Put Away the Credit Card: Here’s How to Stage Your House on a Tight Budget

People expect to spend money when they buy a home. Few realize just how expensive selling one can be. When you hear you’ll need to spend money to “stage” your home, on top of everything else, it hurts. Can’t you just skip the darn flower vases and “modern” couches and call it a day?

Tempting, but… no. Presentation matters: think of how you’d perceive a job candidate wearing flip-flops and cutoffs to the interview. Your house needs to look the part!

However, HomeLight’s research also shows that (you’re going to love this) 50% of sellers who pay for home staging spend less than $1,000, and 35% shell out less than $500, according to our Top Agent Insights Survey for Q1 2019.

We’re going to take it a step further and show you how to stage a house on a budget with stuff that’s mostly free and some change. From tips and tricks to get everything you need at a bargain, to going all in on that “something borrowed” that makes your house look staged… this guide has everything you need. Go ahead and put the credit card away.

Boxes used to stage a house on a budget.
Source: (Peter Gudella/ Shutterstock)

1. Remove clutter to set the stage for a fresh look—just don’t let it cost you

“A lot of people say clutter eats equity, and I think that’s absolutely true,” said Debra Gould, an internationally recognized home staging expert and creator of the Staging Diva Home Staging Business Training Program. Buyers will assume if you don’t have enough room for your own belongings, neither will they.

Then they’ll lowball you (ouch!)

Not to mention, you can’t begin staging until you have empty end tables, cleared counters and open floor space that’s ready to be styled with a magazine-worthy look.

Decluttering is one of the most cost-effective ways to help your home show better. Follow these free decluttering tips to for a potential ROI of 432%:

Make money on stuff that’s easy to sell

You don’t need to spend weeks pricing out everything you own, but there’s easy money to be made on many of your belongings—money that could go a long way towards other parts of the staging process. Posting some of your bigger-ticket items on the Facebook Marketplace or other buy-and-sell groups on the site can help you unload housewares you don’t plan on taking to your new space. To give yourself more closet space, give Poshmark a try; the site lets you post new and used clothes for sale to a network of millions of users.

Skip the storage unit

Tabitha Kontur, a top-selling agent in Huntsville, Alabama, recommends that you put away 20% of your belongings right off the bat in the selling process. This will help jump-start your move and make the house look larger and as organized as Marie Kondo’s sock drawer.

As you clear out clutter, you’ll wonder what to do with all these boxes and totes and at that point you’ll think “It would be oh so easy to just dump everything in a storage unit.” Yes, yes it would. That doesn’t mean you should do it, dear budget stager.

The average 10 x 20 unit costs $100 per month and there are more creative ways to either pare down or temporarily house your extra stuff for free.

One idea is to neatly stack your boxes in the garage. Seriously. Kontur says buyers expect to see some spaces in the house used as storage. So long as you don’t throw stuff in there haphazardly like a hoarder you’ll be fine. (HomeLight has a bunch of garage organization tools and product recs—knock yourself out).

Even better, donate items that are in good shape to charities like Goodwill, Salvation Army or local libraries and animal shelters. Or, you could always ask a friend if you can borrow a corner of their garage, shed, or storage unit until the house sells. Pay them back with a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant (it’s cheaper than 3 months of storage), or simply offer to return the favor someday.

Do the rest DIY

No need to hire help here, especially since professional organizers cost in the ballpark of $30-$80 per hour. Instead, get a box of trash bags ($5.99), use extra boxes around the house or go to your local grocer and get ones for free. (Follow HomeLight’s fun guide on how to find cheap boxes like a scrappy hunter gatherer).

Turn on some Netflix and let the purge commence. Good places to start: overstuffed bookshelves, desks littered with paperwork, and bathroom countertops crammed with beauty supplies.

2. Get the house professional-level clean on an amateur budget

91% of top agents recommended doing a deep clean as a part of the staging process. After all, you wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of dressing up your fireplace mantel when all homebuyers are going to notice is the layer of dust on the surface.

