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“I always think it’s sad when sellers do all their ‘dream’ work just before selling, rather than when they can enjoy the changes,” says Caldwell. “I am a firm believer that if you think you’re going to list your home—even some time down the road—you make improvements over time. That way you can enjoy them, and it won’t be such a financial burden once you do put it on the market.”

A corporate wife who’s moved more times than she cares to mention, Caldwell knows  only too well that one look at a home can make or break a sale. “Interior design is my first love [she’s an ASID member as well as a Realtor and home stager], so I know there is the good, the bad and the ugly. I know ‘relocation beige.’” She agrees wholeheartedly that clearing clutter is at the heart of a well-staged home but sometimes, she says, you can go too far. Caldwell recently listed a house that had been on the market for six months—by all accounts a lovely home—but in this case, a well-intentioned agent had all but stripped the home of its personality.

The homeowner, MaryAnn Murtha of Newtown, says her previous agent told her to get rid of too many things. “We understand that we want buyers to look at the house, and not our things,” says Murtha. “It was supposed to look like a ‘Pottery Barn’ catalog, but in the end it was just too cold.”

Murtha is quick to note that her house may not have sold because it went on the market the day of tropical storm Irene, then sat through the subsequent fall snowstorm, then the holidays . . . so the timing was pretty awful. But she’s optimistic now, thanks to Caldwell.

“Beth helped us make changes that made the house look more sophisticated. And she taught us things,” she says. “We learned that lamps shouldn’t be too low. They need to shine down on you, not up. She put some of them on books, and they looked good.”

The best thing about her experience? “Beth really does her job well. She had so many good ideas for making the house look better and feel warmer,” says Murtha. “But she was gracious, too. She never made me feel that my house wasn’t beautiful. She has a gift for making the seller feel a part of the process.”

Tips from the pros

Clean. This one is free, save the cost of cleaning products, and sends a very clear message to buyers (and guests): You care enough about your home to maintain it.

Fix it. If anything is broken, however small—a stair that creaks or a door hinge that squeaks—you can bet that is the first thing a prospective buyer will notice. Sure, you can negotiate repairs once someone puts in a bid, but even if you get that far, the estimates they’ll get will surely exceed the cost of fixing that broken window now.

Paint. Stagers and decorators alike know that a fresh coat of paint is by far the cheapest way to refresh your home. And yes, what they say is true: Neutral colors appeal to more people than dark ones.

Don’t get personal. Keep to a bare minimum all evidence of family pictures, collections and tchotchkes. Remember that buyers want to imagine themselves in your home, not you. Of course this rule of thumb doesn’t necessarily apply if you’re sticking around for a while—although home stagers agree that when you hang too many family photos, they become “wallpaper.” Better to display just a few important ones, so they get the attention they deserve.

Update. Nothing says “let’s get out of here” like shag carpeting and jalousie windows. Depending on your home’s price point, most home stagers insist that you update and upgrade some obvious features to make your place more energy efficient and easier on the eyes—and yes, that absolutely includes replacing laminate counters with granite.

Declutter. Every home stager will tell you the single most important thing you can do to promote a “home, sweet home” feeling is to pare down. Some go so far as to say you should do away with a third of your inventory.

Stick with it. To keep your home looking good during the selling process, you need a drill—especially if you have kids. Get the whole family into a routine, home stagers say, to keep clutter at bay and the day-to-day signs of life from sabotaging your best efforts. Have a place for everything and remember that decorative baskets can be your best friend.In a pinch, the safest place is under the bed.

The Great Outdoors

You get only one chance to make a first impression—and Pamela Stutz, a realtor with Halstead Property, believes that chance starts and ends with curb appeal. A longtime gardener who has been selling real estate in the New Canaan area for 20 years, Stutz says she got into exterior staging because so many clients were overlooking the all-important outdoors.

“The most wonderful home will never get a second look if the yard is overgrown,” says Stutz. “I feel very strongly that the entrance to a house has to be as beautiful as possible.”

As a matter of fact, if the exterior of a home she’s listing isn’t up to par, Stutz takes it upon  herself to make improvements. “One older home had a driveway that was so overrun with bushes you couldn’t even maneuver to the walkway. So I spent almost a week trimming bushes and making it presentable,” she says.

More tried-and-true tips for making a great first impression:

• Be certain your mailbox is in good repair and not listing on its pole,
and that your house number is clearly visible.
• Make sure there is easy access to your front entrance. This means an obvious way in, and no unkempt shrubbery, low-hanging branches or any impediments to a quick and comfortable walk to the front door.
• Keep the path in good repair. If bricks are loose, pavers are broken or the walkway is slippery for any reason (moss, ice) remedy the situation
• Have your home professionally power-washed and painted.  
• Keep your windows clean—and depending on the time of year, put window screens in or take them out.
• Make sure your front door is freshly cleaned or painted, and that your bell is in working order.
• Freshen up any plantings around your entrance (no matter the season).
• Place pots of flowers near the front door and replace your welcome mat.

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