8 smart moves to boost your curb appeal

Upgrade your exterior

If you want to improve your chances to sell your home at the right price, step outside, walk across the street and turn around.

Do you like what you see?

You should, because people judge the exterior of your home like they judge a book's cover.

Curb appeal is the first thing potential buyers notice. It doesn’t matter how nice your remodeled kitchen looks if you can’t get anyone through the front door.

And if you need to make changes to sell your house, exterior upgrades are the most valuable home improvements, according to Remodeling Magazine.

If you follow these 8 smart moves — some of which won’t cost you a penny — it will help you earn the best return on your home improvement efforts and dollars.

Clean up the clutter

The fastest way to improve the look of a home’s exterior is to remove anything that detracts from the curb appeal.

Buyers won’t notice your home’s architectural charm if all they can see is clutter.

Clear your driveway. Put away yard tools, children’s toys and trash cans. Remove, repair or replace anything that’s worn out or falling apart.

When buyers walk to the front door feeling good, they are less likely to pick apart minor flaws inside, says associate broker Janice Leis, who serves areas of Philadelphia and south Florida.

Overgrown landscaping can also be considered clutter.

"Having to fight a bush to get to the front door says, 'Do not come in,' " Leis says.

Unkempt bushes in front of windows and weeds make it difficult for buyers to appreciate a home’s exterior.

Once you’ve removed these distractions, buyers will be able to focus on the home itself.

Ditch ugly features

Improving a home’s curb appeal is often about removing outdated or dilapidated features.

Remove window bars, metal awnings, louvered windows, rotted wood shutters, metal mesh security doors and dead plants, says David Kean, a luxury Realtor at Teles Properties in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Ask a neighbor or your agent to point out any mismatched elements that don’t really go with the architecture. Consider removing or replacing them.

"I sold a 1910 Craftsman home that had rusted 1950s metal awnings perched above every window," Kean says. "Not only did the awnings cover the beautiful period moldings surrounding the windows, but they blocked light from getting into the house."

Chain link and iron bar fencing are also major turn-offs, he says. The best choice, if you can afford it, is to replace it with nicer fencing. If money is tight, plant a climbing vine or hedge to cover it up.

Fix danger spots

Look closely at the driveway, sidewalk or porch as you walk toward your home's front door. Is there anything broken, uneven or missing?

Buyers will notice.

Broker Linda Honeywill of the Honeywill Team in Pittsburgh recommends that buyers correct cracked or uneven walkways, broken steps, rotting porches, rusty gates and loose or missing porch or stair railings.

She says most home buyers, especially families, don’t want to worry about making these changes.

One way to make your home is problem-free is to get a professional home inspection before you put it on the market. Then correct any problems prior to listing your property.

A home inspector can spot dangers that you may not notice or recognize, like:

  • Signs of rot or termite damage in wooden porches, railings or siding.
  • Brick mortar that is crumbling, pulling away or loose.
  • Tree branches too close to power lines.
  • Bowed or sagging exterior walls.
  • Deteriorated exterior paint that could contain lead.

Green your lawn

Another way to add curb appeal is to make sure your lawn is green, says Jason Jacques, president of Exit Mountain Realty in Brevard, N.C.

Besides fertilizing your lawn in early and late spring and early and late fall, and making sure it gets enough water, a little-known secret to a greener lawn is to cut the grass a little longer.

Set your mower deck to the highest level. You’ll have to mow the lawn more often for a while, but when your house is for sale, you want buyers to fall in love when they drive by for the first time, Jacques says.

Even if it’s green, however, a lawn full of weeds and crabgrass will look like a maintenance nightmare to prospective home buyers.

In the spring, use a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent weeds from growing.

If your lawn is a lost cause, consider hiring a landscaper to tear it out and lay new sod.

Where you live matters

Whether pricey improvements pay off in a quicker or more lucrative sale largely depends on where you live. Before you spend money, take note of where the return on investment is best.

Remodeling Magazine says projects with a return exceeding their cost are more common in markets with rapidly rising home prices and demand for specific projects varies by neighborhood and region. You’ll recoup more of your expenses if you make an improvement that brings your home up to a neighborhood-wide standard, like having a deck, or that makes sense for the region, like a backup generator where hurricanes are common.

According to the magazine’s 2014 Cost vs. Value Report, homeowners will earn the highest return on their investment in Honolulu; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; San Diego; and Bridgeport, Conn. Only Honolulu and San Francisco offer the possibility of recouping more than you spend.

More broadly, you’ll recoup the highest percentage of your upgrade dollars if you live in the Pacific states (California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii), thanks to the region’s strong retail values.

Mirror your neighbors

You want your home to stand out for how attractive it is, but you don’t want it to stand out for how different it is.

Overimproving your home compared to others in the neighborhood will be a sunk cost.

And a home that looks mismatched with its neighbors may not sell at all.

Jason Jacques, president of Exit Mountain Realty in Brevard, N.C., says one of his agents listed a home in a great location that should have sold for more than $700,000. However, a recent remodel had changed the entire look of the house.

The now Spanish-style stucco home looks like it belongs in the desert of a Western state, he says, but it sits in the middle of a small North Carolina town full of Arts and Crafts-style homes and cottages.

The seller withdrew the house from the market after being listed for 343 days.

Replace, don't renovate

Remodeling Magazine says replacement projects consistently provide a better return on investment than discretionary remodeling projects. The average replacement project should return 73.7% this year, while a remodeling project might only bring back 65.1%.

In its 2014 survey, conducted in conjunction with the National Association of Realtors, seven of the top 10 best home improvements were exterior replacements.

A new steel entry door will return nearly 97% of its cost, which averages $1,162. Add a wood a deck and you’ll recoup about 87% of your $9,539 expense.

Another moderately priced improvement is garage door replacement, which recoups about 84% and costs $1,534. Another pricey project, wood window replacement, costs nearly $11,000 but returns 79.3% of its expense at resale.

These costs are hypothetical; what you’ll actually pay depends on how much materials cost, the finishes you choose and what contractors are charging in your area.

If your home isn’t in good condition overall, or if your local market is performing poorly, you might not see much of a return on your projects.

Focus on the entrance

"The most important thing a homeowner should focus on is the entry way," says Katie Wethman, a Realtor with Keller Williams in Washington, D.C.

Wash it down thoroughly, get rid of any cobwebs and add some pots with colorful flowers. Sellers want to "create the right impression in an area where buyers are lingering while agents fumble with the lockboxes and keys," she says.

Wethman says that good lighting is important for evening showings.

Consider replacing outdated light fixtures. At a minimum, clean the existing ones.

Agents also suggest that sellers make sure the doorbell works, put a fresh coat of paint and new hardware on the front door, paint the mailbox and add new house numbers.

The path to your front door should be clearly defined, free of debris and wide enough to walk up comfortably. Replace your worn-out welcome mat with a brand new one, and sweep the porch before showings.

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