Forget "location, location, location" - in today's tougher housing market, "preparation" and "timing" are the keys to a quick and lucrative sale.
Most observers says that the worst is over after a year of price dips and slumps in sales figures, but it is still difficult to make your home stand out from the rest.
Rightmove, a leading internet house-price index, offers these indicators: the value of homes rose by just 1.5 per cent in the year to October; each estate agent has 71 properties on sale competing against each other for buyers' attention; a typical home now takes 81 days to sell; and when it is bought, the average seller gets only 93 per cent of the asking price.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors advises: "In terms of properties versus buyers, it's the most competitive market for years. If you have a home worth more than £1m, put it on sale now as buyers with bonuses are on the look-out. For the rest of us, spend two months preparing the house for a modest sum - say £2,000 - and put it on the market in the new year. When you do, throw yourself into the sale 100 per cent."
Preparation is no less important than timing. Ruth Canning of Canning and Sheridan, property stylists in London who advise vendors on how to prepare homes for sale, says: "One common problem is people simply having too much stuff, with furniture lining the walls like a doctor's waiting room. People should put stuff in storage when they plan to sell, to give their homes a feeling of space."
Estate agents have a strong vested interest in encouraging sellers to improve the looks and saleability of homes - after all, their commissions go up when sale prices rise.
"We sold a cottage previously on the market for seven months with another agent," says Matthew Penfold of the estate agency Cluttons. "I made a checklist of 10 items, such as planting shrubs, replacing doorknobs, laying a new carpet and redecorating. The owners completed the checklist for less than £1,000, we put the property on at the original price of £350,000, and it sold within 10 days."
Most experts advise sellers to carry out low-level work to improve appearances, and to spend more on bedrooms and bathrooms but to resist expensive remodelling of kitchens. "A huge concern to buyers is how the kitchen will work for their family and how they can adapt the existing layout and fittings. Ninety per cent of buyers will make substantial changes to the kitchen within six months of moving in," says James Greenwood of Stacks, a consultancy that shortlists properties for busy buyers.
The key is to do the right work to the right parts of your home before seeking valuations to ensure that agents see your home in prime condition and price it accordingly.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO SELL?
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no single "selling season" in the UK. Figures from the Land Registry show that from 2000 to 2004, 1.335 million homes were sold each year on average: 325,000 were sold in the first January to March quarter, 370,000 from April to June, and then 320,000 in each of the final two quarters of July to September and October to December. Spring is rather busier than any other season, but almost as many people buy and sell at other times.
PREPARING FOR VALUATION
Even if you are not going to carry out any major work ahead of getting an estate agent in to value your property, house doctors and agents advise doing at least the following:
First impressions: make the garden tidy, trim lawns, and cultivate flower beds. Hanging baskets will brighten a dowdy property. Ensure paths and steps are easy to walk on. Does the doorbell work? Can your house number be seen clearly?
General internal: minimise furniture and ornaments; use mirrors to give an illusion of space; clear surfaces.
Rooms: shift junk out of the spare room; bedrooms used as offices should be turned back into bedrooms.
Storage space sells: ensure that cupboards, basements and attics are tidy and throw out rubbish.
External appearance: paint the front door, polish knobs and metalwork.
Cats and dogs: get rid of any pet smells long before seeking a valuation.
Fix it: check over your home for dripping taps, squeaky doors, blown light bulbs and so on. Tidy up any peeling wallpaper or damaged paintwork, and finish all outstanding DIY projects.
You've got to speculate to accumulate
Paul Warburton, an IT technician from Crawley, admits that his estate agent said that his four-bedroom home "looked a bit tired", but it wasn't until it loitered on sale for five months without an offer that he did something about it.
He spent £1,400 on curtains, repainting rooms, replacing a kitchen worktop, and putting down new bricks on his driveway, all after an assessment by a house doctor, whose services cost him an additional £450.
"It was the hanging baskets that clinched it. The front of the house looked ordinary but the two £40 baskets got comments fromeveryone who visited," he says. The house sold for £320,000 - the asking price - within a month of it going back on sale in its transformed state.
Richard Gumbleton, an accountant, had to spend much more on his two-bedroom Kensington flat - in fact, a cool £30,000 on changing the layout of a bedroom and bathroom, putting in new furniture, extra storage space and cupboards, as well as new curtains and blinds throughout. "The house doctors project-managed everything throughout, even dealing with a problem when the carpet firm measured a carpet wrongly. It was a positive experience hiring people who knew what needed doing," he says. It was a lucrative experience, too. The flat is now worth about £450,000 - some £100,000 more.
On the web
www.rightmove.co.uk for data on the market
www.houseprofessionals.com gives contact details for workmen
www.canning-sheridan.co.uk are property stylists
www.stacks.co.uk gives advice to buyers on what to look for
Help from the house doctors
A basic one-day service costs £400 from Home Stagers (0800 542 8952). This will include advice on how to de-clutter; room-dressing hints "to give just enough theatre to your home so that viewers will want to buy"; extra digital photographs to give to your estate agent when you instruct to sell; and hints on how to deal with buyers when they come to view your property.
Milc Property Stylists (020-7373 7700) have a one-day makeover service for sellers, costing from £175, adding accessories to your existing furniture and using space-planning techniques to make the most of what you have without any re-decoration. Milc also rents out furniture and decorations to improve your property during a sale period.
Next week: Making the saleReuse content