If you're like most home sellers, your house is worth a lot less than it was five years ago, maybe even less than what you paid for it.

So it isn't worth sinking more money into it before you put it on the market, right?

Sorry, but no, according to real estate agents. Sprucing up a home before you sell is still the best way to attract buyers and get a sale in this slowly recovering housing market.

"Buyers are picky," said Kim Guild, an agent with Keller Williams Realty, Edina. "There's not a lot of great inventory, but buyers still want it to look a certain way. A house needs to show like a model."

Today's buyers have higher expectations, but they aren't as set on a single neighborhood as they used to be, according to Laura Tiffany, an agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet's Minneapolis Lakes office. "They're more value-driven. They're willing to look in a broader area, which gives them more choices. The main thing I'm telling my clients is that homes need to be in pristine condition."

That doesn't mean you need to invest in major remodeling projects. Simple repairs, minor cosmetic enhancements, decluttering and staging are enough, in most cases, to make a home appealing to current buyers.

"Eliminate objections," said John Everett, an agent with Edina Realty. "You're competing with other houses, and the competition is all staged, neutralized and looking good. It doesn't cost a lot to declutter. Fresh paint doesn't cost a fortune."

A move-in-ready house is important to today's buyers because most don't have cash to pay for updates, Guild said. "They can finance the house but not the improvements. Lenders aren't approving those like they used to. You can't get those [home equity] lines of credit."

Plus, many of today's buyers aren't prepared -- or willing -- to tackle even minor home improvements themselves, according to Everett. "If they're both working, they don't have time." And most came of age in an era when home repairs and painting were increasingly outsourced.

"Buyers don't have a clue," Everett said. "They didn't do these things growing up and they didn't see their parents doing them. Today, when you point out a workbench in the basement, usually the wife laughs hysterically and says something like, 'My husband wouldn't know which end of the screwdriver to use.'"

So, if you're a home seller, what's worth spending money on and what's not? We asked agents to weigh in:

Professional photography. "The first showing is now online," Guild said. "You're not making the first impression when the buyer comes in the door, but on the Internet." Amateurish snapshots reduce the likelihood that a prospective buyer will be impressed enough to make an appointment. But high-quality shots by a pro who understands angles and lighting can pique buyers' interest.

Staging. Hiring a professional to present your home in its best light is almost always a worthwhile investment, Guild said. "I'm a huge proponent of staging." A well-staged home evokes positive emotion in potential buyers, often resulting in a faster sale and a higher sale price, she said.

Depending on the size of your home, a full-house staging can cost $2,500 to $3,000 -- even more if furniture, rather than just accessories, are involved. If that's beyond your budget, consider hiring a professional stager for a preliminary consultation and then follow his or her advice to complete the staging yourself.

Repairs. If it's broken, fix it. Today's buyers don't want to inherit your deferred-maintenance chores. "Almost all houses need some love," Everett said. "Spend the money, hire a handyman." Mechanics should be in good working order, Tiffany said. "Furnace certified. Windows and gutters clean -- anything that makes the house present itself as well cared for, and a good value."

Painting. A coat of fresh paint is a must for most homes, at least in rooms that see the most wear and tear. "You want everything to look fresh, new and clean," Tiffany said. Neutral colors are still recommended. While an unusual color scheme might be dramatic, it makes it more difficult for buyers to visualize themselves and their belongings in your home. Tiffany also tells her clients to paint basement floors, as part of cleaning and decluttering. "Basements can be scary, and clean, fresh paint on a cement floor really helps," she said.

Kitchens and baths. Concentrate your home-improvement efforts and dollars in these two spaces, Guild advised. "Kitchens and baths deliver the most bang for the buck." New lighting, faucets and hardware can give a kitchen a fresh, new look without breaking the bank. Bigger-ticket enhancements, such as new countertops, might or might not be smart, depending on the home and other circumstances. Guild has advised some clients with dated kitchens to add granite and new appliances, to appeal to modern buyers. But Everett urges caution. "Granite is very personal, and someone might hate the color you choose," he said. "They may want to pick out their own granite."

Other big projects. Thinking about finishing your unfinished basement so your home boasts more square footage? Don't bother, Guild said. "You're not going to get the money out of it, unless you were going to do it anyway." Tiffany agreed.

"For major improvements, I tell clients they should do it only for themselves, so they can get some enjoyment out of the improvement. The likelihood of a quick return on investment is not strong."

When in doubt about what to improve, ask your agent.

"The biggest thing is listening to the professional you hired," Guild said.

Everett said he's had several recent sales that involved multiple offers, and in every case, "they [sellers] did everything on my checklist." His advice: "Go out with both barrels loaded and get the job done."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784