A part of my interior design work locally is being hired by a wonderful team of real estate agents to meet with clients of theirs who are getting ready to sell their homes. I walk through the clients’ houses with them, making design suggestions and taking notes to later send them, giving them as many actionable tips and bits of advice as I can. I want their house to look as perfect as it can for their listing photos. I want them to be able to show off all of its beautiful features so that it looks its very best when potential buyers come for showings.
During this appointment, I’m there to give design advice for a very specific purpose and to explain just what to do and why. Sometimes just having an extra set of eyes to notice what someone has stopped noticing about their own home is immensely helpful. I aim to always leave clients feeling positive about their house and motivated to polish things up.
This consultation is a little glimpse into people’s homes and lives and it’s one of my very favorite things to do. I love being part of their team, helping them best prepare for what is one of life’s biggest and most stressful changes.
I see people who are on the edge of something big and I have seen the entire spectrum of emotion about just why they are there: whether they are excited about their growing family, nervous about moving to a new and unknown place, burdened by financial strain, in the turmoil of divorce, or grieving the loss of a parent, I take it all in my hands and treat it gently while I’m there.
Which is all to explain why I could never and would never say to a client what I’m about to say here, at least not as bluntly as I’m about to lay it out.
It goes without saying that if I can see that something is a big issue and really needs to be dealt with, I very gently broach the subject. But small things? No. I could never compromise my relationship with these people by what might be felt as nitpicking, and I have no interest in hurting someone’s feelings. Nope. Never happening.
But for you, friend, I’m going to lay it all out. Maybe this is easier to do, to be completely honest, as it’s not personal. I’m not standing in your kitchen with you. I’m not looking at your bedroom right now.
Best of all, maybe some of this applies to you, and maybe it doesn’t.
It’s worth reading if you are thinking of making a move, though. If you are getting ready to sell your house, keep these things in mind. If you have your house listed and, despite everything seeming fine, you just aren’t having anyone fall in love enough to make an offer, maybe these are some places you could create some change. Maybe there are some things here that your team (your real estate agent, your stager, your friends) are too close to be comfortable mentioning.
Like the little piece of pepper stuck in your teeth… they don’t want to embarrass you or make it awkward for them. No one wants to compromise their relationship with you or hurt your feelings, so they just hope you realize it on your own and quickly fix it.
But here I am to just quietly let you know: you have a bit of pepper in your teeth.
So, here they are:
10 uncomfortable things that no-one wants to tell you about your house when it’s for sale.
1. Your house smells bad
I’ll start right with a tough one. Everyone’s house has a unique smell. That’s okay, and it’s normal. But the problem is when the smell is overwhelming or bad. This is such a huge turnoff for people and it really makes it hard for them to want to stay in your home, let alone live there.
For the most part, you just need to take a few steps to eliminate the odor before you list your house for sale.
First, get rid of or stop the cause. If you smoke in the house, it’s time to stop. If your litter box is full, time to deal with that daily. If it’s cooking smells (grease, strong spices, fish), you are going to need to not cook those things for a little while.
Second, if the smell has been absorbed by soft things in the house, you are going to need to clean or get rid of those things. Carpets and drapes might need to be cleaned, concrete basement floors might need to be bleached, give garbage cans & cupboards a good soapy wash. The walls might even need to be washed. I will leave it up to you to find out how best to clean something (the internet has answers for everything!) and to decide what might not be able to be properly cleaned and will need to be removed entirely. (Some clients find that there are lots of things that can just be move out to the garage, taken to a storage unit they already have, or be taken to a friend or family’s garage for a little while if needed.)
Third, the house should be aired out. You might need to consider renting an ozone machine if opening windows doesn’t help. Fresh air solves so many problems. It’s not a bad idea to open your windows as much as you can while your house is listed as well. Life can have smells (cooking, garbage, pets, kids) and just keeping the air circulating helps so much.
Fourth, be careful when adding in any scents after this process. Don’t overdo it with any artificial air fresheners, waxes, candles, or diffusers. What smells good to you can be a turn off for someone else. Clean and fresh air is the best.
