How to sell a midcentury house full of original features — we hear from three experts

tips how to sell a midcentury house with original featuresThis blog is fundamentally about helping owners of midcentury and vintage homes find the products and services they need to renovate, refurbish, remodel and decorate in a style that is sympathetic to their house’s original style. It’s for folks who want to be in these house. But sometimes, yes, we must move out of the house we love. Fairly regularly, I get the question, more or less stated:

How can I sell my midcentury home — with all its lovely original features — when real estate agents seem to be telling me that what buyers want today are new kitchens, new bathrooms, granite countertops and neutral decor?

I’ve written before about what I think to look for, when buying a midcentury house. But to help answer the question about preparing to sell, I turned to three real estate agents who specialize in selling midcentury homes — modern and modest alike. The agents are in different parts of the country: Martie Lieberman in Sarasota, FloridaRobert Searcy in Houston, Texas… and Alyssa Starelli in Portland, Oregon… for their opinions. They did a great job with my open-ended question. Read on… and then we’d love to hear what readers think — especially if you have recent experience as a seller, or a buyer of an original condition midcentury home.

Specialists in midcentury real estate offer advice on how to prepare to sell

Martie Lieberman, Sarasota, Florida: 

Martie Lieberman is a licensed Florida Realtor, since 2002, specializing in the sale of modern and unique properties exclusively through Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate, Sarasota Florida. Martie is a Founder and past Co-Chair of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. She has maintained relationships with over 2,500 modern enthusiasts from around the world who want to purchase Modern Sarasota properties.

“Help buyers fall in love with the original features that drew you to the home in the first place.”

First up, I checked with Martie Lieberman, who I know from visiting the Sarasota area several times over the past two years. DH and I have been poking around, looking at snowbird condos to maybe purchase when we get closer to retirement. Martie’s website is ModernSarasota.com. I knew she would have thoughtful advice. Here’s what Martie has to say:

Question: How do I sell my mid-century house, especially MY HOUSE, with all its wonderful, original features?  As a Realtor who specializes in mid-century and unique architecture in Sarasota, Florida, I get asked this question a lot. My answer: Help buyers fall in love with the original features that drew you to the home in the first place.

Here is how to do it:
#1: Hire a Realtor that is experienced in working with mid-century or unique properties. Why? Because 9 out of 10 buyers find their own properties online now, but the websites those buyers use are still fed by the Realtor’s MLS system. So get it listed for the maximum possible exposure and reach more qualified buyers. Those interested enough to see your house will call their Realtor or yours, wanting to see it. It’s about numbers. The more people interested, the more offers, and the highest possible sales price.
#2: Hire a professional photographer. To find the best in your area, check out the high-end real estate listings, and look for the photography that shows good composition, good lighting, true color, and a sense of what is important. You’ll usually find the photographer’s website listed on the virtual tour or slideshow. For a very dramatic effect, ask your Realtor to arrange for a “dusk” photography shoot, like I did for this property.  Ask for as many photographs as possible, and don’t forget the details, such as kitchen features, bathrooms, storage, closets, etc. Have a slide-show or virtual tour made that tells a complete visual story about your mid-century house and all its best bits. Don’t forget to have your Realtor post a video on YouTube.
#3: Clear out all excess stuff from closets, bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchen, every room. Put things in storage temporarily, if you have to. When in doubt, remove. Less is definitely more in photos. Get to the bare bones of your house.
#4 Get your house inspected by a licensed real estate inspector. Understand what your buyer will find out, so you are ready to negotiate a fair price, or get things fixed before you sell.
#5 Have your house appraised. Most people get a free opinion from area Realtors, but if you really want to know what your property is worth, especially if your buyer is likely to get a loan, you will want to have this information.
#6 Make your house available for showings within an hour, but only to qualified buyers. Make sure your Realtor understands this rule, and says “no” to looky-loos. Have Open House dates scheduled so unqualified buyers, looky-loos and people seeking decorating tips can come see your house and tell their buyer friends all about it. But when qualified buyers are ready to see your house, open up and let them in so they can fall in love with your amazing house.
Good luck and have fun!
Thank you, Martie. You can see her website here.

Robert Searcy, Houston, Texas:

Robert Searcy is a licensed real estate broker in Houston specializing in mid-century modern, architecturally significant, and historic properties. He also works with sellers, taking advantage of his marketing degree and experience National Marketing and Training Director for a large property management firm to market their unique properties effectively. His expertise in mid-century modern properties has been recognized in Dwell magazine, Atomic Ranch and The Houston Chronicle.

