Looking Like a Million Bucks

A husband-and-wife real estate team help revive a neglected mansion.
Exterior of Home

© Mark Pawlak

Who doesn’t get excited about a potential million-dollar listing? In this case, my wife and business partner, Wendy, and I went in with our eyes wide open. The 8,828-square-foot, five-bedroom, seven-bath property in Chicago’s western suburbs had lots of potential. But the immense challenges were obvious the minute we stepped inside. The carpet was in tatters and the rooms were filled with ratty, discarded furniture. The indoor pool was dirty and poorly maintained. Once upscale, the home had fallen into disrepair over the past five years after the owner, a retired Chicago-area car dealer, moved to Florida and began renting it out. It had suffered more than its fair share of wear and tear.

Kitchen Bathroom

© Mark Pawlak

SPRUCED UP: Even without a complete makeover, a range of improvements helped the languishing property to sell.

When we took the listing in February 2020, our client had already tried to sell the property with other agents for three years. He had originally listed it at $1.5 million and came down to $1.2 million, but he couldn’t go much lower or else he’d owe on his mortgage. We told him the plain truth: The home didn’t look like a million bucks, and he wouldn’t get the price he wanted without investing in some improvements. We asked him to commit to renovations as a condition of our listing agreement, which he did.

The property had interesting features that weren’t shining through because of neglect, such as the indoor pool’s unfinished cedar ceiling. It had the potential to be a vibrant, eye-catching detail but was faded with age. So, we called in professionals to char the ceiling using a Japanese burning technique, which finished and sealed the wood. We also had the second floor of the home recarpeted—the first floor was hardwood—and much of the house repainted. Even at a cost of $15,000, we told the seller, the work was essential to help find a buyer.

We were right. But no good deed goes unpunished. After two months of work to the home, we put it on the market in May and found a buyer within weeks who offered $1.05 million—$150,000 less than the list price but just enough to cover the balance of our client’s mortgage. The seller accepted it, but the buyer, who was self-employed, endured many financing hiccups—including having to switch lenders—which delayed the closing for four months.


© Mark Pawlak

The seller was growing impatient and wanted to cancel the sales contract and find another buyer. My wife and I told him that we’d do what he wanted, but we couldn’t guarantee we’d find a better-prepared buyer willing to pay this price. After some thought, our client decided to keep the transaction on track.

As if we hadn’t faced enough setbacks, one last obstacle to the deal literally came raining down the night before the buyer’s home inspection. A major storm swept through the area, causing heavy debris to clog the gutters. Because of the home’s atypical rooflines, which caused water to collect, a leak—and then a waterfall—opened in the kitchen ceiling while the buyer’s agent and inspector were there. I called the seller immediately. Luckily, his handyman came out within an hour to clear the gutters and repair the water damage. We showed proof of the repairs, so the buyer wasn’t deterred from closing.

The buyer sorted out his financing. and we closed in November. This sale tested our ability to remain calm under pressure and be a steady guide for our client. If we panicked, the seller would have panicked. We’ve learned to expect the unexpected.

—Mark Pawlak, Keller Williams Experience, Downers Grove, Ill.