Staging area

With home prices in the basement and the economy in the toilet, it's not the best time to sell your house, but circumstances sometimes force a move.

The first step is unloading your current home, and that brings us to Today's Important Real Estate Tip: To sell for a decent price, your home needs to look better than it ever did when you were actually living in it.

Real estate experts call this "staging" the house for sale, and they use the word strictly in a show-business sense, to mean creating a pretend world of order and style.

Basically, it means cleaning the house to within an inch of its life, accomplishing all previously-ignored repairs and making the place look as much as possible like a photograph out of Metropolitan Home magazine.

(When reading Metropolitan Home in the doctor's waiting room, parents may seem to be marveling at the modern, sterile rooms presented there. In truth, here's what they're thinking: "No children in that house.")

Staging your home isn't as easy as it sounds. First of all, your house is filthy. Yes, it is. You may think it's clean, but once you start rearranging the furniture and stowing stuff, you'll find crud you never knew was there. Secondly, you (and your children) have a lot more junk than you think. Thirdly, you'll see your home with fresh eyes, with all its shortcomings: faulty wiring and balky drains and jelly fingerprints and dappled carpet.

You've been living with these shortcomings for years, and likely have gotten where you don't even notice them anymore. But you'll see them now and, if you don't, the potential buyers will.

Selling your house boils down to this: People -- strangers -- come into your home and examine it closely. Your job, as the seller, is to persuade these people that your family does not live like pigs, and that everything is in good working order. You want these strangers to imagine themselves living in your house, arranging their own furniture in your familiar spaces.

If they can picture themselves in your home, they might buy it and you can get back to packing your junk into recently-emptied liquor boxes.

How to properly "stage" your home?

Let's start with the exterior. You want your home to have "curb appeal," which means you must freshen up the outside, tend the grounds, do something about those yellow dandelions that dot the lawn like dropped eggs. If the house's paint is peeling or you've got an old Chevy up on the blocks in the yard, you might need to hire professional help.

Inside, every surface should be cleaned off. Put away your knickknacks and bowling trophies and family photos. Potential buyers want to picture their own stuff on the shelves. If you can somehow get photos of their families, you might want to artfully arrange them somewhere.

The most common approach to hiding junk is to stuff everything into closets. Showing your house becomes a horror movie: "Don't Look in the Closet!" To keep potential buyers from opening closet doors, you may need to employ a basketball-style man-on-man defense. ("Put a body on somebody! Now!")

Once all your junk has been carefully hidden, you can go all-out in the cleaning department, rounding up dust bunnies and scrubbing toilets and scraping grime out of corners.

Work at it hard enough, and your house eventually will be sparklingly clean, and tidier than it's ever been before. The trick becomes keeping it in that condition while people parade through day after day. You thought it was hard to keep the house passably clean -- clean enough to keep the health inspectors off your neck -- wait until you try for Metropolitan Home every day for weeks.

Somewhere during this process, you will have two predictable reactions: 1) Why didn't we keep the house this nice when we were living here? And, 2) Since the current house has turned out so well, maybe we shouldn't move after all.

If you find yourself falling into that trap, take the one sure remedy: Go look in the closets.

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