DC Real Estate: How to Get a House Ready to Sell in Washington, DC

I’ve had this post, How to Get a House Ready to Sell in Washington, DC, sitting in my blog post drafts for weeks. But, not wanting to jinx ourselves before it was a done deal, I’ve been waiting until we were closed and official. And now we are! The papers are signed and it’s no longer ours — woo!!!

In full transparency, it’s been a process. Which is why I wanted to write this post. Even with a house in good condition and in a hot market, there’s still an incredible amount of work to do before listing.

For reference, here’s our listing, in all its staged glory.

Why Did We Decide to Sell Our Rental House?

It’s complicated and I’ll get into the full details behind all the reasoning in an article I’m writing for Apartment Therapy, but here’s the general takeaway: it was too expensive.

When we started renting the house out, our mortgage was low for DC, roughly $2100. We could easily rent it out for significantly more than that and make a decent income on it every month, even considering the taxes you pay as a landlord in Washington.

About a year ago, however, our property taxes — not to be confused with our taxes on rental incomes — skyrocketed. These are the taxes that are wrapped up in your mortgage every month and our payment jumped by about $700 monthly. No surprise, that changed the calculation on our ROI and we started to wonder whether it was worth the hassle. Then, as the market started to heat up significantly, we realized that we were seeing the greatest exponential leap in the home’s value. Sure, it will continue to go up in value over the years but likely not at this rate. It made sense to sell — and sell now.

To be totally frank, we missed the top of the market by a few weeks. Our tenants screwed us over by overstaying their lease (they thought it ended later than it did and DC is so tenant-friendly that it wasn’t worth it for us to try to get them out). It pushed us from a mid-June launch to having to wait until after the Fourth of July — if you’ve been following DC real estate, you know that’s where we started to see a cooling. But, we still came out in a good spot. Here’s how we got there.

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How to Get a House Ready to Sell in Washington, DC

We were fortunate that our realtor, John Coleman of Jason Martin Group, was super hands on throughout the process — he project managed everything from start to finish, while taking into account (and putting up with) all my opinions and thoughts on what we should do. But, regardless of who you’re working with or how involved they are, here are my tips on how to get a house ready to sell in Washington, DC.

Start by looking at comps

Comps serve a few purposes. The first is, of course, to clue you in on pricing by giving you a peek at what other homes are selling for. However, the second is to show you how much work you really need to do. If none of the other homes are bothering to renovate their kitchens, then you don’t need to either — unless the market is slow and you need to stand out.

Think about what your ideal customer wants

Given the neighborhood, price point, school quality, and size of the house, we knew our ideal customer was probably a young couple without kids. It’s a four bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house, but it’s on the smaller side — about 1,200 square feet. We were pricing at $720K which, I know, sounds like a lot, but in DC, it’s actually on the less expensive side, so perfect for a couple in their twenties or thirties.

So, we had to think about what that person might want. We’re in that demographic, so we know many of them are looking for bright, open spaces that feel updated and modern, while maintaining a bit of the original charm.

Consider which renovations will actually see an ROI that makes sense

First, a basic note: paint is always worth it. Give the whole house a coat of fresh paint and know that neutrals really do sell better.

The house had been renovated before Adam bought it in 2014 in a style that I don’t think is right for most customers now. However, while fixing a bathroom leak a few years ago, we did renovate one bathroom with white subway tile and left the original 1930s tub. Given that is the main bath, we wanted customers to focus on that and I do feel like that was a renovation that we would have needed to make regardless.

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When it came to other spaces, like the kitchen, I’ll be honest, the 2014 renovations were hideous, however, we both felt like whoever came in might renovate more extensively anyway (there’s a wall that could be knocked down), so it wasn’t worth our investment to drop $10-20K into a cosmetic kitchen update.

We also did some small updates, like the fan in the living room since it’s what you see when you first walk in, but left those on the second floor since they are first impression.

