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How To Sell Your Home For The Most Money
by Al Heavens

There's no doubt that the market for real estate is still booming in most areas of the country.

One reason is that interest rates remain low. Another is that the experience of the last 25 years has taught consumers that nothing lasts forever -- either good times or bad -- which means a long-term investment such as a house is better than a lot of the other available choices.

So if you want to sell, there's no time like the present.

No matter what the market is like in your neighborhood, there are certain procedures that you should follow to get your house ready for sale.

An important one is to find a top-of-the-line real estate agent and then listen to what he or she has to say.

How do you find such an agent?

Usually by word of mouth. Friends and neighbors don't hesitate to complain about an agent if the agent did a bad job, so what they have to say should be considered a partial resume at least.

Also, check how many listings an agent has sold in the last year or so and how long it took them to sell each one. If the agent worked miracles with an "iffy" property, then he or she can likely steer your house through calm or rough waters.

After the legal requirements are taken care of at the initial meeting, have the agent suggest ways to get top dollar for your house.

In what remains a sellers' market, even the most experienced agent may have difficulty judging potential selling prices.

When I sold my house a couple of months ago, the agent, her husband (who is also an agent), my wife and I conducted our meeting at the dining room table.

The agent tore a sheet of paper in four, and handed each of us a piece, keeping one for herself. She then told us to write out what we thought the property was worth.

My wife's was the lowest, I was second lowest. The agent's husband came in about $10,000 more than the agent.

We settled on the agent's figure. When the house sold in two days, five of the seven offers were above the agent's suggested asking price.

But it wasn't zeroing in on the right price that made the agent so valuable. Instead, it was correctly suggesting what we should do to get that price.

This included something as simple as washing the windows for the first time in the 14 years we'd been living there.

For $240, a crew of three spent two hours washing 30 windows, including the storms. The light those windows let in brightened up the most shaded room.

Another thing to tackle before you begin to show the house is to get rid of clutter.

If you can't do this yourself, you can hire people who will help you decide what to throw away, for about $45 an hour in my area, more or less elsewhere.

When a buyer looks at a house, one of the things he or she is interested in is storage space. If the closets are filled, the impression is that space is at a premium. If the closets are uncluttered, even small spaces look as if they can hold great quantities.

Too much furniture can also clutter a room and make it appear smaller. If the real estate agent suggests that there is too much furniture in a room, put the excess in storage.

The buyer wants to see how his or her possessions will fit in your spaces. If it looks as if he or she can keep everything they own and still buy your house, then they will.

You also can rearrange furniture and other possessions to make things look more open.

Do you have a pet?

Well, you may be used to the smell of your dog or cat but even buyers who not allergic to such creatures will be aware of their presence if the animals tend to hang out in certain parts of the house.

Basements, which tend to be the dampest part of the house, can trap pet odors in the walls and the floors. When the humidity is high, the odors are the most noticeable.

These areas of the house need to be cleaned professionally. If you choose to do it yourself, go to a pet store or one that sells commercial cleaning products and ask for their advice.

Some professionals charge as much as $90 an hour, and these jobs often can last five to eight, depending on the odor's strength.

Another thing that impresses buyers is a fresh coat of paint on walls and ceilings. If your agent recommends painting, he or she likely will request that the color be neutral -- white or off-white.

And don't try to do it yourself to save money. Have the agent suggest a painter that will do a good and quick job for a reasonable price. And don't worry of the job isn't perfect.

While buyers these days often demand perfection in whatever house they buy, they likely will not notice minor flaws when they look at the house for the first or even second time.

Indeed, no home is perfect and the new owners likely won't notice imperfections until after they've lived in the house for awhile.

And by then, of course, minor imperfections here and there will be the property of the new owners.

Al Heavens is a syndicated columnist who writes about real estate and home improvement. He appears regularly as the "Gadgeteer" on the Discovery Channel's twice-daily Home Matters Program.