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For Brokers, Cleaning Up Is Part of the Job

Authored: Anne Bahney
Publisher: The New York Times

In the competitive sport of residential real estate in New York City, the arrival of end-of-the-year bonuses on Wall Street is like the long awaited day when pitchers and catchers show up for spring training: hope at the beginning of another season.

Rather than preparing for the summer real estate season typical in the suburbs and much of the rest of the country, New York follows the money. While there is no real "slow" time in real estate in the city any more, inventory tends to build at this time of year, making the period from January to April showtime.

With the bonus money circulating, interest rates holding relatively steady and the supply of apartments only slightly more than it was at this time last year, according to the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, it should be another busy season.

Ethan Woods, an agent for Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, wants the apartment of his client Melissa Radin to be toned and fit for the new season. Like a personal trainer, he is coaching, encouraging and instructing Mrs. Radin on cleaning, updating and de-cluttering her two-bedroom condo in preparation for it to be a real million-dollar baby and bona fide contender.

Mr. Woods is pushing Mrs. Radin to be ready in the next couple of months, although she doesn't think she will be ready until the summer. "Bonuses have come in," Mr. Woods reminded her. "People are itching to buy now. February is good, March is O.K. But after that, people begin looking at spending their money on their summer - the Hamptons or their vacation."

Walking through Mrs. Radin's apartment in the St. Tropez building at 64th Street and First Avenue, where she lives with her husband, Michael, and their two young sons, Mr. Woods also points out that she has the best chance to make the most money during the first two to three weeks it is on the market, after which, he said, properties become stale. He stops and points at a yellow, brown and green equine painting propped against the wall on top of a bulky bookshelf: "But nothing is going to happen unless you get rid of that horse."

He's tough, but Mrs. Radin hired him as an agent to be her - and her apartment's - domestic fitness guru. Mr. Woods showed the Radins this apartment three years ago and they know he has a track record for training apartments for higher sales. "I told him to be brutal," Mrs. Radin said, "because I want to get the most that I can out of this apartment," adding that she expects to spend about $6,000 (for things like new doors, a bathroom vanity, window treatments and storage for toys and furniture) to perk up the apartment. She bought it three years ago for $830,000 and now hopes to sell it for $1.5 million.

Mr. Woods is among a growing number of agents in the city taking a stand against open houses featuring dirty dishes in the sink. If he arrives to show an apartment and sees such a thing, he will remind sellers, "That is $3,000 sitting in your sink."

He and like-minded agents try to find a diplomatic way to tell sellers that Fluffy and Whiskers have a litter box that makes a wall of stink upon entering the apartment. They delicately explain that the acid green walls in the bathroom might make a better first impression if covered in eggshell white paint. These agents have concluded that "estate sale" doesn't have to mean an empty, distressed apartment and will hire contractors, rent furniture and even commission architecture plans at their own expense, sometimes spending thousands of dollars.

Their mission is to show - often by rolling up their sleeves and pushing around credenzas - that a property can get a higher price and spend less time on the market if it is clean and uncluttered. It sounds simple, but with several years of a strong seller's market, brokers are faced with people who do not even pick up their dirty socks, because they're convinced that their apartments will sell themselves.

If sellers don't think its worth some effort, they should talk to more buyers.

Lindsay Hunter and her boyfriend, Chris Guilmet, both actors, have been looking at apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn since October. "I think I'm particularly bad at looking past things that I find unattractive on a surface level," Ms. Hunter said. "I hate it when there is a flagrant misuse of space. Like if they can't find a place to put their shoes, how will I? If it is cluttered or unclean it really bothers me."

She remembers looking at apartments with dirty dishes in the sink and black dust on the windowsills. One apartment had an old laminate countertop "the color of tooth decay: a faux marble ivory with odd ribbons of red that made me think of pain." She peeked in a shower once, and "the owner's hair was there in the drain. I felt awful, like I had looked in someone's underwear drawer - a little too personal."

"I'm susceptible to charm," Ms. Hunter said. "If it looks lovely, and I feel like I want to live there, it is a little better. My boyfriend is better at pointing out that if we don't like the wall color we can fix that. I tend not to have much imagination about that stuff."

Kelly Cole, an agent with the Corcoran Group, is working with Ms. Hunter and Mr. Guilmet. She has cleaned litter boxes, wiped down counters and cleaned up accidents after pets while showing her own apartment listings. "I'm really surprised that people don't heed the advice of industry professionals," she said. "I don't know if it is denial or if people think that because it is a sellers' market it will sell anyway. But it is a numbers game. Who knows what you will get when you clean up?"

Lisa Lemisch Lazarus, an occupational therapist who put her Riverside Drive apartment on the market last fall, was skeptical about the idea of investing in an apartment she was leaving. Not only did she make back the $5,000 she put into the property, which was listed at $995,000, but she made another $100,000 because it went into a bidding war after 30 days on the market and is in contract for $1.1 million.

