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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Payne

Selling - A sprat to catch a mackerel

Spring is on the horizon, traditionally a time of year when many people look to put their property on the market. In doing so, a lot of sellers ask about the merits of what has become known as property staging, and it’s the most frequent enquiry I get from them. Initial questions focus on what is it, how much does it cost, is it worth it, does it work? Secondary ones look for reasons not to do it. Can’t buyers see that, isn’t it obvious, isn’t that going overboard? Of the 10,000 + properties I have seen over the years, I would guesstimate only about 25% would fall into the category of being what I call truly optimised ready for sale.

But first, in order to better understand why staging is essential medicine when selling a property, you have to first understand the psychology behind it. Let’s dispense with the phrase staging though for the sake of this blog and call it property optimising. I know it’s a all linked to putting on a play, costumes, props etc ready for the big opening night, and it’s a useful metaphor, but it’s also about far more than flowers and pebbles in the fireplace when you are trying to understand what preparing your home for sale actually should involve. Staging has its part to play but it is exactly that, window dressing. There is something far more substantial on view that a buyer is interested in to start with, so understand optimising is a layering process, that includes staging, but it comes last. No point trying to pretend mutton is lamb, so get the fundamentals right first.

So, if we look back to a blog I posted in September 2019, the starting point is to accept that a property has no precise value. It is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, and that will vary from person to person. There is of course a range of values, from X to Y that any decent estate agent will be able to advise based on comparable evidence and their knowledge of the local marketplace. The variables of the price you finally achieve will come down to your strategy in agent selection, their capabilities, how you present your property and a bit of lady luck. Now of my 75% that hadn’t been optimised, to fair there was mitigation for the majority. Many were tenanted, and as most landlords and agents will know that brings it challenges when selling. Then there were sellers who faced lifestyle changes that had caused the need to move in the first place, new baby, job relocation, illness, marriage and maximising the value of the property wasn’t a priority. For many people getting X, or X plus a bit is ok, and the living cost to get Y isn’t worth the hassle, or they simply have more important considerations that have a far greater value to them. So, optimisation is for those who wish to get the highest value the market will allow, for those who may adopt some of the ideas and look to have a balanced approach that allows them to get on with their daily lives.

So, if you fall into those categories, here is an important observation. Why when people sell other things do they make the maximum amount of effort to present them in the best light, but don’t with the property they live in? Take the first date with a new fella or young lady. Hair and nails are done, best aftershave, shoes polished, clean shave. All to sell yourself, make yourself as attractive as possible so they agree to move forward to a second date. Take the second-hand car for sale on Autotrader. Washed to within an inch of its life, T-cutted all the scratches out, fixed the loose wing mirror, new tyres, fresh MOT, shampooed the upholstery. All to get the best price you can.

Now ultimately in that example, the cost involved in getting that car to look like that didn’t break the bank, and in fact if you weren’t selling it, they were all good housekeeping items and would need attending to anyway. You needed a new tyre and MOT, you just chose to get them all done now before you put the car up for sale. There was a financial investment, but it was more a matter of timing, and because you cared about presenting the car in its best condition, and that is the crux of the matter. When people look for a new property or a new car, of anything second-hand, there is one overriding consideration for them when they come to view it. With the information available now, a viewing of the car or the property is far more likely to result in an offer than it did 20 years ago. Back then, a viewing often was to check out the location, walk the local area, it was a voyage of discovery that often led to a high rejection rate. They had only received a phone call about it, or some sales details with one black and white photo in the post, so wanted to find out more, and quite often the property wasn't to blame.

Today, the buyer has that all at their fingertips. 20 colour images they can share, floorplans, virtual tours, EPC, google maps, street view, local information, sold prices etc etc. When they view now they are so well informed, and it is only to find out about the condition of the property or car. Ergo when cars go up for sale, what are the first considerations? 46,000 miles, full-service history and one careful elderly owner. That’s always the starting point for the car seller, and it is for the car buyer. It is also for the property buyer, but it isn’t always for the property seller. What they are saying is, I have looked after this car. The buyer wants to know and check whether they have looked after the car as they aren’t so much worried about it breaking down, but they want to make sure they are paying the right price, and there are no potential problems around the corner they don’t know about.

