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How to Prepare Your House for Sale – 5 Home Staging Tips & Ideas


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Professional home stagers are worth their weight in gold, and they know it. By making your home more appealing to prospective buyers, they can help sell it quickly and at a substantially higher price than an empty, white-walled, undecorated property would fetch.

But what if you don’t want to shell out the dollars required to nab a professional stager? Believe it or not, it is possible to do the job yourself – as long as you’re armed with the right knowledge. Whether your home is FSBO (“for sale by owner”) or you’re working with a real estate professional, use these steps to quickly and easily manage the staging process on your own, for far less outlay.

1. Learn to “TDS” (Toss, Donate, and Store)

It’s essential that you spend time sorting items throughout your home to be stored, donated, or tossed (and if you have a lot of items that need to be discarded, you may even want to rent a dumpster). This doesn’t have to be an overwhelming endeavor. In fact, it can be relatively easy – and even therapeutic.

Start by setting up your zones. Clear an area and post three signs to the wall, several feet apart, with removable painter’s tape: “Toss,” “Donate,” and “Store.” Go through the house and move into those three areas (or mark with sticky notes) anything and everything that is not stage-worthy.

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Toss anything you have not used in two years or more and is not in good enough shape to donate. Random junk and eyesores should be thrown away as well.

As you build your “Toss” pile, go by the old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and swiftly place items in the garbage or dumpster so that you don’t agonize over them. If that particular act poses an emotional challenge to you, assign this step to a friend, relative, mate, or able-bodied child.


Unless you have the time and patience to host a garage sale, donate any unwanted items that are in perfectly good shape. While you may not have not used an item in some time, it could make a huge difference to someone who desperately needs it. As the week wears on, keep carting these items to their destinations so you don’t hesitate or reconsider. Also, don’t forget to retrieve tax deduction slips from your local charity organizations – tax deductions for charitable contributions and donations can really add up.


Chances are, you’d spend a few hundred dollars in advance if you knew your house would sell quickly and for tens of thousands of dollars more as a result. So, rent a storage room at a facility or a storage pod from a moving company to painlessly remove “eye clutter” furnishings from the premises and store them for safekeeping.

Eye-clutter items are those you want to retain but may not be stage-worthy. Each day, transfer such items to your nearby storage facility or to the pod at your curb – just don’t have your pod removed until the house has been completely staged. Other last-minute items may need to be moved out as you work to reset the home environment.

Rent Storage Room Facility

2. Use Pro Cleaners and Handymen

When I listed a grimy estate property in mid-2015 that had not been updated or deep-cleaned since 1974, the seller wondered if he would need to cash in some of his savings to repaint the entire interior. I convinced him that investing $10,000 in a paint job would eat into his profits, not necessarily augment them.

What we did instead of repainting the home was hold an estate sale, and then we tossed, donated, and stored. We repaired items in need, replaced a dated light fixture and all bedding and bath accessories, and hired a crew to scrub the place from top to bottom.

The house looked so open, sparkling, and inviting when we were done that it photographed like a dream, garnered multiple offers, and sold in a week. What’s more, it sold above the asking price, for cash. Our buyer was an investor who wanted the home for a rental property and he knew he could turn around and rent it out without putting much money into it – which is just what he did.

Pro Cleaning

Cleaning services may fall under different headings in various locales, so check out “realtor cleaning services,” “commercial cleaning services,” or “residential cleaning services” online or in local directories. Depending on your geographical area, the size of the space to be cleaned, the services you need (carpet cleaning, for instance, costs more), and the number of crew members you require, you can expect to spend anywhere from $15 to $70 per hour, per person.

Spaces that need cleaning may include kitchen cabinetry and appliances (refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, and microwave), bathrooms (all fixtures and surfaces), bedrooms, living spaces, floors, ceilings, light fixtures, patios, and garages. However, you need to specify precisely what you wish to have cleaned before you receive your quote. Window washing and carpet cleaning is usually extra, while kitchen appliance and cabinetry cleaning should not be. Some cleaners work on walls, others don’t.

