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posted: 5/3/2014 12:01 AM

When selling, first steps don't cost anything

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Q. I would like to chime in on the often-asked question about whether to remodel before putting a house on the market. As a recent buyer, I walked away from more than one home where the updates were not to my taste. A fresh coat of paint or refinishing badly worn floors is fine, but new carpets, kitchens, baths and light fixtures (that I would end up replacing) made me feel like the house was overpriced to cover those changes.

Before we listed our home we did some inexpensive things like fixing cracks in the walls, wrapping asbestos pipes and painting tired looking spaces. But my vote is to leave the decor as original as possible and let me decide what to change and how.

A. When I wrote a chapter on preparing your home for sale in my "Homesellers" book, the first items on the list didn't cost anything: straighten out the closets, take most of the stuff off the kitchen counters, wash windows, tighten door knobs and stair railing, thin out the medicine chest, clean the oven.

In addition, I advised, store away personal items like diplomas -- the idea is not to show buyers what your life is like, but to let them envision themselves living there.

Beyond that, fresh paint often does yield the best payback -- something in a light neutral shade that will match anyone's furniture. New carpet doesn't cost all that much, though these days many buyers prefer hardwood anyhow.

But buyer expectations do differ in expensive or modest areas. Sometimes over-improving means you won't recoup your investment. The best guide is still free advice from brokers who are familiar with the area and its price levels.

Painting the woodwork

A few weeks ago a reader asked advice about whether to paint over dark woodwork, and almost everyone who responded said "yes, do." Here are a few samples:

"Dark paneling would have been a turnoff the first time we toured our house three years ago."

"Nothing says well-cared-for like pristine trim."

"I would much prefer light paint rather than a dark stain."

And an experienced broker (whom I still remember as one of the best students I ever had when I taught real estate on the college level) advises that:

"Yes, I would paint all the dark woodwork white to brighten the property. Hope this helps. Always a pleasure."

One letter, though, makes a good point about architectural integrity -- taking into consideration the quality of the wood trim and the era in which the house was built:

"In my opinion, if the stained trim is pine, it's perfectly fine to paint over it. Most looks shoddy and cheap. But If the trim is authentic, in my opinion, do not paint over it. Modern tastes do seem to prefer that sterile/clean/painted/stainless look. That looks fine, but I'll take natural wood any day of the week."

Q. I have read your columns many times in my newspaper, but never remember seeing anything about liens. I once heard of "an angry old man" who went to the courthouse and filed liens on the property of neighbors he didn't like. Can someone do this? How would you know if a lien was on your real estate? Does the county notify you? How would you get it removed?

A. A lien is someone else's financial claim on your real estate. When you receive a mortgage loan, you sign papers allowing the lender to file your debt in the public records office as a lien against the property.

If that angry old man wanted to put a lien on your property, first he'd have to go to court and prove that you owed him money and weren't repaying it. You'd get a chance to tell your side. But if the judge agreed with him, your neighbor would receive a judgment. That could be placed against your house in the county's public records office, where you, or anyone else, could look it up. By that point you'd know about it anyhow.

Unpaid property taxes become a lien against the real estate, and sometimes the IRS, if it can't collect any other way, will file a lien on the taxpayer's property. A workman who improved your house and didn't get paid could go to court and ask for a mechanic's lien.

To get a lien removed, you would pay whatever was owed or reach some other agreement, so you could file a certificate showing the debt was satisfied. Some liens become unenforceable (sort of expire) after a certain length of time. Most people don't want to buy houses that have claims against them, so liens usually have to be satisfied -- paid off or otherwise removed -- before a sale.

• Edith Lank will respond to questions sent to her at 240 Hemingway Drive, Rochester, N.Y. 14620 (include a stamped return envelope), or readers may email her through

© 2014, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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