Whether you're designing to sell or designing to dwell, here's how the home-staging pros get that "I have to have it!" look —

By Leah Hennen

Highlight your home's strengths, downplay its weaknesses and appeal to the greatest possible pool of prospective buyers — or simply your inner designer — with these 13 secrets of home staging. 

1. Make an Entrance 

You know the saying: You never have a second chance to make a first impression. "The outside of your home is the first thing guests see," says Christopher Breining, owner of HomeStagers, Inc., in San Francisco. And like it or not, the outside speaks volumes about what's inside — and about its owner. A welcoming entry, such as this one designed by Pamela Berstler, helps set the tone for the rest of the house.

Breining suggests a quart of glossy paint in a bold, cheerful color for the front door, new hardware (or a little elbow grease to clean and polish the existing knocker, lockset, porch light, house numbers and mailbox), a fresh coir or seagrass mat, and a trio of seasonal potted plants on the landing to dramatically brighten and refresh your home's entry and make visitors feel welcome. This small investment pays personal dividends, too, giving you an emotional boost and a dose of house-pride with each homecoming. 

2. Conquer Clutter 
Admit it: You have too much stuff. "The most important thing most people can do to improve their home is to clear out, clean up and get rid of clutter," says Lisa LaPorta, designer on HGTV's Designed to Sell and owner of Lisa LaPorta Design in L.A.

Be ruthless as you go about purging your belongings. If you haven't used it in three months, stagers say, box it up and store it away; if you haven't used it in a year, get rid of it. Make a house rule that for every new item that comes in, an old one has to leave. Any mixed feelings you have about tossing life's accumulated belongings will quickly be replaced with a sense of relief and appreciation of your uncluttered surroundings.

Sound daunting? Take it one room at a time. If your bookshelves are bursting at the seams, for instance, "clear them off and start over," suggests Michelle Yackel, owner of Divine Redesigns in Atlanta. "It's OK to have empty space around your books and knickknacks." Suggestions:

  • Inexpensive baskets make great hiding places for unsightly paperbacks while adding texture and visual interest.
  • Books stacked vertically serve as pedestals to show off prized pottery or other object d'art.
  • You can even remove the dust covers from hardbacks and group them by color, turning a busy jumble into a decorative addition to the room.

If you simply can't part with your collection of National Geographic or your kids won't let you anywhere near their carefully assembled LEGO creations, it's time to get creative about storage and organization. Retailers like The Container Store and Target sell handy rolling bins designed to slip under a bed and house everything from household supplies to kids' toys.

If you can't get rid of it and can't hide it, flaunt it with style: "Places like Ikea sell colorful and inexpensive fabric, cardboard or melamine magazine holders," says Michael Friedes, owner of Nest Home Design in Oakland, Calif. "Lined up on a shelf, they look a lot cleaner than stacks of magazines everywhere and add a unified visual element to the room." Your home will be far more inviting, like the home office above by designer Sue Adams, if clutter is out of sight.

3. Less Is More 

A cluttered home can also be caused by too much furniture. "People tend to line their walls with furniture — one piece after another," says Christopher Breining, owner of HomeStagers, Inc., in San Francisco. When professional stagers descend on a home being prepped for market, they often whisk away as much as half of the owner's furnishings, and the house looks much bigger for it. Case in point: Designer Simon Temprell kept this living area clean and uncluttered for a contemporary, no-fuss look.

You don't have to whittle that drastically, but take a hard look at what you have and ask yourself what you can live without. "You really only need two pieces of furniture per wall: a bed and a nightstand, or a dresser and a chair," Breining advises. Another rule of thumb: If you don't use it regularly, lose it. While you're doing this sometimes-painful pruning, remind yourself that every square foot you free up is prime real estate.

4. Float Furniture 

If your couches are clinging to your walls, you're not alone — it's a typical decorating mistake, stagers say. "There's a common belief that rooms will feel larger and be easier to use if all the furniture is pushed up against the walls, but it's simply not true," says Lisa LaPorta, designer on HGTV's Designed to Sell and owner of Lisa LaPorta Design in L.A.

Instead, furnish your space by floating furniture away from walls. Reposition sofas and chairs into cozy conversational groups, and place pieces so that the traffic flow in the room is obvious. In most cases, this means keeping the perimeters clear. "When you place furniture in a room, envision a figure-eight or the letter H in the middle, with clear pathways around it," LaPorta suggests. Not only will this make the space more user-friendly, it will open up the room and make it seem larger.

If you're nervous about doing something that can seem a bit radical, "Try an area rug on an angle first, then move the couch and see how it looks. But just try it," says Christopher Breining, owner of HomeStagers, Inc., in San Francisco. If the new arrangement doesn't strike your fancy, you can always put things back the way they were. But chances are, you won't want to.

