Selling a messy house isn’t impossible. Some buyers can see beyond cat feces smeared on carpeting, overflowing trash cans, dirty laundry scattered all over and piles that look like they are from the TV show Hoarders. But it sure is a lot more challenging than selling a sparkling clean home.

Cheryl Kirby
Cheryl Kirby

Cheryl Kirby, a real estate advisor with Keller Williams Integrity First Realty and the co-creator of an instructional staging DVD for real estate professionals, Get Ready, Get Set, Get Sold, feels very strongly about a sales representative’s responsibility to advise a client rather than just stick a sign in the yard and put it on the MLS.

“I hold the real estate professional responsible as much as the seller. It’s the agent’s responsibility to advise their clients. And one part of the job if you want to sell for the best price and least amount of time is to roll up your sleeves, dig in and ask what you can do to outshine competition and win a buyer.”

Kirby continues, “There are basically three reasons people buy a home: location, price and condition. We can’t do anything about location and price is determined by market, but you can work with a real estate professional on the condition – that’s one thing you have control over. If the condition is good, you can sell at the higher end of the price bracket and sell faster.”

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What turns off prospective buyers in a messy house? An ING Direct survey into this topic detailed the list in no particular order – piles of toys, clothes and books in bedrooms; smelly bathrooms; grubby kitchens; animal hairs and traces of pets; overgrown lawns; clashing colour schemes; unattractive pieces of art; and items out of place such as dishes in a bedroom or newspapers scattered in the kitchen.

Two types of lifestyles

Jasmine Lee, broker at Re/Max Hallmark Realty in Toronto, is careful not to tell the sellers that their house is a mess or a pigsty. “I explain to our seller clients that the way you live in a home and the way you present your home to sell are two totally different lifestyles.”

She calls them:

“Living” Lifestyle

Homely, personal, more clutter (toys, office paperwork, memorabilia, private items) and easy access to items (things on counters, dressers).

“Home to Sell” Lifestyle

Decluttered, depersonalized, think model homes at a new home builder site, all items hidden and counters free of clutter.

Jasmine Lee
Jasmine Lee

“We meet with our clients in their home and make notes of what is needed to get the home showing its best,” says Lee. “After our clients sign up… our stager meets with them in their home and explains the process and what is needed from them in order to get their home sold. Our team stager, Jacqueline Onassis, uses our notes and adds them with her recommendations to give sellers a clear outline of what is needed. She gets them to tackle as much as they possibly can and then its time to dress the home for sale.”

Lee recommends using a professional cleaning service if needed. She says if your idea of clean isn’t the same as your clients’, “try to recommend a house cleaner or add a couple of hours of service complimentary to help your sellers out.”

Re/Max Hallmark Realty
Before and after shots of a room cleaned and staged by Jacqueline Onassis, team stager for Re/Max Hallmark Realty.

Buyers must be able to visualize themselves in a potential house but that can be difficult in a filthy place. The beauty of the home and any unique architectural features would be impossible to see. If sellers still aren’t willing to clean up, mention that homes needing work tend to take longer to sell. For sellers in a hurry to get a sold sign, this might be the kick they need.

One real estate agent interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous but wanted to share his experience.

“I listed a house that needed serious cleaning and I was unprepared for the backlash. Buyer’s agents were forewarned about the condition of the house ahead of time yet they complained incessantly afterward. In the long run, the majority of the agents were unwilling to consider the property. I would go so far as to say that my reputation was damaged.” His experience is something to consider, that’s for sure.

If none of your gentle prodding convinces your sellers to tidy up, perhaps the ultimate bargaining tool will work – money. ING Direct’s survey found that a messy house could cut $15,000 off the selling price of an average home. Richard Doe, ING Direct’s chief executive in 2012 when the survey came out, said that even if a messy house doesn’t dissuade buyers, it would almost certainly have an impact on the offers that sellers receive.

Offers on messy houses do tend to be considerably lower than the asking price. When the condition of the property is questionable, you don’t find many bidding wars, making it a relatively safe bet that any offers will be lowballs. Going back to the ING Direct survey, the majority of the people surveyed stated that they would use the mess as a reason to negotiate a lower price for the property. The average reduction asked for would be five per cent but one in 10 people stated they would ask for up to 30 per cent off the asking price.

Kirby adds to this point, “Is the home located in an area that is very desirable where people would buy the house no matter what? If so, is the seller willing to price it to compensate for the condition of the home? ‘Price overcomes all objections,’ as the saying goes.”

Lee has one final piece of advice, “Understand that your clients have given you their trust and confidence to sell their home. Be honest in the way it currently shows and offer solutions. They will thank you for it!”


