Keeping up appearances

Whether you're looking to impress a buyer or just your neighbors, try these fail-safe strategies for making a good first impression.

By Vanessa Parks
June 26, 2011

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For well over a year, Amy Booth’s Grafton home languished on the market. There was nothing really wrong with the place exactly. It was new enough, and big enough, and anyone driving by could see it had good bones – the Colonial just came across as a little, well, plain. But then Booth had the good fortune of winning a home makeover contest, which bought her new shutters, cornices over the windows, and foundation plantings – even a new front door surround. A month after the face lift, Booth’s home was snatched up. “It was unbelievable,” she says.

In a time when much about the real estate market remains uncertain, one thing is as sure as ever: Looks matter. “Curb appeal is this kind of manifestation of inner grace,” says architect Samuel White, author of Nice House and a partner with Platt Byard Dovell White Architects LLP in New York. “It matters because we live in society; we think about other people and we realize people think about us. And most of us would like others to think well of us. It’s a very powerful aspect of human nature.”

The challenge for sellers is that prospective buyers, like anyone in the market for a long-term relationship, often make snap judgments based on looks, without necessarily taking the time to learn what’s on the inside. “I think that buyers make up their minds within 30 seconds,” says Patty Hornblower, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Westwood, so sellers need to put their best face forward. “There’s not another chance to make a good first impression.”

Indeed, one indicator of just how much emphasis buyers put on appearances comes via Remodeling magazine’s annual Cost vs. Value Report. According to the 2010-2011 edition of the survey, Boston-area sellers can only expect to recoup about half of their investment in a new bathroom and 44 percent of a home office remodel. Yet four of the five highest returns in the Boston area and nationwide come from renovations that can be classified as appearance-based. Boston-area sellers can expect to get back the entire cost – and more – of a new steel front door, and 92.7 percent of a new garage door, which the survey says costs an average of $1,510 in this area.

And it’s not just sellers opting for these kinds of renovations. Home improvement specialists say that much of their business is from people who, rather than move on to a new house, have decided to stay put and work things out.

“People are making a decision to stay around rather than move, but they want a change,” says architect Lawrence Reeves, of Reeves Design Associates in Marlborough. “In the last couple of years, the number one thing with the homeowner seems to be to do something special with their home to make it look better.”

The good news is that curb-appeal renovations, though not always cheap, needn’t necessarily break the bank. It took $13,000 in upgrades – spent mostly on the outside (the labor was donated) – to do the trick with Booth’s home, says Muneeza Nasrullah, a real estate agent with Hallmark Sotheby’s International Realty in Hopkinton, which cosponsored the makeover with Gilmore Building Co. of Grafton, Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton, and Concord interior design firm Phillips Design.

Of course, not everyone gets to win a home makeover contest, but there are ways anyone can make a big change in his or her home’s appearance without spending a ton of money. Think of it like opting for the home equivalent of Botox instead of the full face lift.

The front door

The Cost vs. Value Report puts the price tag for installing a steel entry door at an average of $1,451 in the Boston area. It’s not cheap, but it’s also the project in the report thatbrings the highest resale return, both here and around the country.

“This year, the entry door replacement project ranks number one overall and is the only project listed nationally at over 100 percent in cost recouped,” report the editors. “The main reason for this is that a small investment . . . can significantly improve a home’s curb appeal, which can translate into higher resale value and less time on the market.”

Those who are reasonably handy might be able to replace a door themselves, but for those who aren’t, simply giving your old one a fresh coat of paint can be enough to make a good impression (for today’s hottest paint colors, see sidebar on page 45). This is especially true, realtor Hornblower says, if you opt to paint it a color that complements, rather than matches, the shutters or trim – many buyers have a low tolerance for anything too matchy matchy. Adding new hardware is another relatively inexpensive option.

And if you have an aluminum storm door that is more than a few years old, Hornblower says, it probably looks out of date. Replace it with a more stylish model, such as one made out of wood or glass.

The other front door

Because of their size, garage doors tend to draw even more attention than entry ones, and that makes them important. “Garage doors are the first thing that you see normally,” says David Plouffe, owner of New England Overhead Door in Hopedale. “If they just look old and they’re beat up, you’re just getting off on the wrong foot.”

It used to be that the same five or six doors fit every home’s needs, but in recent years, there’s been an explosion of new looks. “Everybody wants a little bit different flavor, a different color, a different window design,” Plouffe says. That said, though, the carriage-house-style door remains the most popular choice among his customers. Single-car garage doors start in the $900 range, including installation, and can top $10,000 for large custom sizes and colors.

If you’re willing to forgo the carriage-house details, a plain door sells for as little as $700. And for an on-the-cheap way to get the barn-door look, Hornblower suggests adding wrought-iron hardware to a plain white garage door.

Keep it clean

Whether a home is clad in wood, vinyl, or brick, it’s going to get dirty, and that’s off-putting to buyers. Most homes could use a washing every two to four years, says Nancy Cassidy, who, with her husband, Michael, owns Plainville-based Mobile Power Wash of New England. “More and more homeowners that are trying to sell are using our services,” she says. The company will scrub siding, windowsills, gutters, the foundation, and the stoop as part of its regular wash, which runs between $350 and $450 for a vinyl-sided, three-bedroom Colonial and attached garage. Clapboard homes cost more, and porches, sheds, walkways, pool aprons, and driveways are add-ons, she says.

