When Jolie and Eric Stukel were expecting their second child, they decided that they had outgrown their south Minneapolis home. So, they cleaned it from top to bottom, packed away the baby toys and personal photos, and put the house up for sale. But after six months on the market, they had had only a handful of showings and no offers -- even after reducing the price.

Buyers weren't biting because the Stukel house didn't stand out from the scores of other Craftsman homes for sale in the area, said Charlie Adair, the Edina Realty agent the Stukels hired when they listed the house a second time.

"The home was bland and lifeless," said Adair. "I knew stagers would come in and give the house personality and show its potential."

At Adair's suggestion, the couple enlisted Ambiance at Home, a Prior Lake-based staging company. Ambiance staff brought in artwork, area rugs, sofa pillows, as well as a dining set to emphasize the home's formal dining room. They also did some art directing.

"I don't have an eye for color," admitted Jolie. "They told us exactly what color to paint each room."

In addition to paint chips, the staff handed the Stukels a to-do list, which included getting rid of an exercise bike and armoire in the lower level and replacing an outdated kitchen light fixture.

Once those changes were made, Adair had professional photos shot of each staged room, which he posted on Edina Realty's online real estate listing. "The first showing takes place online," he said, "and homes have to be photo ready."

After 49 days, the Stukels got two offers and sold the home for the listed price.

The Stukels are convinced their $1,800 home staging did the trick.

"There were houses in the neighborhood that were bigger or equivalent to ours that didn't sell because the pictures were horrible on the Internet listings," Jolie said.

Stage savvy

Five years ago, agents often had to explain what home staging was. Today, the concept has caught on thanks, in part, to a proliferation of real estate reality TV shows.

"People have heard of staging. They see the 'befores' and 'afters' on HGTV," said Adair, who noted that 80 percent of his listings last year were professionally staged.

And sellers are all too aware that potential buyers have a huge supply of homes to look at. Last year, there was an average of eight homes for every buyer, according to the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors. That means a house has to have the right look in order sell.

But the right look isn't necessarily a livable look.

"Staging is not decorating," said Barb Schwarz, CEO of StagedHomes.com, which offers staging certification workshops across the country. "It's depersonalizing the home so the buyer can mentally move in."

Adair said many of his clients don't have the time, energy or know-how to give their homes that generic yet inviting look, so he recommends they turn to one of the many Twin Cities stagers for help. Clients can pay as little as $200 for a written consultation, which lists repairs, paint colors, furniture arrangement and upgrades that they can do themselves. Or they can hire a stager to do a whole-house makeover, which can cost up to $5,000.

"We can bring in updated impactful accessories to give your home a high-end cohesive look," said Carrie Ingalls, who owns Ambiance at Home and stages 200 homes a year, including Parade of Homes models.

That look comes at a cost, of course, but housing industry experts say owners may be able to recoup some of those costs if a professional staging helps them sell their home more quickly -- and without a reduction in price. If the market stays as competitive as it is now, more sellers will continue to use stagers to stay in the game.

"I've been in real estate for 33 years and never before has professional staging been so prevalent," said Barbara Brin, a Coldwell Banker Burnet agent. "Years ago we didn't want to hurt the seller's feelings. Now people are realistic and the Internet has changed the way people look at houses."

Staging pro Sharon Larkins agreed. "Web appeal is the new curb appeal," she said. "If your photos look good online, you'll get more showings."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619