Cleaning House: Strategies for Agents When Selling Tired, Unkempt Homes

“Plug-and-play…move-in ready…no assembly required.”

Well, maybe not that last one, but often, prospective homebuyers have little interest in houses not in perfect condition. Or ones that are not exceedingly neat and clean. It can present a problem for agents once in a while…

Bingo! You’ve just landed a new listing through a referral. It’s an older couple ready to downsize with their kids raised and gone. They’ve lived in the home since way, way back when. The only problem is, when you visit the property and take a good look, you’re not sure if they’ve actually cleaned it since way, way back when.

This could be awkward…having to explain that you’re not judging, but their home sweet home needs some serious TLC. You must be careful to get your point across in a way that leads to results while maintaining a chill vibe.

“What a buyer experiences when looking at a home is impacted by the senses: sound, scent and sight,” says Debbie Lang, a REALTOR® with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices (BHHS) Fox & Roach, REALTORS® in Princeton, New Jersey; and BHHS Florida Realty, Boca Raton, Florida. “I never put a home on the market unless it is at the very least deep cleaned, whether it’s a seller’s or buyer’s market. It can make the difference between a home selling or not selling. I have a roster of preferred (cleaning) partners that are reasonable and reliable and who make my clients a priority, especially when time is of the essence to help get a property on the market. 

“The goal is always to get sellers the highest price the market will bear. Therefore, a deep clean, decluttering and some staging make a big difference in the pricing, time on the market and the possibility of multiple offers.”

In full agreement is Sharon Caruso, with RE/MAX Heritage Properties in New Jersey.

“When I encounter a home that is not clean, I let the sellers know that a service needs to do a professional cleaning,” she says. “Buyers definitely get turned off by a dirty home and wonder what else has not been maintained. Some buyers give the white-glove treatment, but not all of them. It can be awkward to tell owners that their home needs to be cleaned. I let them know in a nice way that it will show better and attract more buyers.”

Ah, those finicky buyers who do give houses the white-glove treatment, checking for signals and signs that the owners may have been delinquent in keeping things hospital-clean. A recent Reddit poll on subtle spots to zone in on for dirt, dust, smudges or grime included:

  • The wall brackets that hold the towels
  • Ceiling fan blades
  • Inside the microwave oven
  • Underneath the faucets
  • The kitchen sponge
  • On top of the refrigerator
  • Fridge and oven handles
  • Dust on tops of picture frames
  • Light switches and the walls around them
  • door handles and the doors themselves
  • Window blinds

“No buyer wants to see signs of deferred maintenance, and this includes sellers’ dirt, trash and clutter,” says Joni Usdan, a REALTOR® with Coldwell Banker, in Westport, Connecticut. “As a listing agent, I emphasize that cleaning/tidying/repairs is one of the stages of premarket prep, and the house has to be in ‘showings shape’ all throughout the time on the market—bed making, dish washing, counter neatening, etc. That said, I am not above making a bed myself, emptying waste baskets or dust-busting the floors before a showing if there’s a need. 

“As a buyer’s agent, I will warn clients in advance if a place reeks or has dust bunnies or generally poor housekeeping so they won’t be distracted and lose their focus. It’s another great reason to preview a property before showing it.”

As a wife and mother, Pam Rosser Thistle, a REALTOR® with BHHS Fox & Roach, REALTORS® in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, notes that she’s had plenty of experience taking care of a home.

“So there is no difference in my mind between making my home or someone else’s home sparkle,” she says. “For an owner-occupied property, pride and understanding that a clean home will help showing and the sales price usually motivates a seller to have their place professionally cleaned. If it’s tenant-occupied, there is not much to do. I remember touring a tenant-occupied place and the elastic on the tenant’s underwear was on the floor and got caught on my buyer’s shoe. She had to kick it off. Not a good look.”

REALTOR® Jeffrey Decatur, a longtime broker associate with RE/MAX Capital, in Latham, New York, puts a humorous spin on the variables of clean, though he knows it’s serious business when it comes to buying and selling.

“As a listing agent, I have encountered everything in terms of cleanliness: both extremes,” he says. “From so disgusting you would think it was a crime scene, to total OCD, with all cans alphabetized and facing the same way, the home smelling like bleach and hospital-grade clean.  Both are off-putting, but one is better than the other. When things are not clean, I will show owners examples of other homes for sale and say this is the way we need your house to look in order to optimize your equity.

“To soften the blow, I try to remove myself from the bad news by giving them a checklist which spells out everything from cleaning the windows to putting the toilet seat down. In a further effort to gain cooperation, I tell them that selling a home is hard because you live in it, but their home is my product, and that is what I sell.”

Decatur knows that potential buyers will be doing their best Inspector Clouseau impressions when visiting a property on the market, and is prepared for all scenarios.

“Buyers are very observant and fickle,” he says. “I have had countless buyers notice the house was clean, but not consistently clean. Little things. The sellers may have cleaned and dusted, with the lines from the vacuum showing in the carpet, but the globes on the chandelier were dirty. The windows coming into the house were sparkling, but the ones in the back you could barely see through. These can be hints/turn-offs to a buyer. It sometimes appears that the seller only cleaned things that ‘showed.’ The lack of detail was a hint to the way the rest of the house may have been maintained. It seems trivial, but it all comes down to the impression and the way someone feels in the home.

“Some buyers will look in the kitchen cabinets, closets, garage, basement. If something seems unorganized or cluttered, they will notice and call it out. I give the buyer a bit of a reality check, depending on the situation. If someone has four children and two dogs and the house looks ‘show ready’ but you find a laundry room full of clothes, or a toy on the floor, I will say something like, ‘This homeowner has a gaggle of children; I can’t believe the house is this organized and clean. I wish mine was this way!’ Usually, that will stop the overly judgmental comments. Some people don’t realize that not everyone lives the way they do.”

Lisa A. Harris, a REALTOR® with RE/MAX Center, in Atlanta, Georgia, also schools homebuyers on understanding that they are not visiting spec houses, but abodes with people living there. Nevertheless, she guides sellers to make their property as positive as possible.

“I don’t think they expect Marie Kondo to be living there, but it is vital to remove any questions or doubts from the beginning,” she says. “By doing this, we may expect less requests for repairs and more of a premium in price. It may also result in a more positive home inspection and appraisal.

“It is a sensitive subject that needs to be addressed from day one so that everyone is on the same page and expectations are clear. Having the home clean as a whistle for the photo shoot and showings will definitely give you a competitive advantage, so I highly recommend sellers take the extra steps when selling their home.”

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