…One person’s lack of updates is a mid-century enthusiast’s vintage details intact and unspoiled.  If you have an agent that understands this, you start out ahead of the game.”

Next up with advice is Robert Searcy, who I ‘met’ when he sent me photos of two recent time capsule houses, which we now know as the Swankienda and the Sputnik house. As you can see from his quick response to my queries, and by the fabulous photos, he is very much about marketing the mid mod in a way that makes it shine. That Sputnik house, he wrote me, went under contract within 36 hours of lising — and within 24 hours of our seeing it here on Retro Renovation. How best to get ready to sell your mid mod house? Robert said:
First off, the basics still apply, the house has to be clean, minor things need to be fixed, de-cluttered, etc.  Sometimes a little bit of neutralizing things & making the colors a little less personal still helps too, even with mid-century homes.
The first recommendation I would make is research to see if there are any agents in your city that specialize or are particularly knowledgeable about mid-century modern or ranch styles.  They are more likely to have sympathetic buyers because if any are moving, they may have researched and found that same agent.  They will also have a better idea of what to promote in verbiage and photographs.  I often times see very experienced and competent agents who just don’t have to be well versed in mid-century, fail to talk about the things that appeal to the mid-century niche market.  I have often said that one person’s lack of updates is a mid-century enthusiasts vintage details intact and unspoiled.  If you have an agent that understands this, you start out ahead of the game.
If you don’t have a mid-century specialists in your city, then you may have to educate and monitor your agent a bit more.  Make sure you review the wording and pictures that will be posted on the local MLS to insure the focus has been placed on your vintage home’s true assets.   Often times descriptions of perfect condition original homes include:   “Needs updating”  or “fixer upper” and comments along those lines.  They fail to focus on architectural elements that are appealing to mid-century buyers, such as poured in place terrazzo, roman brick, cove lighting, floating cabinetry, clerestory windows and other elements common to the period that are sought after.  I have seen the architectural details that are important to mid-century buyers that you would think would be more obvious, like skylight bathrooms or atriums, also fail to get mention in the description in favor of phrases like “ready for your remodeling touches” or “bring your contractor and your imagination.”  Or the worst one we have here in Houston, “great building site.”  Pay attention to what your agent is saying about your home.
I would also recommend googling around to find any message boards that might have real estate sections targeting mid-century modern and ranch house buyers.  A couple of examples include lottaliving.comwhich has a free real estate posting site.  Something as mundane as keeping it on craigslist can help too.  If someone  is moving to your city and is interested in a mid-century home, they may google “mid century modern or “atomic ranch” and if you have terms like that in your listing, it can pop up.  If you have a local message board about architecture or something along those lines, check those out as well.  Dig for any resources on line.  And if it is a really fabulous house, then send it to Pam so we can ALL see it!

Thank you, Robert. You are a good marketer, making me feel all special-like by reminding all your real estate colleagues to send me their hot hotter hottest time capsule photos, stat! Yes: Help get the word out. I especially am grateful for the permission to feature these photos so that we can archive them for all to see for years to come. Readers, Robert has a blog, too, check it out.

Alyssa Starelli, Portland, Oregon:

Alyssa Starelli says, “From ‘mid-century modern’ to ‘arts & crafts’, my background and passion for historic architecture and my comprehensive knowledge of Portland will make your home buying experience less of a chore and more of an adventure! I specialize in mid-century architecture, and I do really get it!! If you have a hankering for originial marmoleum, or knotty pine, post and beam construction, atriums and carports, I’ve got your number!!” Aly also co-founded the Portland Midcentury Modern League.

“… The good news is that there are always buyers like us, those who really ‘get’ it…. Instead of remodeling for quick sale, focus on the items every buyer and appraiser wants to see — well working ‘mechanicals’.”

