5 Staging Do's and Don'ts

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When you're selling a house, you have about six seconds to make a positive impression on potential buyers. According to Professional Builders magazine, that's all the time it takes for people to decide whether they'd like to purchase your home. That means you can't rely on a stunning interior to make up for a poorly manicured lawn, or a prim bed of begonias to distract attention from peeling paint. Instead, prepping a home for sale requires attending to all maintenance and dècor details to create an attractive, cohesive presentation.

This process of converting a lived-in home into a show-worthy house is called home staging. Not to be confused with redecorating, home staging transforms the highly personalized elements of a house into an appealing blank canvas. A properly staged home should feel warm and inviting, but not worn in. As a result, a listing has a better chance of selling faster for a higher price.

Home staging isn't a one-size-fits-all process -- some places will require more of a face-lift than others. But the following five do's and don'ts apply to any staging project.

Do Clean Like Crazy

The first major step involved in home staging is clearing the clutter out of the house. If you've lived at one address for a long time, you've probably amassed a collection of junk, whether it's stacks of old magazines, worn-out furniture or useless knickknacks. Home staging is the prime time to start tossing the trash; after all, you won't want to take clutter with you to your next destination. An extra set of eyes can help you cull through the mess and prod you to lighten your load.

A staged home must also be sparkling clean. This is time to get out the toothbrush and scrub every nook and cranny. Baseboards, window frames, appliances, grout — all surfaces must gleam. To tackle larger jobs, such as cleaning carpets and window treatments, consider calling in the professionals.

Don't Forget About Curb Appeal

The lawn and landscape deserve as much care as the inside of the house; after all, they're the first thing people notice. When staging, you have to think like a prospective buyer. Would you seriously consider a house with a brown, parched lawn? Probably not. Get the lawn in shape and use mulch and bedding when necessary to fill in trouble spots. Trim hedges and trees, making sure that they aren't blocking the house's visibility. Flowers and bright-leafed plants add welcome splashes of color, especially around entrances. Possibly add outdoor seating or a grill to the patio and deck area — that added touch allows buyers to imagine relaxing and enjoying those features.

Also assess the outside of the house. Cracking paint, broken shutters and sagging gutters should be fixed. Put some extra thought into the appearance of the doorways; buyers and realtors will have an up-close view of them, and you'll want them looking pristine and welcoming. To cap things off, pressure wash the exterior of the house.

Do Stick With Neutrals

As mentioned earlier, home staging isn't another term for design overhaul. But if your dwelling needs a more dramatic makeover to transition it from family crash pad to model home, a fresh coat of paint can work wonders. Better yet, painting can have as much as a 150 percent return on investment. But if you're playing with color, stick with neutrals. Creams, beiges and soft browns can brighten a room without overpowering it.

Remember that the goal of successful staging is an attractive living area that people can envision themselves in. Choosing a bold palette may alienate prospective buyers, and too much color contrast can distract. To spice up a space, rely on tasteful furniture and accessories to do the heavy lifting. Professional home stagers may recommend renting upscale furnishing to create the polished effect. This may seem like a gratuitous expense, but if your high-class dècor fetches a higher offer for the home, you'll save money in the end.

Do Update When Necessary

Although home staging shouldn't involve much in the way of major renovation, spot updates can bring a house built years ago into today's market. Look around for features that date your house, including wood paneling, shaggy carpet and old appliances. These are immediate buyer turnoffs. Take stock of furniture as well. Is that loveseat a little too loved? Or maybe the bed in the master suite is lacking. In that case, a professional home stager may advise putting your old furniture in storage and bringing in rented replacements.

Home-staging experts also recommend focusing first on the kitchen, since it's the primary room that prospective buyers are interested in. Adding at least one stainless-steel element, for instance, can give it a fresh look for marginal cost. Even changing out the hardware on cabinets and drawers can make a surprising difference.

Don't Leave Behind a Personal Touch

For home owners, one of the hardest parts of staging can be removing personal signs of ownership. It may seem endearing to leave up candid photos, report cards and crayon drawings on the refrigerator, but they may be a costly diversion. Take down the family portraits, kitschy collectibles and even monogrammed towels. In order for prospective buyers to imagine living in a house, they can't see constant reminders of your presence. Just like selecting neutral wall colors, the dècor should also be somewhat muted for broad appeal.

Removing the individual touch may also include rearranging furniture to open up spaces. Bedrooms and bathrooms ought to showcase minimal personal items as well. Perhaps most importantly, a well-staged home gives no indication of any residing pets. Someone who isn't a dog lover may be instantly deterred at the sight of Fido's food bowl by the door or a leash daggling from a coat rack.

When it's time to groom your house for the real estate market, just keep in mind that people want to buy a place of their own — not one that has your signature all over it.