By Robin Herrick

Anyone who turns on Home and Garden TV (HGTV) can watch as hunky contractors turn a dog of a house into a bidding war showplace in 30 minutes. The reality is, remodeling is often time consuming, expensive and stressful. But buyers in today’s market often expect a turn-key house a la HGTV.

So what can a seller do to make a home more attractive to buyers without a gut-redo of the entire house? The answer is easier than you think!

Many houses in Sandy Springs, Buckhead and Dunwoody were built in the 50s, 60s and early 70s, and have elements to them that scream “dated”! By swapping these elements out for fresh, updated, 21st century components, you give the feeling of a newer house. Don’t get me wrong, I love older houses; the build quality in many cases blows Atlanta’s new construction out of the water, but for the buyer looking for a shiny new penny, you have to know how to compete.

First, take a hard look at your air returns and registers. Are they bent from being whacked with the vacuum cleaner? Have they been painted over so many times you can’t tell whether you need a flat or Philips head screw driver to remove them? Are they just gross and old looking? Replace them! And here’s a tip: replace ALL of them. If you don’t, the one you leave will stick out like a sore thumb!

They’re easy to replace; you just unscrew one of the old ones, and bring it with you to a home improvement store and get new ones. Also, check that the one you unscrewed matches up to all the rest of the registers and returns in the house, or you’ll be returning your returns.

Another easy fix is the face plates for light switches and outlets. A caveat here is that if the switch itself is really gross, putting a new clean faceplate around it will make it look worse, not better. I’ve swapped out all the switches and faceplates in every house I’ve owned, and I’m not what you’d call “mechanically inclined.” I’m the blonde who was fired from the M&M factory for throwing out the “W’s” but I can update a switch.

There are a few important things to remember when updating light switches. The first one is to shut off the power at the breaker box. Don’t make yourself a candidate for the Darwin Awards. Turn the light switch on, go to the breaker box, and flip breakers until the light goes off. Or you can do what I do and just shut them all off, which messes up your Tivo but at least you know you’ll be around to watch America’s Next Top Model the next day.

Once the power is off unscrew the face plate, unscrew the switch itself and gently pull it out. If you see 20 wires back there, carefully tuck it back in and Hire A Guy. If you see one white wire, one black wire and one copper wire, you can easily update it. The black wire is the hot wire, it goes to the “+” designated on your new switch. The white wire is the neutral, it goes to the “-” on the switch, and the copper wire is the ground, screw that into the little green screw on the back of the switch. I take a digital picture of the original wiring setup first in case I get confused.

Go through the whole house, swap the switches that are these easy single pole, and mark the switches that are not. Then Hire A Guy (get a licensed electrician) to swap out the difficult switches and the dimmer switches (use the nice Lutron dimmers). Buy all the switches ahead of time, and have all the faceplates already off (unless you have kids). You’re paying for his/her time, so have it all ready. Have him check the work you’ve done with a voltmeter and tell him you’ll put all the faceplates back on when he’s done. You’ll save a lot of money this way.

You can also apply this to light fixtures; they basically use the same logic. Lights that can be turned on from more than one location generally need a professional.

Clean, fresh switches and updated light fixtures will make a huge difference in how updated the house feels, as will updated door knobs. Take a look at the door knobs in your house and on your closets. Yeah, cheap brass that has 30 years of fingerprints on it. Yuck! It’s really easy to swap them out with beautiful new knobs for around $10-$30 per a knob.

Just remember, do them ALL, because an unfinished updating project screams “amateur” and sends homebuyers running out the front door. One tip: when you’re removing the old knobs, have the door open! You can lock yourself in the bathroom when you’re dismantling the lock (this has happened to me twice) and have to crawl out a window. Unless you’re Homer Simpson, you should be able to tackle these projects with no problems.

Remember: read the directions first! If you want to see how a project is done before you tackle it, try checking out and type in “wire a switch”. I learn by doing, and watching professionals install a light switch when I’m stumped is helpful when the directions (written by monkeys with typewriters) confuse me. Remember, three things sell a house: location, price, condition. The easiest thing to change is condition!

Robin Herrick has so far bought/sold 4 houses, has been renovating her current house for two years (she has a very patient husband), and comes from a family of kitchen contractors, architects and hardcore DIY’ers. She has also learned when to DIY (do it yourself) and when to HAG (hire a guy).