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Look at Your House From the Street

September 22, 1996|ELLEN JAMES MARTIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a plain house of sand-colored stucco surrounded by a brown wooden fence with a distressing lean to it. What's more, overgrown shrubs block the home's windows.

Despite its condition, the home's seller--a retired engineer in his early 60s--refuses to improve its exterior.

"His attitude is, 'Hey, I'm not going to put a penny in that place. I'm retired and, anyway, I could have gotten a lot more for it in '89,' " said Larry Trocosso, the sales manager of Coldwell Banker of Yorba Linda.

Trocosso predicts that the engineer's stubborn stance will ultimately cost him far more than fence repair and a pruning job.

"A house is like a book that's judged by its cover," Trocosso says.

A typical buyer will eliminate more than 50% of the properties in his target community solely on the basis of a drive-by preview, he said. Few venture into a home that looks unattractive on the outside.

In fact, the engineer's house has had scarcely any showings in the three months it has languished on the market. And Trocosso predicts that the engineer will eventually be compelled to do the needed lawn work, succumb to a steep price cut or both.

"Value is in the eye of the beholder," Trocosso said.

Exterior appearance has always been vital because many prospects first identify the homes they purchase by meandering through neighborhoods they like.

And the "drive-by" buyer is becoming an ever more important factor in the marketplace, real estate specialists say. Why? Because many of today's prospects are time-pressed and want to first preview a home by road.

"The buyer won't take the time to see the inside of the house if it's cosmetically deficient on the outside," says Phil Jones, the broker-owner of Prudential Realty in Long Beach.

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What's more, buyers are starting to gain access to home-listing information even before they contact a real estate agent to escort them through homes. Today, purchasers can pick up addresses simply by surfing the World Wide Web on their home computers.

Granted, few buyers are yet using the Internet to track down addresses. But that will change dramatically within two years, Trocosso predicts.

"The Web is new, and it hasn't caught on yet, but it will," Trocosso says.

What can you do to make your home more appealing to drive-by prospects? Here are half a dozen suggestions:

No. 1: Do exterior improvements early.

As time wears on, most owners of unsold homes surrender to their agent's advice on needed improvements, such as painting and pruning.

But waiting until you're pushed to the wall is imprudent, Trocosso said. Basic repairs are essential to selling a home at a decent price. And waiting will only raise buyers' suspicions and lead to price cuts.

No. 2: Paint in subtle hues.

Realty agents are very orthodox about interior paint colors: Most want sellers to stay with soft tans or whites. There is a bit more latitude for exterior colors, says Jones. A Dutch blue or very pale yellow is often acceptable on outside walls. And pink paint could be an acceptable choice for a Spanish-style house.

But beyond those exceptions, Jones believes in pure whites, pale tans and light grays on exterior walls. Accent trim can be darker and more varied in color.

"What you want to do is create mass appeal," Jones said.

No. 3: Remember driveways.

Do spots on your concrete driveway bring back memories of many oil changes on the old Buick? Then you'd better call in a driveway steam-cleaning crew, said Ken Gunderson, sales manager of Century 21 Beachside in Whittier.

By the same token, cracks in an asphalt driveway warrant repair or replacement when a house is put up for sale, he said.

Gunderson also says that keeping vehicles--including your kids' bikes and Big Wheel tricycles--inside the garage will make your property seem more spacious.

No. 4: Keep windows and doors spotless.

If you think today's "drive-by" buyers always stay in their cars, you're mistaken. Many are curious and aggressive. And if they're interested in a property and detect that it's vacant or absent of its owner, they'll get out of their vehicles to take a closer look.

Do you want prospects peering through spotty windows or catching the sight of cobwebs in the corner of your front door? Absolutely not, Gunderson says.

No. 5: Don't fret that your house is plain."

Your house may not cast a strikingly handsome look to the casual passerby, but if the property is immaculate, freshly painted and well pruned, it will still be highly salable, said Trocosso.

"[A plain house] is OK unless you can't see through the poor maintenance to its possibilities," he said.

An ordinary house can be dressed up with inexpensive yet colorful flower beds and possibly a seasonal flag hung by the front door. Low-voltage yard lights can add a touch of glamour and are worth the investment, because prospects may drive by after dark.

No. 6: Don't invest too much in an "ugly duckling" home.

Is your house inherently unappealing to most buyers? For instance, was it designed in a modernistic architectural style with unusual roof lines and slit-like windows that seemed attractive only in the 1950s?

If so, it's unlikely you'll ever recoup your investment for major structural changes. The better idea is to appeal to bargain hunters by setting a price 5% to 10% below that of nearby homes of like square footage but better aesthetics, Trocosso said.

"Unfortunately, if you have a really ugly house, you'll get an ugly price," he said.

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

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