Home Improvement

These real estate firms renovate homes then recoup the cost after they sell

Even minor staging can help a home seller faster, according to the National Association of Realtors.

an illustration of eight people in blue shirts and orange pants working on a tan home with white trim. some are fixing the roof, others are fixing the windows, and two are carrying something into the front door.
. Associated Press/File

When Lisa Harutunian bought her grandparents’ Quincy home in 2017, she and her husband knew they had their work cut out for them. “It had my grandparents’ charm — floral wallpaper, carpeting throughout — and it just really needed some updating,’’ she said. After moving in, the couple pulled up the carpeting and refinished the hardwood floors, added a basement bathroom, remodeled the other bath, and removed a wall to open up the layout, among other projects.

There was more on Harutunian’s to-do list, but by the end of 2019, the couple had a newborn baby in their arms and a larger house on their minds — and they were running out of the cash and energy needed to put the finishing touches on the family home before listing it. In particular, the weather-beaten exterior — painted a dull, uniform gray that blanketed even the trim and shutters — was looking haggard. “We knew when we bought it that we needed to paint the exterior, but it kept getting pushed on our list of things to do,’’ Harutunian said.


That’s when the couple’s realtor, Leslie MacKinnon of Compass Boston, suggested a service the brokerage had launched in 2019. Compass Concierge provides sellers with upfront money to pay for cosmetic upgrades, staging, and other prelisting prep work, and then recoups the cost after the home sells. That helped the Harutunians, who had already found a house to buy, make last-minute improvements without using up the cash they had saved for a down payment.

The couple used Compass Concierge funds to paint the exterior and plaster the ceiling in the newly finished basement, at a cost of about $9,600 — which Harutunian felt was more than recovered in the sale price. “I was pleasantly surprised by what we were able to sell the house for,’’ she said — and proud, too, to be handing it over in better shape. “This was a family home, and so a part of me didn’t feel right selling the home without getting it into the condition that I wanted it to be in.’’

It was only after closing that the Haratunians had to repay Compass. “I was a little bit skeptical at first, because I figured there was probably a hidden fee on the other side or an interest rate or something, or I’d have to go through their approved list of vendors,’’ Haratunian said. “But it was so easy, and none of that turned out to be true.’’


MacKinnon, their Compass agent, does keep a list of contractors whom she trusts — but sellers are free to hire their own favored pros. MacKinnon has used Compass Concierge about a dozen times with similar success — often to pay for decluttering and staging. “Sometimes that’s truly all a property needs to be seen in the right way, is to eliminate 50 to 60 percent of the things that are in the house,’’ MacKinnon said. “If there’s gorgeous wainscoting and chair rails, fireplaces and mantels, maybe they just need to be cleared,’’ she added, so a historic home can speak for itself.

But MacKinnon uses the program for more sweeping updates, too. One couple selling their longtime Dorchester home had already taken care of the big stuff: rebuilding the foundation, putting in new heating and electrical systems, and replacing the roof. “And they really just kind of burned out’’ before getting around to the dated interior, MacKinnon said. “I knew that if we reenvisioned the ‘impact rooms,’ we call them — right when you walk in, whether it’s a grand foyer or a sitting room or a beautiful living room with a manteled fireplace — if we could at least get those in good shape, then we could help a buyer envision what they could do with the rest of the house.’’


The couple went on vacation to the Cape and let MacKinnon manage the work. “They basically handed me the keys and said, ‘We’d like to get $800,000 for this house — if you can get us more, that’s great,’ ’’ she said. MacKinnon hired a crew to take down wallpaper, paint the first and second floors, and repaint the cabinets in the 1960s kitchen. Decluttering and staging brought the total tab to about $25,000. “And it sold for $1,060,000,’’ MacKinnon said. “So it was a win-win for everybody.’’

Compass painted the old cabinets in the kitchen. – Samara Vise

Even minor staging can help a property sell faster and for more money, according to surveys by the National Association of Realtors, by making it easier for buyers to envision their lives there. But bringing a dated home closer to turn-key condition can help it appeal to two distinct and prevalent groups of buyers, said Brian Dougherty, managing director of Compass Boston.

The first are those who simply lack the imagination to see the potential of an outdated home. “We’ve all seen those shows on television, like ‘House Hunters,’ and people say, ‘Well, I like it a lot; I just don’t like the pink walls,’ and you want to rip your hair out,’’ Dougherty said. “But those people exist, and a lot of them exist. So for that tranche of buyers, we try to eliminate any sort of objection and give them what’s relevant and what’s perceived to be fresh and current, because they literally don’t have the vision to see a space otherwise.’’ Other buyers know what it takes to update a property, but — maybe because they understand the process, and the work involved — “they don’t want to bother with it,’’ he added.


