Selling your home for the maximum price can make a big difference, whether you’re looking to use the proceeds to buy a new place, or pad your retirement funds.

But if you’ve owned a home for decades—as the vast majority of those over 50 have—you’re well aware that a place that sports, er, a lived-in look simply can’t match the appeal of one that looks new and fresh.

And that can be a big problem, says San Francisco real estate agent Linda Bettencourt. “If your house doesn’t sell in a month or two—faster in hot markets—your agent is (rightly) going to recommend dropping the price by 5%,” she says. On a $300,000 house, that’s a loss of $15,000.

That said, it’s also not worth dumping major bucks into a project if you’re planning to pick up stakes anytime soon. The average remodeling project only returns 66% of every dollar invested, according to Remodeling Magazine, if you sell within a year of completion.

As such, the smartest pre-sale fix-ups have little or no cost and will likely help your house sell quicker, meaning less time living under constant alert that the place needs to be show-ready at any moment. 

“Your buyers will already have seen your house online,” notes Bettencourt. “What they are looking for now are problems.” Before you schedule an open house, make sure you’ve applied the following fixes.

Make simple repairs

Maybe the drawer pulls in your cabinet are loose. Maybe there’s a small chip in your countertop. Make no mistake, buyers will see little problems you have long since stopped noticing. So use your real estate agent as a fresh set of eyes to spot them before your home shoppers do.

You can also use your agent to help you decide what jobs are important to do and refer you to his or her network of pros, who will take small jobs, show up, and do good work for the agent’s clients.

Take your pictures out

“You want buyers to see themselves in the house,” says Mike Pappas, CEO of The Keyes Company, the largest independent real estate brokerage in Florida. “And that means taking yourself out of it.”

“If your house doesn’t sell in a month or two, your agent is going to recommend dropping the price by 5%.”
Real estate agent Linda Bettencourt

Remove family photos and anything else that is emotional, sentimental, or personal. “Think about turning your place into a model home that is a blank slate anyone can make it their own.”

Consider a new coat

A few coats of paint can transform a room from looking worn and outdated to well kept and stylish. But at the cost of several hundred per room, painting anything more than a room or two becomes either an extraordinarily large do-it-yourself job or a fairly expensive hire-it-out one.

“It’s probably only worth doing where it’s really needed,” says San Francisco fee-only certified financial planner Lynn Ballou, “Like if your daughter painted her room pink.”

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Wash the windows 

Dirty windows make the house look ill-maintained, so this isn’t one to skip—and not a place to skimp. “It’s really important,” Bettencourt says.

Unless you have tilt-in windows—or possibly a one-story home—this is not a do-it-yourself job. Expect to pay around $300 for a typical house.

De-grub, deeply

Prospective buyers have a sharp eye for dirt, too. Tackle these common hotspots that your regular cleaning regimen likely misses:

  • Dust the window blinds
  • Take the curtains to the dry cleaners
  • Steam clean the carpets
  • Get the dead bugs out of the light fixtures
  • Wash the washer and dryer inside and out
  • Power-wash your walk, patio, or deck
  • Clean and lubricate the tracks of your sliding glass doors

Find a decluttering guru

Marie Kondo, Swedish Death Cleanse, Bag-n-Toss: Any decluttering method works, as long as you keep in mind that the more you remove from your home, the tidier and larger it will look.

Home still look crowded? Consider renting a storage unit for anything you don’t need to use every day, to get it temporarily out of the house.

Buy new bulbs

A dark house only appeals to Dracula, so spend a few hundred bucks to replace your standard 60- and 75-watts bulbs with brighter LED bulbs.

Lay down some dirt

Agents say that curb appeal is arguably the most important factor in salability, so it’s worth spending up to $1,000 or so to make your yard into an inviting space.

For about $500 to $1000, a landscaper can fertilize the grass for a season and mulch the planting beds. For a couple hundred more, and he will also prune back overgrown shrubs.

Silence the squeaks

Loud doors and floors create a haunted house feel—definitely not what buyers are looking for.

Spray whining door hinges with WD-40 (the silicone lubricant kind is the longest lasting choice, but any variety will quiet things down for a while).

Floors generally squeak when the wood rubs against a nail that’s no longer holding the boards tight. If you can identify the nail, and know what you’re doing, sink another floor nail or two into framing nearby to tighten things up. If you don’t, try dusting the area with baby powder. The boards will still move but without creating a din.

“These projects may seem like minor details,” says Bettencourt. “But their sum is far greater than the parts.”

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