Giving your furniture some breathing room, as designer Phyllis Harbinger does in this living room, makes a room look larger.

5. Mix It Up

You'd never consider donning the same clothes for days on end, so why force your home to endure the same tired decor year after year? "We get used to our surroundings, but they can become stale and stagnant. If a chair has been in the same spot for five years, move it!" says Barb Schwarz, known nationally as an expert for preparing properties to sell and coauthor of Home Staging: The Winning Way to Sell Your House for More Money.

Think of your digs as a superstore, with the added bonus that everything in it is free. Give yourself permission to move furniture, artwork and accessories between rooms on a whim. "When you move things to new spots, you appreciate them again and give your house a whole new look for nothing," Schwarz says. Suggestions:

  • Just because you bought that armchair for the living room, for instance, doesn't mean it won't look great anchoring a sitting area in your bedroom.
  • Perch a little-used dining room table in front of a pretty window, top it with buffet lamps and other accessories, and press it into service as a beautiful writing desk or library table.
  • Take advantage of art by creating a spacious museum-look, like designer Ammie Kim has here.

6. Repurpose Unused Rooms 

"A big part of what stagers do is create fantasy spaces: an exercise room, a meditation space, an art studio, a family game room," says Linda Russell, owner of House Dressing in Montclair, N.J. and agent on HGTV's Bought & Sold. "We take that unused space on the third floor or in the basement and turn it into something you've always dreamed about having."

If you have a room that currently serves only to gather junk, repurpose it into something that will add to the value — and enjoyment — of your home, like the dreamy project room in the HGTV Dream Home 2006. Move boxes to a rented storage space (or better yet, have a yard sale or donate their contents to charity) and get to work creating the space you yearn for.

Suggestions: The simple addition of a comfortable armchair, a small table and a lamp in a stairwell nook will transform it into a cozy reading spot, Russell suggests. Or drape fabric on the walls of your basement, lay inexpensive rubber padding or a carpet remnant on the floor and toss in a few cushy pillows. Voila! Your new meditation room or yoga studio.

7. Let Light In

Don't forget to dress up windows for both form and function. "We almost always take off old, heavy drapery and put something light, airy and gauzy in its place," says Linda Russell, owner of House Dressing in Montclair, N.J. and agent on HGTV's Bought & Sold. This ushers in natural light and makes a previously closed-in space seem larger. Designer Ammie Kim uses a combination of minimal window treatments for a light-filled living area. Use sheers and a tension rod to achieve this look on the cheap.

If privacy is paramount, top-down, bottom-up Roman shades will block the neighbors' view of your bathtub but let you gaze at the sky while you soak. Lisa LaPorta, designer on HGTV's Designed to Sell and owner of Lisa LaPorta Design in L.A., favors bamboo or parchment shades and simple curtain panels made from fine cotton twill or translucent linen. These materials let light stream in during the day, provide privacy at night and add touchable texture to a room. Or consider investing in Christopher Breining's, owner of HomeStagers, Inc., in San Francisco, favorite window treatments: sheer fabric shades with built-in blinds (Hunter Douglas offers several options.) "They look great and offer so much versatility," he says.

Other window treatment tips:

  • If windows are narrow, extend curtain rods a foot or so on each side to suggest width.
  • If your ceilings are low, hang rods right at the ceiling line and consider window treatments with vertical stripes to create the illusion of height.

8. Light It Up 

One of the things that make staged homes look so warm and welcoming is great lighting. As it turns out, many of our own homes are improperly lit — either we have too few fixtures, or our lighting is too dim or too harsh (or all of the above).

To remedy the problem and make your home more inviting, increase the wattage in your lamps and fixtures. Aim for a total of 100 watts for every 50 square feet. Then install dimmers so you can vary light levels according to your mood and the time of day. This is a relatively simple project for a do-it-yourselfer, or you can hire an electrician for a couple of hours to do several at once. And while you're at it, be sure to replace dingy, almond-colored light-switch covers with crisp white ones. New covers cost less than a buck apiece and are a quick, easy update.

Don't depend on just one or two fixtures per room, either. It's just as important to layer lighting as it is to have sufficient wattage, Christopher Breining, owner of HomeStagers, Inc., in San Francisco, points out. Make sure you have three types of lighting: ambient (general or overhead), task (pendant, undercabinet or reading) and accent (table and wall) lighting. "A combination of overhead, floor, table and accent lighting creates great ambience," Breining says. "Having lights on different planes provides good illumination and makes the room interesting." Ambient recessed lighting gives this bedroom designed by Baylor Anne Bone a subtle glow.

One thing that's always in Breining's bag of tricks: uplights. "You can buy one for as little as $5 at home improvement stores and hide it behind a potted plant. It creates incredible drama." Another hint: Place mirrors, silver or glass bowls or other reflective objects near lamps to bounce light around the room and make it glow even more.

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