To save money, would you wear your old track suit to the Oscars? Cut your own hair for your wedding? Probably not. When you're selling your home, not hiring a professional stager to decorate your home in a way that showcases its best assets might be exactly the same kind of penny-wise, pound-foolish choice. Statistics show that staged homes sell faster and for more money than those that are unstaged. Only 10% of prospective buyers can visualize a home looking any different than the way it looks when they walk in the door. They need help.

What does staging achieve?

Buyers’ realtors reported that 81% of their clients felt that staging helped them to imagine the property they were viewing as a future home, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) “2015 Profile of Home Staging.” That is exactly what good staging does. It’s “a form of visual merchandising that draws on some of the fundamentals of interior design,” according to Gordon Roberts, a broker with Sotheby’s International Realty. “The object of staging is to flatter the property but not be too obvious about it, like being dressed without drawing particular attention to what you’re wearing.”

Melinda Massie, owner of a Fort Worth home-organizing firm (whose tagline is “Making homes and lives fabulous, one hot mess at a time”), says that good staging lets the buyers imagine themselves in the home; shows off its good features and hides its flaws; turns weird spaces into useable spaces; creates a mood (stagers call that “emotional” staging); and makes the home look significantly better in photos.

Why do it?

Twenty years ago nobody worried about staging. As a post on the legal website NOLO.com points out: “Giving your home a good scrubbing and hiding the kitty litter was considered enough before putting out the ‘for sale’ sign. [Now] more and more home sellers in many parts of the U.S. enlist the services of home stagers.” That makes it very likely your property will be competing with homes that have been professionally staged. Factor into the equation, too, that the huge popularity of HGTV shows over the past few years has heightened the expectations of potential buyers.

A stager can help with your online listing, too. A staggering number of people – 92% according to a Google/National Association of Realtors (NAR) report – use the Internet during their home search. That means that your home had better show really well online. Staging and photos by a professional can help you do that. You don’t want your home to show up on Terrible Real Estate Agent Photographs do you?

Consider the return on investment. As Sid Pinkerton, a New York City–based stager, points out: If you found a financial planner who could give you an ROI of 5%, 10%, sometimes as much as 20%, “wouldn’t you’d think he/she was a genius? Well, that’s what a good stager can do.”

How will a stager affect your home’s time on the market?

The Real Estate Staging Association (RESA) has a staging savings calculator on its website that lets you figure out how much time and money (mortgage payments, carrying costs, etc.) you should save if you stage your home before listing it. Its “Consumers Guide to Real Estate Staging” reports that homes that had not been staged before listing sat on the market an average 143 days. Once these homes were staged, they sold in 40 days. Homes that were staged pre-listing averaged 23 days on the market. You can expect differences from state to state – in California they sold five times faster, in Oregon seven times faster – but ”faster” is the key word here.

How will staging affect the selling price?

According to the NAR report, 52% of buyers’ realtors believe that buyers offer more for staged homes (32% think they offer 1% to 5% more; 16% put the increase at 6% to 10%; 4% put it as high as 20%). Nineteen percent of the realtors didn't feel staging had any impact on a home's selling price. Home Staging Resource, an organization that offers training and resources to stagers, is even more bullish on staging (as you’d expect): Its website states that in a survey of 3,500 staged homes, 46% sold for 10% more than they would have unstaged.

Ari Harkov, a broker for Halstead Property, cites another potential result of good staging: If you use your own furniture and it looks really, really good because of the staging, sometimes the buyer will ask to buy the furniture, too.

How much will it cost?

This is one of those “it depends” situations. It’s not possible to put an exact price tag on staging since there are so many variables: the state and city where the property is located; whether it’s a vacant property or one that’s being lived in (vacant properties really do need to have some furniture added because, as realtor Sissy Lappin says, “Seeing a vacant house is like looking at yourself in the mirror naked – you see every flaw!” ); whether you want a stager to do a walk-through and write a report; whether you want a whole house do-over using your own furniture or some supplied by the stager; or whether you want all rooms done or just the most important: the living room and the kitchen.

The NAR report puts the median cost of a stager at $675 but doesn't explain what that entails. Harkov estimates that a full staging will cost about 1% of the sale price.

Some stagers charge by the hour, others have a set fee. Be sure to be clear about all terms of any contract you sign – fee, timing, what you might have to pay for in addition to the staging such as furniture rentals.

In the last few years a new category of staging – virtual staging – has appeared. In virtual staging someone Photoshops furniture and accessories into photos of your vacant rooms. It’s worth considering for online photos and, of course, not as expensive as actual staging. But full disclosure is absolutely necessary. Harkov says that there should be two photos – one real, one Photoshopped – on the site. He adds that there is data to show that virtually staged photos on a website bump up the viewing numbers and may convince someone that the property is worth a look.

How about the DIY route?

Consider the design skills, time and energy that staging will require and be realistic about whether you could undertake the task yourself. One stager quoted in a Brickunderground blog didn’t mince words: “Most homes I see that are not professionally staged look like Pottery Barn meets grandma’s hand-me-downs.” (If you think you’re up for the challenge, check out the tips in How To Stage Your Home For A Quick Sale and Stage Your Home Like a Pro For Free.)

How do I find a stager who will give me the best ROI?

Unlike some professions, there is no official licensing entity and no licensing exam for staging. Just about anyone can call themselves a stager, so the best way to find a good one is to get referrals: from a seller you know who has used and found success with a particular stager, or from your broker. A good broker will have connections to good stagers.

The Bottom Line

The cost of staging by a professional – someone who has a great track record in the biz, one with sound design sense and who comes well-recommended – can mean money in the bank for you. If staging helps you sell your home sooner (keeps it from being out there so long that people start wondering what’s wrong with it); if it saves you a month or more of carrying expenses; if it creates the kind of buzz that brings in offers above ask – your money is well spent. As Krisztina Bell, a stager in Atlanta says, “It costs more not to stage – the average cost of a complete staging is usually much less than your first price reduction.”

For more selling tips, see Dos And Don'ts Of Selling A House and Selling Your House? Avoid These Mistakes.

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.