You want to sell your house. Or maybe you just have judgmental company coming over whom you’d like to impress—perhaps a snooty acquaintance from your deep past or a mother-in-law. In either case, you wish to magically transform your home into a showplace befitting the cover of a lifestyle magazine and hide the reality that Real People actually live there. No worries.

You no doubt have heard the term “staging a home,” and it probably evokes images of a Vanna White wannabe standing in your living room with her arms extended at unnatural angles as she points to your recliner. It really doesn’t have to be that complicated or even expensive. Sure, you can lay down some serious scratch and hire a professional stager who will rearrange your furniture and empty your wallet, but you can also follow some common sense rules and do a very commendable job sprucing up the home all by yourself.

When I take a new listing, as the ink is still drying on the contract I ask the homeowners this question: “Now that we are working as a team, do you want me to compliment your home, or do you want me to sell it?” They always giggle (always) and get the point. The truth of the matter is that people actually live in their homes. Oh, they entertain and gussy up the house for the holidays and whatnot, but very few keep their home—or even want to keep their home—looking like a display in the corner of Raymour and Flanigan. (Although I have met some people who actually live that way. I decided that I don’t like them.) Anyway, I then proceed to take the sellers on a tour of their home as I point things out and make constructive suggestions.

First of all, forget that you live in the house and think like a buyer. What are buyers looking for? Space. Light. A move-in condition home that needs as little work as possible. That includes cosmetic alterations as well as any repairs. In other words, buyers really want new construction that has already been painted and pimped out with upgraded fixtures and appliances all for the price of a foreclosure. Let’s ignore their wishful thinking about price and focus on how to impress them instead.

I always start with the kitchen, because it usually presents the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. It is also the main focal point for buyers and visiting mothers. And if you can stage your kitchen, the rest of the house is a snap. Look at the room with a laser-like focus: everything you see should be decorative only. “What?” I can hear you gasping. “In a kitchen?” Actually, yes. A fruit bowl on the table or counter is decorative. Wall hangings and clean, tasteful hand towels are decorative. So are pretty canisters holding utensils, a banana hook thingie, spoon rests and one or two clever fridge magnets. Functional items like your Keurig and Art Deco toaster qualify, as does a nice paper towel holder.

What I don’t want to see are random pots and pans, cans or boxes of food, stacks of foodie magazines and small appliances that you can’t possibly need every day such as a vacuum food sealer. Take a look at the top of your fridge: whatever’s on it, take it off now. Do you still use a drying rack? Make it feel lonely and lose whatever it’s holding. That Ivory squirt bottle on top of the sink? Stick it under the sink. The thought process here is simple to follow, and it applies to every other room in the house as well: if I’m a buyer who wants lots of space and storage, everything I see that is not decorative screams out to me, “There is no room to store me, that’s why I’m out here!”

Go through the rest of your home and follow the same rule. Fair or unfair, that’s what buyers want to see—a neat, decorated home with lots of storage for all the Stuff that we all use every day but leave out because we’re either sloppy or have no place to hide it. A cable remote and coffee table book out in the open in the living room are fine; a stack of newspapers or cartons is not. A nice bottle of scented liquid soap on the bathroom counter is OK; nine cans and tubes of lotions and potions around the sink hint at a lack of storage or a vain personality or both. Most kids have lots of toys, but those toys all over their bedrooms may make buyers wonder if they will have enough space to be neater than you.

Once you’ve hidden all the things that you actually use in your day-to-day life, look around and ask yourself if you’re impressed by what you see. Huge expanses of empty walls? Add tasteful photos or prints. Empty dresser and tabletops where your Junk once called home? Decorative knick-knacks and accent pieces fill holes nicely. Does your home still look somewhat bland? A well-thought out paint job will make rooms “pop.”

A huge trick known to all stagers is that space and light—two things coveted by buyers—can be manipulated. Walk into any model home in a new development and you will see the same things: Light colored wood and fabrics. Glass tabletops. Enough mirrors on closet doors and throughout the home to frighten every vampire within a two-mile radius. Sheer window treatments. And lights. Lots of lights. Recessed lights, hall lights, tabletop lamps, under-cabinet fixtures, stovetop lights, all lit up like a frat boy on prom night. The mirrors and glass tops make rooms look bigger. Light furniture fools the eye into thinking the room is larger. And everybody loves a bright, happy home.

Most of the tips above are easy to implement with just a few hours of labor and thought. The benefits are two-fold: a neat home looks bigger, and a neat home tells buyers that the things they can’t see, such as the plumbing, wiring and major home systems, are probably well-maintained by the neat-freak owners. An additional benefit if you’re selling your home is that buyers are inherently inclined to do as little as possible once they move in, and your pristine house may be worth more to them than the same model down the street where there are actual signs of life in the home.

Think like a buyer. And think like a Broadway producer staging what he hopes will be a hit play. We know that your über-neat home is just an act, but what story does it tell? If it’s a dark melodrama filled with baggage and regrets, you have a long night ahead before getting a good offer. But if your home is staged like a happy, cheerful Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, then applause, flowers and a closing table await you. Break a chair leg!

Bo Twerdowsky

Real estate agent, self-professed computer geek, grammar policeman, proud father of two. Opinionated, questioning, intolerant of stuffy sorts devoid of a sense of humor.