Putting a home on the market
Compass’ Stephanie Sills shares why a pre-move makeover is a wise investment
Stephanie Sills’ work as a Realtor could be described as part art, part science.
On an artistic front, she describes the fundamentals of preparing a house to sell like “creating a blank canvas” for prospective home buyers to paint their own picture of what their lives could be like there. But she can also analyze market trends, a skill honed by 20 years in tech before becoming a real estate agent. Today, as a partner in Palermo Properties Team, Sills places an emphasis on data-driven analytics while still keeping a personal touch with her clients.
She has also learned what it takes to buy and maintain a home from personal experience. As a Coastsider for nearly 20 years, she and her husband bought their Moss Beach home in 2007. It had been a longtime rental and suffered from deferred maintenance; everything was outdated. They spent a year making home improvements throughout the house. Fourteen years after the first renovation, they tackled another remodel in 2021 that overhauled the kitchen, plus all of the flooring and interior paint. Sills leveraged her years of real estate experience (and a database of more than 200 service providers) to get the best value and a condensed timeline.
Sills talked with Coastside magazine’s August Howell about some key strategies sellers often use to get their house on (and off) the market, her company’s generous home improvement loan program, and why it’s still a good time to sell. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Generally speaking, what are some key best practices for preparing a home to sell?
I always start with what the client’s goals are. What is it they care about most? For many people, they want to get the highest net profit possible and have the process be as painless as possible. Then we focus on what types of improvements are likely to give the biggest return on investment within the timeframe that best meets their needs.
Typically, people understand that selling a home in the spring might bring more buyers and a shorter time on the market than selling in December, let’s say. But that’s not always the right time for them. I have to look at what their motivations and constraints are. Some sellers are on a very limited budget, but they want to get top dollar. In that case, I speak to them about a special program at Compass called Compass Concierge.
What is Compass Concierge?
We allow qualified clients to borrow tens of thousands of dollars with no interest or hidden fees, for up to a year, using any provider they choose. The loan is repaid from the seller’s proceeds at the close of escrow. It’s basically a way of leveraging someone else’s money for free, to make their home more appealing and attract more buyers.
What do sellers usually spend that money on?
It depends on the current condition of the home, but we often see painting, refurbishing floors, roof repairs and sprucing up the landscaping to optimize the curb appeal. Also, home cleaning, window cleaning, inspections ... There is a long list of over 100 services that qualify. Our clients can also use these funds to cover the costs of a moving company, plus relocation costs.
The seller can pay for goods and services directly using the Concierge debit card, and the funds go straight to the provider. Or, for vendors who only accept payments by cash or check, the seller simply files a claim and receives reimbursement within three to five days. It’s incredibly flexible and convenient, whether it’s used for a $10,000 garage door or a $10 box of light bulbs.
It’s a tremendous asset for clients who need to conserve their own cash, such as when they’re buying a new house. Not only is there no charge for the use of the funds, there is no project management fee, and no “pay to play” for the vendors. Other programs in the marketplace force the homeowner to hire vendors that they have enrolled in their program — perhaps because those vendors agreed to discount their pricing, or share their profit with the broker. But our program is wide open. If a client wants their move-out cleaning done by the same house cleaner they’ve trusted for 20 years, they can do that!
And does this work for staging, too?
Yes! And staging is a very important element in preparing a home for sale. If a seller or tenant will be occupying the house when it's on the market, staging is a bit tougher to do, but I have some providers who will allow their furniture to be in a home while it’s occupied.
How can you tell if a staging job is well done? What are your criteria?
The best staging accomplishes a few things really well. One is that it defines the space for prospective buyers so they can see how a room can be used. This is especially important for spaces with unique dimensions or an unusual flow. Beyond that, it’s really about elevating the space so that it looks desirable and dreamy. Of course, it will have beautiful furniture and artwork, but it needs to evoke feelings of welcoming, ease, tranquility, and luxury. Even the smallest house, condo or mobile home can have that feeling of luxury with staging that’s executed well. Finally, good staging is the foundation for stellar photos and videos. I always strive for compelling imagery to draw buyers and agents to the listing.
Is it possible to quantify how certain aspects like decluttering or landscaping can impact a sale? Can it swing thousands of dollars either way?
Yes. We have statistics for certain types of home improvements and what the return on investment is. We have a lot of data we can mine. For example, sometimes renovating a kitchen will not give you the same bang for your buck as painting would deliver. Maybe painting the interior will cost $8,000, but it’s quick, easy and has a transformational impact on the look of the house. And a kitchen, while maybe a bit outdated, can be expensive to overhaul, especially when you consider potential procurement delays for things like cabinets or windows. Having those things might deliver nice value for the person who is planning to live in the home for the next 10 or 20 years, but for the person selling the home, it’s usually about controlling expenses while maximizing the return on investment. Typically, when you have a home that’s nicely prepared for the market, it’s going to sell faster and for a higher price.
