Some elements of home value are beyond your control. You can’t pick up your house and move it to a different location, for example. But even if you don’t have a massive budget or a lot of time, you’re not powerless. We asked home appraisers and real estate agents for the quick upgrades and relatively easy maintenance tasks that make the biggest difference when it comes to adding value before selling, or protecting the investment you’ve made in your home.
Many of their recommendations won’t exactly get your blood pumping: “[It’s] definitely more of a checklist of decidedly non-sexy items that folks need to take care of,” says Dana Scanlon, an agent with Keller Williams in Bethesda, Md. On the bright side, some of their suggestions won’t cost you a dime.
1. Clean up
Appraisers use six levels to describe the condition of a home, explains Jonathan Montgomery, president of the Real Estate Appraisal Group in Washington. The first level (known as C1) is reserved for houses that are brand new and haven’t been lived in, and the sixth level (C6) signals that a house is basically uninhabitable. Those are set in stone, but it’s in between those two ends of the spectrum that people can level up or down, sometimes based on very simple things like how messy their house is. “If your house is cluttered,” Montgomery says, “then the buyer is going to have the perception that there may be repairs or something that they need to do to improve that home once they buy it.” Clutter also typically makes a space look smaller than it is.
2. Replace bad gutters
“When you’re buying a home, a single-family home in particular, you need to recognize that moisture is your enemy,” Scanlon says. One of the main ways to fight this foe is by regularly cleaning out your gutters — Scanlon suggests doing it twice in the fall and twice in the spring. But if regular maintenance won’t cut it, and they’re leaky and damaged beyond repair, don’t wait to replace them. Nonfunctional gutters (meaning they don’t properly redirect water away from your house) can lead to much pricier problems, such as foundation and roof damage, and mold.
3. Maintain your HVAC system
Proper heating and cooling are essential to making your home livable, yet many homeowners don’t think about their HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) until something goes wrong. To avoid a breakdown, change your HVAC filters each season and have a technician out twice a year to give the system a checkup.
Such regular maintenance will hopefully prevent you from having to buy a brand-new system — an investment that appraisers say sellers will not recoup. While a buyer might feel reassured by a new HVAC system, explains Frank John, chief appraiser at D.C.’s Washington Appraisal, they won’t pay a premium for it the way they might for a newly renovated kitchen or bathroom.
4. Change cabinet hardware
Even if you can’t afford a full renovation, one simple upgrade that agents say often goes a long way in kitchens and bathrooms is replacing old cabinet hardware with more stylish knobs and drawer pulls. If you can spend a bit more time and money, swap out dingy faucets and shower heads, and outdated towel bars and hooks, too. This will “signal to a buyer that, oh, it’s modern, it’s updated, it’s on trend,” says Amanda Pendleton, a home trends expert for Zillow. It’s that feeling, she says, that can lead to a higher home value.
5. Upgrade to LED lighting
Replacing incandescent recessed lights with LED versions, which are significantly more efficient, will save you electricity, and also the hassle of frequent bulb changes. Highlighting eco-friendly upgrades like this when you market your home for sale can make a difference, says Craig McCullough, an agent with Compass in D.C. “Also,” he says, “it makes [the home] look more modern, more fresh.”
6. Get rid of carpet
If you have carpet that’s worn out or not neutral — especially in places other than bedrooms — experts say you really ought to get rid of it if you’re hoping to sell. Some lucky homeowners tear out old carpeting only to discover hardwoods underneath. But if you’re not in that camp, McCullough suggests laminate or vinyl plank flooring as wallet-friendly options. For an ambitious DIY-er, those products are relatively easy to install, because they can be cut with a utility knife and don’t require power tools.
7. Create usable outdoor space
The pandemic heightened people’s desire for outdoor space, but it wasn’t necessarily about acreage. “What we learned was that they didn’t want more outdoor space — they just wanted a functional outdoor space,” says Zillow’s Pendleton. “They wanted to be able to dine outside. They wanted to be able to lounge and relax outside.” Creating outdoor space can be very costly if you decide to, say, build a deck, but it doesn’t have to be. You could, for example, build a firepit, says Montgomery, the home appraiser, or add outdoor lighting as a way to “give people an idea of a space they could enjoy.”
8. Freshen up landscaping
Think of this as decluttering, but for the outdoors: trim overgrown hedges, clean up flower beds, collect loose branches, spread fresh mulch, paint your front door. “Those are going to be relatively inexpensive enhancements that will really improve the look and feel of your home,” says John, of Washington Appraisal. Still, he cautions that they’re harder to quantify. They might attract more buyers and potentially drive up bids, but “an appraiser is not going to say, ‘okay, because of the door, we’re going to add thousands of dollars to the house.’ “
9. Don’t stink it up
If a home smells like smoke or pets, “that is a big deterrent in price,” says Emily Lowe, of RE/MAX in Nashville. The cheapest, easiest option, of course, is to ban smoking in your home, and be proactive about cleaning up after your animals (including staying on top of changing the litter box). If it’s too late for prevention, you can do an ozone treatment, which deploys a high concentration of ozone gas to get rid of smells that have already seeped into walls and floors.
Painting is “the number one thing you can do to make the biggest impact the quickest,” Lowe says. It’ll make you feel instantly better about living in your space, or if you’re planning to list, it’ll signal to buyers that your home has been well cared for. If selling is your goal, going neutral is key. “What you want to shoot for is that everybody could see themselves moving in,” Montgomery says.