Paul Sakuma/AP/File
Joann Weber, of Midtown Realty, changes the sign from " Sale Pending" to "Sold" at a home that just sold in Palo Alto, Calif., earlier this month. In a tough market, homeowners should consider home staging to sell their house faster and at a higher price.

Want to sell your home fast? Put it on stage.

In a sluggish market, home staging can sell your home faster and at a higher price, according to a list of Top 12 tips from real estate agents.

It used to be home sellers could put a “For Sale” sign out front, plunk down a few flowerpots near the front door, boil some cinnamon sticks for a homey scent, and voila!

House ready for sale.

But a sluggish economy and rising foreclosures have made it tougher to sell a home. So sellers are looking for an edge, which is why a large number of real estate agents recommend home staging.

Home staging is where a homeowner, a real estate agent, or a paid professional arranges furniture, accessories, art, and light to highlight a home’s best features to prospective buyers.

“You have to get your home ready for sale when you’re in a buyer’s market,” says Louis Cammarosano, general manager of HomeGain, a provider of online real estate marketing programs based in Emeryville, Calif. “And if the house looks better, it will sell faster.”

Home staging has become so important that real estate agents say it offers more bang for the buck than any other activity except cleaning and decluttering, according to HomeGain's survey of 1,000 real estate agents released last fall. In the 2007 survey, it was their No. 3 tip.

For example: Spending $200 on cleaning and decluttering boosts the selling price of a home $1,700, real-estate agents in the survey estimated. That represents an 872 percent return on investment. Spending $300 on home staging boosts the price $1,780 (a 586 percent return). That easily beats fixing up a kitchen or painting interior walls, the survey found.

“When people walk into a home, they can’t imagine how nice it’s going to be,” says Mr. Cammarosano. “Fixing it up for them really does the trick. [Home stagers] create an environment – bringing in furniture, hanging new drapes, maybe even playing music, or burning a candle – that makes it look and feel better.”

And there’s evidence to support its effectiveness.

Staged homes really do sell faster, according to a 2009 survey by the Real Estate Staging Association. The group first tried to sell 126 homes without staging. Average time on the market: 263 days. They then staged those same homes and tried to sell them. Average time on the market: 60 days.

If you do use a professional, consultations (which include a walk-through and advice on visual repairs) cost between $150 and $350.

Actual staging generally starts around $800 and can easily climb up to $5,000 and beyond, depending on a home’s size, whether it is vacant or occupied, and how much of its own furnishing and art a staging company must use.

What else can home owners do to sell faster? Here's the list of the top 12 home improvements from the HomeGain survey:

Top 12 home improvements that will sell your home fast

(This list includes the average cost of each do-it-yourself home improvement and its return on investment.)

1. Cleaning and de-cluttering ($200 cost / $1,700 price increase)

2. Home staging ($300 cost / $1,780 price increase)

3. Lightening and brightening ($230 cost / $1,300 price increase)

4. Landscaping ($320 cost / $1,500 price increase)

5. Repair Plumbing ($385 cost / $1,250 price increase)

6. Update electrical ($400 cost / $1,225 price increase)

7. Replacing or shampooing carpets ($300 cost / $1,420 price increase)

8. Painting interior walls ($700 cost / $1,770 price increase)

9. Repair damaged floors ($650 cost /$1,600 price increase)

10. Update kitchen ($1200 cost / $2,850 price increase)

11. Paint outside of home ($900 cost / $1,815 price increase)

12. Update bathroom/s ($830 cost / $1,430 price increase)

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