  1. First published by Carolyne L as a contributing writer at Realty Times in then Blanche Evans’ editor column, this article went on to be a special entry in Blanche Evans’ first book:

    One thing is always true – you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s why the first impression your buyer has of your home is critical to how the whole transaction goes, or even if a transaction will take place.

    What’s the first impression your buyer has of your home? Is it inviting? In good repair? Clean? Attractive?

    Buyers tend to judge homes by cost and “move-in” quality – the less they have to do to move-in, the better and the more they are willing to pay. A home that looks like a lot of work will cause the buyer to make a lower offer or none at all.

    What can you do to assure that your home makes the best *first impression?*

    written by Carolyne Lederer -(February 1999)

    _Polish the front door knob, wash the glass/door and sweep front step area
    _Clear away any debris or clutter from front door, inside and outside area to make entry to home seem more spacious and to allow freedom of movement for more than one person.
    _Open windows daily for a few minutes to exchange stale air and/or cooking odors, mildew/moisture from hot showers and laundry.
    _Switch low-watt bulbs to high-watt bulbs while selling, and turn all lights on (even for daytime viewings).
    _If you are at work during the day, leave a radio on and turn on a couple of lights to make your home even more inviting.
    _If you’ve had stale odors in the basement, due to rooms being closed over long periods, strategically locate an open bag of real charcoal, or large bags of baking soda, to absorb smells and help keep the air fresh.
    _Wipe clean all kitchen doors on cabinets, then wipe an oil-soaked cloth over real wood to freshen appearance.
    _Empty kitty litter trays “daily” while selling your home. Buyers find full trays very offensive.
    _Pack anything you won’t use between now and moving day. Store boxes out of the way of traffic areas.
    _Rearrange furniture so as to make rooms look more spacious, and to create areas that are easy to pass without knocking over ornaments, etc.
    _Open dark drapes or blinds to lighten and brighten rooms.
    _Replace washers in drippy taps.
    _Play nice dinner music so buyers feel free to speak without being overheard.
    _Be pleasant but don’t volunteer information unless the agent asks for your help. Agents don’t like to be followed about while showing your home.
    _Make a list, for your own agent, of all the reasons this home appealed to you when you bought it. This will be a helpful tool when re-selling it, possibly
    _Some people are allergic to pets or are frightened of pets. Keep your pets outside, or in a sectioned off area while guests are viewing. Besides, pets are valuable family members, too, and we would want Rover to get away on us.
    _If you have unusual pets, eg. lizards, ferrets, snakes, pet rats, etc. board them out or get a pet sitter (at grandma’s?) until your home is sold. Most agents (or buyers) are terrified and will not show your home a second time. As, well word spreads like wildfire throughout the real estate community, to stay away.
    _Keep perfumes, air fresheners and smoke to a minimum, as many people, today, have life-threatening allergies.
    _Keep kitchen sparkling clean – and counters free of medications, pill bottles, and anything that small children could accidentally get their hands on while visiting during the time their parents are in your home. (safety first)
    _Valuables such as jewelry, money, Doulton figurines – should be kept out of easy reach or put away completely while selling your home; also, collectibles such as weapons, guns, knives or anything that may be dangerous.
    _An agent should be present at all showings. Do not invite complete strangers into your home. Just because your home is on the market, it is not an open-door invitation to the public to arrive unannounced. Call your agent.
    _Now after doing all that, pretend you are a buyer and that you have never seen your home before. Would you buy? Why not? If you have any why not’s left, take the time to fix them.
    * First Impressions* List reprinted courtesy ofCarolyne Lederer .

    Evans is a prolific writer, who is also the author of two real estate books. : The Insider’s Guide to Buying and Selling Your Home Using The Internet, Dearborn, 1999, was the first book of its kind and still the bestseller in its category, according to sales figures and Dearborn Publishing.

    **** in addition:
    For years this printed article was offered as part of a package left at every listing Carolyne took. Would be buyers were invited to take home a package of listing-related materials and this copy was part of the package.

    The information was generic enough in nature that no reader and or would be seller was offended by it; perhaps they had never thought about such things, relative to their own home at marketing time for their own property.

    Here is an interesting such notation. A copy of this article was in a package at one of my listings. The seller had relatives staying with them from Montreal, Quebec while visiting our area.

    I received a call one morning from the visitor, asking if she could take my package home with her, to her house that was on the market there, to show her own Realtor(r).

    This sort of situation often happened. Just another form of networking. Then of course her agent called for reprint permission.

    I always enjoyed this sort of interaction, that happened regularly. Point on point, this information supports the current article on this topic at REM.

    Link shows how article initially, and subsequently in Blanche’s book. appeared in 1999.

    Carolyne L


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