Imagine you've just been set up on a date with an attractive, eligible person whom you very much want to get to know. Or that you just scored an interview with the company you've always wanted to work for. How would you plan to look for that meeting?

The same question applies when you list your house for sale.

"Staging" is the practice of making a house look its absolute best -- inside and out -- and it is critical to a potential buyer's first impression.

Sprucing up a house up before putting it on the market is hardly a new idea, but formal staging is a somewhat new phenomenon that has become more commonplace in recent years. That's because it works. In general, staged houses sell for higher prices and in a shorter time than average property. In today's competitive market, staging is a powerful tool that the savviest sellers and agents use to their advantage.

Staging can range from a simple uncluttering to an extreme makeover done by an accredited staging professional. In between those two extremes is adding or subtracting furniture and decorative accents, changing a color scheme, updating a look, and/or replacing old or worn-out appliances, carpeting, wallpaper or light fixtures.

Some home sellers doubt the power of home staging, reasoning that "it's just decorating." While this is true, what they fail to understand is that decorating is one of the leading things that sells houses. It's all about vision. This is an ability that most buyers don't have. The fact is, a lesser quality house that's well staged will beat out the house with great bones whose decorating is old and tired every time.

The goal is for the look and feel of your home to be consistent with the preferences of the person who is most likely to buy it. If this is not clear, rest assured that you cannot go wrong with neutral tones, light, bright rooms with minimal window treatments, hardwood floors (so take up those carpets!), stainless steel appliances, gas stoves and slipcovered furniture if what you have is outdated or showing its age.

There are a number of ways to accomplish that well-staged look. Your first step is to ask your agent for an assessment of your home's staging needs. You can buy needed items yourself, or borrow them from friends.

Some agents have their own staging closets and will lend you some or all items while your house is on the market. Sometimes it's smart to hire an accredited staging professional, who will work with your existing furnishings -- placing them in different groupings and locations within the house -- while adding accessories from their own inventory.

It's also important to note that your house needs to be "toothbrush clean" before listing -- especially your kitchen, baths and windows. Also, religious articles such as crucifixes and Judaica should be removed during staging -- as should items which make a political statement.

Staging also applies to the outside of your home, and may include power washing, painting, general cleanup and/or mulching and landscaping, plus seasonal plantings. This is the first impression that your home makes, and is the inspiration for the term "curb appeal." A well-staged exterior also includes containers of colorful flowers on each side of your front door.

Learning that your house needs staging before putting it on the market may be difficult for you to hear. Rest assured that everyone's home can use staging, because the way you live in your home is different from the way it needs to look when you sell it. Don't take it personally if your listing agent recommends staging. Yes, it is an added expense. But it is always money well spent, since your return on investment will be a shorter time on the market and a higher sale price.

Evi Coghlan's "The Real Deal" appears every other Friday. She is a licensed real estate agent with the Riverside Avenue office of Coldwell Banker and a former marketing consultant to Fortune 100 companies. She may be reached at 203-247-6691, by emailing her at or visiting