Home for Sale: 9 Ways to 'Stage' Your House

Last Updated Apr 7, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

With two in college and our youngest only a year away we've made some big changes to our financial plans in recent years. But the biggest, by far, is taking shape right now. We've begun to seriously contemplate selling the house.

Ugh. The market stinks. We've got two decades worth of stuff that will have to be moved or tossed. The paperwork. The hassle. The people traipsing through. There's almost nothing exciting about it -- except, of course, the opportunity to live our vision for the next 30 years.

Selling the ole place is gut wrenching to think about. We've been here almost all of our kids' lives, and I don't like that they won't be able to visit us where they grew up. For three decades -- and counting -- I've enjoyed visiting my Mom in the home where I grew up. It's comforting.

But it's just not in our plans to keep this house as empty nesters. We're in no rush to sell. We won't even consider a deal before our youngest finishes high school and is packed for the university more than a year from now. Still, we don't want to linger for years after that, and with that in mind I called our long-time real estate broker (we bought two houses through her and sold one) for a broad plan to get this done.

The bad news, plainly, is that the market remains weak. Our broker put together a detailed market analysis, based on recent sales in the neighborhood. If we wanted to move this baby quickly we'd have to be prepared to accept 15% to 20% less than I had been counting on.

The good news is that we are thinking ahead. Maybe market-bottom prices are occurring right now and the comps will look better in a year or two. But even if prices don't firm, the long lead-time is valuable. We've done a lot of living in this house, and through the eyes of a stranger it shows. With at least a year to prep we'll be able to tackle a bunch of mostly minor fixes without stress and in many cases without having to pay others and run up our credit cards. These fixes will make the house more appealing when we pull the trigger. Among the things I was told I should not do: invest in an updated kitchen and bathrooms. Doing so would help sell the house, but not for enough money to justify the expense.

If you are thinking of selling, you may have other items to address. But the "getting ready" list our real estate broker dropped off strikes me as widely applicable. Here it is:

  • De-clutter You want prospective buyers to see themselves in your space -- not how you live your life. So box up the knick-knacks and family photos. Keep the countertops and shelves mostly clear and the closets organized. I'm grateful to have a year or more to leisurely empty the attic and basement to make room for the clutter we'll want to bring with us.
  • Touch up paint Many of our walls are dinged and need both Spackle and paint. I was told to pay special attention to bathroom ceilings, where mildew may collect in corners and around the shower.
  • Remove worn or gaudy wallpaper We've been good about decorating with neutral, bright colors. Our broker told us of nightmare homes that have a lot more going for them than ours but which have been ornately decorated in funky colors and patterns. These houses are seeing no action. Buyers want nothing to do with undoing all that work in a house that otherwise is in move-condition (and priced accordingly). She pointed out some peeling wallpaper in one bathroom and said our living room was painted too dark.
  • Power wash and stain the deck A nicely prepped outdoor space can hook a buyer, especially if they are moving to the suburbs with kids from an apartment or an urban location. She wants me to put out the deck furniture and, in season, make sure the space is filled with potted plants.
  • Repair and seal the driveway This one bugs me. I can't do this myself and it will be expensive. But the driveway is the first thing a buyer sees. If it's not well kept they may wonder what else has been ignored. So it's probably a worthwhile investment.
  • Wash windows You want as much light as possible, and most buyers will peek at the view from the kitchen or family room. Dirty windows not only make the place seem darker and unkempt -- they call attention to the windows themselves, which may be dated.
  • Tuck-point slate steps and walk This is like the driveway chore. I can't do it myself. It will cost a lot. But I want to make a good first impression.
  • Test and insure buried oil tank I've been putting this off for years, and it will be the first item I address. If I have any problems with leaks it will take weeks and possibly months to sort them out. Might as well find out now.
  • Take pictures For the next four seasons I'm supposed to take flattering pictures of yard flowers in spring, my planted deck and outdoor space in summer, the fall colors in and near my yard, and even a fresh snowfall on our pine trees. These will be valuable when prospective buyers try to imagine their life in a house that has been full of it for nearly 20 years.
Photo courtesy of bsabarnowl
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  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.