Finally, I asked Alyssa Starelli to share her experience. I met AlyStar when I visited Portland a few years. She is also a regular commenter on the blog. I love her homepage which underscores, like we do here: “Whether it be granny… or modern… it’s midcentury, and we love it!” Aly’s take on our question:

I hear this question quite a bit, the good news is that there are always buyers like us, those who really ‘get’ it.  They see the quality of original materials, the beauty of period design, and ultimately if you’re willing to wait to find the right buyer, you will find them. Heck, maybe you’ll entice them with those buzz words ‘mid-century, vintage, original or retro’!
But, many realtors don’t want to wait, or work hard for their commission. They will come up with a bevy of reasons why you should modernize your home to reach a larger market, and sure, logically they’re right, everyone loves flipper beige, right? Or wait, maybe they’re wrong…!!
From my experience, you might even detract the right buyer by a haphazard, low-end remodel. What you will definitely do, is remove the opportunity for the purchaser to remodel (or not) in his or her own taste, and they will feel as they are paying through the nose for that slab of new granite they didn’t want in the first place. It will affect negotiations, and you may not see a return on those funds at all. [Note from Pam: See my cautionary story about remodeling ROI that the home remodeling industry tries to obfuscate, “Remodel and watch your ‘investment’ plunge.”]
So instead of remodeling for quick sale, focus on the items every buyer and appraiser wants to see — well working ‘mechanicals’. No realtor or buyer can balk at a new roof, a recently inspected well-running furnace, updated electrical panel, unobstructed sewer line, oil tank decommissioning, extra insulation, radon mitigation, upgraded plumbing, storm windows, etc.  If you spend money on a kitchen remodel, but your sewer line is bad, you are going to be woefully surprised by the double whammy you experience in inspection negotiation — that new kitchen suddenly doesn’t mean a thing! The same money could have been used towards something necessary, but now it’s lost in the cosmetic. Ouch.
Though a ‘buyer in love’ will buy a house dirty or clean, if you’re the detailed sort and want the most for your realtor dollars, take a look around your house — spruce up, declutter, and de-grannify! If things are falling apart, fix them! If there’s dry rot, cure it! If the paneling needs oiling, get buffing. If the Formica has popped up, glue it down. Prove to the buyers that this house is amazing vintage or new! Safely scrub, bleach, re-grout, paint (not the paneling!). Then after all that, if a realtor can’t sell that house, it’s the price that is the problem, not the house. Price cures EVERYTHING!
Thank you, Aly. Aly’s website also showcases her “Mid Mod Pick of the Week” — always great eye candy. And maybe the house in Portland with your name on it?
I have bought four homes in my lifetime, and I think that there is some terrific advice here. Thank you, all, Martie, Robert and Aly. One thing I heartily agree with: Whether you are buying, or selling, work very hard — do your darndest — to find a real estate agent who specializes in midcentury or vintage homes to work with you. Nix the “friends” or “relatives” this time around — get someone who knows vintage homes and is actively working this segment of the market. They will have a bead on the neighborhoods best to search… and, they are likely to be the ones with the earliest notice of desirable properties coming on the market (for buyers), or, of interested buyers coming into the market (for sellers.) Specialized knowledge is learned… earned.

What do you think, readers,
about the advice from Martie, Robert and Alyssa?
Do you have your own advice to share —
learned from selling, or buying, a midcentury house
with lots of intact original features?


  1. Compactc9 says:

    I absolutely love mid century modern houses, always have. And I definitely want a house, and my preference would be for a mid century modern house with its original kitchen, even the original appliances would be a huge plus to me a s a buyer, I want one of those ‘time capsule’ houses. I’ll probably have to find such a realtor when I buy a house, someone that knows how to find these things. In my eyes, remodeling the kitchen lowers the appeal of the house to me, even new appliances give me that same feel, I get the same feeling seeing a kitchen from the 60s as most people do seeing a brand new kitchen in a house.

  2. Fred says:

    Just came across this while doing some additional research. I am in Kalamazoo, Mi. and as a realtor, specialize in Frank Lloyd Wright and MCM. I would also recommend using Facebook as there are a MCM pages that work such as, mid century modern real estate world wide. Here I will also notify a group called West Michigan Modern and talk about open houses with them. They can draw a good crowd. Networking is a key for selling MCM in this area. Too many big, cheaply built, overpriced homes in this area.

  3. Dee abrahamsen says:

    how do I attract a buyer for a mid century home 30 miles outside nyc. east coast real estate agents not versed or enthusiastic about the architecture. prominent 1950’s California architect. forward thinking parents brought the aesthetic to the east coast in 1963. glass, brick, stucco and private property. thank you for any advice

  4. I’m a Realtor in Lincoln, Nebraska, where interest in original mid century modern homes is, I am happy to report, finally beginning. These homes are so well built, and built for practical living. I’ve sold several with original, 60-year-old Formica and ceramic tile that’s still in great shape. These are also some of the first neighborhoods with curved streets, now lined with mature trees. I hope to continue to spread the word about how these marvels are a treasure, and how gratifying it is to own a piece of history that still works for our lives today. Boomerang countertop, pink bathrooms, blonde birch woodwork–I love it all!

