Jenny Rose Ryan and her husband, Ben Johnson, bought their modest bungalow home near White Center 13 years ago, paying about $250,000.

Over the ensuing years, they tackled a few large home projects, such as asbestos remediation, updating appliances, replacing a bathroom floor, adding a heat pump and cooling system, and installing hardwood floors. Most recently, they added a detached office shed where Ryan can pursue her career as a writer and editor.

Now the couple has an opportunity to relocate to Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a time when Seattle’s real estate market is red-hot and homes are selling quickly with little or no preparation. 

To get the very best return on their home sale, however, Ryan says she and her husband have decided to “chip away” at a few remaining projects to maximize their asking price: patching walls, fixing a broken window, replacing a downspout, doing a bit of trim work, spending a weekend painting.

With guidance from the same real estate broker who helped them find their home in 2008, Ryan and Johnson plan to list the property for sale soon for around $520,000 — more than twice their purchase price.

Ryan says the process of preparing their home for sale has been an eye-opening experience, both intellectually and emotionally.

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“One part that has been interesting to me is how the things I’m nitpicking or worrying over don’t really matter to most buyers coming into this market. They just want to get a house,” Ryan says. “There’s this sort of Wild West desperation of people throwing these huge piles of cash at tiny bungalow ranches like ours, and they do not care that my son’s height has been measured on the wall in the hallway since he learned to stand.”

New or repainted cabinets with modern hardware in the kitchen will make a positive impression with prospective buyers, says Wayne Stevens, a managing broker with Coldwell Banker Bain. (Getty Images)

Improvements with broad appeal

She says she has been trying to let go of her feelings for a home that she and Johnson have lived in and loved for so long by “effectively neutralizing it” with broad improvements that will appeal to as many potential buyers as possible.

“It’s a bit bittersweet, but it’s also making it possible to say goodbye and pack up the moving pod without sobbing, so that’s good,” she says.

For Wayne Stephens, a managing broker with Coldwell Banker Bain in Seattle and a member of the Seattle King County Realtors board of directors, the “Wild West desperation” that Ryan describes is merely the new normal.

“It is true that homes are fetching more due to our low inventory, and because of this, today’s buyer is a little more desperate,” he says. “As such, they are buying just about anything.”

Still, Stephens says, sellers can’t expect to get top dollar if they leave buyers to tackle a long to-do list of work that the home requires.

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“I tell my clients, ‘If you can see it, they can see it.’ So if you have a leaky faucet, dirty carpets or even lightbulbs that don’t work or are missing, the buyer will see and react to that, too,” he says.

One option for owners looking to get their home ready for the market quickly is to hire someone who specializes in presale renovations. 

These companies can help speed along the process for buyers who are looking to sell soon by managing the renovation process, often maintaining their own supply chain of construction materials to avoid delays. One such service is Curbio, which began a partnership in the Seattle market last year with Coldwell Banker Bain. It allows customers to wait until after the sale closes to pay for the improvements, according to Olivia Mariani, the company’s marketing director. 

The areas where Curbio sees the most consumer demand, she says, are interior painting, floor refinishing and kitchen updates.

“We see a very high demand for what we call a kitchen ‘refresh,’ which does not require permits but can completely transform the look of a home and help it sell for significantly more,” Mariani says. “This usually involves painting the cabinets, replacing countertops, hardware, lighting, appliances and backsplash.”

Stephens also recommends focusing on the kitchen, as well as storage areas like the garage.

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“You’d be surprised how much freshly painted cabinets and new, modern hardware will freshen up a kitchen,” he says. “And a clean garage gives the buyer a chance to imagine their things in your space.” 

Exteriors are also important, Stephens says. It’s where first impressions are made, so be sure to take care of the following tasks before any potential buyers arrive:

• Remove moss from roofs

• Cut back landscaping so visitors can see the house and have easy access to the front door

• Fix uneven sidewalks

• Clean the gutters.

Wayne Stephens, a managing broker with Coldwell Banker Bain, recommends cutting back landscaping in the front yard so visitors can see the house and have easy access to the front door. (Getty Images)

Spending enough  — but not too much

Stephens says it’s important for sellers to achieve a balance between overspending and underspending on their presale fixups. Focus on projects that are likely to pay a return on their investment at the settlement table.

Stephens recalled one client who spent about $40,000 to upgrade the kitchen in her condominium, including cabinets, flooring and appliances, but refused to spend another $3,000 on paint.

“It sat on the market for weeks until I convinced her to paint, then it sold in a couple of weeks,” he says.

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A home in the Green Lake neighborhood was recently listed at $1,082,000 — even though the kitchen sink was chipped, the back door had scratches where the dog was trying to get out, and floor molding in the bedroom and bathroom was unpainted, Stephens says.

“I was doing a Facetime walk-through with [a potential buyer], who had me stop” because they thought the price was far too high, he says. “Asking over $1 million and the house has chipped sinks and dog damage? That’s underdoing it.”

In cases where upgrades may be needed but can’t be completed before the sale, Stephens recommends that sellers provide estimates and other documentation to potential buyers. 

“I’m listing a house that has a small kitchen that will need to be re-worked,” he says. “[The seller] won’t be doing this, but she’ll leave the architectural plans and estimates for buyers to see.”