7 cheap and easy steps to a better open house  (© Digital Vision Ltd./SuperStock)

© Digital Vision Ltd./SuperStock

In today's dreary real-estate market, it's increasingly important for sellers to make their properties stand out from the huge backlog of unsold homes. But you don't have to go broke doing it, says Pat Vredevoogd Combs, vice president of Coldwell Banker AJS-Schmidt in Grand Rapids, Mich. In a recent interview with U.S. News, Combs, a former president of the National Association of Realtors, provided seven inexpensive ways that sellers can improve their open houses. "Most of the things you do to get ready for an open house you probably don't need to spend money on," she says.

1. Detail and de-clutter. The first step in preparing for an open house is to ensure that your entire property is clean and de-cluttered, Combs says. The goal of an open house is to enable prospective buyers to envision themselves living there, and clutter and disorder prevent them from doing so. So sellers should detail their entire house room by room. Also, make sure that outdoor spaces are in tiptop condition. Combs encourages sellers to pay particular attention to the walkway leading up to their front door because "that's where the people are going to come in for your open house." As in other endeavors, first impressions are tremendously important to real estate.

You could always hire professionals — cleaners and landscapers — to take care of these chores. But with a little sweat, some cleaning supplies and gas for the lawn mower, homeowners can get their properties open-house ready at minimal cost.

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2. Fire up the oven. While making sure that your home is free of offensive smells such as odors from pets and cigarettes, homeowners should consider injecting some more welcoming aromas into the air. "Smells like cinnamon and chocolate give you a feeling of home ... so, I wouldn't hesitate to throw some sweet rolls or brownies in the oven," Combs says. "What we're trying to do is psychologically have people believe they are at home and want to buy the house."

3. Lighten up. It's important that your home is well-lit for open-house day. "People love light, airy houses," Combs says. In addition, a slip and fall on a poorly lit basement step will make prospective buyers wonder if the home is safe. "Before your open house, make sure that all of your light bulbs are working," Combs says.

4. Lock it up. Unfortunately, there has been an increase in open-house-related thefts over the past couple of years, with thieves posing as potential buyers and then making off with homeowners' belongings, Combs says. The most commonly stolen items, according to Combs, are prescription drugs and small pieces of jewelry. To prevent theft, homeowners should store their valuables and prescription drugs in a safe place during the open house. "A lot of people don't think about taking the drugs out of their medicine cabinets," Combs says. "And I think that's really crucial today."

5. Get rid of the pets. Although you might be a dog lover, the potential buyers coming to see your home may not be. That doesn't mean they won't be interested in purchasing the house, only that you should remove your pets — and pet-related items such as crates and water bowls — from the property during the open house. In addition to turning off certain buyers, pets can be a distraction, Combs says. "People come through a house [because] they want to see the house and not be distracted by [a pet]."

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6. Make yourself disappear. Homeowners should be away from the property during the open house. Potential buyers can feel like they are imposing if the owners remain in the property, which makes it much more difficult for them to envision themselves living there. "It's very disconcerting ... when the owner stays there," Combs says. "The buyers are very uncomfortable." So make arrangements to spend the day someplace else.

7. Sell the neighborhood. While potential buyers will certainly want to see what your house is like, they will have other questions as well. "I get this all the time: [potential buyers have] a young 3-year-old, and [they] want to know if there are babysitter-aged kids in the neighborhood and they want to know if there are other kids for them to play with," Combs says. Sellers should gather pertinent information about the neighborhood, school system and utility bills and pass it along to their agent. (Or, if they aren't using an agent, then directly to the buyers themselves.)

By Luke Mullins, U.S. News & World Report