Walking into a vacant house is like looking into an empty jewelry box: Either you can imagine how wonderful it would be if it were all filled up, or you can’t.

Most home buyers fall into the latter category. It’s tough to imagine what your furniture and household belongings will look like in someone else’s vacant home. Unless the home is configured similarly to the home you’re coming from, you may have trouble relating to the space.

Some buyers like vacant homes. Buyers can take the time to slowly scrutinize the home and not run the risk of meeting the seller. But while an empty home might seem brighter and more spacious than if filled with the seller’s furniture, proportions might seem out of whack. For example, you may not be able to judge if the living room will accommodate your sofa set.

This translates into another one of the real estate industry’s accepted theorems: homes that are lived in sell faster than homes that are vacant.

While your furniture and decor might be completely different from a prospective buyer’s, furniture helps to define space in a room. Carpets, rugs and artwork help absorb sounds like footsteps, which would otherwise reverberate in an empty home. The smells of dinner cooking in the oven, perfume in the bedroom, and soap in the bathroom give a home an extra-inviting, dimension that says “real people live here and so could you.”

Of course, not everyone can live in their home while they’re trying to sell it. Homeowners get transferred, or buy new homes, and need their belongings to fill up their new home. In a bitter divorce, both homeowners may move out of the married residence, splitting up their belongings at that time.

If you are planning to sell your home and must vacate it before or during the sales process, you should know that a vacant home often takes longer to sell than a furnished house, and sometimes brings the owners less money.

“You’re not talking about a great deal less money, but vacant homes may take longer to get the (seller’s) price,” notes Larry Tims, a managing broker for The Prudential Preferred Properties, in Wilmington, Del.

They also require more work for the seller’s sales agent. “The agent should regularly check on the property, and make sure that there are plenty of listing sheets, seller disclosure forms and property condition reports for prospective buyers,” says Tims.

Managing the sale of your home once you’ve moved out can be more difficult, though less intrusive, then for an on-premises seller. Consider following these suggestions:

Clean up. Empty houses have a way of attracting dust balls the size of hockey pucks, so make sure your home is as clean as possible. That may mean hiring a cleaning service from time to time, particularly if your home has sat on the market for more than three months. Tims suggests shampooing rugs and carpeting, polishing hardwood floors, and waxing vinyl kitchen and bathroom floors. “Your furniture may have left dirt marks on the carpeting. Besides removing stains, shampooing should help freshen up the odor of the place,” he says.

Keep utilities on. It’s important that the electricity, water, and gas heat work when your home is being shown to a prospective buyer. Buyers will want to see homes in the light and test appliances to make sure they are working. During cold weather, home buyers will appreciate walking into a warm room.

Maintain the exterior. Mow the lawn, trim the hedges, and pick up any debris or garbage that has accumulated. Your listing agent should check the property regularly to make sure its curb appeal hasn’t dwindled with time. He or she should also replenish listing sheets, property inspection reports and seller disclosure forms, and check for any garbage or business cards left by visiting agents, as well as for property damage or acts of vandalism.

Maintain the interior. Replace all installed light fixtures with fresh bulbs with as high a wattage as possible. Provide floor lamps for rooms that don’t have ceiling lights. “If agents bring prospective buyers after dark, having lights that work will be important to show the property,” says Tims.

Real estate professionals debate the merits of leaving a few pieces of furniture to make the home look more cozy. That plan can backfire by making your living room look more like a warehouse than someplace a buyer would want to live.

Above all, price your vacant home competitively. Walking into a vacant home, a buyer will infer that the seller is motivated and may even be paying two mortgages. If you inflate the listing price of your vacant home, you run the risk of confusing the buyer with mixed messages.

Published: Feb 4, 2005