your fixer-upper could be the perfect home for a buyer who seeks a clean slate and the chance to design a home they haven’t been able to find or buy for the right price, especially in a coveted area. “The competition can work in your favor,” says Katrina Deist, a top real estate agent in Mesa, Arizona.
“People are waiting months for a house to come up in a subdivision that goes under contract within hours,” she says. “To be able to get out of that box where everybody is waiting for a listing to pop is to be able to drive your own destiny.”
For these buyers, you’ll want to convey the potential they’re gaining while they’re saving on price (while maximizing how much you can net, of course).
1. Collect expert opinions
Time to bring in the pros. Consider making these hires as you embark on selling your home.
Real estate agent
If you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of selling a fixer-upper, enlist the help of a top real estate agent who routinely sells homes that need some work. HomeLight makes it easy to find an agent with relevant experience through our agent-matching platform and we’d be happy to make an introduction for you.
To determine home value, your real estate agent will conduct a comparative market analysis (CMA) that analyzes local comparable sales or “comps.”
Comps are homes similar in size, amenities, structure, and age to your own that recently sold in your area. Real estate professionals and home appraisers use comps as a reference point for the subject home and then make dollar adjustments based on competitive differences.
An agent’s pricing expertise will be an invaluable tool in selling your fixer-upper.
An inspector can also be your friend, even if you’re a little worried about what the inspection would find. Better to go in eyes-wide-open as to what issues may trip up your sale. You can opt to get a pre-listing inspection to identify any significant problems that might limit your buyer pool, such as repairs that might prohibit buyers with FHA loans from purchasing.
This inspection costs about $340 on average, but can save time and headaches down the line. Home inspection issues in October accounted for 11% of delayed contracts and 9% of canceled contracts, statistics show.
While you might not be able financially to handle every repair, talk with your agent about necessary disclosures and how to bridge negotiation gaps with add-ins such as a home warranty.
2. Clean up the yard and the house
Take the time to clean your home to grab buyers’ attention and your highest price. HomeLight research from top agents confirms that a deep clean can add nearly $2,000 in resale value, thanks to the good impression a sparkling home makes.
“Clean sells extremely well,” says Deist.
Your home should look good in listing photographs, considering 94% of buyers look at properties for sale online, NAR statistics show. “Even on my full-gutted properties, I still have a professional photographer,” Close says. “You have to take great pictures.”
And don’t forget about curb appeal. You don’t have to spend a ton, but remove weeds, mow the grass, plant flower pots, and spread mulch to create an inviting entrance.
If your front yard is mostly dirt, adding gravel landscaping can boost curb appeal affordably, costing an average of $250 to $700.
3. Make small and affordable fixes
Whether it’s because you can’t afford to make major renovations or don’t have the time, you don’t really have to in a saturated market. But the smaller fixes? Deist recommends that sellers put the time and effort in. “It’s definitely worth the seller’s time and money to make the smaller [updates] if they can.”
“I’ve always told my clients that it takes a buyer twice as much money to make the same repairs the seller could make,” says Deist.
Think of it this way: the less you repair, the more equity you might have to give away in order to make the house worth it. Small repairs include but aren’t limited to:
- Add some landscaping
- Patch nail holes in drywall
- Deep clean stained tubs and toilets
- Fix broken or squeaky hinges and doors
- Fix leaky pipes
- Add new caulk around the tub and sink
- Clean grout
- Replace cabinet knobs or handles
- Treat stains in your carpet
Joseph says if he notices FHA issues, such as paint, he’ll recommend that the seller address these before listing. “Paint goes a long way. Paint can make anything look brand-new. Some people love a fresh coat of paint, and that smell — it feels new.”
4. Mention renovation loans in your listing or at your showing
A renovation loan may be one of your most useful tools when selling your fixer-upper. If buyers go this route, they can factor the projected renovation costs into their total loan amount rather than buying the home and then paying to make upgrades separately. Some renovation loans include the FHA 203(k) loan and the Fannie Mae HomeStyle Renovation loan.
A savvy agent who can mention this funding in the listing or at a showing can help buyers plan for the possibilities.
“Most people don’t even know the different types of funding to get a deal done. You don’t need to have all your cash to buy that fixer-upper,” says Joseph, who teaches a class on rehabilitation loans and financing options.
If a buyer knows “they could go in and have $30,000 [from a renovation loan] to do all the floor and paint, update the fixtures, and be able to do a lot,” these loans can make the difference in closing the deal, Deist adds.
5. Highlight location features and best qualities
The quality of the neighborhood and convenience to family and friends are top factors in a buyer’s purchase decision.
What makes a quality neighborhood? The National Association of Home Builders found that across all ages, respondents in a survey of 3,247 recent and prospective home buyers wanted:
- Walking/jogging trails
- A typically suburban neighborhood
- A park area
- Proximity to retail space
- A walkable community
Your agent can highlight other pluses, such as closeness to public transportation or commuter routes, great school districts, arts and entertainment venues, restaurants, and other attractions.
As for your home’s interior, think of the big picture. The typical home bought in 2022 was 1,800 square feet, but buyers told the NAHB that they want a median of 2,022 square feet, as well as these features:
- A laundry room and exterior lighting (tied at 87% of respondents)
- An open layout (between the kitchen and the dining room for 85% or between the kitchen and the family room for 79%)
- Three bedrooms (46%)
- Two bathrooms (37%)
- A two-car garage (42%)
Buyers also highly ranked these other features:
- A patio and front porch
- A double sink and walk-in pantry in the kitchen
- Energy-efficient lighting
- Energy Star windows and appliances
- Ceiling fans
- Hardwood flooring
For either potential buyer: Be honest about the work your home needs
Although some people might be more embarrassed about their home’s condition than necessary, others living in a home that needs work sometimes don’t realize how much work it needs.
Joseph says he always asks clients what they think of their property, then asks their permission to offer his opinion. While he treads gently if people are emotional, he’s also honest about a home’s strengths and fixes.
“They have many memories there. It might be the most valuable asset that they own,” he says. “But we always want to be as transparent as possible.”
So, your home isn’t move-in ready? You can still sell it
Whether you’re nervous about what potential buyers might think of your carpeting or worried that your roof won’t survive the listing process, you can still sell a house that needs work and pick a method that works for you.
Your main options are to request a cash offer from a platform like Simple Sale, and sell as-is with little fuss. Alternatively, you may choose to invest a little elbow grease to clean and make light repairs, then price the property appropriately to attract a bargain hunter. When in doubt, you can always reach out to a top local real estate agent for guidance.
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