Susan Nierenberg, a broker for Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, Ms. Lazarus's agent, insisted that this was not "designing to live, but designing to leave," and aimed to make the cozy apartment into a spa-like environment. "It's as if you were going to a fancy-schmancy hotel for three months."

The 1,400-square-foot two-bedroom, untouched since Ms. Lazarus moved in 18 years earlier and did her own renovations, was repainted with a neutral cream color going over the lavender walls. White sheer curtains were placed on the windows to pull light in and a spray of bright flowers was placed in front of windows looking out to another building to distract the eye from the unappealing view. Ms. Lazarus spent two weeks sorting through her crafts supplies, packing up books and dishes and hauling away 20 years worth of National Geographic and Architectural Digest, with the help of her broker and her twin sister, Ellen Lemisch.

She also spent at least two weeks crying. Ms. Lazarus said it was a scary process to face the erosion of familiarity around her. She wasn't the type of person, she said, to have silk flowers and a glass vase of cranberries in her house. She was alarmed not to have any books around. She was hurt to have to pack away the china and move out the furniture. But among the most painful was painting over the bathroom walls.

"I had painted it celadon, this bright green color," Ms. Lazarus said. "As the painter is painting it white, I'm standing there with tears running down my face and he said, 'Let it go. Just let it go.' "

Through it all, Ms. Lazarus recalled, her agent was a cheerleader. "I would cry and she would say, 'No, no, no. There are no tears in real estate.' It was her mantra. It did make a difference. She kept me focused on the goal, which was to sell the apartment and get the most out of it."

When the work was done Ms. Lazarus told her agent that it was not her house anymore. Ms. Nierenberg, who has trained in staging properties for quicker sale, told her, "Then I've done my job," adding, "Every house speaks, and I control what it says."

She is also careful about how she deals with sellers, tending to bring in her partner to make more controversial suggestions, particularly regarding hygiene and odors.

"As the broker you are their knight in armor," she said. "The seller needs to have every confidence you love the apartment. You can't be the one to say, your apartment smells like a cat."

Occasionally that job falls to Dana Williams, who is the director of concierge services for Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy. and, among other things, arranges for the painters and cleaners to come into an apartment. Often agents will bring her in to tell a client that there is a need to clean up and clear out the apartment.

"People are very aware of it," Ms. Williams said. "They are almost embarrassed. Just selling their home can be emotional so you need a few people to be supportive."

But she can be tough when she needs to: "I've been pretty forthright if there is a smell, from a cat or smoking. They may not smell it, but it slams me when I walk in."

Most agents agree that there is no need to get rid of the pets (or children for that matter), while the property is on the market as long as they are out of the house during showings and a cleanliness routine is maintained.

Few agents have gone as far in transforming a space as Jacky Teplitzky, an executive vice president and agent for Douglas Elliman. She calls the two-month journey to transform an apartment on Gramercy Park North, priced at $1.995 million, her "via Dolorosa" of staging.

When she visited the two-bedroom apartment in the back of the building that had been occupied by a tenant for 25 years, and had no park views, she knew she had a problem.

"I needed to tell the owner she had to do several things," Ms. Teplitzky said. "At the bare minimum we had to paint the walls and redo the floor. Some of the windows didn't have glass in them. There was a hole in the wall." Although the owner was hesitant, she agreed to go along with Ms. Teplitzky.

Ms. Teplitzky arranged for a contractor to repair the walls, windows and some lights. The apartment also needed a "very deep cleaning," she said, and some charming objects to distract from the fact that it not only lacked a park view, it had a difficult layout.

She said she rented some furniture, because nearly everything looks worse when it is empty, and even hired an architect to draw sketches of possible renovations, to inspire prospective buyers.

"If you spend $10,000," Ms. Teplitzky said, "you might increase your price by $50,000."

Gus Perry, the principal broker and owner of Stein-Perry Real Estate in Washington Heights, said that he would never advise anyone to renovate a kitchen with the goal of getting a higher price. More important, he said, is editing out clutter, and engaging in constant cleaning.

"Clean windows, clean bathrooms," he said. "It can be the oldest appliances in the world. It doesn't matter as much as if it is clean."

Ms. Hunter, searching for an apartment, agreed. "Old is different than old and sticky," she said. But she said that sometimes brokers go too far.

She saw an apartment where the broker had lit an assortment of scented candles to cover a bad odor, but they only made the smell worse. "She clearly meant it to be a good thing but the effect was quite the opposite," Ms. Hunter said. She and her boyfriend were driven out, she said, "in a steam of an awful hazelnut, vanilla, ocean and rain candle smell."

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