10 Cheap Ways to Prep Your Home for a Winter Sale

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Winter is the hardest time of the year to sell a home in most U.S. locales. "The spring housing market is considered busier than the winter market, but sometimes sellers have to move forward before then," says Judy Moore, past president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and a real estate agent in suburban Boston. Fortunately, some house hunters are motivated to buy during the winter because they are facing a job transfer, want to make a life change for the new year, or simply failed to find the right place in the fall and want to keep trying.

"Sellers can sometimes do quite well in winter, because there aren't many properties on the market for those buyers who are out," Moore says. Here are 10 cheap tips sellers can use to make their homes look good to buyers during the chilly months.

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No one wants to buy a dark, gloomy house, so make the most of the limited wintertime sunlight by cleaning all windows inside and out. Also, try to avoid scheduling showings late in the day. "Daylight hours are always better than non-daylight hours," Moore says.

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"One of the worst things sellers can do is have slippery stairs when their house is on the market," Moore says. "That's just asking for a lawsuit." Postpone any showings when the weather forecast calls for snow or ice to allow time for clearing and salting all slippery spots.

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Turn on all the lights for showings and replace low-wattage light bulbs with stronger ones, but stick to soft-white lights for the best ambience. "Good lighting will create a nice, homey feel," Moore says. "You don't want any dark corners." A good real estate agent should be able to point out any dim spots, and possibly loan extra lamps to brighten things up. But beware -- bright lights will illuminate dusty or dirty surfaces, so make sure the home is spotless.

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To avoid sullying the floor with mud, snow, salt, or sand, provide a spot by the front door for visitors to remove footwear. Moore recommends putting out a chair or bench so prospective buyers can sit down to take off shoes or boots. Add a rubber mat and a polite sign reading: "Please Remove Shoes." Savvy sellers leave out disposable booties, which can be found online or in stores that sell house paint.

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Having house hunters take off shoes and boots should minimize what they track in, but always clean floors before and after showings and keep things looking sharp. Moore also recommends decluttering rooms and closets. "You don't want things stacked up in the corners because that will make the house look too small," she says. Her advice is to throw away anything you haven't touched in six months, or at least store it off-site.

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Set the thermostat at 66 degrees well in advance of prospective buyers' arrival, especially if they're viewing a vacant home. Still, don't feel a need to run the heat full-blast. "Buyers are coming in from the cold with coats on, so your home is going to feel warm to them the minute they walk in," Moore says.

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Before leaving to give prospective buyers time to look around, do a few small things to make the home feel enticing. Turn on the gas fireplace if there is one (but don't leave an unattended wood fire). Create an inviting scent with a Christmas tree, other aromatic plants, or vanilla- or cinnamon-scented candles (snuff them out before leaving). Baking some cookies or bread before a showing is another way to generate a homey scent, as well as snacks for visitors (avoid nuts in case of food allergies). Stick to light, subtle aromas and avoid air fresheners, which buyers may suspect are being used to mask an ongoing odor problem, Moore says.

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A property might have a lush lawn or beautiful flowerbeds in May, but prospective buyers won't know it when there's 2 feet of snow of the ground. So, Moore recommends displaying warm-weather photos of a property's exterior online, as well as on a table during showings. Sellers with audiovisual knowhow can run a video of the home in warmer months on a continuous loop.

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Sellers don't have to skip Christmas or other winter holidays but should realize that too many decorations can alienate prospective buyers who practice a different religion. "It's always a balancing act," Moore says. "Holiday decorations can make a house feel warm and welcoming, but sellers should probably put out less than they normally do." Since it's practically impossible to keep a home clean and host a Christmas dinner or New Year's bash, consider declaring some "blackout dates" when showings are not allowed. "If there's a buyer in from out of town who absolutely has to see the house, you can always make an exception," Moore says.

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When all else fails, property owners can simply pull a home off of the market until the busy spring house-hunting season, which starts around late February or early March in many U.S. markets. "There are definitely more buyers looking at places in the spring than the winter," Moore says, "so if a seller can wait until then, that might make the most sense."