Now that is a difficult assessment for a car buyer or property purchaser to make which is why the AA and chartered surveyors exist to check the engine and brickwork, but the viewing is about tell tales and that is what about optimising is about essentially. Having a buyer believe by the sellers’ behaviour that the car and house have been well cared for. Imagine turning up to view the car to find it dirty, the ashtray full of fag buts, the wing mirror broken, the MOT out of date. None of these are difficult or expensive to remedy but it sends off a powerful buying signal that will either lead to the buyer walking away or making a disproportionately lower offer. What the seller is saying in code is, I can’t be bothered to do any of these things. What the buyer hears is the same, but with the added question in their mind. So, if you can’t be bothered to deal with some of these minor things that could have easily been addressed, some of which are illegal, what more fundamental, more difficult and expensive things have been neglected?

In property we call this curb appeal, the first impression that gets people to want to find out more. If the car is filthy when they turn up, they are less likely to want to take it for a test drive. If its sparkly and polished, they are more likely to. The same applies to a property being sold and the same tell tales and behavioural give aways exist. Not painting the front door of your property before you sell it, unless recently done, is tantamount to selling suicide that will either put a buyer off or getting them playing detective and result in a lower offer, and that is how sellers should view their buyers, as detectives in the making. Give them no reason to start investigating.

I remember on a viewing once a really tired, neglected front door immediately made the buyer ask if he could see the boiler and its service history before we even set foot inside. It always stuck with me as it was an epiphanic moment (in the absence of useful blogs on the non-existent internet in those days) and perfect illustration for me as a young estate agent at the time as to how the mind of a buyer worked and how properly preparing your property for sale can have a huge impact on saleability and price. It’s not about new kitchens and bathrooms and the big-ticket items, albeit you can as you see on the makeover programs transform tired ones inexpensively with a new worktop or handles. It is not either about it being a show home, or the nicest property of its kind in the nicest condition. Some buyers want a project, but they want to pay the right price and don’t want any surprises.

What it is about is demonstrating to your buyer that you have cared for the property while living there or owning it, that everything has been serviced on time, loose roof slates repaired, leaking pipes fixed, wiring upgraded when required, that you have bothered to fix things. They can’t check all these things on a viewing, but they can get a good idea of what other things you have maintained and taken care of, the tell tales. So, if you haven’t been bothered to paint that front door, or change the cracked window pane or the worn stair carpet, paint that bit of plaster you have been meaning to do for 10 years then it will create doubt in the buyers mind as to what else needs attention, so create a list and work your way through any of these niggling little jobs.

Only you will know what these things might be, but its anything from needing to give the windows a lick of paint for that curb appeal, getting on top of the garden, to getting that gate repaired that won’t shut properly. You might regard them as trivial, inexpensive to remedy, so why would that put a buyer off, but that’s the point. It is because they are trivial and inexpensive that gives a buyer concern. Don’t compromise either, the detail is crucial. You may know that kitchen drawer is broken, and you can open it without some well-practiced contortion, but the last thing you want is your buyer or agent pulling it open and the contents exploding onto the floor. Likewise, the light switch that’s broken in the bathroom. I have heard thousands of sellers say to buyers on viewings, “but it’s only a 5-minute job and its not that difficult to fix”. You see the buyer think to themselves, “ok, why didn’t you do it then, or the other 5 we saw”. When they start to mount up, the buyer starts playing detective on more fundamental issues, however small these ones are, and hearing a seller say it again and again during an appointment is like watching the slow and painful death of a potential sale.

As I mentioned, optimising is about layering, so once these have been dealt with and you are sure your buyer will feel confident about how you have maintained the property, you can move onto deploying some tried and tested techniques for dressing the property in a way that gives your buyer the wow factor and has them imagining themselves living there. All for another blog, but in the meantime time to get your to do list started if you are looking to get the best price available to you.


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