How to stage your home on a budget

Ask the Expert
The counters in this kitchen are bare save for a coffee maker. Decluttering and organization are key to a staging a home for sale, experts say. Victoria Aude/VV Interiors

You get one chance to make a first impression, as the adage goes, and that’s apparent when selling a house.

There are plenty of reasons to stage a house before it goes to market — the hope of a bigger offer and a faster sale — but it also may keep you from getting a low-ball bid.

A study by the National Association of Realtors, published in 2019, showed that 96 percent of sellers thought staging had an impact on their home sales, either by helping them sell faster or boosting the price. Staging a house can increase the sale price by $400 for every $100 invested, according to the report.

“Even in a hot market, a well-staged home is more likely to receive more offers and sell for a higher price than a comparable home that is not staged,” said Sarah Cole, owner of Sarah C. Interiors, a Newton-based design firm.

To be sure, staging can be expensive — costing thousands, depending on the service you retain. If this isn’t in your budget, don’t fret. There are ways to boost your home’s appeal without breaking the bank.

Enter DIY staging.

Many professional stagers, included the three experts consulted for this story, say the best way to improve your home’s “sale-ability” is to remove clutter. And, yes, that includes the closets.

“Potential buyers decide within minutes whether or not they like the house,” Cole said, and the way to win over buyers is to clean and neutralize.

If you’re short on time, the experts said, these are the spaces where you should spend the most energy and effort: the mudroom, kitchen, and living and dining rooms.

Minimize the number of objects you have on shelves, Cole said, but don’t leave rooms completely empty. Counters and other surfaces, however, should be completely clear. “Even small appliances such as coffee makers and toasters should be removed,” Cole said. “The goal is to make kitchen and bathroom counters look as clean and spacious as possible. Fresh flowers in the center of an island or a small arrangement in the bathroom are the only exceptions.”

Plants added freshness and a natural element to this staged kitchen. —Nicole Olenio-Blackshire
This staged bathroom is free of personal items. —Nicole Olenio-Blackshire

The rationale behind staging is helping buyers imagine the house as theirs, said Victoria Aude, owner of Canton-based VV Interiors. That means taking down those beloved family photos.

In the living room, add a vase of fresh flowers and pull the furniture away from the wall to make the room appear larger, Aude said.

“If you’re selling during a holiday season, add a few seasonal decors like pumpkins during the fall and a bowl of pine cones in the winter,” she said.

If you have a fireplace, feel free to light it.

For the bathrooms and bedrooms, she said, check that the linens match, buy white towels and new bedding (white or another neutral color) from a discount store, and light a candle for the showing.

Aude cautions against adding strong-smelling scents to any room, so forgo potpourri and heavily perfumed candles. Buyers may be allergic to perfumes.

It’s also important to look for broken or mismatched fixtures such as pulls, knobs, and light switches that need replacing, Aude said. “You can get all new kitchen pulls and knobs for less than $30 and light fixtures like bathroom sconces for $50.”

Cole suggested painting the walls a neutral color, if you have time. “You might love yellow, but not everyone does,” she said.

But if you absolutely need to save money, deep-cleaning and organizing are the least you should do.

Be sure to scrub the walls and baseboards, open the shades, air out your home, and eliminate or cover pet and food odors, Aude said.

“No pets should be present, and it is highly recommended to remove all evidence of them,” Aude said. “Some people are afraid or allergic, and others believe pets make a home smell.”

Even when people get their houses professionally cleaned, it does not deal with the problem of clutter and disorder, said Nicole Olenio-Blackshire, a personal organizer and owner of Newton-based Neat Nic.

“Most buyers cannot see past the clutter,” she said.

BEFORE: The dining room is set up as a playroom. —Sarah Cole
AFTER: The toys are neatly stored away, and the space looks like a dining room again. —Boston Virtual Imaging

Of course, minimizing clutter is important even in the garage, which should be cleaned, organized, and ready to serve its original purpose: to house a vehicle, Olenio-Blackshire said.

As for an unfinished basement, Olenio-Blackshire suggested using a rug if the floor is concrete and to add plants to incorporate a splash of color and freshness.

“If the basement feels damp or has a musty smell, run a dehumidifier for days prior to the showing,” but remove it before potential buyers tour your home, she said.

Be sure to allow as much natural light into your home as possible, but if your house is dark, use soft yellow bulbs, not florescent, Olenio-Blackshire said.

Aude suggested replacing bulbs with higher wattage incandescent ones.

Finally, a show-ready home needs a show-stopping porch, so put away the brooms, rakes, shovels, and toys, and give it a thorough cleaning, the experts said.

“Spruce up the curb appeal,” Aude said. “Clean it up and make it look appealing, because a lot of buyers drive by before they actually schedule a walk-through.”

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