Spruce Up That Listing Before Winter

When winter ends and spring comes again, your clients will be glad they took these steps to keep their home looking good.

November 30, 2012

Certain maintenance steps are routine when listing a house any time of year: Check the furnace, run a central air conditioning system, look at the wear and cleanliness of carpeting to see if it needs to be replaced. But before winter — and especially after heavy rains and droughts in certain parts of the country this last summer and fall — there are additional improvements that smart home owners should consider to woo buyers, who remain demanding about a house’s condition.

Doing so will also help sellers enjoy their homes more until they move and will protect their houses from a number of key seasonal challenges — pests seeking warm places to hide as weather turns nippy, mildew and rot developing as wet leaves sit before being raked, and ice dams forming when gutters remain clogged with water, then freezing when temperatures drop and later thaw.

Here are eight steps that sellers should pursue to make their listing shine:

1. Turn off and empty water in certain structural features.

Whether to leave water running in a fountain or empty a swimming pool or hot tub depends on the part of the country where sellers live. In the Sun Belt, it’s often better to let water continue to run and remain in an outdoor element since its flow keeps it from freezing. But if you’re in a colder region — the Midwest or Northeast — advise sellers to drain hoses; empty fountains and pools; and shut off water valves and be sure they’re fitted with frost-free drain valves. In areas where outdoor swimming isn’t a year-round activity, they should cover a pool or tub with heavy-duty plastic sheeting or a colorful plastic tarp so it’s less of an eyesore.

2. Tend to garden beds, branches, and more.

Whether it’s flower or vegetable gardens, now’s the time in many areas for home owners to harvest remaining vegetables from plants that will no longer produce and remove the vines themselves. Flowers such as coreopsis, scabiosa, and heucheras should be deadheaded, and rose stems should be cut back to five main stems; ground cover or carpet roses should be cut back to six inches. Deciduous bushes like forsythia, abelia, and hibiscus Syriacus should be pruned so they can store their starches and sugars to develop good root growth over winter. Beds and bushes should be covered with a 6-inch layer of fir bark or redwood mulch before snows and cold come, which will protect them like a nice warm coat. Home owners don’t need to worry about evergreens such as junipers, spruces, and pines since they’re hearty and able to survive snow and cold.

Also, encourage sellers to think ahead to next spring, even if they’re moving, by planting favorite bulbs for the next owners and looking to see what fall colors most appeal before leaves drop, so they know what to plant in their new yard. Also, remind them that less is more — that is, they should generally avoid a busy setting. For those sellers who want to give buyers a nice inexpensive welcome gift and have a souvenir to take with them, they might save seeds from their garden, which are easy to harvest, clean, dry, label, store, and plant when spring returns. Such seeds often are more disease-resistant than store-bought ones.

3. Fertilize, aerate, compost, and rake.

One of the best times to fertilize a lawn is in late fall, before cold weather hits; doing so strengthens roots and increases nitrogen stored for greenness come spring. The best time to fertilize depends on the weather; fertilizer shouldn’t be applied if it’s going to rain within 24 hours since it may wash away. Along with fertilizing, sellers should aerate their lawns to remove soil plugs and thatch, encourage deep rooting, improve water and nutrient penetration, and promote healthy soil microorganisms. If possible, they might also want to build a compost pile with decaying matter such as grass clippings or leaves, which contain nutrients that add nitrogen to the soil. Leaves should be removed weekly so they don’t block the sun, which helps a lawn’s root system stay healthy even when dormant and avoids moisture from developing and attracting pests.

4. Illuminate the outdoors.

Good outdoor illumination does much more than show off a home’s exterior to those who come to see it at night. It helps discourage intruders, makes passages safer so visitors don’t trip on a cracked brick or sheet of ice, and sets a nice mood by highlighting favorite fall foliage even when the moon isn’t shining. LED bulbs and low-voltage lamps will last longer than other light sources, but should be used discreetly at doors, roof eaves, along side walls, on paths, and in other strategic spots for accent rather than as floods that might overlight the way.

5. Paint and stain.

Before weather turns severely cold and snowy, home owners should take care of major painting and minor touch-ups so it dries thoroughly before rain or snows come. Many paints now are made with a primer that makes fewer coats necessary. If time and money are factors, owners should opt for the most visible needed improvements, such as a tired front door or fence. Most real estate experts advise being understated with color by going with a more universally appealing neutral palette of brown, black, tan, white, or cream, whichever best complements the surroundings. But some think it’s fine to opt for one pop such as a red door, which also helps to guide buyers to the entrance.

6. Banish pests.

High on any to-do list should be to seal a home’s exterior cracks, especially on southern and western walls, since many pests — ladybugs, stink bugs, elm-leaf beetles, and cluster flies — will be attracted and want to spend the winter in a warm, cozy spot. Attic and foundation vents should be fitted with tight screens or quarter-inch cloth for the same reason. Firewood and leaf piles should be moved away from a foundation since pests will find those spots a welcoming home, too. Branches should be trimmed from near a roof since rodents can be great acrobats that jump and look for open vents or chimney cracks to enter. Windows and doors tightly sealed with weather stripping will prevent pests from getting inside and keep out cold air.

7. Clean gutters and downspouts.

Besides cleaning gutters and downspouts to avoid ice dams and keep leaves from piling up, doing so can decrease the chance for mold developing when water remains trapped. Besides keeping them clear by having them cleaned after most leaves have dropped, downspouts angled adequately away from a house will stop water collecting near the foundation and producing mold. Downspouts should also be wide enough for the amount of water running down the roof and traveling to the ground. If regular cleanings haven’t adequately solved the problem, gutter helmets or guards may be a good investment, though they can be expensive and won’t offer a fast payback.

8. Power wash, reseal, tuckpoint.

A good cleaning often will reveal cracks camouflaged by dirt. If home owners don’t want to repave or tuckpoint an entire driveway, walk, or chimney, advise them to resurface hardscape areas with the worst visible damage that might be unsafe or repairing badly cracked or missing brick.

Though all the improvements may seem daunting to sellers, suggest they make a list or develop a spreadsheet and work through it slowly over coming weeks. That way they’ll feel less overwhelmed mentally as well as financially and be in good shape as fall ends and before winter begins. Some chores — raking leaves, cleaning out beds, and planting bulbs — are great family activities for a crisp fall day.

Resources: Robyn Breece, marketing manager, M/I Homes, Indianapolis, Ind.; Jeffrey Cohen, contractor, Canada & Klein LT, Chicago, Ill.; Michael Glassman, landscape designer, Michael Glassman & Associates, Sacramento, Calif.; Story Hedges, senior technical professional, entomologist, Terminix International, Memphis, Tenn.; Sean Murphy, DIY specialist, Build.com, Chico, Calif.; Karen Parziale, stager The Real Estate Staging Studio, Hoboken, N.J.; Sheri Ann Richerson, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Seed Saving and Starting (Alpha Books, DK Publishing), Mark Schmidt, principal scientist, John Deere, Cary, N.C.; Robert Weitz, environmental testing for lead, asbestos, indoor air quality, RTK Ennvironmental Group, Stamford, Conn.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Tudor arches have a low point and are seen mostly on Tudor Revival and Gothic Revival styles of architecture, both popular in the late 19th and...