How to dress up your home for a faster sale

Red home for sale sign on lawn

A little effort can go a long way toward making your home more appealing to potential buyers.

We're not talking about remodeling your kitchen or adding a garage. We're thinking about far less costly improvements that can be made in just a couple of days or even a couple of minutes.

"The buyer is looking for a well-polished house," says Stella Petridis, broker and owner of Procure Realty Group in Niles, Ill. "It doesn't have to look like the Taj Mahal. You don't have to spend a fortune. You just have to make it look clean, warm and inviting."

Our 10 smart moves for dressing up your home can make you stand out from the pack in a tough market where too many sellers are chasing too few buyers.

Smart move 1. Stash the clutter.

Decluttering is the essential first step in preparing to put a house on the market. When it comes to showing a home, less is definitely more. The more stuff you've got, the smaller (and less appealing) your home will seem.

Begin by clearing off shelves and countertops. Get rid of books, magazines and newspapers that have stacked up around furniture. Box up knickknacks and toys.

Don't forget about the closets. Trust us -- people will open them. And if they see a mess, it's an instant turnoff. If you've got sweaters piled up to the sky, it tells potential buyers that there won't be enough room for their things.

Also be sure to remove any valuable or fragile items, such as vases or china and silver collections, that could be broken or stolen at an open house.

Smart move 2. Store some furniture.

If you've got a lot of furniture crammed into one or more rooms, consider leasing a storage space to park it in.

Imagine the scene at the open house: You'll have 8, 10, or 12 people trooping though your home on a Sunday morning. They'll need plenty of room to be able to move around easily.

Storing extra end tables and chairs will create that space and make your home look more spacious and inviting. You can even take a leaf out of your dining room table to make the room look bigger.

It's especially important to move out big plastic slides and play houses that dominate an entire corner of the living or family room. Nothing's less flattering to a home than fluorescent playthings.

"The investment of $50 to $100 for a storage space is some of the best money you've ever spent," says Elizabeth Blakeslee, a regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors.

Smart move 3. Clean like a maniac.

After you've cleared away the clutter, you can start to clean. We're not talking about a surface dusting but a deep scouring of every nook and cranny.

Your home needs to shine.

Make a special effort in the bathrooms. Buy a new shower curtain and bathmat, and replace any frayed towels with fresh ones. Scrub the grout. Recaulk or grout any place that needs it. Remove all toiletries from the countertops and cabinets.

Before the house is shown, be sure to remove all pets. We know -- they're a part of the family. But potential buyers may be allergic. Be sure to vacuum carpets, furniture and drapes scrupulously for pet hair.

If this sounds like a tall order, think about hiring a professional cleaning crew.

Smart move 4. Depersonalize the space.

This means taking down family photos, collectibles and religious items. This includes pictures on the fridge and posters in the kids' rooms.

You want potential buyers to be able to picture themselves in the home. That's difficult if your life is displayed on every wall.

Just make sure to patch and paint any holes or discolored spots.

Smart move 5. Maximize lighting.

You want to amplify the brightness of your home so that it looks open and welcoming. This means washing the windows (inside and out) and replacing light bulbs, worn lamp shades and lighting fixtures that are past their prime.

Smart move 6. Paint walls a neutral color.

Loud colors -- even in a small alcove or mudroom -- can make many buyers pause. Paint them a neutral shade. And if you have wallpaper that's a tad busy, consider removing it and painting the wall.

The goal is not to make an interior design statement, but to make your home appealing to as many buyers as possible. If that means suppressing some of your personal style, so be it.

Smart move 7. Replace worn carpeting and drapes.

Or, if they just need a good cleaning, rent a machine and do it.

Smart move 8. Increase curb appeal.

Remember that first impressions are everything. To help your home look its best from the start, think about renting a pressure cleaner for the driveway, walkway and siding -- you'll get rid of years of accumulated dirt.

Mow the lawn, weed, trim the hedges, rake the leaves and store any extra gardening equipment lying around. Consider adding some shrubs if you need to. Clean the gutters and check for clogged drains.

And be sure to check the condition of the front door. The door's appearance is especially important, because it's one of the first things potential buyers will see. Give it a fresh coat of paint or replace a worn door handle, if necessary.

Smart move 9. Fix odds and ends.

Replace worn bedspreads. Repair drawers that stick and have broken handles. Oil hinges on creaky doors. These might seem like small details, but they can influence people's impressions of the home.

"Buyers are funny -- a house could be magnificent, but if there's a water stain or a drippy faucet, they'll focus on that," Blakeslee says.

Smart move 10. Top everything off with fresh accents and aromas.

Buy some flowers and display them in the entryway before an open house. Focus on seasonal blooms (chrysanthemums in the fall; peonies in the summer) and colors that enhance your home's decor.

Complement that by simmering cinnamon sticks in a pot of boiling water for a half an hour or so to give the home a pleasant, welcoming smell. Add some orange or lemon peel if you like.