You’ve made the decision to sell your home. But looking around your living room and kitchen, you’re not quite sure how to get from comfortable clutter to the camera-ready chic you see in competing homes.

Rest assured that you’re far from the only homeowner who doesn’t live every day like they’re in a model home, but you can get your house looking like it with a little staging.

Home staging is the act of cleaning, rearranging and remodeling parts of a property to make it more appealing to potential homebuyers. Professional home stagers are often brought in by real estate agents – or the agents practice a bit of staging themselves – to help homeowners make a house ready to show to potential homebuyers.

Staging ranges from simple decluttering to make a room feel a little less crowded to removing all the furniture and bringing in rented pieces for a more neutral palette. Not everyone is easily sold on staging their house in order to sell it, but it’s a key part of helping buyers picture themselves living there, with their own furnishings and decor rather than your belongings. Here’s your guide to staging a home for sale from top to bottom.

[Read: The Guide to Selling Your Home.]

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How Much Does Home Staging Cost?

 

Hiring house stagers. Professional house stagers can come in to not only determine which of your belongings need to be rearranged and moved out of the house before putting it on the market, but also which projects could be taken on to help maximize the final sale price, from repainting the dining room to installing new cabinet doors in the kitchen.


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Home service information site and marketplace HomeAdvisor notes that it costs, on average, $822 to hire a home stager or decorator for staging purposes, but on the high end this service can be as much as $2,500. While many stagers offer a flat-rate consultation to help give you some information, typically costing a couple hundred dollars, having a vacant property fully staged can cost a few thousand dollars.

Like everything involving your home sale, fees for home stagers vary based on location, demand and the amount of assistance you need; simple advice on ensuring your home is ready for an open house will be far less expensive than a thorough staging by a team of professionals.

Storing your extra possessions. One of the biggest lessons behind staging is to declutter your house – and that’s not just about removing miscellaneous papers on your kitchen table or cleaning up the kids' toys scattered across the living room, but rather it includes reducing the number of books on a shelf, swapping out an oversized sectional for a smaller couch and taking clothes out of the closet.

If you haven’t moved out of your house yet, there’s not exactly room to hide your excess belongings. Lisa Morales, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker West Shell in Cincinnati, recommends renting a nearby storage unit “to put furniture and other things in there.”

Depending on the amount of stuff you need to move out and where you live, a storage unit can get pricey over a couple months. But you don’t have many options, as stuffing the garage or backyard shed leaves your hoard to be viewed by potential buyers, who may be turned off if they can’t view those spaces when touring your home.

Furniture rental. You’ve moved out that oversized sectional, but now you need to replace it with something that better highlights the space. Many professional stagers own furniture to be rented while a house is on the market, or you can rent from a local furniture place while your house is still being shown by your real estate agent.

Jay Britto and David Charette are the principals of the Miami-based interior design firm Britto Charette. When it comes to staging a house for sale, they say it's typically best to utilize the professional’s stock of furniture because the home stager knows the furnishings that will appeal to buyers without detracting from the space.

“Use the stager’s furniture, not your own,” Charette says. “You need to be ready to move – plan on selling your house the first day you show it. Being in the mindset to sell immediately will help you purge all but the essentials.”

If renting furniture the entire time your home is on the market doesn't fit in your budget, at least consider the more ideal, rented furniture for marketing photos, then either leave the space vacant or move your pieces back in with more low-key staging afterward for tours. Since pretty much all homebuyers start their search online, the pictures of your home are just as important as a tour, if not more so.


 

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Which Rooms Should You Stage?

stand out in the buyer’s mind

 

If you’re still living in the house, a touch of staging to every room where you’re living is necessary. Piling all the extra furniture and castoff belongings into a guest room won’t go unnoticed by buyers touring the property – and may even turn them off if they think that room is small and poorly maintained.

Since the front of your home will make the first impression on buyers, Morales recommends starting to enter through your front door instead of a side door or the garage. By getting in the habit of entering through the front, you’ll be more likely to notice extra shoes in the foyer, a door bell that doesn’t work anymore or porch lights that have burned out.

Britto echoes the sentiment: “First impressions are most important, so pay close attention to the first room that will be entered.”

[Read: How to Prepare for Potential Disasters While Your House Is on the Market.]

