- - Thursday, November 10, 2011

Star, director, audience, critics — these are all terms normally associated with a stage production. And they still are — of a sort — when they refer to home staging.

“The star is the homeowner, the director is the stager, the audience members are the potential buyers, and the critics are the real estate agents,” explained Barb Schwarz, founder and president of the California-based International Association of Home Staging Professionals, adding that the parallels continue with all the attention paid to lighting and “props,” or furniture and accessories.

“Staging is so much more than ‘Paint your front door red,’ ” Ms. Schwarz said. “Staging is depersonalizing - you’re showing off the house, not the homeowner, so you can appeal to the most buyers. No one will buy a house that they can’t mentally move into.”

Jonathan J. Miller, president and CEO of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers in New York City, agreed, adding that this is true on both ends of the spectrum.

“The home that is highly cluttered and filled with personal items, and the completely vacant home without any furniture - it’s hard for buyers to imagine themselves in either scenario,” he said. “In the cluttered home, it’s impossible. In the vacant house, the home actually looks smaller. It’s reverse psychology, but that’s true.”

Stagers can work with either lived-in homes or vacant homes and offer a range of services to accommodate the homeowner’s budget. Typically, a stager will come to a house and walk through with the owner and sometimes the Realtor as well; this usually takes one to two hours. In full-service staging, the stager then prepares a detailed report within a day or two, listing precisely what will be done and for what price.

“The written proposal and bid generally costs around $350 to $500,” explained Trish Kim, CEO of Staged Interior, a staging firm in Centreville. She also walks through homes and gives verbal suggestions while the owners take notes, she said, and this typically costs $250.

“If we wind up taking on the job, the total staging fee might run anywhere from $1,800 to $15,000 for the first two months of staging,” she said.

The price variable comes down to factors such as the size of the home, the amount of clutter involved, and how much furniture and accessories have to be brought in. (Even lived-in homes often need furniture and accessories.)

The rental inventory fee for furniture and accessories can range from $500 to $5,000, Ms. Schwarz said, explaining that stagers either rent out their own pieces or use furniture rental companies.

“If you rent from a furniture rental company, the monthly rental is 20 percent the value of the piece,” she said.

Ms. Kim said she encourages her clients to view staging as an investment and noted that it’s one with a high return.

“In the first nine months of 2011, our homes were on the market for only 23 days,” she said, pointing out that the Washington-area average is 75 days. “And our closing price is 3.3 percent higher than other closing prices.”

To save money, some owners opt for a partial staging.

“So we’ll fully stage the living room, the dining room and the master bedroom — and then do ‘vignette staging’ for the rest of the house,” Ms. Schwarz said, explaining that vignette staging consists of using three items of varying heights in each room. “So a den might have a fichus tree (high), a wingback chair (medium) and a table with books on it (low).”

Most staging can be done in one day, Ms. Schwarz said, “even if it’s a very long day that lasts from 8 in the morning to 10 at night. If a home is over 4,000 square feet, it might take two days.”The staging team will have three to six people.

Ms. Kim noted that most of the work is done prior to the actual home staging.

“We ask our clients to have the house and interior windows professionally cleaned,” she said, adding that this often runs between $200 and $250.

Ms. Schwarz said she also asks owners to remove all clutter.

“I give them a basket about the size of a large purse and tell them that anything bigger than this must be packed away,” she said, adding that she also advises that all jewelry, collectibles and other valuables be packed.

“That’s a smart move anyway because potential buyers are going to be coming through,” she said.

Ms. Kim said she doesn’t ask owners to declutter because she has found that people often put away either too much or too little.

“We bring in professional organizers to help,” she said. “The only thing we ask clients to put away is personal items that they don’t want us to see or touch.”

In high-end homes, Ms. Schwarz said, clutter and excess furniture must be sent to storage.

“For a lower-priced home, boxes can be put in the garage,” she said.

Ms. Kim said she tries to store knickknacks in the same room by putting them in a closet or drawer and leaving a list so the owner knows where things are. She said she also encourages clients to use a moving company that offers storage.

“They store furniture and boxes and then move everything to the new location - it’s all seamless,” she said.

Owners tend to dig in most about changing their paint colors, Ms. Kim said.

“But we need to neutralize,” she said, saying she favors taupes, grays and muted greens and blues. “We use beach-on-a-foggy-day colors.”

When it comes to kitchens, Ms. Kim said she strongly recommends that owners opt for stainless steel appliances and install granite counters.

“No one wants to buy your to-do list,” she said, adding that renovations and repairs are the responsibility of the owner, not the stager. “The typical D.C. buyer wants to move in, unpack and start living. They don’t want to paint or repair or replace.”

The Washington area market has high standards, Ms. Kim said.

“This is a hard-hitting, ambitious, upwardly mobile group,” she said. “We stage to that taste. Our strategy is to stage one income level higher than the people who will likely buy the home. They see that higher standard of living and think: ‘If we move here, we could live like this.’ “

There is a psychological angle to staging, Ms. Kim said. “We want a home to look lived in and for potential buyers to be able to see themselves sitting down and having a cup of coffee,” she said, adding that she also works to showcase multiple uses for a room. “So the living room is more than just for watching TV; there’s also a desk for work or a reading area.”

Staging is not just for high-end homes, Ms. Kim added.

“We stage all range of real estate from the $150,000 condo to the $4.5 million estate,” she said, adding that she also works with builders to stage model homes. “Our bread-and-butter clients are people with homes in the $500,000 to $1 million range.”

Mr. Miller said staging is more prevalent in the upper half of the market.

“But it would probably have more impact in the bottom half of the market because those are smaller properties,” he said, adding that staging is more relevant now than it was five years ago.

“In the boom, properties sold themselves,” he said. “In a market that’s more competitive, it’s more important to do this.”

Barbara Bishop of Burke hired Ms. Kim in August to sell her 2,800-square-foot town home and said she was amazed at the transformation and how much fun the staging process was.

“It was nothing like those house shows on TV where everyone fights with the owners,” she said. “It was a positive experience and painless. Trish’s team came in and did all the work.”

The staging in Mrs. Bishop’s town home involved painting the kitchen and a powder room (from terra cotta and cinnamon colors to soft greens), rearranging furniture and removing family photos and collectibles.

“When you walked in, the house had a presence,” Mrs. Bishop said. “It really worked because the buyers were focused on the rooms and not what was in the rooms.”

Mrs. Bishop and her husband put the house on the market right before Hurricane Irene.

“That first weekend, no one came out,” she said. “The next weekend, there were three showings, and we had two contracts. The proof is in the pudding.”

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