Other than elbow grease, your main expense when you deep clean yourself is the price tag of cleaning supplies. Here’s how to drastically cut those costs:

Make your own cleaning solutions

In place of your usual all-purpose kitchen cleaner, make your own cleaning solution of 50/50 white vinegar and water; use it on counters and other surfaces. For floors, mix 1/2 cup of borax with 2 gallons of hot water. Apartment Therapy has a list of 25 more ways to make your own cleaner for any job in the house. Just think of the dollars saved!

Skip the paper towels

Purchasing paper supplies is money out the window; instead, use up old socks that have holes and other tattered clothing headed for the garbage bin. Throw them in the washing machine at the end of each cleaning session. You can even recycle pieces of newspaper to shine up windows.

Recycle used dryer sheets for dusting

No need to buy name-brand dust cloths; used dryer sheets can be used on baseboards, blinds, ceiling fans, furniture and any other surface that needs it.

Use less cleaning product

Once you spray down a surface—whether it be a countertop or a toilet—give your cleaning supplies time to work. Let the cleaner sit for a few minutes to soften stubborn grime before wiping it away; otherwise, you may spray and re-spray more times than needed.

3. Create curb appeal with budget items

Most homebuyers today scout their favorite houses online, and before they even reach out to an agent, they drive by the home to determine if it will remain a contender. This is why staging the outside of the home is just as important as staging the inside—you want to create such an inviting look that homebuyers will keep your home on the top of their list.

Curb appeal doesn’t have to cost you the big bucks, though. In fact, 70% of agents recommend spending $1,000 or less on curb appeal improvements, while over a third say you don’t need to shell out more than $500. You’ll need to take care of any basic lawn care—mow the lawn, trim the hedges and top off the mulch. Once you’re working with a clean slate, layer on some charm. Here’s how to do it on a shoestring budget:

  • Soften hard outdoor spaces.
    Throw down an outdoor rug below your patio or porch furniture. Rather than buy a new one, go DIY for the most bang for your buck—just grab some acrylic paint and burlap.
  • Set the stage for entertaining.
    Pull a serving tray from your cabinets and use it to corral a few bottles of Perrier (or whatever nice looking beverages you have around the house), some colorful paper straws ($1.55 for a pack of 10) and a few glasses; set it up on an outdoor table on your patio. Bring the tray out before you leave for your open house, to keep dirt and outdoor debris off.
  • Light the space up.
    If your potential buyers are driving by in the evening, you want them to be greeted with a warm, inviting scene. Pick up some inexpensive solar lights ($2 apiece) to line your walkway. If you have a covered porch, hang some on-trend string lights ($10) across the ceiling.
A room in a house that was staged on a budget.
Source: (Francesca Tosolini/ Unsplash)

4. Rearrange the furniture for clear pathways

“You want to make sure when you come through your front door, the paths to walk through the house are free and clear of any furniture,” Kontur said.

To get the flow just right, Elle Decor advises allotting 30-48 inches of space for high-traffic walkways and 24 for lower-traffic areas (make sure you’re measuring from the backs of chairs that are pulled out; not pushed in. You may need to remove a leaf from the dining room table, if possible. Finally, leave 14 to 18 inches of space between the couch and coffee table.

Depending on how much furniture you need to move (and how far), you might consider a few budget-friendly tools to make the job easier. Furniture sliders for carpet ($4) or hardwoods ($5) make it easy to move large pieces within a room without scratching up the floors; if you need to get things out of the house and loaded up into a car, you might rent a 4-wheel dolly from the Home Depot for the day (about $10, depending on your city).

5. Shop your home

Before you start shopping for home accents to stage the place, take stock of what you have on hand. For example:

  • Swap out the daily towels for the guest towels.
    Pull out your fluffiest set, fold them in thirds so there’s no edges showing, and arrange them on the towel bar or ring. A good rule of thumb: a single hand towel on a ring will do, but layer one smaller towel over a larger one on towel bars for a pro look.
  • Pull a cookbook off the bookshelf.
    Display it in a cookbook holder—a meager $7 investment from Target—or simply prop it open on the kitchen counter.
  • Perk up utility spaces.
    Set up your ironing board and a nice laundry basket in the laundry room, if it’s large enough, to emphasize the space. Pour detergents into glass jars and store dryer sheets in a basket or any other decorative container you can find around the house.
  • Gather your nicest glassware, vases and bowls.
    Fill decorative bowls with green apples to display in the kitchen or fill a vase with fresh flowers.

