Best Improvements to Prep a Home for Sale

Quick Answer

Presale improvements could enhance your home's buyer appeal and raise your selling price. Focus first on home safety and structural integrity. Next, prioritize jobs based on your budget and on their return on investment. Consider projects that enhance curb appeal or refresh dated elements.

A classic Tudor style house in the mid-west of United States for sale with a blue sale sign on lawn. The two stories property with an old world facade, featuring a fire place chimney.

If you're thinking about selling your home, making some strategic improvements first could enhance its appeal to potential buyers. Many projects will have the potential to "pay for themselves" and then some by boosting the sale price of your home. Read on for advice on smart home improvement investments that match a wide variety of budgets.

Which Home Improvements Add the Most Value?

When considering possible presale home improvements, begin by addressing issues that affect the house's safety or structural integrity. These might include repairing a leaky roof, fixing a chimney that doesn't vent smoke properly or having mold removed. You might not consider these enhancements to the property but, left unaddressed, they will be considered material defects that will likely reduce the price you can get for your home.

If there are no "must-do" repairs, you can set goals based on your budget and their potential return on investment (ROI). The guidelines below give general ideas of projects with the greatest ROI, but bear in mind that:

  • Project costs are estimates, and your actual outlay will depend on the size of your home and local labor and materials costs.
  • The value of a given improvement may ultimately depend on the preferences of an individual buyer.
  • Some enhancements may yield greater returns in certain climates or regions of the country.

If you need help prioritizing possible projects, consider seeking the advice of a trusted real estate professional.

Projects That Cost $5,000 or Less

Yard cleanup: Curb appeal—the first impression your home makes when viewed from the street—can be critical to attracting buyers. Replacing overgrown or unattractive shrubs, trimming or removing problematic trees and refreshing plantings and flowerbeds can do wonders to make your home look more inviting.

Exterior touch-up: This also contributes to curb appeal. Repaint doors and garage doors, the trim around them, porch railings, shutters and other building accents. Replace damaged or out-of-date light fixtures, door hardware, mailboxes and the like. If your house has metal or vinyl siding, have it power-washed.

Thorough cleaning: Consider using a home-detailing company to clean your home's interior from top to bottom, shampooing rugs and carpets, scrubbing walls and scouring sinks, bathroom fixtures and kitchen surfaces. You may be amazed at how much it brightens up the place.

Appliance upgrade: A full kitchen makeover is well beyond a $5,000 budget, but replacing an aging stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, washer and/or dryer can give your home a more contemporary feel and make it more user-friendly. You may not be able to do it all for under $5,000, but get multiple quotes and negotiate based on your willingness to buy and install multiple appliances at once.

Lighting overhaul: If your home has dated light fixtures, replace them with clean, modern designs. Get rid of fluorescent lamps and update all fixtures with LED bulbs, replacing incompatible dimmers or switches as needed. Consider working with a consultant from a lighting store to identify opportunities for recessed lights, updated ceiling fixtures and other upgrades. Optionally consider smart lighting options that allow adjustment of light color and intensity in various living areas.

Smart-home features: Installing smart thermostats, doorbell cameras and lighting controls could add appeal for younger buyers (and tech-savvy older ones too).

Projects That Cost $10,000 or Less

Interior painting: Repainting the home's interior can provide a sense of newness to a house of any age, especially if you replace dated wallpaper or faddish color schemes with warm, neutral shades. Patch plaster or drywall as needed, and apply complementary colors to crown molding, wainscoting and floor molding.

Cabinet facelift: Refacing or replacing kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors and hardware can go a long way toward updating an older home. If budget allows, consider replacing towel racks, faucet hardware and lighting fixtures while you're at it.

Ceiling makeover: Replace popcorn ceilings or tired-looking drop ceilings with more up-to-date styles, incorporating enhanced lighting as appropriate (and as budget allows).

Carpeting and flooring: Get rid of old, stained or worn wall-to-wall carpeting and replace it with new, neutral-colored carpeting or, if appropriate (and affordable based on contractor quotes), replace it with hardwood or bamboo flooring. Ditto for floor tiling. Refinish older wooden flooring, replacing damaged planks as needed. If budget allows (and you think you'll be able to use them after you move), add or update area rugs that tie each room together.

