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leeay aikawa The Globe and Mail

Back in the sixties, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross codified the five stages of grief to help us cope with the loss of a loved one. Recently, I discovered that the emotional turmoil of home staging plays out in a weirdly similar fashion. Trust me, there is a thin line between grief and interior decorating for a quick sale.

In both cases the first stage is shock and denial: What? Pictures of my family are not captivating to prospective home buyers?

Then comes anger: Are you kidding? We just painted the living room and dining room and front hall last year! Followed closely by bargaining: Okay. Fine. But if we strip the wallpaper, can we please, please, keep the blue walls?

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Depression comes next: My whole life in this house has been a sham, so full of colour and memorabilia. Finally, there is acceptance. Reality crystallizes, you roll up your sleeves and sweat equity kicks in.

Sentiment aside, as with most people, our house is our biggest asset, our biggest investment. My husband and I needed the money out of our three-bedroom bungalow to move on with our lives post-retirement.

But having lived for 30 years in the same home, we were new to the not-so-gentle art of primping your house for the real estate market. We quickly learned there is a simple formula to the task of beautifying the old manse.

First, your house must be dehumanized (family photos packed away), decluttered and cleaned vigorously. Then it must be polished to a hard, minimalist shine with the walls painted, wallpaper stripped and furniture removed to reveal hardwood floors. Only then should the For Sale sign go on the lawn.

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This is what the magazines reported and it's what the professionals told us. We might be perfectly content living in our crowded, shabby nest (in fact we were), but if we wanted top dollar, in a timely fashion, we had better get out the rubber gloves, because the spiders on the windowsill and the clutter in the closets must go.

Clearly, our home stager had a practical eye. She waltzed through our house and suggested we repaint every room (except the powder room), replace all the wallpaper and ship out half our worldly goods to parts unspecified.

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"You want prospective buyers to imagine their own stuff in the rooms," she said, and prescribed neutral tones with names like Manchester Tan and Trendy Biscotti for the walls.

The colours were meant to create a contemporary feel, she wrote in her five-page report, "while adding warmth and spaciousness." We knew she meant more warmth and an illusion of space to make the house show well and sell successfully, but as we were still then fixated on stage one (shock and denial), stripped down and tarted up is what we read between the lines.

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Our real estate broker, a lovely woman who is also an old friend, was sympathetic. "If it makes you feel any better," she said, "I felt like we were prostituting our own home when we sold it. It was rough. All I can say is, it works."

I gave her three days to sell my house. We both laughed. She promised fresh flowers for the table. Did I mention the rule of three? Fresh flowers, fresh fruit and fresh baking - these are the sensual treats designed to complete any seduction, er, transaction.

So, the mop and the paintbrush came out, and a series of difficult choices reared their ugly heads: What goes into storage and what goes straight to the dump? Soul-destroying hardly covers it.

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Even at stage five (acceptance), after three decades in the same home, feelings are bound to run deep. Would you throw away a pair of slippers just when they got comfortable? We grew to love our house with its rooms painted Chopin Blue and Wooded Path Green.

Thirty years is a long time to inhabit any dwelling in this transient world, but still I never dreamed it would be so difficult to entrust our house to professionals who must focus on the imperfections, not the context. Instead of a cozy family home they saw the dated wallpaper and quirky art and towering trees in the yard that only yesterday, it seems, were saplings bending in the wind.

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But this was no time to get maudlin. The kids had married and moved on, with homes of their own. The dog was long dead. We have grandchildren, for heaven's sake. My husband and I built a retirement home in a village in the country, a place where we can live the next phase of our lives, 30 years if we are lucky, close to nature in relative tranquillity.

There will be fewer stoplights (one, in fact), less pollution and a host of opportunities to play and display our quirks and idiosyncrasies before another home stager gets our call.

I guess you could say we finally achieved closure in our five stages of grief. Our house sold in two days.

Karen Alton lives in Grey County, Ont.

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