Here’s a breakdown of the most common rooms to stage:

Kitchen. Homebuyers largely view the kitchen as not just a place for cooking, but socializing as well. Keep the counters clear of too many coffee makers, mixers and cookbooks, but set up the kitchen table or breakfast bar like it’s ready for a snack or brunch.

Bathrooms. Guest and master bathrooms are important. Keep all toothbrushes, shampoos and soaps out of sight, so no buyers are thinking about you getting ready there early in the morning. Have clean bathmats and towels that follow a color scheme to pull the room together.

Living room. Common areas are important for homebuyers to envision how they’ll be spending their free time. Keep all furniture appropriately sized so the space feels large, even if it’s not the biggest room.

Master bedroom. Keep the bed made at all times and add a couple of pillows and a fluffy comforter to make it look like a comfy space. Never let your laundry pile up on the floor. Don’t even let it all stay in your closet, for that matter. Morales says you want to make storage areas in the house feel big, so “thin that closet out by at least half of the things that are in there.”

Tricky rooms. Even if it’s not one of the primary rooms homebuyers care about, a weirdly shaped dining room or tiny side room can benefit from staging to help buyers figure out how the room can be used well. Instead of a queen-size bed in a small bedroom, a double bed can help emphasize the space that's there, for example.

When you’re still living at home. If your family is still living at the house while you’re marketing it, you can still stage the space, but it may need some extra organizing. Extra bedrooms in a vacant house may not get staged, but when you’re living there make sure to put kids’ toys away and consider repositioning the bunk beds or crib as far from the door as possible without blocking windows to make the room feel larger.


 

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Home Staging Tips

 

Keep your own style out of it. You may have eclectic taste, but your buyer may not. “The suggestions may not be your personal preference or style, but that’s not the point,” Britto says.

More often than not, you’ll find recommendations on staging err on the side of classic and simple, with neutral colors and the occasional accent color, and a traditional sofa, love seat or chair style in lieu of a gigantic sectional or avant-garde seats that can be distracting. You may like a little quirk or find that bright colors make you happiest at home, but that’s not how everyone operates, and you want to focus on attracting the largest number of potential buyers possible.

Less is more. Decluttering isn’t just for those other messy people down the street. Even if your house is clean, there’s some decluttering you can do. The No. 1 home improvement recommendation agents have for sellers is to declutter, according to the National Association of Realtors home staging report.

Take coats out of the front closet, remove extra Tupperware from the pantry and don’t let magazines pile up on the coffee table. You may have hosted a Thanksgiving or two in your dining room, but there’s no need to keep all 10 chairs around the table when six feels like a complete set. Move these items to storage, a family member’s garage or sell them to lighten the load before your move.

Keep pathways clear. When you’re arranging furniture to stage it for sale, the goal is to make each room look spacious and highlight an easy, sensible flow from room to room. Make sure each room has a clear path for homebuyers to walk from doorway to doorway and there’s no tripping over side tables, chairs or rugs that are sticking out.

Rearranging for these pathways may mean your couch isn’t properly positioned for ideal TV watching, which is OK when people are touring the house. If you have to unplug the TV and move it elsewhere in the room or to storage to highlight a picture window that’s otherwise partially covered, it’ll help buyers remember the room’s best features instead of your furniture.

Remove personal items. Part of your decluttering process should include removing all family photos, religious symbols and other personal items from view. If you have your kids’ school portraits on the wall leading upstairs, a buyer will envision your kids enjoying the house rather than their own.

Not only that, but sometimes buyers have a hard time removing bias from their mind when they’re touring a house, so avoid all possibility of discrimination by keeping any hints as to your race, religion or nationality private.

Keep it basic. From wall colors to furniture styles, keep that same simple and classic theme in mind. “Accent walls should be repainted in a neutral so that the color doesn’t distract the potential buyer. You want to make your home look move-in ready, and a blank canvas is the way for buyers to envision how their own art and furniture will look in the home,” Charette says.

While neutral colors and a traditional look may seem boring, the point of staging is to make it possible to see the potential for a space, rather than offer a specific suggestion as to how a room should be. Every individual has his own style, so it’s best to avoid selecting a wall color that may seem too bright to one potential buyer, or include a large antique chaise lounge that makes it hard to remember the rest of the room.

[Read: A Buyer's Guide to a Successful Open House.]

Always be ready to show. Staging your house doesn’t stop once the stager moves in new furniture. The house should be ready for a tour at all times. That means no dishes in the sink, no homework spread out over the dining room table and no wet towels on the floor.