The bottom line: your house needs to smell clean, so do everything you can to make that happen before you list.
2. Your pets have ruined things
Everyone loves their pets, probably even the people coming to look at your house have beloved pets of their own. But it still seems that people don’t want to see the mess, hair and scratches from *your* pets.
The most common things I see are normally quick fixes: pet hair (just vacuum & lint-roller diligently), dirty backyards (pick up messes daily), dirty litter boxes (get a spare and keep one washed and then just switch it out daily and before showings), and scratched flooring or ripped carpet (this one is a bit of a bigger fix and what you should do about it really depends on the value in fixing the problem – this is one to talk with your realtor about, they will know best whether it’s worth fixing or not)
For showings, it’s also best if you can tuck away pet dishes, toys and beds. Yes, people will know you have pets (especially if there any allergies in the buyer’s family, it’s important to disclose) but you just want to keep it as subtle as possible so that it’s not an immediate turn off for people. You want the buyers to subtly feel that you might have pets, but if you do they are the best pets in the world: they do not shed, eat, go to the bathroom or scratch the floor. The end.
The bottom line: Clean up & repair any pet damage and do your best to keep signs of pets minimal while your house is for sale.
3. Your clutter stresses people out
Everyone knows how it feels to be overwhelmed by clutter. When it’s too much to deal with, most often, you just want to get away from it, right? Close the cabinet, shove everything back in the drawer, walk out of the room. Is that how you want people to feel in your home when they are considering buying it?
The decision to purchase a home is a very emotional one, and those subconscious responses are the very things that guide people in those very important decisions. When they don’t want to be in your home, when their heart is saying ‘get me out of here’, they are not going to immediately want to place an offer on your home. It’s silly, but it’s true. Now, I’m not saying they won’t think things through and come to a decision that is more logic-based, but if their immediate response is a solid ‘no’, it’s going to take some convincing.
Another aspect of clutter in a home that is for sale, is that for the people living in the home, they see art projects they worked on last night, things they are going to return to the store tomorrow, the mail they just put down, the forms that need to be filled out and sent back to school tomorrow. It’s fluid and it’s ever-changing. But for a prospective home buyer, they just see one thing: stuff. Without any connection to the meaning or timing of all that stuff, they just feel overwhelmed. It just looks like a mess.
This can also apply to things you don’t even consider clutter, so go through your house with a discerning eye: collections, gallery walls, china cabinets, bulletin boards. Be ruthless with all that little stuff.
The bottom line: Clean it up. Get rid of it. Box it up. Put it away. Out of sight, out of mind.
4. No-one wants to imagine you using the bathroom
This is a really difficult one for me to look someone in the eye and talk about, so I’m happy to cover this one online instead!
I always tell clients to imagine their home bathrooms like a hotel bathroom. Logically, you know other people have used the bathroom in your hotel room before, but if you walk in and there’s evidence of that staring you in the face (wet footprints on the mat, toothpaste in the sink, a hair on the toilet seat)? Gross.
And that’s just how potential buyers feel about your bathroom. And if you are honest with yourself, you feel the same way when you are looking at new homes yourself.
My best advice here is the strip the bathroom down to ‘no signs of life’. No toilet brushes, no plungers, no personal care items, no magazines, no toothbrushes, no used towels. Put the garbage can into the cupboard (pack what’s in the cupboard right now, you know you don’t use most of it often anyway!) I even suggest no bath mats – the main reason here is that it’s hard to keep them perfect before showings. Any stray hairs or wet footprints are going to be really obvious.
This is great to do before your listing photos and then after that, my advice is to just keep a small basket or box with personal items in and put it back under the sink when you are done getting ready for the day. Just before showings, it’s easy enough to tuck away the things from the shower, the wet towels, etc.
What should be left out in a bathroom? I like to leave out a few fresh hand towels (white always looks best but any clean, nice hand towel in a color that coordinates with the bathroom will work) and 2-3 small décor items. Some suggestions: small plant, small flower arrangement (silk is just fine and sometimes prettier!), a few candles, wrapped bar soap, upscale hand soap pump, a small décor item. Really, just make one little grouping on the vanity, keep it simple.