Are there any other common misconceptions about selling a home these days?
There’s been so much talk about the spike in interest rates last year. It happened within such a short timeframe and it had a significant effect on demand. It’s also affected supply, because some sellers think, “If I don’t have to sell right now, maybe I’ll wait until there’s a better time, until there are more buyers willing to step up to the price point my home deserves.” But because the available inventory has stayed low for so many months, and inflation is starting to come down, we may be heading to another period where prices remain high even if interest rates stay high. Because there’s a certain segment of the population that will need to move.
What we agents want to communicate to buyers and sellers is that you should never look at the peak (or valley) of the market and feel like “I lost X amount on the value of my home.” Unless you were actually selling then, you never had that money in the first place. So, don’t get stuck in an imaginary situation and let it prevent you from living your life.
For sellers, it’s more about where you want to be living, how you want to be living your life, and how we can leverage this valuable asset you’ve invested in to help you get there.
For buyers, I share cautionary tales from the past five years. I’ve known so many people who were kicking themselves from 2019-2022 that they didn’t buy in 2018 when there was a temporary rise in interest rates and softening in prices. Prices appreciated significantly and they lost out on all that equity. Right now feels a lot like 2018. So, don’t sit around and wait for a buyers' market where there are several months of inventory and interest rates are low. Because the second that happens, the tides are going to shift again as demand spikes. You’ll likely be in a situation where you’re making offers on a home along with many other buyers. Multiple offers drive prices up. It’s actually more prudent to list a home when you need to sell, and shop when you need to buy. When you find a place or property that speaks to you, give it serious consideration and consult industry experts you can trust for guidance.
That seems reasonable.
Another myth I’d like to bust is that people are too busy for home buying around the holidays. Not true! I’ve had many successful sales right around the holidays, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. All year-round can be a good time to sell, you just need a smart strategy and reasonable expectations.
What sort of work do you specialize in within your team?
My strengths are rooted in the soft skills of building genuine relationships with people. Prior to real estate, I came from 20 years in the tech industry, which gave me comfort with navigating technology, client service, marketing, and data analysis.
Can you explain what you learned going into your second home renovation?
We had renovated most of our home when we first moved in 2007, except for the kitchen, which the prior owner had done five years earlier, and we didn’t want to be wasteful. Over time we realized the layout was inefficient. We didn’t have the storage space we needed, our appliances started breaking, so it just made sense to bite the bullet and renovate the kitchen. As we started thinking about being efficient with our time and money, we decided we should also refinish the flooring and repaint the interior. So that meant moving my family of four to a rental in Half Moon Bay for three months while we had a contractor oversee the project. It was quite an undertaking to move our family two times within three months, but we survived and we’re so happy we did it. We feel so much more relaxed and at ease now that the space is more functional and updated. It’s just more practical for the way we live our lives.
What did you learn from that process?
We anticipated a costly project and wanted to make sure our savings was spent wisely so we took some time to interview three or four contractors. We learned a lot from each conversation. Ultimately, we chose the one who had the skill set to best match our needs and was a good communicator. I requested references and spoke to past clients of his to confirm that he did quality work, showed up when he said he would, and that they were happy with the results and the experience.
We did a pretty thorough interview process up front, and, as an agent, that’s something I’m doing all the time. I’m constantly offering a variety of referrals to my clients. I ask them who did their electrical work or plumbing. Was it somebody they’d recommend? If so, we add them to our database of preferred partners who have a reputation for doing a good job and treating customers fairly. Realtors couldn’t succeed in all that we do for our clients without these partnerships. They’re so valuable, from landscapers and painters to stagers with keen eyes for design. All of these people play a critical role in getting a house ready for sale.
How important is marketing in your work? Your website seems to place a premium on high-quality production and design.
Quality production, design and marketing are incredibly important. Ask any agent who has been in business for a while if they’ve ever seen a listing that was poorly presented, they will say yes in a heartbeat. It makes us cringe when we see homes with terrible photography because it can kill the interest in a property in two seconds. When a home is such a valuable asset, why would anyone gamble when there is so much at risk?
I always try to lead with quality preparation. Painting, staging and photography are a huge part of the presentation. All of us aspire to make our lives better in some way. Or aspire to be happier than we are today. It’s part of the human condition. We are wired to want growth and improvement. So if you don’t deliver on that promise, you’re probably not creating the inspiration for somebody to feel moved, to have an emotional response. Emotions spur action. You want someone to say, “Wow! I want to live here.” Coastside
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