Best Home Improvements to Please Picky Spring Buyers

Home-selling tips for a transitional real estate market.

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Think like a buyer. The number and average size of bathrooms in the home did not fall off during the housing downturn, according to residential architects. So, giving the loo some love ahead of a sale may pay off. If you can't afford a remodel, maintenance and cleanliness will be critical. Getting in a home inspector before you list could uncover any potential plumbing, electrical, or heating/cooling surprises that may sink a prospective sale. The buyers will bring in their own inspector, but sellers should try to eliminate surprises and get a sense upfront of any potential impact on the asking price.

[See How to Protect Your Portfolio With 'Real' Assets.]

The AIA also notes that home offices and outdoor living spaces are top choices for "special function" areas. So if your home has one or both, play up their features.

Sellers don't have to guess what today's buyers want (that is, on top of scoring the best deal). There are real estate resources to help sellers better understand today's market.

One place to start is with home-improvement calculators. Homegain.com's Home Sale Maximizer crunches the results from a survey of nearly 1,000 real estate professionals. It shows customized recommendations for small, mostly do-it-yourself house improvements and the value they could add to a listing, based on ZIP code. It ranks them by priority, depending on the condition of your home and what local agents feel is most important.

In Boulder, Colo., for instance, spending an average of $350 to hire a landscaper can add between $1,500 and $1,999 to the asking price, for a 400 percent return on investment. Spending $350 on electrical and plumbing repair can add $1,000 to $1,500, a 257 percent return on investment.

In parts of Birmingham, Ala., spending $150 on staging can add upwards of $1,999 to the asking price, a more than 1,000 percent return on investment. A $1,063 kitchen update could be doubled when figured into the asking price.

Not sure where to start? Here's the checklist Homegain.com uses for its calculator. Marking off most of these projects should go a long way toward positioning your property to be its most sellable:

• Is your home clean and de-cluttered? Including closets? Buyers will open doors. Not only should they be clean, but essentially empty. Square footage matters in closets, too.

• Make sure there's no furniture blocking windows. Let the light in and let buyers walk right up to the view. Open the curtains. Use the highest wattage light bulbs that safety allows.

• Remove dead or dying plants inside and out. If your grass is dead, consider replacing it but allow enough time for growth. Sod may be your best option. What's the condition of outbuildings and other yard features? In many cases, no fence is better than a damaged fence.

• Make kitchen and bathroom repairs. If you can't replace outdated fixtures, consider updates to hardware and lighting. Fix any defective plumbing or electrical.

• Professionally clean carpets and fix any broken tiles or floorboards.

• Fix wall gouges, holes, and scratches and only then, prime and paint. This is true of the exterior and the interior.

• Staging should fit your budget, but it's vital. A bigger budget may allow for storage rental, then you can select rented furniture pieces if you're looking to convey a new aesthetic. Small touches can make a difference, too, including fresh flowers and setting the tables, including the patio table. It's an inexpensive and quick mood-setter than can really pay off.