6. Sprinkle in some new accents

When you’re staging on a budget, It’s only after you’ve scrounged your own house for options that you should invest in a few fresh pieces of decor. But the good news: even these new pieces don’t have to be expensive. There are plenty of great deals out there. Here are some cheap items that make the biggest splash:

  • Luxurious hand soaps.
    These don’t need to have a luxury price tag. Pick up some pretty bottles or bars at retailers like Trader Joe’s or T.J. Maxx—you can typically score deals around $5. Remember not to actually use the bar soaps, though, until the house is sold.
  • Fresh flowers.
    Placing these strategically throughout the house—Trader Joe’s always has a good selection, priced around $5 and up. Even just a small bud vase with some greenery plucked from the yard can do in a pinch.
  • A new shower curtain.
    Home stagers often recommend white shower curtains since they give bathrooms a clean, serene feel. But white doesn’t have to be ho-hum: this waffle-weave option offers texture for just $20.
  • A set of pretty tea towels.
    You can find kitchen tea towels for under $10 at most retailers like Amazon or HomeGoods and serve as a cheerful pop of color—these IKEA ones come in a pack of 2 for just under $5. Fold them in thirds to hide the seam, then drape them over the handle of the oven.
A pillow used to stage a house on a budget.
Source: (DESIGNECOLOGIST/ Unsplash)

7. Paint it neutral, then layer on some color

Top real estate agents universally agree: put a fresh coat of paint on those walls before you show your house. Your best bet is to stick to a pleasant shade of beige or greige. In fact, 137 agents in HomeLight’s Q1 survey recommended Agreeable Gray by Sherwin-Williams. Sounds safe, but it’s what buyers are responding well to. To save on the cost of supplies, stick to only repainting the rooms that are either a non-neutral or otherwise distracting color.

Once you’ve got a neutral backdrop, Gould suggests bringing accent colors in with textiles to prevent the space from appearing too bland. These home decor pieces can offer color and personality—on the cheap:

  • Throw pillows.
    If you went with gray on the walls, go with a cool tone like blue or green; for beige walls, you might prefer warm colors like red or yellow. Hop over to HM and get their cotton velvet throw pillow covers for $10 each. Use them on neutral color furniture or even hard furnishings like wooden chairs and benches.
  • Throw blankets.
    Not only do throw blankets make rooms feel instantly cozier, they are a great way to add color. Fleece throws are the most cost-effective; find pretty (and expensive-looking) textured options for under $20.
  • A small accent rug.
    Forget expensive area rugs—rugs that measure 2-feet-by-3-feet come cheap and make for great home accents, like this $12 one from T.J. Maxx. Find one that color-coordinates with your other kitchen accents and place it in front of the kitchen sink.

8.  Give every space a sense of purpose

If you have empty rooms or awkward spaces, bring in items from around the house that suggest to buyers how to use the space. A tight bedroom becomes a functional office with a little desk, chair, and task light. If you have a short run of cabinets on one wall of the kitchen, set up your coffee maker and a few decorative mugs to create a coffee bar.

Just don’t go too overboard. “Good staging doesn’t look like the place is staged,” Gould said. It just looks like a warm, inviting home.” Some people, she says, will set the table with dishes, teacups and a rolled up newspaper—a few details too many. “If it looks too contrived, it starts to feel manipulated.”

In fact, all of Kontur’s staging items fit in a 30-gallon Rubbermaid container. She keeps three on hand—each tailored to a different color scheme. Each container holds:

  1. 2 shower curtains and a shower rug
  2. A towel and hand towel for each bathroom
  3. A few knick knacks for a mantle or shelf, like candles or vases
  4. 2 kitchen towels to drape over the sink
  5. A wreath holder and faux leaf wreath for the front door
  6. A welcome mat for the door

“That’s all it takes to make it feel like home,” she said.

9.  Revamp your existing stuff

Big-ticket items aren’t always in the budget when you’re getting ready to make a big move. Instead, refresh items you already have.

