How a house doctor can sell your home

It’s a tough time to try to sell your property, but some expert advice can make all the difference. Graham Norwood investigates
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The Independent Online

Anyone wanting to sell their home in 2009 will need all the help they can get, and that might include employing a much-derided house doctor. The tactic worked for Eric Norman, a businessman from Harrogate in Yorkshire, whose four-bedroom house lingered on the market from June until just before Christmas.

“I was cynical of house doctors, thinking they made it up as they went along,” he says. “But we got one in and she advised on presentation. We got rid of personal items, rearranged furniture and spent £1,200 putting mirrors in small rooms to create a feeling of space, changing lighting and modernising the soft furnishings with accessories. It sold for only just under the asking price and we did at least sell within a fortnight of relaunching the house. That’s quite an achievement in a falling market.”

Eric Norman may have done even better than he thinks, thanks to his house doctor. Figures from the business consultancy Hometrack show that even after big price falls in 2008, sellers still get only an average 90 per cent of asking prices (in 2007, it was 96 per cent) and typically wait 11 weeks before even receiving an acceptable offer (it was four weeks at the top of the market). And this applies only to vendors who actually sell – many have waited a year without success, and are not even included in this data.

So what do house doctors actually do? The Final Touch, a Hampshire-based service, advises clients to employ tactics ranging from simple de-cluttering and repainting, up to large-scale jobs such as fitting modern flooring and revamping tired kitchens, depending on a property’s condition.

Its costs are typical of most house doctors. An initial assessment of what a home needs involves a visit costing £75 an hour, plus travel, as well as the cost of a report – a one-off £100-£175 depending on the property size. The firm also sources and/or supervises improvements to be made based on a £75-per-hour rate; on top of that, the seller buys materials and pays for the work undertaken. In a strong market, it is a small proportion of the extra profit made; in very weak markets such as today’s, it helps sell a property before prices fall further.

The Final Touch recently helped an owner whose London flat was valued at £450,000 sell it for £512,000 after doing £2,500 of cosmetic work. A house valued at £1m could not find a buyer, but then went for £1.295m after having £3,000 spent on improvements. “Until 2008, people came to us to maximise the money they could get,” says the Final Touch’s Suzi Maas. “Now it’s a case of trying to make their property stand out to get the attention of the few buyers around.”

Sue Wyles of Ainslie & Wyles, a house doctor service based in the Cotswolds, says her work is to provide an outsider’s view. “Our most cherished possessions often take pride of place, but they can hide valuable features or be a turn-off for visitors,” she says. “Bedrooms turned into offices, or living rooms dominated by children or pets prevent buyers from seeing what a house is like or could be like.”

Wyles has even been hired by desperate developers wanting her to “dress” empty new homes that have been lying unsold. She hires furniture and accessories to help buyers imagine what a property could be like.

There are no guarantees that Eric Norman’s experience can be repeated, but house doctors are seen by some as a sign that a seller is serious about getting their home in top condition. James Greenwood runs Stacks Property Search & Acquisition, an agency that locates homes for buyers and then barters down the price. He says: “We’re trained to look beyond the cosmetic, but money is so tight that no one wants to pay to clear up someone’s mess. House doctors that do a proper job may make the difference between selling and not selling. Buyers don’t want hidden expenses.”

Estate agents now have their own house doctors, helping landlord clients and sellers get an edge. Simon Buhl Davis runs the house-doctor service for Savills, the estate and lettings agency. He sums it up like this: “Never underestimate the power of a first impression. Presentation can make the difference of literally hundreds of thousands of pounds on sales value.” In this year’s market, even finding a buyer at all may be reward enough.

Selling points: The experts’ advice

OUTSIDE

* Keep lawns and gardens tidy, and pathways and drives clean.

* Repair windows, repaint fences and the front door.

* Add tubs or hanging baskets.

LIVING AREAS

* De-clutter with a vengeance.

* Repaint in neutral colours if required.

* Use mirrors to make small rooms or short corridors appear larger.

* Ditch old carpets, and consider wooden flooring.

KITCHEN/BATHROOM

* De-clutter, even in cupboards.

* Make sure lights, taps and other features work.

* Put new doors on units to give an “as-new” feel.

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