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Ella Zetser is an evangelist when it comes to the "staging" of houses for sale. She can list client after client where staging not only helped sell a house or condo in record time but well above the asking price.

"I had one client where I even got $250,000 over the asking price," she says. "They listed at $1,995,000 and thought they might get $2,025,000. After we did our work it went for $2,250,000.

"In another situation the client listed at $489,000, and within a week of the first open house, they got two offers, both above $500,000 and the house sold for $532,000."

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What's staging? It's a fast-growing industry in major real-estate markets. A staging company turns your home into a well-thought-out set for the drama of selling a house. The company takes charge of what needs doing in terms of repairs and repainting, then temporarily redecorate your house so when prospective buyers walk through the door, they see something that looks like it's from the glossy pages of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

Judging by the 300 or so homes she does a year - about 40 per cent are now condos - sellers who hire her company can expect to get offers that average 14 per cent above list prices, Ms. Zetser says.

The cost? Anywhere from 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of the selling price, she adds.

Her favourite strategy is to work with the listing agent and seller to first decide how a home will be staged - then to hold an open house. Prospective buyers are told that bids will be accepted for a week but not shared with any of the bidders and at the end of that week the seller will choose the one they like best.

"What that means is that people putting in a bid will go higher than the listing price if they really want the home," she says. "Especially in hot markets like this on in the GTA that bidding process can really drive the price up.

"What helps is that the house looks absolutely perfect. They can imagine themselves living there and indeed want to live there."

Do not confuse staging with decorating, says Christine Rae. She runs a training school for stagers - CPS International Training Academy - out of a St. Catharines, Ont., office. But CPS trains would-be stagers across Canada through its three-day seminars and has now expanded into California and Australia, and this May goes to Paris, says Ms. Rae.

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"Staging is really a form of visual marketing," she says. "The goal is to get the best possible price in the shortest time and that means showing any home to its best advantage. It is theatre, not home decorating."

She also says that surveys show 67 per cent of would-be buyers want a home that is move-in ready.

"Men especially do not want a house where they will immediately need to do a lot of work," she adds.

As a result, great stagers pay attention to every detail. Typically, they meet with the client, do a walk-through of the house and compile a list of work that needs doing such as repairs, repainting or thorough cleaning. The next step is likely moving out some furniture and in some cases moving in showy rental pieces to replace some of it.

"In staging, less is always more," she says. "We almost always find people have too much furniture and it takes away from the effect we want to achieve."

Some homes may require extensive work; others just need some fine-tuning.

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"With that $2,250,000 deal, it was a matter of bringing in things like art for the walls, accessories like pillows for the furniture and eye-catching decorative pieces," Ms. Zetser says. "In fact, the split between doing lots of work and little work runs about 50-50."

How does one pick a stager? Start with recommendations from relatives and friends. Ask your real-estate agent or broker. Stagers generally work hand-in-hand with agents. Ms. Zetser has 3,000 on her mailing list but works regularly with about 100 of them, she says.

Once you have a few names, visit the company websites, both women suggest. Look for before-and-after pictures but make sure they are not just stock photos. You want real client pictures. You might also ask for references and arrange to visit a job in progress - a home that has been staged and is ready for that crucial open house.

"Interview each candidate, and if they are unsure, or if they take time getting back to you with answers to your questions, they are not the stager you need," Ms. Zetser says. "Just remember a lot of extra money from the sale of your home is likely riding on making the right choice."

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