You love your house and have invested much time and money into making it just the way you want it.

But now it's time to sell, and your real estate agent advises undoing all that work. Neutralize it so someone else can imagine living there.

That can be upsetting for a seller to hear, but it's the not-so-secret strategy for selling a house quickly and for the highest price: home staging.

"The way that we live and the way that we sell are two different things, especially in today's world," said Kris Lindahl, founder of Kris Lindahl Real Estate (KLRE) and a proponent of staging.

Even though it's still a seller's market in the Twin Cities, staging your home might still be a worthwhile strategy to consider. Here's some advice on how to do it:

What is staging?

Staging isn't just decorating or interior design. While many stagers have degrees and years of experience in those fields, staging is a very specific craft — some say art — that's focused on making a home as sellable as possible.

Staging can be as simple as decluttering and depersonalizing a house while you're still living there. But it can also mean painting, replacing fixtures and cabinet hardware, even installing new appliances. You can also swap your furnishings and accessories for more on-trend and neutral items.

Some stagers just tell sellers what to do. Others actually do the work. Twin Cities-based Laurie Fleming of Fix Design Haus has a 12,000-square-foot warehouse full of furnishings and accessories she's constantly moving in and out of homes.

"Staging is an insurance policy to know that I'm doing everything I can to get top dollar in my sale and that I can't control other factors, including mortgage rates and home prices," she said. "At its core, staging is all about solving problems that buyers might find objectionable."

Why it matters

While stagers themselves are reluctant to guarantee a quick sale or make promises about your return on investment, there is some proof of staging's benefits from a national survey the National Association of Realtors released this spring.

Almost half of the sellers' agents surveyed said staging a home made it sell more quickly. One-fifth of both buyers' and sellers' agents said staged houses fetched an offer that was 1% to 5% higher than similar unstaged homes.

Almost a quarter of the sellers' agents said they staged all sellers' homes before listing them for sale, while 10% said they only staged homes that were difficult to sell.

Most agents said real estate television shows — think "House Hunters" on HGTV — affected buyers' perspectives on homes. Three quarters of the respondents said those TV shows affected their business by setting unrealistic or increased expectations.

Martha Stewart and Chip and Joanna Gaines have pretty much ruined it for home sellers these days. Buyers want what they see, no matter their budget. They don't want to see your stuff or any sign of you and your beautiful family or any trace of your fluffy dog or cuddly cat.

"You're so house-blind when you live there, and you don't see what other people see, and you're able to look past your collections," Fleming said. "And we know how to make a house look newer than it is."

Lindahl said buyers are so discriminating that hiring a professional stager is essential.

"I don't even think it's an option. I think it's something you must do," he said. "Everyone's house, including mine, doesn't look like a showhouse when I'm living it."

Lindahl said nearly every single seller who works with his agents stage their homes. He even started his own in-house staging company so every agent can offer the service.

The cost

If you want professional advice and need to seriously zhuzh up your house, you'll spend at least a few hundred dollars.

For KLRE clients, the cost of an initial consultation is included with every listing agreement, but sellers will pay for furniture and accessory rentals.

Fleming said a basic consultation — which includes a visit to the house, a meeting with clients and a list of recommendations — is $350. Usually, she said, the agent pays that fee and recoups it once you sell.

She said a completely vacant home can cost $3,000 to $15,000 for a 30-day contract, depending on how many rooms you're staging — that survey found the living room, main bedroom and kitchen are most important — and for how long. But she's had clients spend upward of $150,000 to $200,000 for her to manage subcontractors on projects that are too small for a big builder and too big for a handyman.

"If house doesn't sell quickly, you'll be incurring some rental or renewal fees," Fleming said. "The value of staging can change quite a bit if you're on the market a long time. That's where it turns upside down for you."

Kari Michael, president and founder of Kariel Staging & Decor in Crystal, said she only stages vacant homes. The starting point for those jobs is $2,000 to $2,500 for a living room, dining room, kitchen and primary bedroom, including decor and 90-day furniture rental.

For the highest-end homes, like those on the Parade Of Homes and Luxury Home Tours, you will easily pay more than $10,000.

First impressions

Most buyers today are shopping online, so they're looking at photos of your house first. A properly staged house is key to making great photos that will spur the buyer to see it in person.

The goal, Fleming said, is to usher as many buyers as possible into the house during the first couple of days it's on the market so there's a sense of competition and urgency. That can influence someone to offer more than the asking price.

"You have to create fear that the buyer will lose the house," Fleming said. "People want what they want, and they're willing to pay for it."

Michael agreed.

"When a room is staged, it is easily defined," she said. "But when they are empty, it can make it difficult for the potential buyer to know what they are looking at."

Feelings, not data

Fleming said what differentiates her from an agent is an agent focuses on market information while she hones in on emotion.

"I know what makes people feel like they want to live and spend more time in the space," she said. "We're going beyond data."

Staging a house can be a humbling and sometimes painful experience because sellers have to confront parts of their home others might not like. Fleming is the one to gently deliver that news.

"Not every Realtor wants to be the bad cop," she said. "And I don't have a profit or loss based on how the listing proceeds."

Fleming likes to meet with all her staging clients before starting to make sure they're comfortable with the coming changes.

"I want them to ask questions. I have to read their body language to know what's overwhelming to them and what I can say to them," she said. "You have to have an enormous amount of respect for people and their homes."