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Listing with Littles: How to stage your home to sell, even when you have young children

“We have to get a bigger house,” I said to my husband when three carloads of baby shower gifts were piled into our first born’s nursery-to-be. How can one tiny human need so much stuff? Fast forward and my child is now 1 and a half years old and finally sleeping through the night. The sleep-deprived fog has lifted and I notice that I have to climb over a Nugget couch, caterpillar tunnel, a toddler-sized armchair and an exer-saucer (she walks now, why is it in the living room?) just to get to my own couch to sit for the first time all day.

The time has obviously come–we’re listing our house. As a realtor myself who has helped many families find their next dream home, I know my own house wouldn’t meet my profession’s standards for listing. A buyer would walk in, walk right out, and vow to never have kids. Since torching the house wasn’t an option, I needed a plan, and preferably one that would also be helpful to others listing with the chaos of an active household.

Getting ready to list your house is challenging no matter what. Add kids, pets (and all the chattel that comes with them) and you’ve reached a whole new level. These cute little hoarders do not care about whether potential buyers can see their playroom as a perfect space for their Peloton.

It’s no secret sellers have been getting top dollar for their homes the past few years. The Greater Syracuse Association of Realtors data states there was just 2.2 months of inventory in November with the median sales price up 8.6% year to date. But just because it’s a seller’s market, doesn’t mean you should skip staging your home. Let’s cash in on your home’s equity with these tips for staging your home to sell fast, at a price that will make you money, even with the remnants of Saturday morning Target trips taking up every inch of space.

Play Pretend

Put down your tiny teacup, not that kind of pretend. Walk outside your home and forget you live there. Open the front door and walk through your entire home with ‘buyer goggles’ on. What stands out? Probably the wall that was mistaken as a blank canvas, an overstuffed closet, and sticky fingerprints on the stainless fridge. The closet could be huge and the fridge brand new but if a buyer sees a mess it’s unlikely they’ll have the vision to see past it. Make a list of what needs attention and a list of what features of the house you love the most. No home is perfect, so make sure those positive features shine by diminishing the presence of the negative.

One-third Rule

Are your listening ears on? This step will make your move smoother and help your house sell quicker. Go through each room, closet, and storage area and eliminate at least one-third of items from that space. Get rid of garbage first. There’s no need to pay a mover to carry trash into your new home. Say goodbye to broken toys and stained to death clothes. Next donate. Remember to donate only items that are still in good condition. It’s a perfect opportunity for the annoying toy that Uncle so-and-so gifted to disappear.

Then pack whatever you won’t be needing for the next few months such as clothes for the opposite season, toys the kids aren’t actively playing with, kitchen gadgets stuffed in cupboards, and extra decorations. Ideally, you could put your packed boxes somewhere potential buyers won’t see: a small corner in the basement, a storage unit, or bargain with a friend or family member to use their garage.

Now that you did all that prep-work, step back and look at your house again with the ‘buyer goggles’ on. The goal is that potential buyers can now see how much storage your house has to offer and the living spaces look lighter and spacious.

With this step, you get the added bonus of getting a head start on the daunting task of packing. By getting rid of a lot of the clutter before you’re even ready to move, you’re one step ahead of the game once the contract is signed and the moving truck is scheduled.

Make a Fire Drill Plan

Picture this: you just got off the phone with your realtor, the house has been listed for 15 minutes and there are 3 buyers who want to see the house NOW. These buyers are hot and it’s time to evacuate. But, you’re not stressed because you read this article and have prepared for this moment. It’s GO time.

Your fire drill plan is simple: keep an empty bin in every room and practice playing “fire drill” with your kids. Set a timer to pick up kid/pet toys, laundry, and whatever else went rouge and put it all in the bins. When it’s the real deal, you can focus on putting the toy shelf back to instagram worthiness. And don’t forget the kitchen–have the big kid take the trash out and put dirty dishes in a bin if you don’t have time to wash them. Either store the bins neatly in your house or bring them in the car with you. I didn’t say this one was pretty, but keep your eye on the prize!

Count to 10…It’s going to be OK

Don’t stress about getting rid of all evidence of kids. You still need your house to function day to day while you’re selling. These precious peanuts, although disastrous at times, make the house feel like a home.

Arriving at home is exactly the emotion we want a buyer to feel. Which brings up the debate about family photos. Though many realtors say you should erase all traces of your personal mementos, I personally don’t think you need to remove them all. It can be a nice touch to see happy photos of you and your loved ones here and there. However, if you feel strongly about privacy or have a crowded shelf or wall covered with family photos, apply the ⅓ rule so that the space looks less cluttered and the potential buyer has room to envision their own sweet memories displayed.

Remember, the goal is to showcase the areas of the house that are functional and beautiful and the process is simple: edit down your own stuff and you’ll reveal the dream home a buyer has been searching for. So, don’t forget to breathe, you totally got this.

Kaleigh Lembo is a realtor with Howard Hanna Real Estate in Syracuse, NY. Download her complete checklist for staging your home at

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