Are you and your spouse the typical harried two-income couple with kids?
Does your average weeknight consist of Chinese carry-out for dinner and a chase around the house to put the children to bed? Do your weekends boil down to bill paying, grass cutting and chauffeuring the kids to baseball games and birthday parties?
Then no doubt the notion of adding to this crammed schedule the sale of your house may seem an unthinkable proposition. How can you possibly wedge in all the cleaning, decluttering, painting and home fix-ups needed to prep your place for market?
"There aren't any miracle solutions," admits Barbara Hemphill, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers.
Still, she and others who know real estate offer a half-dozen pointers for people who believe they're too busy to sell.
* No. 1: Set priorities at the beginning of your home prep process.
It's easy to get carried away with the minutiae of home improvement. Yet if your time is strictly limited, it's essential to rank improvements in order of importance -- or get your realty agent to do so.
"A very positive first impression is the most important thing in selling a house," stresses Steven Allnut, an agent with RE/MAX Advantage in Columbia.
You're best off concentrating your resources on cleaning, uncluttering and doing cosmetic improvements.
What are your best cosmetic bets? Real estate specialists say your return will be greatest if you apply a fresh coat of shell-white paint, replace your carpets, refinish hardwood floors and do basic landscape improvements.
As you set your priorities, create a checklist and try to allow ample time -- several months if you have them -- to prepare your house for sale.
"In today's market, a house has to be in tip-top shape if you want to get market value for the property," says Barbara Logan, who sells homes through the Harford County office of Coldwell Banker.
* No. 2: Set up a portable file.
Call it your "survival box." This handy file (buy a molded plastione with a handle) should be the brains of your housing transition, says Ms. Hemphill, who serves as a consumer consultant for Allied Van Lines.
Assembling all your papers in one place -- including your master list, house documents and repair estimates -- can be a big step to becoming organized, she says.
* No. 3: Unclutter with an ally to give you courage.
"Buyers can't see beyond clutter. If you must choose betweegetting rid of the clutter in your home and fixing it up, get rid of the clutter," says Mr. Allnut, the Columbia agent.
The problem is that many home sellers find it painful to let go otheir belongings. They spend too many hours culling through the contents of closets, storage areas and garages.
But they could hasten the process with the help of a friend or professional organizer who can see more objectively what items should be tossed out or given away, Ms. Hemphill says.
Many people find it easier to let go of their things if they know they'll find a useful home elsewhere, she says.
Consider taking games, videos, books and linens to a homeless shelter, for instance.
* No. 4: Discover the art of delegation and get your realty agent into the act.
As Ms. Hemphill notes, there are just two ways to accomplish the tasks on your house prep checklist: "Do them yourself or hire someone to do them."
Harried two-income couples should seriously consider the second option whenever possible, she argues.
"Professional women, in particular, are beginning to realize there are limits as to how much they can do," Ms. Hemphill says.
Engaging a professional organizer costs $15 to $100 an hour. (You can get names of those working in your area by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the National Association of Professional Organizers, 655 N. Alvernon Way, Suite 108, Tucson, Ariz. 85711 or calling (602) 322-9753.)
You can also recruit your own organizational assistant by tapping a friend for moral support (perhaps on the basis of a swap for your time later) or by putting an ad in a local newspaper -- offering perhaps $10 an hour for organizational help.
Don't be afraid, either, to call upon your real estate agent to pitch in on your home prep program -- even before the house goes on the market.
A good agent will have the names of home improvement people (painters, carpet specialists, for example) on file.
And often, contractors associated with agents will do work for relatively low prices -- counting on repeat referrals to other home sellers if they're reasonable in their charges.
"It's basically, "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours,' explains Mr. Allnut, the Columbia agent.
Not only will a good listing agent help you identify contractors, he'll also meet the contractors when they come to your home for estimates and will oversee their work.
Your agent might even agree to help you by shopping for home furnishings, appliances and window coverings -- like the custom mini-blinds you need for the den or the new dishwasher. Of course, you're always entitled to a final say on purchases, should you choose to exercise such.
In rare instances, busy home sellers will give their listing agent a pot of money for home improvements -- say $5,000 -- and broad discretion on how it should be spent.
This time management strategy could be an enormous timesaver for the harried two-career couple with kids, organizational experts say.
* No. 5: Seek the cooperation of your children.
"When children don't know what's happening, they can be frightened," Ms. Hemphill observes.
It's natural for kids -- like all humans -- to feel a sense of loss as they prepare for a move.
But if you acknowledge their sad and angry feelings and draw them into the moving process by keeping them posted on details, as well as giving them small jobs, they're much more likely to join the team rather than resist, Ms. Hemphill says.
* No. 6: Sell your home on an "as is" basis only if the alternative iworse.
If you're extremely busy, you may want to sell your house as a "fixer-upper" -- sparing yourself the agony of improvements. That way, instead of focusing on wobbly railings, broken bathroom tile and bulging closets, you can concentrate on the corporate report you must write or your growing dental practice.
But before you get excited about this notion, think of the pros and cons.
The good news is that selling "as is" could free you to move on to a potentially very good deal on your move-up property without taking weeks out to work on your home. That way you could proceed more quickly to your selling goal, taking advantage of the currently low mortgage rates for your move up.
The bad news is that most buyers can't imagine how well your house would look -- if only the cosmetic improvements were done. And even those experienced buyers who can see past the superficial may be disinclined to take on a "handyman special" -- due to their own busy schedules.
This means you'll probably be compelled to take a much bigger hit on a house that needs TLC than would be the price of the improvements you might have made, points out Mr. Allnut, the Columbia agent.
"Your fixer-upper will have to be a real bargain," he says.
(Ellen James Martin is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)