All of you in those much talked about real estate bubble markets can just skip this article. Go read the local paper (which will probably carry at least one article about housing bubble markets) or watch The Apprentice. Even reading about staging a home is a waste of your time. By all accounts, all you have to do to sell your home is open the door and stand there holding a bushel basket to collect the purchase offers.

But only a small part of the nation really has housing bubble status. There are large parts of the country where home prices have not appreciated much at all during this frantic time (notably in the Midwest and parts of Texas) and other areas where prices have been rising at a measured pace but homes still average several months to find a buyer.

In areas where slower real estate sales equal a large inventory of homes in every price range it is still critical to put the best face on a house. Sometimes that is called making the beds, but real estate agents generally refer to it as "staging."

Many agents specialize in staging. Some professional stagers keep their basement or garage filled with props - everything from antique furniture to art to silk flowers. Others have that gift that allows them to walk into a room, look around and transform it with a few deft steps - moving furniture, clearing off the coffee table, rearranging the potted plants. Still others will ask for a budget and free range to hire a professional home decorator, painter, or landscaper. At the very least an agent should be able to give a seller advice as to how to show off a home's best features. If an agent is decorator-impaired, they should still be able to call in a couple of more talented agents from their office for home staging tips.

And don't think that this is a girly thing. One male broker knows every antiques and Oriental rug dealer in his market area and calls on them to haul in the goods in return for prominent mention in his ads and a place for their business card on (their) dining room table.

But, if your agent seems unwilling or unable to assist you in staging your home or if you plan to sell your own house, FSBO (for sale by owner), here are some tips and suggestions, starting with the cheapest and least labor intensive and working up to what might be prohibitive on either or both counts. But then, if you are clever, you might find a way to do even the most spectacular staging on the cheap. Tips on how to fix your house up to sell.

  1. Open the drapes and blinds. Sunshine is the world's best decorator and nothing is more depressing than walking into a home where shades, curtains and drapes are closed. The buyer is likely not a character out of Wind in the Willows and will leave with the impression of a dark and claustrophobic property.

  2. Wash the windows - inside and out. For the same reasons as above, no other small improvement will give you more bang than this.

  3. Clean up the yard. You've heard of curb appeal? How about unseen from the curb? Cut back overgrown shrubs, particularly those that obscure windows or make it difficult to get to the front door. Mow the grass. Rake or pick up downed leaves and branches. Put away lawn tools, kids' toys and discard or store any outdoor furniture that is rusty or ragged. If season and funds permit, put down some colorful annuals or put a few nicely planted containers on or near the front porch.

  4. Clutter Control. You have heard this a thousand times, but de-cluttering and organizing a home is very important and not just to make the place look neat. A cluttered home looks smaller and less airy. All of the pictures, knick-knacks, even an exquisite art collection are distracting to many buyers. The agent is trying to point out the gas log in the fireplace and the customer is studying your collection of old ink wells on the mantle.

    Also, you want to make room for the buyers own things. If the living room is jammed with furniture the buyer might not be able to figure out where his own stuff will go. It does no good to explain that your stuff won't be there when he moves in. Some people just can't visualize. If you can't get rid of some of your home clutter- house plants for example - round them up and make a single display rather than have them in dribs and drabs through a room or the whole house. The rule of thumb: count every item in each room - furniture, books, vases, old birthday cards propped up on the shelf - and pack up or eliminate 50% of them. Then, if there is time and energy, get rid of 50% of the remainder.

  5. Clean your kitchen and bathrooms - Scrub like crazy, particularly the kitchen and bath(s). The kitchen may be old but it can still sparkle. Clean the stovetop with a good degreaser and all countertops with whatever it takes to remove stains and discoloration. Wash the front of all cupboards and appliances and keep the floor swept and scrubbed for the life of the listing. De-clutter here too, especially the refrigerator door (death by a thousand knives for the inventor of the refrigerator magnet). Ditch countertop appliances, canisters, etc and keep cupboard doors and drawers closed if your hand is not actually in them. It is critical that the bathrooms sparkle. Old bathrooms can be charming and a new shower curtain or fresh flowers on the counter may be all you need. Put out your best towels and, if you have young children, please enforce the flush rule. Clean bathrooms are a must.

    Now we are getting into the more expensive staging suggestions, but the next few things will really help you prepare your house to sell if they are needed and you can afford to do them.

  6. Refinish hardwood floors. These are a major selling point when selling your home and sometimes a home's most compelling feature. Often they don't need complete refinishing, just to be roughed up and polyurethaned to obtain that killer shine. If yours are looking tough give a couple of pros a call and check out the price. In some markets several rooms can be extensively refinished for less than $1,000.00.

  7. Paint / Repaint Your Home. If your taste in decorating is a bit, shall we say strong, it may pay you to hire a professional to tone down some of the more dramatic color rooms. Many people love dark red dining rooms, but none of them may be looking at your house. Neutral colors are best for marketing your home for sale. There was a house, a very expensive house, in a "bubbly" Boston suburb that was on the market for a year and with a total of four agents. The house was in a wonderful neighborhood, had a traditional floor plan and a beautiful yard, but every room and every ceiling was papered in a different black and white pattern. Moving from one room to the next induced vertigo. Agent after agent tried to convince the seller to invest four or five thousand dollars in a professional redo (two of them got fired for suggesting it) but the owner would not budge. A sharp-eyed investor finally picked it up well below its original listing price, did the remodel and sold it three months later for a substantial profit.

  8. Buy, borrow or rent what you need. If your furniture shows the effect of raising five kids or if pets have ruined the rugs and upholstery think about storing or getting rid of your existing furniture and finding just enough more attractive stuff to get by. If your nest is empty and the kids' rooms are beaten up, throw out the furniture, give the walls a quick wash coat of paint and put one or two small flea market pieces - a hobby horse, a bean-bag chair, the old bassinette from the attic - in the room to merely "suggest" its use. A rocker, table lamp and a pile or books in an otherwise bare room gives it the feel of a cozy study and so forth. If you want to go all out there are dozens of companies, some of them national, that will rent a roomful or a houseful of furniture on short term contracts. Not cheap, but maybe worth looking into.

If your house has a lot of competition in the market you need to measure up. Think of it as show biz.