'MODERN ROOM' by Roy Lichtenstein
Judy and I had just spent five hours spiffing up her townhouse so that her real-estate agent could show it to a potential buyer, and now Judy was crying about it.

"What's wrong?" I asked. "This place looks fabulous!"

It really did. What was supposed to be a normal dust-and-straighten routine turned into a manic redecorating sprint. We began by organizing and filing papers that, to my best recollection, had been on Judy's desk since the Reagan administration. Getting them out of sight shattered our unspoken assumption that we were only tidying and triggered a frenzy of home improvement.

We Goodwilled items—snowshoes, an accordion, a unicycle—to which Judy had clung for years, just in case she started channeling Zelda Fitzgerald and ended up using them. The newly spacious rooms begged for color, so we visited the neighborhood florist for luscious tulip bouquets and then purchased paint to match the flowers. Two accent walls, ten picture-hangings, and an hour of furniture-arranging later, Judy's home was dazzling. Hence, the tears.

"I'm selling this place because I wanted to live somewhere more beautiful and inspiring," Judy quavered, "but now this is it! This is my dream house—and someone else gets it!" Weakened by paint fumes, she began to cry even harder.

"There, there," I said, patting her arm. "Maybe no one will make an offer."

But as I surveyed the newly gorgeous house, I knew that someone would.
Judy isn't the first person to create her perfect home just in time to sell it. Something about staging a space for sale—it could be simple avarice, or that we can't motivate ourselves without a goal—makes us capable of decorating much more effectively for prospective buyers than for ourselves.

It's like dressing your child for a school recital: You adore your beloved no matter how unkempt the kid is but do everything you can to make her look her best when someone else is about to inspect her.

Watching Judy weep, I wondered how homeowners could tap sellers' instincts while living in a place rather than when leaving it. Using a highly unscientific survey of friends, acquaintances, real-estate agents and the occasional bewildered stranger, I investigated the reasons we don't decorate for self the way we decorate for sale and came up with ideas you can use to instigate your own "sales spiff-up"—long before you plan to sell your home.

Reasons We Don't Spiff Up for Ourselves
  • Chez Moi, C'est Moi. We think of our homes as extensions of ourselves and tend to value ourselves less than we would a potential buyer. For example, you may fail to indulge yourself with the touches of comfort (fresh flowers, extra pillows) you'd provide for a guest, or you might tolerate more clutter than you'd impose on a visitor. Any neurosis we have about our own value, or lack thereof, affects our homes. Unless we're willing to lavish good things on ourselves, we leave them out of the spaces we inhabit.
  • The Parent Trap We often unthinkingly reproduce the spaces where we grew up and create homes just like mom and dad's. I know a self-made millionaire who resisted buying a dryer for what seemed an absurd length of time. When she finally got one, her blue-collar parents immediately voiced their disdain. "Well," sniffed her mother, "I guess you think you're all high-society now." No wonder my friend still doesn't have cable.
  • Object Limbo The busier we are, the more our possessions tend to be in limbo—out in the open and ready for action. Objects left in place "until I get to them" can become permanent fixtures: the stack of catalogs here, the stepladder there, the exercise equipment in between. If something sits in your space for more than a day, it deserves a place of its own.
  • Blind Spots Because we already see them complete in our mind's eye, we become blind to unfinished areas in our home that we intend to fix someday. Only when we imagine what those spots will look like to a buyer do we notice what isn't there now.
Sales Spiff Your Home for Yourself

Once we're aware of the different mind-sets of decorating-for-self versus decorating-for-sale, perhaps we can switch on the "seller" mentality before we're ready to part with a space. For each of the points above, here's a corresponding action you can take today.

  • Decorate for Someone You Respect. It would be terrific if we overcame all our neuroses and began to esteem ourselves as much as we do random home buyers, but in many cases (no offense) that's just not realistic. Instead, imagine that one of your heroes is about to move in to your space. It could be anyone—Nelson Mandela, the Buddha, Cher, or all three—as long as the person would inspire you to create a welcoming, gratifying space. Today, walk through your home and notice what you would change if your hero moved in. Then make those changes.
  • Shock the 'Rents. If your parents unfairly dominate your personal style, then, as soon as possible, introduce decorative statements into your home that would astonish or appall them. If buying a dryer would make them think you're hoity-toity, then spring for a towel warmer to go with it. If dad's a preacher, then hang nude figure drawings. If mom's a chic modern artist, then opt for homespun country comfort. Keep finding things you love that your parents hate, and you'll soon create a space that's yours, not theirs.
  • Send Items from Limbo to Their Own Little Paradise. If an object you use sits in an awkward space for more than a day or two, then it's time to give it a home that allows easy access and a tidy look. Organization stores offer containers that are perfect for unanswered mail, incomplete scrapbooks, half-read books, and greenhouse clippings stolen from neighbors' gardens.
  • Flip the Image. To get past decorating blind spots, try an old trick used by artists: Bring a mirror into a room, set it up so that it reflects the whole space, and study the reflected image as you would a framed photograph or painting. The reversed image reveals a space unfamiliar to the eye and brain, and problems that are so familiar they're invisible suddenly become eyesores.
Move Without Moving

Judy's beautiful townhouse sold the very day we spiffed it up. The search for another home was devastating because nothing seemed half as lovely as the space she'd created. When her real-estate agent called to say she had some bad news, Judy's heart sank even lower.

"I'm so sorry," the agent said, "but the buyer's funding fell through. We're right back where we started."

Knowing that the agent had just lost a nice fat commission—one she would never receive—Judy feigned dismay. Then she hung up, whooped with joy, and invited me over for a housewarming in her brand-new, same old home.

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