The bottom line: clear out all signs of life, get it really clean and leave out just a few styled decorations on the counter.
5. Your messy closet makes people feel overwhelmed
This goes back to what I was saying about clutter. When your closet is packed full, disorganized and things are falling off the shelves or covering the floor, people just want to get away.
There is another layer here: inner spaces (closets, pantries, garages, storage rooms) are subconscious clues to people about how the homeowners *really* are. The wheels start turning when they are standing there in your messy closet: ‘ohhhhhhhkay…. They are super messy people…. The rest of the house looks nice but I can see now that I’ve been tricked. They probably aren’t the kind of people that ever change their furnace filter either….’ And this all happens in the blink of an eye, probably without the buyer even realizing it.
The other things specifically about closets is that the items there are very personal, so when they are a mess, it makes people feel extra overwhelmed. They don’t know what to look at! What’s falling out of all those bags? Why does this woman have so many old bras? Wow, are all those socks dirty? You don’t want people thinking 100 miles an hour about what the heck is going on with your life and how they just want to get out of there.
What you want them to see is a closet that can hold *their* clothes beautifully. That’s all you want them to think about.
Now, honestly, these people have just left their own house with their own messy closets that they feel just fine about, so no judgement here about that, but remember what I said abut clutter? People can’t see their own clutter as visual noise. Every item has a purpose and a place and is just coming or going. But in *your* house, they don’t have that connection. They just see stuff and they just want to get away from it.
The bottom line: remove as much as you can (seasonal clothes can be packed away, time to donate things you’ve been meaning to, etc), line up clothes by color, keep shelves neat and clear the floor completely.
6. Being in your personal spaces is uncomfortable for people
It’s awkward to be in the bathrooms and bedrooms of strangers. It just is. You can make people feel more comfortable by doing a few things (and remember, being comfortable is the first step to wanting to buy your house!) These tips apply to the whole house, really, but are critical in personal spaces like the master bedroom and bathroom.
Make personal spaces as clean and generic as possible. I know this will feel odd to you and might even be a bit of a hassle before showings, but please trust me that it is worth the effort.
On nightstands, try to remove all personal items. Kleenex, lotion, heart burn medication, used water glasses. All of it. Alarm clocks are oddly personal (as soon as you look at one, you immediately imagine the person in bed sleeping when it goes off, don’t you?), so just tuck these down behind the nightstand if you have one.
In ensuite bathrooms, clear all personal items. We have talked about bathroom-specific things like toothbrushes, razors, soaps, etc, but also look at things like used towels, housecoats, slippers, and scales.
I know, it sounds a little over the top, but what do you think of when you see a scale in the bathroom? Are you imagining someone, maybe yourself, quickly getting on the scale before hopping in the shower? You don’t want a potential buyer thinking of anything but themselves and their family living in your home and distracting them with fleeting thoughts of you in your most personal moments, or feeling uncomfortable in your personal spaces, is not the direction you want them going.
Put away all your dirty laundry and don’t have things like housecoats and pajamas hanging on the back of the door. A laundry hamper can usually be tucked into a closet and before showings, just tuck a clean towel or pillowcase over the top of the clothes.
The bottom line: Make your most personal spaces as neutral and comfortable for strangers as possible.
7. Your messy yard makes people think you don’t take care of your house
I know, they shouldn’t care, and they should understand that you have kids / you have a dog / winter snow came early / you will clean up the yard before you move / and on and on. But the reality is that they do care and they aren’t really all that understanding.
The most important thing is that it’s really not a great first impression. When buyers come up to your home, they are going to take a look around and get a feel for your home before they even go inside.
A messy yard, regardless of why it’s there or the fact that’s it’s truly unrelated to your house itself, says to potential buyers that you don’t really take care of things. Anything. Including your house. Not a fair assessment but it does happen.
You can easily avoid giving a bad impression by just tidying up. Pick up or line up any kids’ toys, clean up pet messes, take out any garbage, move garbage cans to a place where they aren’t obvious (not right beside the back door), weed flower beds, hang hoses, mow grass or shovel the walk. All that good basic stuff you intend to do but don’t always get time for – now’s the time to take a few hours and make it happen.
