Dark kitchens with black quartz benchtops, ivy-covered home exteriors and a considerable amount of chintz might make some listing agents’ heart sink. And the San Francisco Bay Area’s Marin county, California, luxury real estate market is overflowing with large family homes featuring these design fads from 15 years ago.
But Pacific Union International’s top listing agent Tracy McLaughlin can see a home’s good bones through the cosmetic nightmares of her target area and help sellers capitalize on an opportunity. In fact, maximizing value-add on home renos is her stock and trade.
That early conversation with sellers about the home improvements necessary to attract top dollar can be tricky. By that point sellers have disconnected from the home and they’re reluctant to part with any dollars upfront. That’s when a concrete timeline, intel on the highest value remodeling projects, proven track record and the ability to persuade comes in for an agent looking to make the case for the big picture.
McLaughlin has lost count of the number of times sellers have quipped adamantly during a walkthrough: “You need to know; I’m not changing anything.” Yet by the end of the home tour, they have agreed to do $120,000 worth of work.
“We are all born with talents,” McLaughlin said. “Mine is to walk through fire and get people to listen to me.”
Counsel clients: ‘Think of your home as a bank machine’
McLaughlin does pre-listing improvements on around 70 percent of the homes that she lists regionally and typically manages to quadruple a seller’s return on those renovations. As no. 39 on the Real Trends/Wall Street Journal list for best-selling individuals by sales volume in 2016, McLaughlin is known for upping homes’ value.
McLaughlin’s proposed improvements usually include a comprehensive plan for design, construction and staging, with costs ranging from $50,000 to $500,000.
To get clients onboard, McLaughlin asks them to think of their home as a bank machine. “How many thousands do you want to come out of the machine? If you don’t want the extra money, that’s fine,” she tells sellers.
If they want the higher price tag (and of course, many do), they’re hooked.
McLaughlin says it can be especially hard for people who have just done work on their home to hear that more improvements are needed. “What I try to do is give a lot of education on other listings — and the numbers,” she said. “I’m very numbers based.”
She recently sold the “crown jewel” of Marin county’s Belvedere island — 2 Cliff Road — for $12.995 million. At $3,329 per square foot, the sale set a price-per-square-foot record for the county at the time.
Top 5 home improvements
McLaughlin’s top five home improvements are critical to helping sellers maximize returns. They include:
- Exterior paint
- Interior paint
- Staining of hardwood floors to dark or gray
- Resurfacing kitchen and bathroom counters
- Painting wood cabinets in the kitchen
She gives clients a clear timeline over a two-to-three-month period: home improvements on average take three weeks, with around five sub-contractors on the job.
During the reno, homeowners must relocate and live elsewhere, and as soon as the remodeling is complete, McLaughlin immediately has staging lined up, then photography followed by marketing.
In deciding where to make improvements, McLaughlin is pragmatic, weighing what buyers will truly worry about — starting with essentials like the roof. A pre-listing before inspection is a must and informs what she prioritizes.
Design as icing on the cake
Then there are the design elements that attract the attention of buyers browsing homes online.
“People don’t understand that subliminally, what is attracting them, is contrast,” McLaughlin said. “If everything is beige or light green, the consumer can click through the most expensive home and not find it very interesting. It’s the contrast that holds them.”
McLaughlin, a former journalist and broadcaster, uses stellar photography and two-minute “TV-style” videos with ambient noise, short interviews and lifestyle shots to promote listings.
McLaughlin would tell anyone: You need reliable contractors to achieve these types of projects and home transformations; she works with a contractor that she’s known for 15 years. “We finish each other’s sentences,” she said.
McLaughlin also has a stylist contractor, who edits, packs and moves people in addition to an assistant who acts as a private, in-house concierge working around the clock for clients — making restaurant reservations, suggesting local doctors and dentists, taking care of airport drop-offs, you name it.
And while her clients are happy, she works her magic: “I take what is a very unsellable, undesirable home in today’s market and make it chic,” she said.