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Cinderella story

Often, an unassuming house in a desirable neighborhood can be prettied up and transformed into a dream home.

By TERESA BURNEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


Shopping for a home can be depressing as prices continue to rise, knocking some people out of the market and forcing others to settle for less than they had hoped for.

But there is a way to make your money stretch further. Instead of looking for your dream home with the flowers out front and the perfect kitchen inside, consider looking for a "Cinderella" house with the potential to become your dream house.

Cinderella houses are the most unassuming in the neighborhood. They have weeds outside and avocado-color shag carpet and harvest gold appliances inside. They are structurally sound and in a desirable neighborhood but often are bargain-priced and have been on the market a while because few people can see beyond the cosmetics.

Bill Smith, an appraiser for Bowman-Hoel and Associates Inc. in St. Petersburg, said you can find such houses by driving around neighborhoods where you want to live. Instead of looking for the house you want to move into, look for the one where the yard is overgrown and the window screens have holes.

"We have a phrase for that," he said. "That's a house that needs to be sold."

When a house needs to be sold, the owner is willing to discount it to get it off his hands fast, Smith said.

Still, buyers need to be cautious. You want to find a house that has what Smith calls "valuable deficiencies": cosmetic problems that detract seriously from the home's sale price but which can be corrected for relatively little money.

Valuable deficiencies would include holes in the drywall or walls painted black. Drywall is easily patched, and you can paint a room inexpensively.

A home inspection is a must for such homes, real estate agents say. Such an inspection can keep you from buying a home with major structural problems.

It also helps to know the cost of new carpeting, paint and refinishing floors before negotiating to buy, so you will know how much extra cash you will need to make the improvements.

Figure out how much of the work you are willing to do yourself, and be aware that there is a wide range of costs for renovating a house.

Marilyn Bergman-Perez, an agent for Coldwell Banker Westshore realty company in Tampa, remembers a fixer-upper she bought a few years ago that had a horrible kitchen.

Instead of replacing the wooden cabinets, she and her husband hired a carpenter to dress them up with inexpensive molding, replaced the hardware and painted them white.

They also refinished, rather than replaced, the sink and replaced the old Formica counter top with some nice-looking but reasonably priced laminate. They left the floor tile, which wasn't in great shape, but it was hardly noticeable with everything else gleaming.

"I couldn't even believe it myself," she said. "It was fresh and new and looked good."

Bathrooms also can be improved quickly by replacing things such as faucets and the toilet. Bathtubs can be refinished rather than replaced. That can spare the price of replacing the tile, which usually gets damaged when the old tub is removed.

But buyers should think carefully about every decision they make, Smith said. They need to know how long they plan to live in the house. For instance, if you plan to live there only a few years, a $40 faucet may do just fine, rather than a $100 one. Or you might choose to replace the vinyl flooring with more vinyl rather than ceramic tile.

Bergman-Perez thinks one of the best investments these days is to buy a sturdy ranch-style house. They often are concrete block, so they have fewer problems with termites, she said. Just make sure the house has a good roof and central heat and air conditioning, because those could be major expenses.

"They transform into doll houses," she said. You can add window boxes and shutters, replace a few of the old-style windows with single-hung ones. If you don't want to replace all the windows, just doing the ones on the front of the home will improve its street appeal, she said.

Landscaping also can dramatically improve the appeal of a house, agents say. Colorful annuals and mulch help. As far as the grass goes, you don't always have to spring for new sod. Sometimes water, fertilizer and time will bring a lawn back around.

One reason homes that need help often languish on the market is that most home buyers immediately are turned off by them.

"The majority of people are looking for a house that is just about ready to move into," said Allen Rice of Buyer's Best Realty in Clearwater.

Others just can't imagine a home could look nice with relatively little effort, Bergman-Perez said.

"They give up on a house because it doesn't have a lot of curb appeal," she said.

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