10 tips to boost your home's appraisal (© Joshua Lott/Reuters)

© Joshua Lott/Reuters

The appraiser was due in an hour. The beds were unmade, breakfast dishes in the sink and toys scattered about the playroom. Would she care?

I got moving — and cleaning. At 34 weeks pregnant, that's not so easy.

After all, I know lowball appraisals can kill deals.

They can also kill a refinancing application, which we are in the midst of for our 1920s Georgian-style house in Queens. If an appraisal comes in too low, it's not worth refinancing, or you might need to put in a whole lot more equity.

We don't know how ours turned out yet, but after talking to a handful of appraisers, I felt great regret at not doing more to plan and prepare. Here are some tips based on those conversations.

Caution: Some of the advice — like home valuations themselves these days — might seem contradictory. But what all the appraisers agree on is the importance of keeping the look, feel and condition of the property as updated and cared-for as possible.

1. Spruce up the house. Appraisers say that you don't need to deep-clean under couches and that a few dirty dishes won't hurt your home's value. But rats, cockroaches and that car you've been tinkering on might. "Things like overgrown landscaping, soiled carpeting, marks on walls — those do affect value and are part of the property's overall condition rating," said Dean Zibas, the president and chief appraiser for Zibas Appraisal in San Clemente, Calif. In other words, think broom clean, not set design for a home-decorating magazine.

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2. Curb appeal also matters, so mow the lawn, hack those weeds and trim those hedges. This can also help offset your house from unfair comparisons with foreclosures nearby. "In today's climate, I can't stress enough: condition, condition, condition," said Doreen Zimmerman, an appraiser in Paradise, Calif. "An hour or two, for the most part, will set your home apart in the actual picture that the lender gets from the appraiser versus the actual picture that the appraiser will provide of the (foreclosure) down the street."

3. Keep a list of all the updates you've made and be ready to hand it over; a sketch plan of the house indicating square footage also helps. "Have a list of updating done within the past 15 years. Itemize each update with the approximate date and approximate cost. Also highlight the notable features of the property," says Matthew George, the chief appraiser of Eagle Appraisals in Denver. Remember the items that an appraiser might not notice, such as a new roof or insulation. Don't forget the minor items. For example, I mistakenly told the appraiser we hadn't updated one bathroom, but actually we had installed a new sink and had the tub sealed. That counts, the experts say.

4. Have comps on hand. Yes, this is the appraiser's job, but every little bit helps -- especially if you are aware of a nearby property that sold without the aid of a real-estate agent, says Mark T. Smith, the owner and president of Smith Appraisal Services in St. Augustine, Fla. That can mean it wasn't posted on the multiple listing service, and can result in other delays by the time it gets posted through other government data sources.

5. Be mindful of peeling paint. Loans insured by government agencies, such as the Federal Housing Administration or the Veterans Administration, will require peeling paint to be removed in houses built before 1978. But don't worry too much about a child's scrawling on his bedroom wall, unless it's going to require a whole new paint job.

6. Focus. "Don't spend money that won't yield a return on the investment. The best expenditures for most markets are paint, carpet, light and plumbing fixtures," George says. Prioritize what you do; if you're the type of homeowner who has upgraded and fixed items as they broke, you should be fine.

7. Location still matters. If there have been changes to the neighborhood, mention them, from a new playground to a new Whole Foods. If the area has been declared a historic or landmark district, let the appraiser know.

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8. Keep the $500 rule in mind. Appraisers often value houses in $500 increments, so if there's a repair costing more than $500 that can or should be made, it will count against the property. Fix leaky faucets, cracked windows, missing handrails and structural damage.

9. Remember the concept of "effective age," the age the appraiser can assign to a home after taking into consideration updating and condition. "Say you have a cracked window, threadbare carpet, some tiles falling off the shower surround, vinyl torn in the laundry room and the dog ate the corner of the fireplace hearth," says  Zimmerman, who wrote the book "Challenge Your Home Appraisal" and runs a website by the same name. "These items could still add up to an overall average condition rating as the home is still habitable. However, your effective age will be higher, resulting in comparables being utilized which will have the same effective age and resulting lower value."

10. Lock up Fido and Fifi. Appraisers say they get annoyed enough by homeowners following them around, but a snarling, growling dog is even worse. Along the same lines, try to make the appraiser comfortable — if it's cold out, put the heat on; if it's hot out, the air conditioning. "If it's 100 degrees out and you never put the air conditioning on, put it on for the appraiser so they don't question that your unit is broken," Zimmerman says.

With those things in mind, let the appraiser do his job. "Questions and banter may make the inspection go slow or make the appraiser miss something," said James R. Gerot, a residential appraiser in Ottumwa, Iowa. "My inspections have a rhythm to them, so once I get started, interruptions are just that. Save questions until after."