We are in the middle of that bizarre ritual that must be completed before we can move - that ritual known as "putting your house on the market." Everyone should probably experience it at some point in life, but no sooner than you have to.

After we compared real estate agents and suggested retail prices for our house, we selected the agent we liked the best and a composite price gleaned from an average of those suggested by all the real estate agents. The big step was advertising it in the multiple-listing book AND the local newspaper, but we were surprised at the first ad.It called the house a "garrison colonial with four bedrooms." Since we have six bedrooms, two of them in a finished basement, I called the real estate agent and complained that he had made an error.

"No," he said, he had "underplayed the bedrooms in the basement because most people don't approve of them in the basement." All he would tell me for sure was that children need to be closer to their parents. With some effort I convinced him that regardless of whether they were classified as bedrooms or not, a prospective buyer ought to know about two extra rooms.

So he advertised them as "4-6 bedrooms," causing the prospective buyer to wonder, "Are there four or six bedrooms?" The ad also apologetically began, "Growing family?" as if to suggest that even four bedrooms might be many more than most people would want. In fact, the first few people through the house betrayed that fear. Sitting in the study upstairs, I heard one woman say as she rounded the corner, "Just how many kids do they HAVE?"

Well, we have five kids, but most people who express an interest in the house have only one or two. We have found that if we are home when people come to look that they say other things that indicate their likelihood of buying, such as, "I didn't realize how much counter space we have in our OWN house!" No chance there.

Just putting up a sign represented a major social milestone. Friends felt betrayed when they learned through a yard sign that we were selling the house. Although our own children knew about it intimately, they all reacted adversely when they came home and saw the sign for the first time. It was an emotional experience. It was something different again for neighborhood vandals who promptly stole two signs in a row. The broker was nonplussed and pointed out that teenagers enjoy decorating their rooms with them. Nevertheless, after the second one disappeared, we began taking the sign in at night.

By far, the worst aspect of putting a house on the market is the continuing hassle and pressure of keeping it immaculate. After all, we never know when a prospective buyer will want to see it. If we're out, the broker will leave his card to let us know he has shown the house. If we're home, he calls and says, "I have someone who would like to see it at 2 o'clock." We happily agree and then race through the house with the vacuum.

It has caused our family to feel fastidious, even a bit fanatical about cleanliness and order. I'm constantly straightening something or picking something up from the floor, or adjusting the bedspread on someone's bed.

The kids find it irritating and infuriating that, on a daily basis, we insist that they leave their rooms in impeccable condition.. I'm not sure if we have brought up slobs or just rebels who are sick and tired of strangers poking through their rooms and opening their closets.

And then there are those calls that result in a half-hour rush cleanup, followed by a second caller, who says sheepishly, "I seem to have been stood up!" "Wow, what a clean house we have!" we say, but somehow it doesn't seem to satisfy.

And we keep wondering how people react when they inspect David's room that houses his pet snake, Jake. Since people are basically funny about snakes, maybe they think they will have to keep it. Or maybe they think the entire lowerfloor will be contaminated by his presence.

We'll be glad when it's over. When some excited, progressive person with five kids, no fear of finished basement rooms, and a refreshing, knowledgeable view of reptiles, unabashedly sputters, "It's exactly what we had in mind!"

And it'll be too late to raise the price.