Spit, polish and sell

How far should you go in redecorating for the market?

In a climate where a London agent can take on a thousand buyers in three weeks, but only 27 houses, there would seem to be little for the vendor to do. On the face of it, circulating the details and awaiting the stampede should be their most onerous task. Yet a grubby, worn-out house still has to be pretty special if it is to reach the full asking price. Most people are prepared to get out the paintbrush for the weekend, but how far should they go, and is it sensible to spend money on a house about to go on to the market?

Paul Edmonds is about to sell his Fulham family house, which was looking very sad. Two children, two dogs and a divorce had not left much time for running repairs and when the house first went on the market early last year the response was not encouraging. Now it is to be relaunched as a rather different creature. "One of the first things I did was to put in a new bathroom. I was told that a house this size needed another. I have had some damp seen to, a new roof put on the bay and all the front elevation done," says Paul. "It did look a bit of a wreck, half stripped, with paint peeling off. It also used to be pink; now it is magnolia."

It is over the use of colour that Paul Edmonds has had to swallow hardest. In order to have the widest appeal he has neutralised his taste. As a London hairdresser with his own Knightsbridge salon, he uses colour, shapes and textures to create a particular atmosphere, just as he did in his home.

"It was a bit of a `designery' house. The agent used the phrase `niche market'. We have a green kitchen with bare plaster walls. There are wavy wooden doors between the dining and sitting rooms, which she called `interesting'. I have changed colours such as soft purple and pale oyster pink to beige. I stuck with the lilac walls and curtains in a reception room, though, because it does look good. I am not sure whether to go as far as replacing the boiler."

One lesson Paul claims to have learned for life is that a clutter-free house is a joy to live in. "My daughters are on their third clear-out. It is painful, but I shall keep a beady eye on clutter from now on. The house looks so spacious."

He has even brought the principles of feng shui, the ancient Chinese science of organising your space for the best energy flow, to bear on the buyers. "There are no sharp edges as you enter the house, just a curved shelf and a curved mirror. I am using mirrors to give a sense of space and light."

It may be a little late to create a welcoming home by putting the right things in the right place, but most vendors can take simple measures to set their homes above the ordinary. Rebecca Read of Cluttons has no doubt that buyers can be seduced at first sight - in her words, they should have their heartstrings tweaked. The trouble is that they are just as likely to stumble into darkened rooms with unmade beds and a kitchen full of dirty plates, as into a sweet-smelling nest.

"I have been known to make a bed and tidy up myself. It is amazing how many people leave the curtains closed and the place in a mess. And most houses smell of something. There's nothing like a good scented candle."

There are some standard things to do, she says, which cost nothing. Clean the windows and take down the net curtains - they make a room look as though it has its eyes shut. Box up all the clutter and children's toys; clean the carpets and sweep the garden. Even at this time of the year there is no need for miserable-looking pots with dead plants. Sometimes, spending a little money is wise.

"A client who had been unable to sell his home in Victoria Square, behind Buckingham Palace, took it off the market before Christmas to smarten it up," Rebecca Read continues. "He did an amazing job in the hall with smart wallpaper and a dado rail, and put a slatted blind over a window that had a dismal view. The property has sold within weeks for the full asking price of pounds 550,000.

Giles Underhill, manager of Foxtons, Battersea, advises that the stronger the market, the less you will get for your efforts, because people are happy to secure almost any property. He also warns that if you fiddle around for a few months in a rising market, you could find that prices have risen by 5 per cent. "If everything is lovely, but you haven't got round to fitting a new bathroom suite, then do it, and the house can be sold as immaculately presented and priced accordingly. But if you have a tired family home with dinosaurs scribbled on the walls, then it is not worth doing anything. We sold a house in Clapham for pounds 420,000, beautifully fitted out by a developer. The buyer didn't like it, and threw everything out."

Mr Underhill does make the point that it is worth spending money on flats likely to attract first-time buyers. It is usually easier for them to arrange a mortgage for an extra pounds 10,000 than it is to find pounds 5,000 in cash to smarten it up.

Country houses can also benefit from some pre-sale cosmetic treatment. For a start, the agents John D Wood suggest a fresh load of gravel would make the drive appealingly crunchy. They also suggested recently to a client in Winchester that his bilious pink house might be a bit of a sticking- point. When nicely beiged, it sold within 10 days.

Meanwhile back in London Paul Edmonds is setting about choosing an agent. He expects to see 100 per cent return on his decorating expenses.

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