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Talking empty homes; upkeep can be key to a sale

by Andree Brooks

While this piece was written over 20 years ago, it still holds true to the facts. Dusty, bare, ‘abandoned looking’, empty homes do not sell as well as those that appear to be loved and lived in! What’s the answer for home owners desperate to sell their empty properties? Author Andree Brooks, then writing for the New York Times, has a few solutions for home owners. I like the one about getting house sitters in to pose as the happy family-in-residence. (For free of course!) Contains valuable information about the 30-day vacancy clause in most home and contents insurance policies.

1 Jan 1984

HOMEOWNERS forced by personal or professional circumstances to vacate their house before they have found a buyer face the problem of making the house look appealing once pictures are off the wall, furniture is gone and floors are bare.

There are other problems as well. Maintenance and protection must be provided, possibly by a house sitter or tenant. Someone trustworthy has to make sure the driveway is plowed, dust and grime do not accumulate and exterior doors are locked after the house is viewed. And insurance must be reviewed, since most homeowner policies are automatically suspended, or at least the coverage is curtailed, when a house is vacated.

Some owners are fortunate enough to be part of a corporate relocation plan that will handle these contingencies. But for those who make their own arrangements, professionals offer various suggestions.

Sales agents recommend paying a cleaning company to come in as soon as they leave. Make sure, say the agents, that windows are washed, rugs shampooed and floors waxed, since stains will show up even more when the furnishings are gone. Ideally, they add, all interior walls should get a coat of off-white paint. If the budget is tight, they say, at least the kitchen, bathrooms and shabbiest rooms should be repainted.

‘Make that house sparkle,’ said Peter Travers, a broker with T.R. Preston Company of Avon, Conn. ‘There is nothing worse than a house that looks tacky. It’s a turnoff.’

The $1,000 or so spent to make these improvements, he said, may actually become a savings since the house may sell faster and for a higher sum. ‘Buyers have an emotional reaction when they come through that door,’ he said, ‘so you want to be sure the place looks inviting.’

He cited as an example a $139,900 nine- room colonial house in Simsbury, Conn., that had been left by its owners last fall without the benefit of such improvements. ‘Cork board was still hanging on one of the walls,’ he said. ‘Metal bookshelves had been left lying on the floor. It was a nice house, but it looked neglected.’

After the house stood vacant for two months with no offers, the owners were persuaded to wax the floors and paint the two worst rooms. The cork board was removed and the bookshelves reinstated. ‘Nobody can say for sure that it made the difference,’ Mr. Travers said, ‘but within a week that house was under deposit.’ The sellers were pleasantly surprised to get as much as $135,000.

Patricia Matteson, director of marketing for Merrill Lynch Relocation Management, one of the companies that handles the sale of vacant houses for transferred executives, said its studies had shown a direct correlation between the time on the market and sale price. ‘The longer that house stays on the market,’ she said, ‘the lower the price.’

Mrs. Matteson cautioned against relying on the listing agent to watch out for the house. Too frequently, she said, sellers leave a house in the care of their agent without saying exactly what they want done. ‘Be specific,’ she said. ‘Make your selling agreement contingent upon doing certain jobs. And keep the arrangement short-term. If you sign an agreement for six months you lose flexibility.’

Sellers should not have to pay for the agent to manage the house in their absence. ‘We don’t charge extra,’ said Ruth Brewster, vice president at Degnan Boyle Realtors of northern New Jersey, and most agents in the New York metropolitan area concur. Agreeing to provide this service, agents explain, is a way of getting the listing.

BUT if the seller is still worried that certain chores will not be properly carried out, says Theodore Robinson, spokesman for Homequity, a relocation company that sells about 15,000 vacant homes each year, it might be best to contract directly for those services before leaving.

Another major concern is that the insurance company will reclassify the house as a vacant property, which means a change in coverage. Howard DeBisschop, personal property specialist with the Insurance Service Office in New York City, said that standard comprehensive homeowner policies are contingent upon the house being furnished and occupied. If not, the contract usually allows full coverage to continue for only 30 days.

After that, he said, some companies will allow the policy to remain in effect until the renewal date while excluding damage caused by vandalism or freezing pipes. Others will suspend coverage after the 30-day period. If this happens, insurance agents say the practice is to write a ‘fire’ policy, which is usually all that is avail able for an empty dwelling.

Such coverage is very limited, however. Officials at Aetna Life and Casualty say, for instance, that their fire policy is typical in covering only major perils – such as a fire or a windstorm – and excluding most others. Peter Lazaroff, an Aetna spokesman, also warns that because the dwelling is vacant and thus more prone to hazard, a fire policy will probably cost around 15 percent more than regular homeowner insurance.

As a result, some sellers decide they might be better off temporily installing a tenant or a house sitter. Views are mixed on such moves.

Installing a regular tenant, agents say, is usually only worthwhile if the house is taken off the market for a while, since most renters will want a guarantee of at least a year’s stay. However, there are exceptions.

Mrs. Brewster, the agent in New Jersey, recommends contacting local corporations. She has found that many of them have training programs that require an employee to come into the area for only a few months. The company, she said, may be delighted with the short-term opportunity and also be willing to pay the rent as well as pick up the cost of leasing furniture from one of the many furniture-leasing companies now springing up. Such tenants, she said, may also be less hesitant about continuing to permit the property to to be shown.

Others disagree. ‘Tenants are only worthwhile if you need the income,’ said Sally Sciano, a broker in Bedford Hills, N.Y. She insists that they do not have the same interest in keeping the place neat and attractive; their furnishings are less likely to enhance the place and they have been known to be careless about cleaning and locking up. Moreover, she has found that they often become so comfortable that they may try to delay a sale so as not to have to move.

Mrs. Sciano said she had better luck with house sitters. A sitter, who ideally is found through personal contacts, normally obtains this form of shelter free or at nominal cost in exchange for specific chores. Terms are month-to-month. Furniture can be leased or brought in by the sitter.

‘But try to get a couple or two friends,’ Mrs. Sciano said. ‘Single people tend to take off and not be around long enough to really take care of the place.’

copyright New York Times

Posted in: MediaMedia archive
Andree Brooks

About the author: Andree Brooks

Andree Brooks is an author, journalist and lecturer based in the north-east USA. She has written four well-received books on Jewish history and contemporary parenting. She wrote this article for the New York Times.