Projects That Cost $15,000 or Less

Exterior makeover: Giving your house a facelift in the form of new siding or a full exterior paint job can greatly enhance appeal to potential buyers. The cost of repainting or re-siding a house varies with the size of the building, of course, so your budget may be closer to $10,000 or this might stretch the $15,000 limit.

Open up a room: Removing all or part of a wall to open up space inside your house may be less of an ordeal than you'd imagine, and the results can transform older homes into more modern spaces. Non-load-bearing walls are simpler, but this is even possible with load-bearing walls if done correctly. Work with a contractor you trust to see that any electrical or plumbing lines are rerouted properly and all work complies with local regulations.

Add or enhance insulation: Energy efficiency and HVAC cost savings are priorities for many homebuyers, and if your house "leaks" heat or air conditioning, you can enhance its value with better insulation. You may be able to get a free energy audit from your local utility to help you focus your efforts and your budget. If you go this route, make sure to provide documentation to potential buyers, since this can be a very valuable but invisible upgrade.

New windows: Updating windows can also improve your home's energy efficiency and, depending on what you're replacing, can also provide a cleaner look and make maintenance easier. Consult with a contractor to prioritize if your budget won't allow upgrading every window and, as with insulation, make sure you let potential buyers know about this less-than-conspicuous enhancement.

How to Pay for Presale Home Improvements

The most straightforward approach to funding home improvements is to use savings, but if you don't have sufficient funds at the ready, there are multiple financing options to explore. Borrowing money comes at a cost, of course, so be sure to factor any financing charges—interest and fees—into your ROI calculations. Here are some financing options to consider:

  • Home equity loan: A home equity loan uses the portion of your home that you own outright (your equity) as collateral, and typically allows you to borrow a lump sum equal to as much as 85% of the difference between your home's market value and the outstanding balance on your mortgage. Home equity loans typically have repayment periods of 15 or 20 years, but if you plan on selling your house, you can plan on paying off the loan from proceeds of the sale, which would save you considerable interest costs compared with paying the loan off over its full repayment term. Check any loan you consider to make sure it has no prepayment penalty. Also note the amount of any origination fees, application fees and other expenses associated with the loan.
  • Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC): A HELOC allows you to use up to 85% of your home equity as a borrowing limit, against which you can make charges and interest-only payments for the duration of a specified draw period (typically 10 years), after which you must repay any outstanding balance in equal monthly installments spread out over a repayment period of up to 20 years. HELOCs are popular for financing home improvement projects because you only pay interest on funds you use during the draw period. If you sell your home during the draw period, you can use the proceeds to pay off and close out the HELOC early, before the installment payments take effect. Here again, take care to avoid loans that carry prepayment penalties.
  • Personal loan: Most personal loans are unsecured loans—ones that don't require you to put up your home or any other asset as collateral. Funds you borrow are issued in a lump sum, which you agree to pay back in monthly installments over a set repayment term that can range from one to six years or longer. Lenders may charge higher interest rates on personal loans than on home equity loans or HELOCs because lack of collateral makes them riskier. They also often charge origination fees of 1% to 6%, which are typically deducted from the loan amount when you receive it. Some lenders issue personal loans with zero origination fees to borrowers with strong credit.
  • Credit cards: Interest rates on credit cards are steep and have been getting steeper in recent months, but it may be possible to use a credit card for interest-free financing on a home repair project: If you can get a card with a 0% introductory interest rate, use it to fund your home improvements and then sell your house before the introductory period ends, you could pay off the card balance with proceeds from the sale without incurring interest charges. Beware, however, that if you haven't paid off your balance in full when the 0% intro APR ends, any remaining balance will be subject to the card's regular interest rate. Also note that running up a balance that exceeds about 30% of the card's borrowing limit will likely lower your credit scores.

The Bottom Line

Making home improvements before you sell your house can greatly influence its appeal to potential buyers, and in the sale price you can get. These projects all have potentially high ROI, but when deciding which to pursue, it may be worth consulting the real estate agent you plan to handle the home sale. They may have valuable input on what will be most effective for your property in the current real estate market.

If you plan to finance your project with a loan or a new credit card, or if you plan to seek another mortgage after you sell your home, review your credit report and check your FICO® Score for free from Experian to know where you stand before you apply for credit.