Editor's note: As a special feature for April, the Street.com offers a 20-part series on virtually everything about real estate. This installment, which originally ran as part of Good Life, is Part 14.
In the current real estate market, sellers are going to great lengths to score points with potential buyers.
Faced with dropping prices and surging inventory, some desperate homeowners are offering to pay a year's taxes, pick up all closing costs or even throw in a new car.
Others are burying statues of St. Joseph in their front yards and hoping for a miracle.
But one factor is often overlooked: Although a house is the biggest purchase most of us will ever make, choosing one is often an emotional decision based mainly on love at first sight.
"People are pretty logical about their budget and the area they want to buy in," says
Gwen Gilligan, a Santa Fe, N.M., real estate broker.
But other items on the wish list are forgotten when the right place comes along.
"A positive emotional reaction will put your house high on the list for a second look," she points out.
And experienced real estate agents and professional stagers say there are a variety of tips and techniques that help stir those fond emotions.
Stagers help homeowners prepare their house for sale, either by suggesting changes to improve first impressions or actually doing the work themselves. Rearranging furniture and accessorizing with plants, throws and other cozy touches are all in a day's work for them.
In order to stage your house to win a buyer's heart, you have to disengage your own feelings so you can see what changes and improvements are necessary to attract a buyer.
"Once it's for sale, it's no longer 'your' house, it's 'a' house," says
Patricia Farrell, an associate broker with
Long & Foster in McLean, Va.
Try to imagine how a potential buyer would see your property from the first drive-by: Overgrown shrubs, peeling paint and a yard full of mismatched lawn furniture are unlikely to provoke warm and cozy feelings.
So make sure to keep the outside tidy, regardless of the season.
The lawn should be mowed, leaves raked, snow removed. The driveway, sidewalk and front steps should be swept clean and in good condition, and the yard needs to be clutter-free.
Pay particular attention to your front door, Farrell advises.
"People may judge how the house is maintained by how the front door is maintained," she says. "If the front door is not in good shape, people think the house is not in good shape."
Make the entrance more welcoming by painting, polishing or replacing the door, knob and knocker. Replace or repair locks that don't operate smoothly. If the real estate agent has to drop what she's holding to fiddle with the door, the entry doesn't present an image of convenience and gracious living.
Some homeowners have their houses
inspected before they put them on the market, in order to get a professional opinion about what needs to be fixed and to schedule repairs.
Keep your broker posted about any upcoming improvements or maintenance, so he or she can pass on the information to buyers. "Remove objections before they exist," says
Jean Leidy Veto, sales associate at
Prudential Connecticut Realty in Greenwich, Conn. "If you plan to have work done, be sure to say so."
Inside, the house should be spotless from top to bottom, including inside the refrigerator, microwave and closets.
Barb Schwarz, CEO and founder of
StagedHomes.com, advises keeping the home "Q-tip clean," using the tiny tools to wipe around the edges of baseboards and the tile at the base of toilets. Windows should be washed regularly, inside and out, while the house is on the market.
Declare war on clutter. As Veto points out, rooms look smaller when they're full of books, magazines and collections. Anything personal should be put away -- into storage if necessary.
The goal is to help buyers to understand what the house has to offer, rather than impressing them with your personal taste or possessions.
For example, they should notice the wood molding on the fireplace mantel, not the cute babies in the cluster of photos you have displayed on it, or they should see that you have installed new windows, rather than fixating on the idea that the color of your drapes doesn't go with their couch.
"People bring virtually no imagination when looking at a house," Gilligan says. "Anything out of the ordinary -- red paint, a bed angled in a corner -- will throw them off."
Be honest with yourself about the condition of the interior, and consider replacing anything that looks worn or shabby. "Dual working families don't have time to come in and do renovations, so they want a place in move-in condition," Veto points out.
She has recommended painting, refinishing wood floors, installing new tile, carpets and draperies, and putting in new bathroom fixtures.
But replacements should be kept neutral, says Sheila Black of White Plains, N.Y.,
Home Highlighting Ltd.,
choice as the county's best home stager. "Make it easy for people to visualize themselves in the house," she continues.
If you've been using a bedroom or dining room as a home office or TV room, Black recommends redecorating the room for its original purpose.
"Use a room for what it's meant to be. If they can't see it, you can't sell it," Black points out. "Sellers should create the feeling of going to a hotel, clean and sterile: People can see where to put their things, and how to use the space."
Pet owners must take extra steps to ensure their animals are not seen, heard or smelled during showings.
Buyers may be afraid of them or allergic; even animal lovers don't want to encounter pet stains or be accosted by a large or unusual beast (such as a snake or ferret) running loose in the house.
As a final step in preparing the house for a showing, Gilligan recommends leaving the lights on in every room and opening all curtains and window blinds. "The brightness will jazz up a home, that makes people feel really connected," she says.
Can't Somebody Else Do It?
Professional home stagers make the process easier for busy homeowners, either by walking you through what to do or by actually doing it.
As Veto points out, "A stager could make a difference in the time it takes to sell your home, plus it may get you more money."
Schwarz, the self-described "inventor of the industry," says that for hands-on clients, she goes through the house and prepares a room-by-room report, with specific suggestions for improvements.
"I tell them exactly what to do," Schwarz says. "Move the sofa across the room, swap the coffee table in the living room with the one in the family room, buy yellow roses with ferns and put them in your white vase on the mantel before the showing. They can follow the report and do it all themselves." She says the average consultation costs about $375.
For those who aren't do-it-yourselfers, stagers can be hired to do the actual work for them.
Schwarz starts by examining the house inside and out and preparing a detailed bid with a fee for the job.
Schwarz notes the average fee for a staging varies by region, the size of the house and the amount of work that has to be done.
The cost of staging a 2,800-square-foot house in the Midwest averages about $1,800; the same job would cost about $2,800 on the West Coast and $3,800 in New York. "The investment in staging your home is typically less than reducing the price 5% or 10%, which is what agents recommend if the place doesn't sell quickly," Schwarz says.
Coming up next: Vacation homes.
Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.