Dougherty said the Concierge program helps agents tactfully broach what can be a difficult but necessary conversation with clients about their beloved home and the furniture within it. “In the case of someone who’s owned a property for 25 or 30 years, often they have blinders on; they think it’s perfect just the way it is, with the Laura Ashley and all the chintz,’’ Dougherty said.

But younger buyers are looking for the clean sophistication of a Restoration Hardware catalog, Dougherty said. “We’re not doing this for you; we’re doing this for the buyer who’s coming out of Boston who’s 20 years younger than you,’’ he tells sellers. “Because time and again, a buyer will object because they’ll fall into one of those two categories: ‘I can’t picture living in this space; it’s too much like my grandmother’s house,’ or ‘I just don’t have the time to deal with this.’ ’’

William Raveis debuted a similar program this spring, called Raveis Refresh. Lexington agent Stephen Stratford recently gave Raveis Refresh a try, suggesting his clients use the program to paint the home inside and out, replace rotted trim boards and railings on the deck, and do landscaping and staging — a roughly $25,000 investment he expects will add $50,000 or more to the final sale price.

“All of these items that needed to be done are the types of things that can influence people one way or the other, dramatically, even before they get into the house,’’ Stratford said. “If it looks like there’s a lot of deferred maintenance, and kind of run down because the house hasn’t been painted for a number of years, the tone is already set for them to feel like, ‘Hmm, what else hasn’t been done that I can’t see?’ ’’


While a few sellers have used Compass Concierge to fund big-ticket renovations, Dougherty said, most projects come in under $15,000. “It’s finding the sweet spots,’’ he said. “Some of the most impactful short-dollar improvements you can make are floors and paint.’’

Refreshing kitchen cabinets with a professional paint job and new hardware is another high-impact project, Dougherty added, especially for custom kitchens remodeled over a decade ago in tones of oak or cherry. “I mean, these were very expensive kitchens back when they were done,’’ he said. “It may not be the current look, but the quality is there.’’

Dougherty recently bid out a plan for a potential client in Cohasset that included refinishing the hardwood floors, painting the first- and second-floor walls, putting in new countertops and appliances, painting the kitchen cabinets, retiling the bathrooms, and reglazing the tubs. “That’s another huge impact for short dollars,’’ he said. “It’s about $600 to have a reglazing company come in to redo a cast-iron tub that might be a little grody or worn and make it look brand-new.’’

Of course, any home improvement project can suffer setbacks and frustrations. But MacKinnon said she’s had good luck so far, and Compass agents can manage the work at no cost, taking some stress off the seller. There are also instances where opening up a wall might reveal a complication, and the scope and price of the work may need to be adjusted, Dougherty said. “Ultimately, it’s really the seller’s decision, because it is their money. This is just an advance from Compass,’’ he said.


That advance comes fee- and interest-free, but is owed back once the sale closes. And in the event their home doesn’t sell, clients generally have a full year or more to pay back the money. But unless a client pulls the listing for personal reasons — one of Dougherty’s clients decided to stay in his South End home after making thousands of dollars in improvements — the updated properties are, if anything, easier to sell.

At a time when so many buyers are ruling out homes through online tours — with some even making sight-unseen offers — MacKinnon said it’s more important than ever to make sure a home looks its best and jumps off the screen. “If the property looks spectacular and it’s ready to go, they’re more comfortable in placing that offer,’’ she said.

Stratford also praised the power of staging to get more potential buyers over the threshold. “It will definitely give you a faster sell time, in my own experience,’’ he said. “And more than likely, the faster it sells, the better the price goes — because the longer you’re on the market, the less money you’ll typically get for the sale.’’

Look at the before-and-after photos:

renovate before listing


The dining room has a period light fixture that should draw the eye but seems lost in competition with the wallpaper. Samara Vise

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The dining room underwent a Compass Concierge makeover that removed the wallpaper and painted the walls and molding light colors. Samara Vise

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Dark walls and furniture make the space fill less cozy. Samara Vise

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The living room was brightened up with light-colored paint. The couch remained, but staging with modern chairs and tables and a white area rug added touches of today to attract younger buyers. Samara Vise

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Clutter and busy rugs and shelves make this entry feel crowded. Anfuso Imaging

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Compass Conceirge removed items from the walls, floors, and shelving, which helps buyers reimagine the space as their own. Anfuso Imaging

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Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.


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