Best Home Improvements to Please Picky Spring Buyers

Home-selling tips for a transitional real estate market.

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The national housing market is slowly crawling back from historic lows. Does this iffy environment change the basic "must-dos" for prepping, staging, and showing a house for sale?

Much of the same rules still apply: Cut clutter and depersonalize, scrub surfaces, replace burned-out light bulbs, plant flowers. But as the market improves, edging out the competition with home aesthetics, condition, and accessibility is increasingly important.

In these market conditions, some agents will refuse a listing that is not staged to sell.

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Improving housing stats may justify the extra elbow grease and a splurge on new drapes. The housing market is showing signs of life, although more so in some areas than others. Nationally, the trend is up. The February Pending Home Sales Index, released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) in late March, dipped to 96.5 from 97 in January, but the index is 9.2 percent above its February 2011 reading. The index measures contracts but not closings.

NAR is hosting its National Open House campaign April 28-29. Open houses pick up in the spring, and thanks in part to mild weather for much of the nation, this spring looks to bring some of the best traffic prospects of the last few years. The NAR's Realtors Confidence Index for early April shows a market that continues to be dominated by bargain hunters and low-price bids, among other factors. But this time, a growing number of agents reported multiple bidding, pockets of low inventories, and a resurgence of buyer "interest" compared to recent months.

"The spring home buying season looks bright because of an elevated level of contract offers so far this year," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun in a statement. "If activity is sustained near present levels, existing-home sales will see their best performance in five years."

"Based on all of the factors in the current market, that's what we're expecting, with sales rising 7%-10% in 2012," Yun said.

Pictures do the talking. It was true before the recession and it remains true today. Most prospective home buyers use an online search to narrow their possibilities well in advance of ever crossing the threshold. According to a Coldwell Banker survey, 92 percent of buyers start their search online.

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Therefore, budgeting staging money for a set of high-quality photographs showcasing square footage, good flow, and important features inside and out will be money well spent. You should aim to have your house in ready-to-show shape at a moment's notice, although busy family life can make "perfect" impossible. Perfect photos, on the other hand, can do much of the work for sellers. Use a variety of online listing services to show those photos. Plus, personal or agent-driven buzz on Facebook and Twitter is common in today's market.

If your selling strategy calls for remodeling, your time and resources might best be spent in the kitchen, according to Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Computer stations and recharging areas for electronic devices were the kitchen features that residential architects reported as increasing the most in popularity, according to the most recent AIA Home Design Trends survey. Next on the list: family space, which continues the longstanding popularity of combining household living space with kitchen space; recycling centers; expanded pantry space; and wine storage. Adaptability and universal design are increasingly popular as aging baby boomers contemplate their future needs.

Environmental sustainability continues to be a theme. Renewable-material flooring and countertops topped the list of products increasing the most in popularity, followed by drinking-water filtration systems. Natural wood cabinets were a bit further down the popularity list, as were upper-end appliances, duplicate appliances, and natural stone countertops, according to the AIA.