  5. Alan Packer says:

    Do you know a good realtor in the Phila. area who knows how to sell a retro vintage house which needs a little work?

    Alan Packer

  6. Kelsie says:

    As a real estate student with a fascination of circa-midcentury homes I found this to be helpful to my future career. Since I was 12, I have despised seeing pristine original features in a real estate listing only for it to be advertised as “fixer-upper” or “bring your best contractor” or something of the like.

  7. Dawn says:

    Had to come out here and do a search. My heart told me you would have an article on selling MC homes. After 4 1/2 years my husband and I are making the very tough decision to sell our our mid century modest home. We have done some updating but not much. I would say we have done more “Complementing” her style then destroying it. Met with our realtor two nights ago. Same one who sold us this house. And suddenly everything that she loved when she sold it to us, now needs “updated”…I felt betrayed and more than a bit defensive of my home…UGH. Back to the drawing board and trying to find a realtor who “gets” me and my house.

  8. Lisette says:

    Found this article in a desperate search after a host of showings and not so much as a nibble. All the feedback is the same, Kitchens and baths need updating. If you are in the market for a 4K sq ft. Mid Mod in Madison WI. look me up. Tons of them here and seemingly no one knows how to sell them. The buyers want what all their friends have, McMansions furnished with Pottery Barn. What I would give for an agent that knew how to educate their buyers!

  9. Brenda Reamy says:

    I was thrilled to see a realtor from my city (Sarasota) featured! I only purchased my house in December 2012, so I am not in the market to sell right now. But it is good to know that there is someone who ‘knows the mid-century’ market here. I thank my lucky stars that I bought when I did (before the real ‘climb’ started). My house has already increased in value measurably. I am also thankful that I kept my original 1959 bathrooms (not one, but TWO!). I also had my terrazzo floors (which are in every room…including in the shower stall!) refinished professionally. They will never look ‘brand new’…but they look a LOT better than before. I also came to another conclusion. I knew when I moved here that I would need furniture…the problem occurred when I was shopping and measuring for furniture I noticed that what was being sold ‘new’ in the stores was scaled too large for my 1959 Florida ranch home. I purchased most of my furniture via craigslist: ie: a complete Broyhill bedroom set from 1959 for $700 including delivery! Not only is the furniture scaled to the size of the house…it is real wood (not the fake stuff being sold now in the stores.) And even if I did happen to find a real wood set I liked…I would not have been able to afford it. It was definitely a win/win for me.
    The seller of my house had already taken care of the ‘big ticket’ items: The a/c, furnace, roof, removed septic and hooked into sewer system and most of the windows had been replaced. (Although the ones that were not replaced are still serviceable.) Since living here I have refinished the terrazzo floors, had the bathrooms painted and had the exterior professionally painted. I have also been concentrating on the entire yard: I have reduced the size of the ‘lawn’ by 50% and replaced it with Florida native trees, shrubs, wild flowers and vines from Florida Native Plants Nursery in Sarasota. Native plantings use less water and there is no fertilizer leeching into the water system. Another benefit to the native plantings is the increase in the numbers of birds in the yard and butterflies to the butterfly garden. Next on the agenda will hopefully be a small backyard pond!
    While I miss my daughters, family and friends in NJ…I do NOT miss the snow! I have shoveled my last flake. What’s not to love in Sarasota?!

    1. Christiane says:

      I love your post and did the same with my 985 sq. ft 1950 rambler when it came to furnishing it. I found two swivel-rocking tufted arm chairs at the thrift store and had them reupholstered; same with an amazing mid-century sleeper sofa that had small scale and clean lines. A Ward Furniture credenza with lots of drawers for storage. Also a mid-century teak recliner (reupholstered; the green tweed was far past saving). Latest acquisition for my small dining room – a Niels Koefoed teak dining set of table and 5 chairs at the local salvage shop. I would have liked an American furniture maker, but this set is so gorgeous and streamlined, it’ll be perfect in my dining room.

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