Selling a house is a lot like romance. It really pays to set the mood.
Real estate pros call it staging -- showcasing the best side of a home to create interest and help you get top dollar.
"Because the market is so strong, the houses that are planning for maximum impact are generating the sales," says Ron Phipps, a principal broker with Phipps Realty and Relocation Services in Warwick, R.I.
Here are 20 tricks to selling your home from the pros:
1. Make room. Clear out as much furniture as you can. Put it in storage, give it to Goodwill Industries or have a garage sale.
"What you want to do is open the house up so it does not look cluttered -- it looks spacious," says Michael Love, president of Interior Options Inc., a New York interior design firm. "And people can picture their own stuff in it."
Hallways and doorways, in particular, need to be clear and open.
2. Use counter intelligence. Go through the house and clear off all the horizontal surfaces like kitchen and bathroom countertops. Old magazines? Toss 'em. Knick-knacks? Pack 'em. Counters need to be clear and clean.
3. Follow your nose. A home should smell good. That means no noticeable odor -- no pet scent, no stale cooking smells and no cigarette smoke. "People just don't realize how much odor plays into this," says Scott Griffith, president of ERA Griffith Realty in Brighton, Mich.
"And I find that people who smoke or have pets become so accustomed to the smell, they don't notice it," Griffith says. Instead, have a friend whose judgment -- and nose -- you trust give your home the real sniff test.
Remember the old story about the smell of baking bread or steaming cinnamon potpourri? Today's real estate pros say it's a no-no. Ditto the scented candles and air freshener.
"If you just go through with Lysol before a showing, that won't help," says Dan Lee, vice president of First Weber Group Inc., in Madison, Wisc. Instead, get rid of scent problems at the source: scrub the house, have the air vents cleaned, replace old, smelly carpeting and smoke outside.
4. Remember, the next buyer is as lazy as you are. If the property needs work -- dated wallpaper, ratty carpet -- have it replaced now so that all buyers have to picture is moving day. "Most people want it before they move in," says Myra Zollinger, an owner/partner with Coldwell Banker Realty Center in Chapel Hill.
The more changes buyers calculate they'll have to make in the home, "the more concerned they get," says Richard F. Gaylord, Realtor with RE/MAX Real Estate Specialists in Long Beach, Calif.
5. Do the baby test. Does your potential market include families with young kids? If so, ask yourself, "Would I put my child down on this floor to crawl around the room?" says Dick Koestner, a partner in Koestner McGivern & Associates in Davenport, Iowa. If not, you know what you have to fix. Likewise, if your walls sport grimy smudges or handprints, it might be worth it to paint.
6. Deep-six the cigarettes. Buyers are much more sensitive to cigarette smells, says Zollinger. "If somebody's a smoker, he doesn't smell it."
Having a smoker in the house also eliminates a lot of potential buyers. Many shoppers won't even want to tour a home if the owner is a smoker.
7. Make your home ageless. There's a difference between an old house and a classic home. "If the house looks 40 years old with 40-year-old paint, 40-year-old appliances and 40-year-old carpet, that's a hard sell," says Phipps. Keep everything fresh and up-to-date (read well-maintained) and you have a solid home in an established neighborhood -- a real looker.
8. Let there be light. "People buy space and light, for the most part," says Zollinger.
One dark room is "cool," says Phipps. "But if the whole house is dark, that's a problem." So open the blinds. Turn on all the lights. Add lights in rooms that are dark.
And if Mother Nature isn't cooperating with your marketing efforts, "use more flowers and things that suggest sunlight," says Phipps.
One seller who really understood staging was marketing her home during a spate of bleak weather. Before a showing, she threw a couple of beach towels over the rail of the deck, put up the sun umbrella and set out a pitcher of lemonade and some glasses.
"You want a space that's crisp and sharp and vibrant,' Phipps says. "Happy space."
9. Get a home inspection. Most buyers will have one done anyway, says Zollinger. Do it now -- and make any needed repairs before you put the home on the market. Depending on where you live, the service will probably run about $200 to $400, she says, and your real estate professional can recommend several good inspectors.
10. Learn to love white walls. When it comes to walls, color is popular. The problem is that the next buyer might not like the same colors. Paint is a relatively inexpensive way to make a house look clean and fresh. And if you're going to repaint prior to selling, stick with neutrals. "Despite the fact that it's more boring to live in, it's still an easier sale," says Griffith. And remember that white reflects the light best and makes rooms look their largest.
11. Take a close look at the carpet. Get the carpet shampooed to get out any stains or smells. If that doesn't work, replace it. "Get rid of carpet that looks dirty, soiled, stained," says Love. And consider, if you can, wood or laminates as an alternative.
"It makes the house look bigger and people love seeing the fact that it has wood floors," she says. "Plus it's a lot easier to keep clean."
12. Avoid controversy. If you have a deer head on the wall, you might want to take it down. It will be a turnoff to some buyers, says Zollinger.
Phipps advises his clients to play it safe with the books and magazines they display while showing a home. Anything provocative could turn off buyers, says Phipps.
13. Replace deteriorating wallpaper. If wallpaper is peeling -- especially in bathrooms -- remove it and consider replacing it with a coat of paint. Go with a neutral or match the tile, says Love. Likewise, if the kids' rooms need a fresh look. That way, buyers are looking at the house, not your decorating skills. And it's easier for them to see their things in the space.
14. Clean your closets. Sellers need to "empty the closets of half the things they have in them," says Love. Partially empty closets look roomy -- and space sells. Do the same thing with kitchen cabinets. (And if you donate your extra clothes and surplus food to a shelter or food bank, you won't have to worry about moving it to your next home.)
15. Harness flower power. Lee and his wife used this technique and sold their own home in two weeks, he says. "We spent a fortune on flowers, but I really do think it helped," he says. Their favorite -- wild flowers. "It gave the home a nice, softer feel," says Lee.
Showing your home on a budget? Go for less expensive bouquets, green plants or seasonal flowers from the yard, says Love.
16. Open the windows. "If it's a cool summer day, have the windows open," says Meg Werren, owner of It's About Time, a home sales prepping company in Fitchburg, Wisc.
Conversely, if it's cold and dreary, light a fire in the fireplace.
17. Take everyone's advice with a grain of salt. When Gaylord sold his own condo years ago, one real estate expert told him it would sit on the market because of the emerald green carpet in one of the rooms. But the home "was a showplace," he says, and a buyer quickly snapped it up -- green carpet and all.
"Putting colors and tastes aside," says Gaylord," if a person drives by and the home is exciting and it's showy -- even if your colors may not be as neutral as they like -- they'll be turned on."
18. Keep it clean. No dust, cobwebs or trash. "People looking to buy a home are extremely observant and meticulous," says Werren.
19. Set your house apart. Phipps recalls one real estate study in which potential buyers were shown many different houses in similar neighborhoods, all with similar features and amenities. The one that stood out? A home that had yellow roses on the dining room table. People not only remembered the detail, but they rated the home higher as a result, says Phipps.
"You need to give the home a hook," he says. "Something that makes it different in a positive way from the other houses."
20. Keep it real. You don't have to go to the extreme of one buyer -- who before a showing set up the bedroom to look like the night maid had just been through and pulled down the comforter, fluffed the pillow and placed a book open on the bed.
"You don't want it to look so staged that it's artificial," says Phipps. "What you want is for them to walk in there and say 'I could put myself here.'"