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How to Avoid the Top 5 Pitfalls that Cause Families to Overpay, Waste Time or Lose Money

by Tracy Wick, MUP, SRES®, Associate Broker –

Attorneys are experts at crafting estate plans that protect real estate assets, but where is the field guide for dealing with a family member’s house full of possessions when age, personal or medical reasons dictate that it is time to sell a primary or vacation home? Elders and their families are often overwhelmed and conflicted about how to approach the process; Logistics are further complicated when adult children live out of state, or out of town. Timely decisions need to be made, rooms of ‘stuff’ need to be sorted, and many helpers are required to move, sort, ship, donate, clean, repair, maintain and sell a house full of memories and all of its related antiques, art, kitchenware, tools, vehicles, lawn equipment, motorcycles, boats and other toys. The complexity of the process can unduly burden responsible family members, causing long delays, when it is widely known that a vacant, unmonitored home is especially vulnerable to vandalism, theft and weather damage. Therefore, a timely transition is in everyone’s best interest, but it is important to not cut corners.

Here is a primer on the Top 5 Pitfalls, and how to avoid them.

1) Hiring an unskilled team to clean-out personal property or wasting your time doing the work when an expert knows how to spot valuables and can sell items for top dollar.  

Risk – Throwing away items of value or selling them at garage sale prices. Giving away valuables such as jewelry, artwork, vehicles that could be sold. 

When it comes to personal property, each estate consists of a unique combination of assets; none are the same. It pays to work with expert appraisers, auctioneers, and clean out companies who understand the value of art, antiques, silver, china, jewelry, watches, fashion, handbags, décor, collectibles, electronics, computers, books, furniture, music instruments, toys and games, tools, vehicles, boats, and motorized toys. These experts have regular families, collectors and estate sale fanatics who will pay top dollar. The additional income derived from these sales more than compensates for the service provider’s commission.

2) Over-improving a dated house.

Risk – Extra work for no added financial benefit.

Family homes often need updates. Before initiating a remodeling project, have a clear understanding how the improvement will impact the market value, being conscious not to over-improve the property. Only make strategic improvements that will yield a high return on investment at time of sale. In March 2017, the National Association of Realtors conducted a survey to determine which home preparations yielded the highest return on investment at time of sale. Efforts should be focused on these improvements which yield the highest payback: Decluttering, Cleaning, Carpet Cleaning, Removing Pets, and Minor Repairs. Manageable, cost effective projects can easily increase a home’s value.

3) Letting a house sit too long in a vacant state without addressing insurance issues.

Risk – Insurance claims could be denied.

Theft and vandalism are not the only risks you may encounter because your home is not occupied. A major loss — even one covered by insurance — could potentially damage valuables and delay the sale by months. You can reduce your chances of having a major loss from break-ins, fires, smoke damage, and even water damage from frozen pipes by installing a central alarm monitored for burglar and fire/smoke and adding an optional temperature sensor to protect the pipes from freezing. The alarm system may provide a discount on your homeowner’s insurance rates.

4) Failing to institute a Strategic Caretaking program.

Risk – Vandalism and theft risk is increased.

The following simple steps can immediately help secure your property: changing the garage codes, changing the locks, and installing a security system. Interim property management can be outsourced to a property company or performed by friends or family members. Here are the best ways to make a vacant home look ‘lived in’ in order to reduce the risk of vandalism and theft:

  1. Arrange for mail to be held at the post office
  2. Pick up hand-delivered flyers, newspapers, and packages
  3. Ask a neighbor to park their car in your driveway
  4. Sweep front walkway and porch and keep clear of debris and cobwebs;
    stage front porch with an attractive doormat and maintain a tidy appearance
  5. Set up one or more lights on timers, so the house is not 100% dark
  6. Test all smoke detectors to make sure they are functioning
  7. Keep the exterior maintained by cleaning the yard and gutters, trimming trees,
    checking for leaks, shoveling the sidewalks, driveway, and winterizing
  8. Check basement and grounds after rain, severe storms or extreme weather
  9. Hire someone to check on your home regularly
  10. Stage interior with furniture to create a “lived-in” look

5) Calling contractors for repairs as they are discovered vs. bundling multiple repairs to be performed on one visit and obtaining multiple bids from contractors.

Risk – Payment of numerous service call fees, Lost time spent waiting for contractors, overpayment for services, increased frustration.

Having a strategy and a timeline will reduce stress and streamline the process. Before calling any contractors, take the time to develop a sequenced management plan. Make note of experts, contractors, and helpers needed. Consider whether you will have the house inspected and who can help secure and maintain the house during the transition period. When you have outlined a scope of work, bundle tasks and obtain multiple bids to ensure you are not over-paying for the work. Consider which contractors can handle multiple aspects of the project and decide if you would benefit from a project manager.

Property Protocol™

The Property Protocol™ system is a streamlined, turnkey program for Attorneys, Trust Officers, and Families who need to sell homes but do not have the time or desire to manage the project themselves. We understand that the process of preparing and selling a home and all of its contents is complex and can be time consuming and frustrating. Professional project management is available. To find out more about Property Protocol please visit

Tracy Wick, MUP, SRES®, is an associate broker, urban planner, and family & elder transition advocate who authored and trademarked a holistic real estate disposition system for families navigating generational transition. She has been actively working on multi-disciplinary advisory teams to understand and improve real estate acquisitions and dispositions and to optimize real estate outcomes for 25 years. Ms. Wick supports a network of Family Offices by designing and implementing strategies that streamline real estate acquisitions and dispositions, and achieve family-defined timelines, personal preferences, and financial goals. She can be reached at 248-912-7407 or via email at

[1]  2017 Profile of Home Staging, National Association of Realtors,