The good news is that in most parts of the UK property prices are turning upwards again; the bad news is that this is from a very low base of sales. In fact, the number of sales are still below the long-term trend – which means that sellers can't just let their property sell itself, they have to compete hard for buyers' affections, and homes have to be "staged" correctly or they can remain unsold.
Buyers could be put off before they've even reached your front door, so think seriously about your home's "kerb appeal".
"Make sure it looks as good on the outside as it does internally. Many people are doing drive-bys these days, so a great-looking interior and poor outside will reduce the number of visitors," says Kate Faulkner of Propertychecklists.co.uk.
Tidy up any rubbish and clutter, clear the gutters, and if you have a garden, keep it tidy and weed-free, mow the lawn and plant a few flowers so it looks its best. Mend broken gates or fences, and if necessary, give them and your front door a scrub or a fresh coat of paint. You may think a few weeds and a dusty door are insignificant, but if you get the basics wrong buyers will immediately be on the lookout for other signs of shabbiness.
If you need help getting your property in order quickly, there are lots of companies willing to do the work for you, such as Home Stagers (homestagers.co.uk), The Final Touch (thefinaltouch.co.uk) and Home Makeovers (homemakeoverservice.co.uk), or you can browse through the online directory at the Home Staging Network (homestagingnetwork.co.uk). They take on the tidying, cleaning and sprucing and will even loan furniture to make your home stand out.
Costs vary widely, but you have to pay for the initial consultation as well as the actual staging. At Final Touch, for example, the initial visit is £75 and they then charge £150-£225 (depending on the size of your property) for an itemised estimate of how much the project will cost, while at Home Makeovers the consultation costs £150 and hands-on styling costs £195 per day.
Experts often say the most effective changes are the simplest, namely de-cluttering and depersonalising. Potential buyers want to imagine their own lives fitting into your home, so get rid of the piles of laundry or children's toys and keep the family snaps and unusual ornaments to a minimum.
"Try to see your home as a buyer, not someone who has lived there for 14 years. Taking a photograph of each room is a useful way to approach looking at your own property with a fresh pair of eyes," says Anita Richardson from House Wow, who explains that this will give you a chance to see whether any of the rooms are too dark, too cluttered, or just plain messy.
Move furniture that blocks the light and make the most of any features such as french doors. Space is a big selling point, so arrange your furniture to make rooms feel bigger and put bulky items into storage if they take up too much room. Cleverly placed mirrors make a cramped space seem wider, and soft lighting can brighten a dark corner.
As well as making the most of any space, you also need to define each room carefully, so avoid office desks and laptops in bedrooms and remove the gym kit from the dining room. In most cases an extra bedroom is favourable, but do think about your target audience, as young professionals may be enticed by an office space, for example, while a growing family could be looking for a nursery.
Think carefully before you take on changes that cost too much, and always compare the cost to any potential added value – experts recommend trying to limit any expenditure to about 1 per cent of the property. Kitchens and bathrooms are the most likely to put off buyers because they cost a lot of money to replace, but tricks of the trade will save you money. For starters, you can replace kitchen doors and handles and re-grout bathroom tiles instead of buying entirely new units.
You may not need to replace old curtains and carpets either as you can bring in industrial cleaners to the same effect. Tired walls can be brightened up with a fresh lick of paint which will help to cover cracks and damp patches, but stick to neutral colours to appeal to a wider range of prospective buyers.
"Don't start thinking of wallpaper when you're selling. It's far better to paint walls neutrally as half of the prospective buyers may not like it. You can use accessories such as pillows and pictures to bring in colour and make the room look bright and cheerful," says Ms Richardson.
It goes without saying that your entire house needs to be cleaned thoroughly, paying particular attention to the kitchen and bathroom. Put fresh linen on the beds and replace old bathroom accessories and keep fluffy white towels exclusively for viewings – you can always take them with you to your new home. Get rid of any smells from smoke or pets and pay for a handyman, or roll up your own sleeves to fix any cracked tiles, leaking taps, mouldy grout, dead light bulbs and other minor repairs.
On viewing days, keep the curtains or blinds open and clean the windows till they're sparkling to allow as much natural light in as possible. The hallway should be as spacious as possible, so put shoes and coats away, and if there are items taking up too much space they can be hidden away temporarily. You should also turn the lights on and make sure the house is warm to make it more inviting when buyers walk in.
Once your property looks the part, don't undo all your hard work. Make sure your asking price is set at the right level. Get an accurate house valuation by two or three local accredited estate agents and research what similar properties have sold for recently in your area.
You need to decide whether you want to be present at the viewings, or leave it to your estate agent. Potential buyers may feel uncomfortable discussing any potential pitfalls with you there; however, you know your house and the area best, so whichever way you go, ensure that they are informed about all the best bits, including your neighbours, parking regulations and any local amenities.