Recently, one of my Los Angeles clients paid about $400 to have a three-person crew scrub a two-story, five-bedroom home from top to bottom, while another LA client paid $800 to have a smaller, four-bedroom ranch cleaned. Los Angeles is an expensive city, yet the difference in price was due to the fact that the ranch had carpeting in every room except the kitchen and baths, and after the house was thoroughly scrubbed, the crew then had to spot- and machine-clean the carpet in each room, adding time and a “specialist” service.

Still, while $800 may sound like a lot of money, this home sold in a week for $30,000 above asking price, so the seller netted about $29,200 for his $800 expenditure – not to mention the savings he enjoyed from not having to carry property expenses for days, weeks, or months longer.

DIY and Specialist Cleaners

Pro cleaners are ideal, if possible, but if money truly is tight, go the DIY route or enlist the services of friends and family. Just keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don’t Miss a Thing. Baseboards, blinds, ceilings, ceiling fans, and switch plates must be sparkling clean, not to mention floors, carpets, drapes, fireplaces, kitchens, and bathrooms. Move furniture and clean behind everything. Remember, you’ll have to do this anyway prior to a purchaser’s walk-through – so do it now instead, and sell your house fast and for an optimal price.
  • Call in Cleaning Specialists. If carpets are soiled, even if you assume a new buyer will rip them out, have them commercially cleaned. Deals and discounts abound on the Internet, so check them out and search for promo coupons. If tile and grout is stained, make sure your crew can get them sparkling, or else bring in a tile-cleaning specialist. Nothing is a bigger turn-off than icky bathrooms and kitchens, and the cleaning process is more affordable than you might think. If you’re up against a real challenge, commercial steam-cleaning services may sometimes be able to steam the grime off your stove, oven, grill, or exhaust hood.
  • Wash Soiled Walls, Doors, and Door Frames. I like to be onsite as the cleaning crew works, and I usually arrive in jeans with boxes of gently abrasive cleaning sponges and a small bucket. Because cleaning crews may not always be willing to wash walls (some do not want to be responsible for paint that may come off in the process), I perk up any that are stained and yellowed while they tackle everything else. It gives me something to do while I’m overseeing their work, and the wall cleaning makes a remarkable difference.

Hire a Handyman

Once you get the place clean, bring in a professional handyman to quickly and expertly fix all the obvious eyesores – these may include large holes in walls that need seamless patching, kitchen cabinets that require touching up, and closet or passage doors that are sticking or begging for re-hanging. A handyman may also see flaws you haven’t noticed in ages. Realtors often have a favorite handyman or two on their resource lists, so check for a referral – you may get a discount in the bargain, since realtors supply their home-repair folks with a steady stream of clients.

Hire Professional Handyman

3. Prepare the Walls

Kill the Color

While you may not always need to repaint a home interior to stage and sell it, there are certainly times when it is needed. For instance, while you may adore that electric-green accent wall that you and your sweetheart spent a whole weekend working on back in 2008, I guarantee that your potential buyers won’t. They want to see a blank canvas when they try to picture themselves in a home, and a warm white or cream color is the best way to go.

Furthermore, while zingy green may be a terrific punch of color for a sofa cushion, it can drive buyers away. Use color only in small bursts: pillows, flowers, a bowl, or an accent rug.

Recruit your friends to help create some nice, clean walls in that black-and-teal bedroom. Or, hire the most reasonable painter you or your agent can find to make sure the project is done properly, with clean edge lines and all. Keep in mind that a new owner may want to repaint, so go for the one-coat paint-plus-primer products, and get the job done quickly yourself – or pay a professional less than standard charge for fewer coats.

A single room can cost as little as $100 to $300, not including the price of paint itself. Many stagers say that, dollar for dollar, nothing else makes such a big impact for so little.

