How (and When, and With Whom) to Sell Your House

Never underestimate the value of a good front door.

Photo by Alison Shaw

You’ve decided to sell. Your kids are grown, and the house is too big. Or the kids are growing, and the house is too small. Or you’ve inherited the family’s summer home, but prefer to spend your vacations in the south of France. Whatever the reason, you’ve got a chore in front of you, and a lot of questions arise. Should I sell it myself? How do I get the best price for my property? What’s the best season to list it? Should I invest in upgrades? Should I hire someone to stage it?
The Times talked to three real estate experts to find out the answers to these questions and more.

Pricing is key
Jim Feiner, owner and principal broker of Feiner Real Estate in Chilmark, proposes, “As a property owner, you are jaded about the value of the property. It’s hard to look at things from a position without emotion — especially if it’s a property you’ve owned for a long time.”

Lisa Stewart, owner of Lighthouse Properties in Edgartown, concurs. “Houses are always more valuable to the sellers than to the buyers because of the emotional attachment,” she says. “A lot of times people hire us to sell their properties, but they don’t listen to us in terms of the value. So you get stuck chasing the market, and it really adds to the days on the market. There have been many times,” she adds, “after a closing, I’ll go back over a client’s folder and see that the home sold for close to the price I originally recommended,”

Choosing an agent/broker
The consensus seems to be that, on-Island, most of the choices in agents/brokers come from word of mouth or other previous relationships, like rentals from the agent or knowing him or her in another context. According to Jim Feiner, “If you’re someone who’s been on Martha’s Vineyard for a while, there’s a high probability that you know more than one real estate broker.”

What’s important is to find an agent with good communication and integrity. “I see our relationship as kind of a partnership,” Lisa Stewart explains. “So it’s nice to have somebody that you trust — that you feel you have good chemistry with.”

As expected, none of the three experts we spoke to recommended an owner/seller situation. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” says Jim Feiner. “Reaching the buyers is difficult because most of them are affiliated with a brokerage firm.”

Fred Roven, owner/broker of Martha’s Vineyard Buyers Agents in Edgartown, who looks at the issue from a buyer’s point of view, advises owner/sellers to list with a broker. “It’s the best thing to do,” he says. “It’s the quickest, and provides the best bottom line for the seller.”

Should you have an open house?
“It doesn’t work,” says Lisa Stewart. “It’s done primarily for our sellers. It’s not like in Boston, where people spend weekends going to open houses. You can’t do open houses very easily in the summer, because most houses are occupied or have tenants. You can do an open house in spring and fall, but oftentimes you just sit there for two hours and you get, like, a neighbor or something.”

Clean it up!
To stage or not to stage? Fred Roven says that staging can help, but more important is getting rid of clutter. “Make the house look as spacious as possible,” he advises. “Get rid of oversize furniture. Even get rid of some pieces of furniture that might not be necessary.”

As far as professional staging, Lisa Stewart says yes — but with reservations. “It depends on the property and the price range,” Lisa says, “because that can get expensive. It’s not necessary if what you have there is clean and neat and well presented.”

So, a coat of paint, shampooed carpets, decluttering, raked leaves, and creating a feeling of spaciousness are cheaper and about as effective as out-and-out staging.

Fred Roven touts the value of a good front door. “It’s the first thing people really see or experience when they come into a house,” he says. “If there’s anything at all wrong with the front door, replace it. The color is important. The quality of it is important. An old, rusty metal front door, even on a nice house, could leave someone with a bad feeling about it. It’s one of the few things you can get your money back on when you sell your house.”

To upgrade or not to upgrade

“People are really looking for updated kitchens and updated bathrooms,” says Fred. “People can paint and refinish floors, but [a complete upgrade] can become a $50,000 to $100,000 expense. Sellers can do it to sell a home — it might help to sell the house quicker— but they will probably not get their money returned on it.”
Jim Feiner states it succinctly: “It depends on the house and the market. If you’re selling at the bottom of the market, I would be less likely to advise people to invest heavily in fixing their houses up. If you’re thinking about selling a house that’s in the upper part of the market — say, in excess of the high hundred-thousands — it depends upon what it requires. Fresh paint? Carpeting? Buyers are more likely to pay a premium for a completely finished house that has nice taste and style versus buying a house with a lot of issues they’re going to have to address. Even though the issues may cost [only] $10,000 or $20,000, there’s the hassle issue that does, in fact, lower their financial motivation — maybe even unconsciously.”

When to sell?
Because the bulk of the real estate market on the Island is second homes, there is a seasonality to the market.

Says Jim Feiner: “Probably the biggest buying season starts in mid-February and goes through till May. People are trying to buy houses that they can move into or rent for the summer. There’s also a fair amount of buying that goes on during the summer, because the houses look their nicest and the most number of people are here, so we end up with a lot of closings in the fall.”


According to Lisa, a good move on the part of the seller is to convey to the broker what she calls “intangibles” — assets that wouldn’t normally be included in the listing. “We have a lot of properties on the Island that have some very neat features that wouldn’t show up in an appraisal,” she says. “Little innuendoes of location, rentability — things like that.”

So, if you made your mortgage and then some with summer rentals, tell your broker. If Ulysses Grant slept in your house after being ejected from the Campgrounds, let her know that. If the property abuts protected land, quiet-seeking buyers will be interested. Two-minute walk from the golf course? Tell her. Zoning laws? Construction rules? Hiking trails? Incredible morning light? Spill!