The bottom line: tidy the yard fully to make a great first impression and set the tone for how you care for your home, inside and out.
8. The kids toys and little things being all over makes people want to tidy your house up
The everyday, real honest fact about kids is that they have so much stuff and half of it is ugly or brightly colored and all of it is hard to hide. Add on to that, they want and need so much of it out every day. Kids’ stuff is not always things that can be packed away before a move.
So, I get it… but… you know how *you* feel when you want to maybe curl up and watch a great movie and settle in and just relax for a bit, but there is kid garbage and mess and toys all over the damn place? And it mostly just makes you feel annoyed and overwhelmed so you just forget about starting the movie, throw your hands in the air in frustration and start cleaning up instead? Yeah, other people feel that way when they see your kids’ mess, too. And you don’t want that when potential buyers come to see your home.
When it comes to my clients, I often hear things like:
But, my kids need all of this stuff. Yes, every day. Yes, every minute of every day.
But, my kids are unhappy about moving and putting their toys away is going to really upset them.
But, I’m going to have my hands full just cleaning the adult things, I can’t be expected to keep this area clean, too.
But, it’s pointless. They have toys out all day every day, 24-7, no matter what. Why bother?
But, look, this is the way we live. People are going to just have to get over it. My kids live here, too.
But, listen, anyone looking at this house is going to have kids, too, so they will get me and understand.
But, I’m serious, who cares about a few toys in a living room? What kind of monster lets that effect whether they want to buy our house or not
I am with you, and I agree… it seems ridiculous. And at the end of the day, it’s always up to you to do or not do whatever you want when your house is listed for sale. I don’t want your kids to be upset or bored or feel displaced, either. Of course not.
But, friends, I’m here for the hard truth: messes and clutter, even sweet kid messes and sweet baby clutter, do affect how people feel when they are in your home and how they feel when they are in your home affects whether or not they want to live there. Many people are able to set negative feelings aside and look at a house from pure logic (often guided by a smart realtor or a spouse that loves the home) but the fact is that you are creating resistance that doesn’t need to be there.
The simplest thing to do is to reduce the volume of what you are dealing with (either declutter permanently or just pre-pack some things for your move), and then work on an easy storage plan for quickly picking up the stuff (big baskets, totes that slide under the bed, a laundry basket that can slide into the closet, whatever words for you), and then just do your best to keep things picked up through the day. Most times this can work, especially when you remember this is a short term pain for a long term gain.
The bottom line: it’s worth your time to reduce the amount of kids’ toys and clutter you have out and visible when you house is listed.
9. Your dirty shoes and dirty laundry are gross to people
I don’t know why. I mean, I guess I do: someone else’s dirty stuff is kind of overly personal. And it probably smells a bit. In truth, maybe it actually doesn’t smell , but no one wants to find out for sure so just looking at it is kind of a turn off. And what have we learned? A turn-off makes people feel uncomfortable and when they feel uncomfortable they want to get out and when they leave like that, with bad feelings in their heart, they don’t want to put an offer on your house.
I mean, they don’t know you so they don’t want to see or smell the dirty feet or workout clothes or funky towel smell of you and your family.
The bottom line: short and sweet, just put this stuff away in closets or baskets with some kind of cover. That’s it.
10. All people really want is a clean slate
The basic, overarching theme of all these things is that all people want is a nice, clean, fresh slate. Even if it’s not logical, these big decisions are often guided by the heart. If your goal is to have people come to your home, feel great while they are there, fall in love with the idea of living there themselves and, ultimately, make an offer to purchase your home, then this is the game.
I’ve given you the insider secrets (even when I felt uncomfortable doing it!), it’s up to you to if you want to implement them or not. At the end of the day, buying a house is a highly competitive, psychological game and you want to win. There will be other houses (lots of them!) that your potential buyers go to see. Often, several showings in the course of a few hours. Your competition might have these things covered, so sometimes neglecting these seemingly ridiculous details will have buyers scratching your house right off their list. I don’t want that for you.