Ambitious do-it-yourselfers can rent a power washer at most big-box stores or places like Taylor Rental and give it a whirl on their own.

Sweat the small stuff

Entry lighting, new house numbers, a well-placed birdbath, even a new mailbox are the kinds of little things that can transform a home’s appearance. So can a nice new set of shutters. And cleaning and spiffing up the chimney is a good idea; bite the bullet and re-point it, if necessary (if you’re selling, it will come up in the home inspection report anyway).

If you’re thinking about new windows and money is a factor, consider picking them out at a big-box store and having a handyman (who can get a contractor discount) buy and install them, says Julianne Lucas, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Concord. That’s how she got new windows installed for $7,300, rather than the $14,000 she had been quoted by a well-known window installation company.

And don’t forget that curtains show on the outside, too, says Hornblower. If they look dated, just take them down.

Landscaping made easy

Even with little gardening aptitude and less money, homeowners can still spruce things up with potted plants, hanging pots, and window boxes. The approach might work particularly well in two-families or triple-deckers with little or no lawn, says Jenny Mendez Isenburg, a realtor with Brigham Circle Realty Direct in Mission Hill. “How well it’s kept around the property makes a big difference, because it’s not like you’re driving up a big, long driveway and there are a lot of trees,” she says.

For suburbanites with large yards, a little attention to the basics goes a long way. Weed, edge, and mulch plant beds, and go for dark brown hemlock mulch, not that orangy-red stuff, says Hornblower. The latter may be cheaper, but it tends to look artificial – indeed, it’s often dyed, and the color can wash off onto concrete walkways and driveways. (Speaking of concrete walkways, even the ugliest ones can be prettied up with borders mixing annuals and perennials.)

Sometimes what you get rid of – like overgrown yews and rhododendrons – is as important as what you add, says Tim Wholey, who works in the landscape design department at the Winchester location of Mahoney’s Garden Centers. People often buy plants based on how they look at the garden center, without taking into account how big they’ll grow. Then they plant them too close together, and things inevitably get crowded.

“Everybody wants maintenance-free,” Wholey says. “There’s no such thing.”

For $150, Mahoney’s offers a 90-minute in-store landscaping consultation that gives homeowners a design plan with a list of plants and prices. For $375, you get three hours of the designer’s time, plus a house call. In either case, if you spend more than $500 on plants after the consultation, Mahoney’s will rebate $100 of the fee.

‘Minor’ kitchen remodel

A kitchen doesn’t have anything to do with curb appeal, but it’s one of the rooms in the house where first impressions really matter. And just like outside, a reasonable amount of TLC can pay off. According to Remodeling magazine’s definition, a “minor” remodel of a 200-square-foot Boston-area kitchen – including, among other things, new cabinet doors and drawer fronts, an energy-efficient oven and cooktop, and a mid-priced sink and faucet – costs about $24,000, on average. It’s a hefty bill, but it’s also a renovation that brings back 75.5 percent, the highest return of all interior improvements on the list.

Luckily, there are far cheaper ways to freshen up the busiest room in the house. Getting a pro to repaint between 28 and 38 doors and drawer fronts costs around $2,500, says Steve Hubley of Hubley Painting in Hopkinton.

Hubley knows what people think when they hear “painted cabinets” – that they look awful. But thanks to high-volume, low-pressure spray guns and new latex-urethane paint treatments, that’s no longer the case. “These come out very, very nice,” Hubley says.

On Hubley’s jobs, he removes the doors and drawer fronts and takes them to his shop, where they’re degreased and deglossed before being painted. Most of his customers are so impressed they end up making other improvements as well. “My client is somebody who hates their kitchen, and it’s old and dingy, but a new kitchen isn’t in the cards for them,” he says. “They’re relieved to find out, ‘All right. Sweet. I can get rid of these ugly honey-oak cabinets from the 1980s.’ ”

For even more impact, real estate agent Nasrullah recommends choosing a contrasting paint color on island cabinets and scouting around for granite remnants to top them (prices vary widely, but a 3-by-4-foot piece might cost around $500). And you’ll be amazed at what a new faucet and hardware can do.

Adding it up

Across the board, experts caution against assuming you’ll get back every penny you spend on remodeling, even – perhaps especially – if you go high-end. “Don’t think because you spent $80,000 on a kitchen, you’re going to get $80,000 back. You’re not,” says Hornblower. “Somewhere along the line, people got it mixed up. They started looking at a house as making an investment, versus making a home and having a place to raise a family.”

So while it’s certainly important to factor in resale value somewhere down the line, the smartest move when choosing renovations is to live for today. Says real estate agent Julianne Lucas: “If you like it and it makes you happy and you’re going to enjoy it while you live there, do it.”

Vanessa Parks writes the Globe Magazine’s On the Block column. Send comments to