Once you’ve toned down the most garish rooms, check the rest of the house for areas in need of paint touch-ups, and use any paint you retained in the garage years ago after the original work was done. You can also take a color sample to your paint dealer for matching. Just understand that you may need to repaint a full wall here or there to prevent blotches.

The Wallpaper Controversy

The issue of wallpaper is touchy, as fixing a room of dated wallpaper can be a costly undertaking. However, real estate agents know that few cosmetic issues stymie a sale more than dated or unattractive wallpaper. Removing it is labor-intensive and can be terribly expensive – and painting over it is a no-no. So, what to do?

If the paper is limited to a bathroom or a couple of kids’ room borders, stage those rooms with limited accessories (and use solid tones only) to play down too much pattern. Don’t be afraid to work with a dated look to make it clean and retro.

If a large or important room has been papered to such an extent that prospective buyers may cringe, go ahead and paper right over it with an economical version of a light, solid-color texture – for example, a linen or grass cloth look. Sand down and patch existing imperfections and bumps, and then prime it to reduce show-through. But be sure not to paper vinyl over vinyl, lest you create a vapor barrier that will trap mildew.

Labor-wise and for sale purposes, putting up contemporary paper is a good deal less expensive than removing it. The fresh and stylish result will sell not just the room but, possibly, the house. Certainly, papering when you’re about to leave a house is not an expense anyone welcomes. – but intelligent staging is all about the properly handling potential calamities. Maximizing gain (selling quickly for top dollar) and minimizing loss (not allowing a house to “age” on the market for months because it has limited appeal) are your top priorities.

Fix Wallpaper Controversy

4. Use Staging Logic & Objectivity to Alter Perspective

Understand the Value of a Professional Stager

Professional stagers are valuable because they come to each project with no agenda or bias. They have no emotional attachment to your home – they see it objectively, the way the public will see it, and that’s what you want to take advantage of.

A professional stager is an expert at solving the problems and addressing the quirks that your home presents, whatever they may be: no true dining area, no hall closet, dark rooms, strangely placed windows, too-small bathrooms, and any number of other challenges. A staging pro uses logic to assess any issues and objectivity to decide what can be done to best improve the picture while adhering to a budget.

Stagers have an uncanny ability to shift the emphasis in a home so that those touring the property see it with a wholly fresh perspective. For example, a house or condo that’s naturally small and dark can be made to look light and open. For a home that has too many traditional spaces, a stager can make a fresh-looking family living space out of a formal dining room, or create a modern office and functional entry from a previously pretentious foyer.

Use a Partner to Help You Envision

Short of paying for all that professional expertise, you can practice it yourself. With a little help at the onset, you may be able to present an attractive and logical layout that prospective buyers can picture themselves in. All you need is an objective partner, such as a friend or real estate agent who’s not afraid to walk through each room and candidly convey an opinion.

Why do you need this partner? Because you’ve known each room for so long, you won’t be able to get its decor out of your head. Your partner has a better chance of visualizing it as it was logically intended to function. And that’s how a prospective buyer wants to see it too.

Here’s how to begin the actual staging process, on paper or by playing with the actual rooms:

