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Deferred maintenance can derail the sale of a home (7/25)

July 25, 2009

Three years ago, when the home-sale market peaked, buyers frequently bought "as is" regarding deferred maintenance, like wood-destroying pest or "termite" work.

Home prices were rising in many areas, and buyers were flush with cash and could line up a mortgage even if they didn't qualify. Today, prices are still declining with a few exceptions; many buyers are cash-strapped; and they need to put more cash down and go through a rigorous qualifying process to get a mortgage.

In the hot seller's market of several years ago, many sellers invested money to make their homes look pretty in order to attract multiple buyers and drive the sale price up. But they usually didn't spend much curing deferred maintenance, because buyers bidding in competition often bought "as is." Sellers focused their fix-up-for-sale efforts on cosmetics - paint, staging, and replacing outdated light fixtures and flooring.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: A home still needs to look good to sell in today's market. However, a difference between this and the previous market is that a property that has a lot of deferred maintenance can be hard to sell unless the price is discounted significantly. And, even at a discounted price, it may be impossible to sell if there is a lot of inventory of similar homes on the market that don't require as much work.

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One issue from the buyers' perspective is the hassle of getting the work done. A more restrictive concern is finding the cash to pay for the work.

The ideal way around this problem is to have defects that might impede the sale of your home corrected before you put your home on the market. This requires planning in advance and finding a way to pay for the work.

Sellers who don't have cash readily available should look into using a home equity line of credit (HELOC). For instance, Charles Schwab offered a HELOC with an interest rate of 3.99 percent as of mid-May 2009. However, there must be sufficient equity in the property to qualify for a HELOC.

Marketing a listing with a clear "termite" report or a new roof can help sell your home. Buyers don't have to worry about how they'll pay for these necessary repairs because the work has already been done.

Sellers may object to paying to correct defects on a home they're leaving. However, home maintenance is an integral part of homeownership. Sellers who keep their homes well maintained usually don't have a large deferred-maintenance bill when they sell.

It's wise to have presale wood-destroying pest and home inspections done months before you plan to sell. Ask the inspectors and your real estate agent to help you prioritize the work that needs to be done. Then, take the most cost-effective approach.

For example, if the roof is old, you could replace it. But, if it's not leaking, and a roofer says the roof is serviceable, consider doing a roof maintenance that might include replacing cracked and missing shingles, sealing vent pipes and skylights, and replacing deteriorated gutters and downspouts.

If all the wood-pest work doesn't need immediate attention, do the work that's critical, like a deck that's deteriorated to the point that it's dangerous. At least the buyers won't have to worry about how they're going to find the cash to have the work done soon. They can save over time and budget for less-urgent items.

THE CLOSING: Another argument in favor of correcting glaring defects before you sell is that even if the buyers accept the property in its present condition, the appraiser might not. Then you'd have to try to get the work done before closing or lose the deal.

Dian Hymer is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author.

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