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Wake Up and Smell the Cat Box, Home Sellers

June 02, 1996|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one house, an overflowing diaper hamper saturated the air with a vinegary odor.

In another, there was the bathroom where a cat box had not been tended for days. Either that, or perhaps this family had more than a few cats to keep up with. Cat litter crunched underfoot.

Pulling into a driveway of still another home, past the "Open House" sign, potential buyers saw a shingle drooped loosely on the siding by way of welcome.

The question is this: Do these people really want to sell their houses? A buyer can only wonder--and drive on.

Or perhaps these sellers are angry they are not going to make the killing they once expected from the Southland real estate market. Or, maybe, they're just not very energetic, except in their self-pity. So take it or leave it, pal.

But can't they at least make the bed before you come and consider whether to go into debt for the next 30 years to live here?

Eight weeks of house hunting is enough to leave a newly arrived home-buyer with plenty about which to wonder.

Real estate agents routinely advise sellers to spruce up the homestead before the "For Sale" sign goes up. But agents will also tell you that most homeowners don't listen. Or if they listen, they don't see.

And agents can only nudge them so hard. Excuse me, folks, your house is a pig sty. Probably a bad tactic for an agent who works on commission.

Liz Bernard-Anderson, a sales manager in Fred Sands Realty's Sunset Boulevard office, recalled the time she accepted a listing for a $900,000 Spanish-style home in Brentwood. At the front of the house was a large, attractive wooden door. Bernard-Anderson asked for the key.

"They told me they lost the key to the front door 15 years ago but, no matter, they didn't use that door anyway. They came in the side door," she remembered. These owners had grown comfortable with their lives and house, and to them any sane person would end up using the side entry just like they did, so what was the big problem?

"I said, 'Look, when people are going to spend $900,000 they'd like a key to the front door.' "

It appears that sellers have the same what's-your-point disbelief when it comes to their closets, bathrooms, kitchens, windows, garages, patios and yards. As for the smell, what smell? Hey, this is our house. We live here. And those rotting old boards scattered in the weeds of the backyard? No big deal; they've been there for 10 years.

*

Over and over again during two rather eye-opening, nose-holding months on the home-buying treadmill, the scene was the same:

Sellers don't regard their houses the way buyers do. The seller has grown accustomed to blemishes, the ripe reek of dog, the loose step, the cracked window, the backyard trash pile and all the rest of the mess and decay.

If you're sitting out there this Sunday with weeds growing round your "For Sale" sign, don't automatically blame the market, or the economy, or the Fed, or the general fading of the American dream.

Wake up! Clean out the cat box. Wash those diapers. Rent a truck and take a few loads of junk to the dump.

Bernard-Anderson, full time in the real-estate business for 19 years, says that no matter what the price range, "only a very small percentage" of houses are presented at their best to would-be buyers. Those that are, and which are priced fairly, sell in almost all market conditions, she said.

"There is always a shortage of these houses," she said.

So maybe your home isn't quite in mint condition. There are still ways, short of remodeling, to entice buyers. Or at least not offend them.

*

A dozen ideas come quickly to mind on how to enhance the salability of your home--ideas based on the experience of looking at 60 mid- to upper-mid range houses from Los Feliz to Laurel Canyon, from Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley to Third Street in Los Angeles:

* Closets. Home buyers are not dinner guests; home buyers will actually look in your closets. So those shoes, umbrellas, dirty clothes, fishing reels and purses that come spilling out when the door is opened say only one thing: Not enough closet space here.

A small, neat and organized closet makes the case for the plausible. If your house is short of storage space, do not emphasize this flaw with heaps of junk with nowhere to go. Instead, your 1960s closets can say: Look how orderly you can live.

* Smell. Remember grandma's house and that wonderful smell? Our olfactory sense is our most primitive but also our most profound for unlocking memories. These are some good smells around the house: buttered popcorn, fresh baked bread, vanilla candles. You can make your own list of offensive smells, but you should also remind yourself that you've grown accustomed to the odor of your home. Assume your house stinks and remedy it.

* Cleaning. There are two kinds of clean. First is, it's clean enough for us. And there's I-want-to-sell-my-house clean. You want to impress a family that is looking for a better life than they already have as they size up your house. Show them one.

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