Secrets of the open house
Take it from Bing Crosby. When you sell a house you've got to "ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive."
May 7, 2004: 11:07 AM EDT
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money senior writer

BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) ĖHouses don't just sell themselves, even in booming markets. In fact, owners and their real estate agents go to great lengths to show off a home's best qualities and downplay its imperfections.

They may redecorate, or bake cookies and whole turkeys (yes, smell sells).

They may even pay the Easter Bunny to make an appearance, a strategy employed for one recent sale by Patricia Oxman, a real estate broker in Marin County, Calif.

Young Oxman helped earn mom's commission.  
Young Oxman helped earn mom's commission.

"I don't usually kick off a listing on Easter Sunday but these people had sudden relocation plans and we had to hustle," Oxman said. The house was small and would seem even smaller when potential buyers showed up, so Oxman hired her 15-year-old son to dress up as the Easter Bunny.

"When the kids came in the house I ushered them straight outside to my son for an egg hunt," she said. Buyers got a chance to see the house's best feature -- its large yard -- and the house sold that weekend.

Exit stage left

Such strategies are known as staging, an expression borrowed from the theater to describe dressing up a house to sell. "It speaks to the fact that how people live in a house and how you show it are two very different things," said Oxman.

In fact, staging is so important that there are entire businesses dedicated to it. "I'd say there are at least a dozen staging companies here," said Jon Hunter, a real estate agent in Seattle. For about $2,000 to $5,000 upfront, plus a monthly rental fee, these companies dress up empty houses with top-of-the-line furniture, he said.

Meanwhile, sellers who are still in the house are told to take cues from a Pottery Barn catalogue. The house should look cozy and lived in, but not too lived in.

"I tell new clients that they'll hate me because I'm going to give them a list "to do" list to get through the next 30 days," said Vicki Fazzini a real estate agent on Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Initially, sellers may resent the nitpicking, she said, but they'll thank her when the house fetches top dollar.

How's your curb appeal?

First impressions count for a lot. In fact, buyers often make up their minds about a house before they even get to the front door. Everything should look pristine at the approach -- even the mailbox should be in tiptop shape.

If your yard is in good condition, sprucing it up may only be a matter of planting flowers and keeping the grass is trimmed. If you've neglected your landscaping, consider calling on a professional.

While you're at it, add a bench or other "hardscape" to the scenery. "People see a bench and they imagine themselves sitting there with their cup of coffee every morning," Fazzini said.

Less is more (money)

Clutter does not a good open house make. It's not just that most people have too much furniture to start with, they forget that a house needs to appeal to a crowd.

"There can be 20 people in the house at once during the open house," said Oxman, who usually tells owners to take out a third of their furniture and put it in storage. "I tell them when it starts feeling stark we're almost there."

Related articles
Big homebuying regrets
Are you buying at the top?
Why credit matters

This "editing" process also means removing personal photographs, packing up most knickknacks, recycling magazines, cleaning out cupboards and closets, and pairing down children's toys.

Sometimes sellers even hire interior designers to make suggestions on everything from furniture arrangements to paint colors. "People are tired of seeing white walls," said Fazzini. If done the right way, colors can add thousands of dollars to a home's asking price, she said, though the opposite is true as well. "If people don't know what they're doing, their paint colors can easily take $20,000 off the price of a $300,000 house," she said.

Take your places, people

Consider the open house your home's big debut, only you're not going to be in the audience. "Sellers should never be home," said Fazzini.

It goes without saying that every room has to look impeccable, but the lighting should also be first rate. Table lamps are switched on even if it's a sunny day and florescent kitchen lights stay off. Candles serve the dual purpose of adding warm light and soothing smells.

Additional props may also be in order. If Hunter is showing a place with great views of Seattle, he brings a pair of spotting scopes and sets them near the window to make sure the views don't go unnoticed.

He also likes to cater the event with cuisine that's in keeping with the neighborhood or style of the house. "I regularly order Ezell's fried chicken, which is unique to Seattle," he said. (It's also supposed to be a favorite of Oprah Winfrey.)

Though most buyers are familiar with that old trick of baking cookies, Oxman still likes to pop a batch in the oven to make the house feel inviting. (Apple pie and roasted turkey are variations on this theme.)

If traffic or loud upstairs neighbors are not your home's best selling points, cue the mood music.

And if your neighbors are really loud, consider a tactic used by a client of former Chicago real estate agent Al Martin. "She paid the upstairs neighbor to leave during the open house," he recalled.  Top of page

Should I get a fixed- or adjustable-rate mortgage?
Toll Brothers' record shows the housing boom has no end in sight
What will your monthly mortgage payment be?
7 things to know before the bell
SoftBank and Toyota want driverless cars to change the world
Aston Martin falls 5% in its London IPO