Realtors love to show homes in the best possible light, and homeowners may even be willing to pay thousands to make that happen. But is “staging” your home for sale really worth it? Let’s take a look at the facts.

Staging a home isn’t normally the homeowner’s idea — it’s usually the sales agent’s idea. Remember, the seller’s Holy Grail is to sell your home, no matter what. So if the realtor feels the need to throw a few thousand dollars of your hard-earned income into a home staging project, well that’s just the price you’ll have to pay to ultimately take that “for sale” sign down off your front lawn.

That’s not to say that staging doesn’t work. Obviously, a cleaner, more polished home that cleans up well will sell faster than a home that looks like Marilyn Manson rented it out for the past six months.

The real question is, how much should you pay, and what should your priorities be, when you stage your home for a quick sale — at the price you want?

When considering a home staging project, consider the following issues:

In a market glut, you need your home to stand out. A good home staging can separate the wheat from the chaff in your neighborhood. Let’s face it — dirt-caked, cluttered homes with uncut grass out front and a pockmarked driveway are hard to sell. In real estate, image really is everything, and staging can help in that regard.

Hart Associates, a Philadelphia home staging firm, says that a properly staged home can sell for up to 10% higher than homes that aren’t staged (of course, that doesn’t count the money you’ll pay a professional stager to work wonders on your home). The International Association of Home Staging Professionals, which definitely has a horse in the home staging race, estimates that the average U.S. staged home sold for $26,000 higher than homes that weren’t staged.

What’s the budget? Theoretically, you can stage your home yourself — or hire a professional stager to do the job for you. If you opt for the stager, it could well cost you anywhere from $200 to $500 just for a consultation, and anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for a fully staged home, according to Realtor Magazine.

Where can I save? One relatively new option is to stage a “virtual” tour of your home. For a few hundred dollars, a good graphic designer can snap some photos of your home, then add some lighter painting shades or cleaner light fixture to the images. Once the touch-up is complete, you add the photos to the realtor’s marketing listings and Web site gallery. Of course, you’re counting on buyers not noticing when they actually enter your home that the house looks different.

What’s my priority? Professional home stagers like to “depersonalize” your home, primarily by removing family photos and even taking your kids’ artwork off the refrigerator. The idea is to make the potential buyers see the home as theirs — and not yours. You should also focus on decluttering by clearing space, especially in hallways, the living room and the kitchen, where people spend the most time.

Focus on the exterior. A good home staging also focuses on the front yard: The lawn should be neatly mowed and the hedges trimmed. Plant some seasonal flowers and make sure your car is washed — tires, too — if you leave it in the driveway. Better yet, park your car down the street and let the buyer pull his or her car into the driveway — that may add another layer of comfort and familiarity to the buyer — keys to the sale of any house.

The end game for any home staging project is to motivate a buyer to “mentally move in” to your home. A good staging process can help, but there’s no reason to break the bank in pulling one off.

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