Real estate's premier selling season traditionally begins after the Super Bowl. Some local agents will tell you the spring market is already underway.
No matter how one defines spring, hopes for 2015 are high, given last year's numbers. The National Association of Realtors reported Friday that U.S. sales volume in 2014 was 3 percent below that of 2013, which saw a booming first six months and a tepid run July through December.
Housing's recovery was hamstrung much of last year by a shortage of salable inventory - that is, houses that met the dual criteria of being priced right for their market and being in move-in condition.
That shortage may have resulted partly from 2014's severe winter and an apparently widespread concern by prospective sellers that prices had not recovered sufficiently to warrant listing their homes.
What will attract buyers to the available inventory this year? On that the national Realtors group and some area real estate professionals don't fully agree.
The Realtors group suggests that smaller exterior home improvements offer the best-value investments for sellers. In its 2015 Cost vs. Value Report, done in collaboration with Remodeling magazine and available at www.costvsvalue.com, the association recommends projects such as replacing vinyl siding or garage doors as cost-effective.
Elfant Wissahickon Realtors' associate broker Keith Adams in Northwest Philadelphia doesn't see it. Today's buyer remains "more strongly influenced by the condition of the interior and the space/layout," he said.
Curb appeal may set the tone, but "it isn't, in my experience, the most tangible or influential home element on my buyer's list," Adams said.
Lynn Mundy Coggin, an agent in Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors' Jenkintown office, acknowledged that exterior improvements may offer the best value, but noted that "once a potential buyer walks through a new front door, first impressions of the interior are important as well."
No one, Coggin said, "should discount the power of paint." Once prospective buyers are inside, "they are looking for freshly painted, neutral gray walls, clean open spaces, updated kitchens with granite countertops, bathrooms with classic subway tile and, definitely, no clutter."
"Simple is the new chic," she said.
Elfant Wissahickon's Neil DiFranco said that "an attractive color palette and tasteful staging will make a huge difference on the interior without a lot of cost when compared with major renovations."
When it comes to tweaking a home's exterior, Andrew Himes of BHHS Fox & Roach Realtors in Collegeville said, "buyers are more willing to make landscape upgrades and other small outside things themselves."
They don't, however, "want the cost nor have the time to handle kitchen and bath upgrades on their own," Himes said. "They really want that to be done in advance."
All of which raises the question: Will would-be sellers do the necessary work?
"Most sellers don't want to spend any money in getting their homes ready for the market, but they still want top dollar for the home," said Lena M. Tella Gelenberg, of Re/Max Services in Blue Bell.
"A little improvement goes a long way," she said. "You don't need to spend lots of money to make a house show well, but need to focus on the things that will make an impact."
One example: those readily observed outdoor fixes the Realtors group advises.
First impressions can make or break a sale, said Lisa Fazio, of Weichert Realtors in Jenkintown.
"Attention to landscaping and gutters are also very important, since they can lead to trouble when it come to basement moisture problems," she said, and untrimmed or dead trees can create safety and liability concerns.
Patios, decks and exterior lighting, done well, can add value, Fazio said.
Of course, the risk of any renovation done for the sake of a sale is that the potential buyer may not like the choices made.
Said DiFranco: "One homeowner's perfect kitchen is another homeowner's demolition project."