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Keeping up with upkeep on for-sale homes

Jessica von Wallenstein paints molding at her house in Hopedale, Mass., June 6. The von Wallensteins decided to repair and paint their house after plans to move fell through due to the economy.   AP Photo by Stew Milne

Jessica von Wallenstein paints molding at her house in Hopedale, Mass., June 6. The von Wallensteins decided to repair and paint their house after plans to move fell through due to the economy. AP Photos by Stew Milne

Rose Hanson
For The AP

Owning an unwanted house can be expensive.

In the 1½ years that Ed Tuttle, 31, has tried to sell his unoccupied brick one-story in Oklahoma City, he has hired people to mow the lawn, re-grout tile, stage the home, repair a squirrel-eaten hole in the roof, trap squirrels in the attic and fix a blown-down fence.

“It’s an absolute nightmare maintaining it,” said Tuttle, who moved to Rockville, Md., for a job. “It’s absolutely the most frustrating and demoralizing thing in the world.”

Homeowners who want to sell but can’t in the poor economy are unhappy to be doing repairs and upgrades they hoped would be a new owner’s responsibility. Those who have given up on selling or refuse to risk losing money on a sale are redecorating, landscaping and remodeling to enjoy the homes they are stuck in.

The number of people who moved in 2008 was the smallest since 1962, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cory von Wallenstein (left) holds a hinge for his wife, Jessica von Wallenstein as she attaches it to the door frame at their home in Hopedale, Mass.

Cory von Wallenstein (left) holds a hinge for his wife, Jessica von Wallenstein as she attaches it to the door frame at their home in Hopedale, Mass.

About 35.2 million people changed residences in 2008, down from 38.7 million in 2007.

The slowdown means a lot of people are living in houses they have outgrown, and some empty-nesters and others are stuck with too much space.

Michael Puhala, 38, said he and his wife bought the biggest house they could afford when they moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2005. Now they want a smaller one to free up cash for other expenses. They tried to sell their house for two years before taking it off the market recently after more than 100 showings, three real estate agents, one failed contract and one lowball offer, Puhala said. They had lowered the price from $1.06 million to $728,000.

People touring the home complained the kitchen was outdated and a neighboring house seemed to encroach on the lot’s privacy, so the Puhalas upgraded to stainless-steel appliances and planted two giant ficus trees out back.

Puhala said he was not willing to spend thousands of dollars to add granite counters or other major updates to the kitchen.

“In a buyer’s market, almost anything you’ve done to your house, it’s not true that you are not going to lose money,” he said.

Remodelers say home improvement projects often are less elaborate than in past years.

Joel Bell, executive vice president of Handyman Connection, a Cincinnati-based chain of craftsmen, said he has noticed more people staying in their current homes and deciding to spend money on remodeling projects they had always wanted to complete.

People taking on bathroom or kitchen remodels are more likely to complete projects in phases, said Greg Miedema, president of Dakota Builders in Tucson, Ariz. More are choosing to replace counters and fixtures instead of overhaul an entire room.

Some people waiting to sell their homes in hopes of a higher price are doing upgrades to try to compete better.

Jessica von Wallenstein, 25, wants to remodel the kitchen in her townhouse in Hopedale, Mass., because she has decided not to move until her home’s value increases. A real estate agent suggested she and her husband list the home for $235,000, which is $45,000 less than they paid for it.

“My heart just dropped,” von Wallenstein said.

So they’re delaying plans to move to a larger home, and Jessica’s husband, Cory von Wallenstein, will have to continue driving 1½ hours to his job in New Hampshire.

When Kelly Land first started trying to sell her house in the western North Carolina mountains three years ago, she said she was in a panic to get out the house and felt she couldn’t spend more money on improvements. Her family wants to return to the town where they used to live, about 10 miles from their current house in Barnardsville, she said.

But Land, 42, won’t go along with her real estate agent’s suggestion to lower the sale price by $120,000. With the house on sale for a third summer and showings slowing to one every few months, Land figures her family will stay at least two more years. She decided to spend $17,000 this year to hire an interior designer, and buy custom curtains and new furniture. She would like to put a kitchenette and shower in the basement and add to the landscaping.

“We’re never going to get this money out of this house at this point, but is anybody going to?” she asked.

“We feel like we’re kind of investing in our own life anyway.”

Some people who can’t sell have decided to rent their homes.

Tuttle, however, who lives far from his Oklahoma City house, said he hopes to avoid becoming a landlord.

He fears damage to the house, and doubts he would be able to collect enough rent to cover the mortgage payment.

He spends an average of $500 a month for utilities and maintenance at the empty house, along with the $1,600 mortgage payment.

Meanwhile, he lives in a house owned by his wife’s family in Maryland, and the couple can’t afford needed updates to the roof, siding and windows until their old house sells.

One comment

  1. While it sucks that we would have to take such a large loss on our house, we’re using the time to improve it so hopefully it will sell for more when the market rebounds.

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