The property market is yet to show signs of a spring in its step, at a time when sales usually pick up.
Although most homeowners will be reluctant to admit their properties are in need of a makeover, for anyone struggling to sell, a few cosmetic changes could make all the difference.
"Every single home – and type of home – in the UK has potential," says TV architect and home improvements expert George Clarke. "You may question this statement, looking around your existing home, wondering how it could be transformed but it is true. It is not the size that matters but the way you use your space."
Times are tough for sellers with house prices falling by 2.9 per cent over the past year, according to the latest figures from the Halifax, but a new breed of home-staging companies could be the answer. Home staging is an American phenomenon, as anyone who remembers House Doctor's Ann Maurice will know, but its premise is simple: you present your home in the best possible light to reel in the buyers.
The problem for sellers is that as much as they hope prospective buyers will visualise the home's potential, most make their decision as soon as they walk in the door, or even as soon as they've hit the driveway. First impressions are the only impressions that count when you're trying to sell.
For those daunted by the prospect of home staging, there are companies all over Britain willing to take on the challenge for you. They're not hard to spot with names such as Home Stagers (homestagers.co.uk), Home Stylers (home-makeovers.co.uk) and House Wow (housewow.co.uk). But to make life easier, the Home Staging Network (homestagingnetwork.co.uk) provides a directory of home improvement companies.
So what do these companies do? In the main it's about helping your home to stand out from the crowd, whether by tidying and tweaking what you already have, or adding key items of furniture and accessories to create the "wow factor".
"Research shows that buyers make a decision about whether they are going to turn their nose up or not within about 30 seconds. First impressions, therefore, really count," says Lynn Pick, a director of Home Stylers.
And as property programmes on TV underscore, buyers are demanding. "Whether the property is priced at £150,000 or £1m, buyer expectations are incredibly high," says Collette Hanlon, the managing director of professional styling firm Homestagers.co.uk. "If you don't try to meet those either you will not sell or you leave yourself open to be knocked down on price."
The crucial question, however, is at what price? According to the Home Staging Network, companies will often offer a free initial meeting but costs should be in the region of £50 to £200 for a consultation and £20 to £75 per hour for hands on staging, de-cluttering and accessorising. At Home Stylers, for example, consultation costs £150 and hands-on staging costs £195 per day. If you want to rent furniture, you will pay much more, with prices at House Wow starting at £700 per month. Others may charge a total fee based on a proportion of the increase in sale price but always get a few quotes and request references from previous clients before handing over your cash. You should also ensure they have adequate public liability insurance.
You have to factor in the cost of any work that needs to be done although this is usually cosmetic. "You can turn around a relatively small property through spending as little as £500, but £2,000 to £3,000 is more the norm," says Ms Pick. "We are not into knocking down walls or extending property. A good home stager should be able to work within the proportions of the property. Occasionally, something out of the ordinary is needed, such as a new bathroom suite, but usually this can be limited to new fittings or in the kitchen new doors."
If you're taking on the work yourself instead, avoid bringing too much of your own personality to the home. This doesn't necessarily mean stark, minimalist decoration, but try to imagine what most potential buyers will want to see.
Clearing away clutter and giving your home a thorough spring clean is also vital. Experts always advise to create as much space as possible by removing anything you don't need and organising the layout.
"The main rooms to look at are the master bedroom, lounge, kitchen and bathroom. Keep as many clear spaces and as few personal effects as possible, then concentrate on styling and cleanliness to the max," says Anita Richardson, a director of House Wow and Home Staging Network.
De-cluttering, according to Ms Pick, is one of the simplest steps sellers can take to make their properties more attractive. "You are trying to sell a lifestyle to the buyers and if that is cluttered and messy then they won't want to buy it," she says.
Give the inside walls, skirting and woodwork a fresh coat of paint for a low-cost way to refresh tired-looking rooms. Rather than replacing an old bathroom or kitchen at a cost of thousands of pounds, use your money on repairs, touch up old paintwork and use a few new accessories. When potential buyers come round to visit, replacing old towels and worn doormats could also make a big difference.
"It's absolutely essential to have smart, clean towels. We always advise our clients to buy some new towels for the estate agent's staging photograph, then put them away and bring them back out only for viewings," says Ms Richardson.
Ms Hanlon recommends that sellers take photos of their property and view them on a computer so they can see their home from a potential buyer's perspective. "You see the property warts and all in photographs. Homeowners get wrapped up in their property and they should realise that what they are doing is selling a combination of lifestyle and space. Estate agents, for instance like it when a homestager is involved," she says.
Whatever you do, don't neglect the exterior. This is the first thing that people are going to be put off by, so carry out some simple improvements such as repairing windows and gutters, sprucing up your garden and clearing the pathways and decking of any rubbish or weeds. It can also help to paint the door and windowsills.
"In a weak market, a smart front can be the difference between a potential buyer walking past and coming in for a viewing. Make your house look good from the outside as well as the inside," says Mr Clarke.
If the exterior is in need of more than a few touches here and there, call in some professional help. Back to Front Design, for example, is an exterior makeover company that improves everything from the roof to the porch, taking in the guttering, doors and windows on the way.
"If you spend heaps of money doing up the inside but do nothing on the outside so that it still looks ugly and nobody wants to come in, quite frankly, you have wasted your money," says Yolande Hesse, a design director for Back to Front Design.
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