- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Caroline Carter has stacks and stacks of plates that will never hold food, beds that won’t be slept in and books that no one is going to read.

All these accouterments are necessary to sell a house these days. Ms. Carter is president of Done in a Day Inc. home staging. In the current economy of sagging businesses and dragging home sales, home stagers like Ms. Carter are doing a booming business.

Stagers are different from interior decorators, who specialize in making your home suit your tastes. A home stager neutralizes and accessorizes a home for sale to appeal to everyone’s taste. Stagers give home sellers tips on which personal items to put away, what to fix and how to make their lived-in home look as it would if, well, no one lived there.

If the relationship works out, it could mean the difference between selling your house and having it linger on the market. The National Association of Realtors says a staged home will sell 50 percent faster than one that is not staged. Home staging can run anywhere from a couple hundred dollars for a consultation that will give you ideas you can do yourself up to many thousands for a room-by-room design plan with furniture and accessories.

If you already have moved to a new home, stagers can bring in furniture, art, throw pillows - whatever the space needs to look less empty and more defined. They can bring definition to undefined spaces, too - making a nook say “office” with a desk and bookshelves or a breakfast room have meaning with a table and coffee canisters.

“The way you live in a house and the way you market it are two different things,” says Barbara Schwarz, founder of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals.

“These days, to get top dollar, you have to put away and rearrange,” she says. “In a hot market, you would have 10 houses for sale and they all would sell. In a slower market, you may have 100 houses for sale and only 10 will sell. The ninety that don’t probably weren’t staged.”

Granted, it is unlikely that anyone searching for a home chooses one because of the fluffy towels or an interesting ottoman. There are intangible factors, though, that catch a potential buyer’s eye and heart. If Ms. Carter thinks faux ebony candlesticks will do the trick, she will go to her 6,000-square-foot warehouse of stuff to find them.

“Staging is both physical and psychological,” says Ms. Carter, who says her sales have doubled every year since she started her company four years ago.

When Ms. Schwarz started the IAHSP, which offers Accredited Staging Professional training and certification, in 2000, she was the only member. Membership has increased to about 2,500, she says. That doesn’t include any number of Realtors and stagers who are not members of the association.

Also boosting the profession are a number of television shows on the topic. HGTV’s “Designed to Sell” and “The Stagers” have pulled phrases such as “curb appeal” and “room’s focal point” into the vernacular.

Dorothy LaChapelle had staging shows in mind when she called Preferred Staging LLC before putting her Herndon rambler on the market over the summer.

“My house was empty,” she says. “I know that houses sell better with furniture. People like to see what rooms will look like.”

Monica Murphy of Preferred Staging, based in Potomac Falls, Va., brought in furniture, artwork, even soft throw blankets for the sofa, which really made a difference, Ms. LaChapelle says. Her house went to settlement two weeks ago.

“I do think staging made a difference,” she says.

Ms. Murphy says most people don’t really “see” a room unless there is something in it.

“They need something there to measure it for them,” she says, referring to the dining room set or reading lamp that can give that definition. “They just see a big, vacant room. Staging creates a welcome environment.”

Both Ms. Murphy and Ms. Carter say staging is not just for the glut of McMansions for sale. They have staged one-bedroom apartments as well as elegant estates.

In fact, staging sometimes makes the difference in the lower-priced properties, Ms. Murphy says. A prospective home buyer looking at 20 boxy and nearly identical condominiums may remember yours because of the retro drapes or the objets d’art the stager added.

Ms. Carter says she tries to envision who might be looking at the property before she makes a design plan. A two-bedroom condo in Clarendon could be on the list of 30-year-old newlyweds; they might see themselves with mod chairs and a glass-topped table.

Move-up buyers with children looking at a Colonial in Rockville might go for more traditional decor with an emphasis on family space - she even has children’s books to fill up the shelves in the fourth bedroom.

Sometimes projects call for way more than Ms. Carter’s library of 2,000 throw pillows can handle. Done in a Day was asked to stage a house in Northwest Washington where Richard and Pat Nixon lived before the White House. The eight-bedroom home, priced at $4.9 million, sat on the market for nine months last year before it was staged.

“The owners had kept Pat Nixon’s original cabinets and pink bathrooms,” Ms. Carter says.

After $41,000 worth of staging (and nearly as much spent on renovations), the Tudor-style home - with decor that looked toward the future for a young family rather than back to the Eisenhower era - was under contract within a month.

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