  • Old, dated sofas can feel modern again with the right slipcover. Ebay has countless options priced under $20 in their “Buy It Now” section.
  • Your existing throw pillows can become good as new with a $6 cushion cover.
  • If your bedding is looking more lived-in than luxurious, get a crisp white duvet cover—IKEA’s option is only $25 for a queen-sized set.
  • Pick out some new knobs and pulls to update your kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities and even furniture like dressers and hutches. Buying knobs and pulls in larger quantities rather than individually is the most cost-effective; find them on Amazon as low as $13 for a package of 10.
A room in a house that was staged on a budget.
Source: (ErikaWittlieb/ Pixabay)

10.  Cater to your most likely buyers

“Think about the neighborhood you’re in and who the typical buyer would be,” Gould suggests. For example, if you’re a retiring couple moving out of a 4-bedroom home in a family-friendly neighborhood, you’ll likely get a lot of traffic from couples with kids in tow.

Consider turning one room you’re not using into a kid’s room with a youthful bedspread and a few stuffed animals, or carving out a play space. This is the time to crowdsource for décor—ask friends and family if they have little toys and linens you could borrow temporarily.

If you live in an area with lots of interest from millennials, you may try a slightly different tactic with your staging. Millennials love entertaining, so add touches that will show off how buyers can use the space to host their friends and family.

One way to do this is to set up a home bar in one of your larger rooms. Grab a few wine or rocks glasses and arrange them on a nice serving tray, along with decanters, corkscrews, cocktail shakers—whatever you’ve got on hand (or whatever you can find at the thrift store—glassware can be as cheap as a quarter).

Stock the bar with wine from Aldi, Lidl or Trader Joe’s, all known for their budget-friendly bottles starting around $4.

11.  Let in natural light

Natural light is important to buyers, so it’s crucial in home staging to maximize what you have. Remove cornice boards—the decorative upholstered boards installed atop windows—if you’ve got them to maximize the natural light in your home.

Take down any heavy draperies from the curtain rod—make sure you have a sturdy step ladder on hand—and either leave the windows unadorned or hang a pair of sheer panels to allow maximum light. IKEA sells sheer white curtains for as low as $8.49 per pair.

12. Emulate natural light with nothing more than proper bulbs

You don’t need to install expensive can lighting or new fixtures to brighten up a space. You just need to replace your bulbs. Follow this plan:

  • Hit the hardware store. Look for 60-watt equivalent LED bulbs; a pack of 12 costs less than $30. Choose one with a higher color temperature, measured in KELVINS, for a clear, bright, daylight hue. Just check the packaging—4,600K or higher fits the bill. It will help the space feel as if it’s flooded with natural light.
  • With your 12-pack of bulbs in hand, start in rooms that need brighter light the most, like basement laundry rooms or attic storage spaces.
  • Move around the home with the remainder of the bulbs, focusing first on the spaces that are top priorities for buyers: the kitchen, living room, master bedroom and master bathroom.
  • One exception where you can save a few LEDs: keep Edison bulbs, if you already have them. These antique-inspired bulbs typically have a lower color temperature than standard bulbs, but they’re attractive and on trend.

13. Use mirrors to simulate more square footage

If you have tiny spaces, bring in mirrors from other rooms of the house and position them across from windows to reflect more light and make the space feel larger. If you don’t have any spares around the house, check the Facebook marketplace or local buy and sell groups. With a quick search, we found deals on mirrors online for as low as $5.

An agent helping a client stage a house on a budget.
Source: (mentatdgt/ Pexels)

14. Make a game plan with your agent

Remember: when in doubt, you can always ask your agent for advice. Bring in a top local agent who can help you determine the best way to show off the features of your home. He or she may even offer complimentary staging services: 75% of top agents have helped homeowners with staging free of charge.

When interviewing agents, ask if they cover the cost of staging, whether they are doing it themselves or hiring the job out. It’s a stressful (and expensive) time in a homeowner’s life, so let the experts help you through the process—the effort will all be worth it in the end.

Header Image Source: (Mark McCammon/ Pexels)

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