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We also decided against refinishing the floors, but this was perhaps the biggest surprise and best money we spent. The floors had that horrendous yellow tint that many vintage hardwoods do across DC and, likely, the U.S. at large. They made the entire house looked aged. To refinish them would have cost an arm and a leg, but our realtor suggested stripping and polishing. For a fraction of refinishing, the contractor was able to take out the yellow and we ended up with sleek, light wood that made the entire space look brighter and more modern. It completely changed the look of the house.

Think about that first picture on the MLS listing

I know that painting brick houses is a divisive topic. A lot of people feel they should always be left brick. I get it…but I also think, despite my background in Architectural History and my love of historic preservation, that buildings and neighborhoods are living entities. Things change — and that’s not a bad thing. The houses on our block aren’t necessarily a pretty brick and the ones that have been painted look awesome. That’s all to say, I knew immediately our buyer probably wanted a painted house and I was convinced I was going to get our realtor and Adam on board.

We got the quote and it was only $4K to paint the exterior of the house (there’s no need to do the back) and our realtor, while not trying to sway us in either direction, did point out that it’s that first picture in your listing that needs to catch someone’s eye. The dull brick wasn’t going to do that.

I didn’t want to go with gray or black or anything too trendy (despite, yes, the fact we live in a gray and black home), so I opted for a classic white. It’s a color that could be historically accurate, but just felt fresher.

When it came to the front door, the painter was reluctant to touch it because it was a “nice, expensive” door. It wasn’t historic or old, but it had been replaced in 2014. And, y’all, it was UGLY. I’m convinced it was a clearance castoff where they had a pretty door but did it in a maroon wood and couldn’t get rid of it. So, I said, “I don’t care if it was expensive, ugly is ugly” and we painted it a dark royal blue.

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Consider your curb appeal

We went back and forth endlessly on whether it was worth it to lay sod down in a yard where grass refused to grow. We knew it was probably going to die eventually, but we also wanted the house to look good. So, we spent the money on sod, plus had our realtor put in a watering system, and also went over there ourselves to plant red and white flowers, which popped against the white house and blue door. Little things that made a huge impact when a potential buyer walked up to the front door.

Clean, clean, and clean some more

You want as little “stuff” in the house as possible and you want it to be sparkling clean. This was easy for us since we don’t live there — we didn’t have to worry about moving anything out. But, we did hire a cleaning service to come in and do a deep clean. Baseboards, ovens, fridge, everything was fair game.

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Stage the house

Again, this is something that’s easier if you don’t actually live in the house, but our realtor hired stagers to come in and set the house up in a way that felt both minimal and liveable.

Knowing our ideal buyer, they staged it with two bedrooms and an office, while living the basement bedroom empty as a “bonus room” (they did stage the basement living area). They set up the living and dining areas to look both spacious and help buyers imagine their own items in there. This is, obviously, easiest in an empty house but, if you’re currently living in yours, you can rent out a storage unit to help pare down. Less truly is more here — but nothing is less, so don’t go empty either.

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How’d We Do in the Market?

Like I mentioned, the market started to cool just as we listed. However, we listed higher than we initially anticipated (I’d like to take credit for pushing that number up, thank you very much), and we ended up selling just slightly over, though they asked for closing credits which ended up coming out as a wash. Was it the bidding way we wanted or could have gotten in May? Nope, but we can finally say “see ya never” to being DC landlords and dealing with out of control property taxes.

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2 Comments

  1. August 18, 2021 / 7:07 am

    This was so fascinating to read!! I don’t know much about rental property ownership, but I feel like the little I do know is that it’s always presented as an amazing investment opportunity. Crazy how a change in taxes can change that so much!!

    Did you two ever consider living in the house? Or always knew just a rental?

    • August 18, 2021 / 8:58 am

      It definitely can be and it was great for the first few years! Adam lived in it for 3 years with roommates before we moved in together, but I knew I never wanted to live in it. I would have had to get a car because it’s a few blocks too far to be walkable and the neighborhood is just super residential (I prefer a more mixed residential/commercial neighborhood). We thought we’d keep it for longer but the market was too good not to go ahead and sell! But, we’ve got something else in the works…

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