  1. Pare Down Furnishings in Too-Small Spaces. Suppose most of your excess furniture and accessories have already been tossed, donated, or stored, yet a space still looks crowded. Don’t be afraid to edit it. A bedroom may look a lot more inviting with a bed, single nightstand, chest, and mirror than with chairs, desk, and too many accessories.
  2. Add Furnishings to Barren Spaces. Place well-chosen items to better define stark spaces. Is a corner looking empty and cold? Often, a single painting or a willowy indoor ficus or palm tree can warm it up and add dimension.
  3. Move Furnishings to Enhance, Not Obscure, Focal Points. For instance, fireplaces and feature walls can “make” a room when the eye is drawn to them. Stagers often choose dual items, such as matching chairs or twin chests, to set off a hearth and mantel – and feature walls can be effectively emphasized with a series of prints or a single, large mirror.
  4. Use Furnishings Appropriate for Critical Spaces. Buyers are expecting to see bedrooms, living spaces, and garages, so be sure to convert your personal sports-gear room or crafting space back into that third bedroom, and your man-cave back into a coveted two-car garage.
  5. Depersonalize. After you’ve reset the furnishings and removed personal artwork, photos, knickknacks, and embellishments, go back and remove more – even if you think you’ve removed enough. A buyer may not identify with a house that says “you,” and who knows what might turn off your ideal purchaser? Get rid of bar setups, religious items, your Hummel collection, and the family photo wall.
  6. Be Clever. Here’s where your creativity comes into play. I once turned an archaeologist’s musty workshop back into a children’s bedroom by removing all the curios from two bookshelves, laying them down on the floor with their flat backs facing up, and covering them with fluffy duvets and lots of fun pillows to get the bedroom message across with two twin children’s “beds.” After that, it was all about a little night table here, a beanbag chair there, and a colorful throw rug – all of which I found in the seller’s attic. Get creative when staging, and you can catch a lot of buyers’ eyes.
Get Envisioning Partner

5. Stage the Exterior

Homeowners are often so preoccupied with their home’s interior that they can overlook a prospective buyer’s all-important first view of the property: the outside. Here’s how to make that impression a truly winning one.

  • Check Out the Landscape. Does the grass need filling in? Are the plants spindly? Would some mulch, white gravel, or cedar chips save the day? Do you have a porch that needs painting? Are there old, ugly plastic pots or pieces of mismatched lawn furniture hanging about? Do your borders and edges need to be refined? Are front steps cracked or are walkway pavers out of place? Check everything, then toss or store what you must to keep the area looking open and expansive. Also, be sure to sweep, if needed.
  • Recruit Family Helpers. Kids are great help when it comes to outdoor cleanup, so hand out the rakes and brooms and let everyone in the family chip in. This kind of project gets everyone involved in the selling-and-moving process, and you can even bribe the horde by offering a great dinner out afterwards, or gift cards to the movies.
  • Have a Friend or Realtor Perform a Drive-By. Have a friend or willing realtor conduct a neighborhood drive-by, checking out your house after swinging by the other homes in the area. In comparison, is the first impression of your home drab and colorless? If so, a fresh coat of paint for your front door (here you can use color) or on the front shutters can add great contrast. And go ahead and add a couple of “statement” potted plants alongside your front door for warmth and elegance. Finally, don’t neglect to add a new doormat and polish up your front lanterns.
  • Add the Final Touch. A few hours before your open house, wet down your landscaping and driveway, but don’t douse – you don’t want mud tracked inside. This prevents your outdoor areas from looking dry and dusty, and keeps everything fresh and glowing.
Stage Property Exterior

Final Word

When it comes to selling your home quickly and getting the price you and your real estate professional have targeted, basic staging know-how is essential. Even if you can’t afford a professional stager, you can certainly use these tips to your advantage, and even call stagers and invite them over to pick their brains.

Ask for free consultations and let professionals tour the home, hopefully giving you an idea here or there. You can always admit that the staging fee is too steep for you, and they may happily offer you a more affordable option. Even if you don’t hire any of your interviewees, each stager may leave you with a valuable tidbit here or there, and putting all their tips together could open your eyes, helping greatly improve the appearance of your property.

What are your special staging ideas and tips?


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Katherine Grayson has enjoyed a rewarding career as a business journalist and speaker, how-to writer, and B2B magazine editor-in-chief, helping people to live, work (and even play) better. She has covered the fields of education, fashion, finance, food, recreation, real estate, technology, and more. She is a published book author, a home design fanatic and stager, and a licensed real estate professional. Katherine’s greatest joys have been her two grown children - one a Huffington Post eco-journalist and author, the other a finance CEO - and their children, her three amazing grandbabies. She lives in San Diego with her BFF writer-husband and loves to watch the palm trees sway across brilliant pink sunsets.