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REALTOR MAGAZINE ONLINE
This article was published on:
04/01/2003


Enter, Staged Right

Choosing and Using a Professional Stager

BY ROBYN A. FRIEDMAN

The house was a nondescript three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath split level in Glendale Heights, Ill., just west of Chicago. It had tiny bedrooms and a one-car garage. Even its owner admitted that no buyer was going to find it too exciting.

That is, until Sheryl Duncan got involved.

Adding furniture, draperies, and accessories to this empty spec house gave it a lived-in look and drew buyers’ attention to its attractive architecture. The result—a $3.75 million sale in three weeks for Renee Gallagher of Round Hill Partners, Greenwich, Conn.

Duncan, a sales associate with Realty Executives Premiere in nearby Wheaton, brought in Carole Bartell, of Des Plaines, Ill.-based Another Beautiful Creation, to "stage" the home.

Bartell, who has been a stager for 12 years, is a real estate broker with a background in retail design. In just a few days, she and Duncan cleaned the house, boxed up items to remove clutter and relocated furniture to better balance the rooms and improve traffic flow. They also added silk plants and flowers, pictures, lamps, and other decorative accents to warm up the home.

"They made it look like a model home, so people could visualize themselves living here," said Nell Fleming, the home's owner.

The strategy worked. The house sold in three weeks for just $1,600 less than the listing price—in a market where listings in its price range were taking 79 days on average to sell.

Just What is Staging?

Whether it encompasses little more than adding fresh flowers and reducing clutter or involves hauling away and replacing major pieces of furniture, the goal of staging is to put a house's best foot forward and give it the gloss of a marketable commodity, said Barb Schwarz, a Concord, Calif.-based real estate practitioner and former interior designer who first coined the work "staging" back in the 1970s. "The home becomes a house, then the house becomes a saleable product," she says. "Every home should be staged, whether it's an $80,000 house or a $4 million one. Homes that are staged sell faster in slow markets and at higher prices in stronger markets."

But staging is about making a house look terrific, but it's important not to confuse it with interior design. Both involve furniture placement, adding color, and carefully placing just the right accessories, but that's where the similarities end.

The goal of interior design is to create an environment that perfectly reflects the style and taste of the home's owner; the focus of staging is to make the house more marketable by creating the most appealing home to the greatest number of prospective buyers. Far from reflecting a unique style, a staged home should be just impersonal enough to not infringe on a buyer's own sense of style.

Home stylists, as stagers are sometimes called, compare the process to the design of a model home; they furnish and accessorize it in order to call attention to the home’s best features—the features that will most attract the interest of a potential buyer. At the same time, they avoid any decor that's too distinctive--such as a bright painting or a busily patterned couch—that will pull the prospect's eye away from the home and toward its furnishings.

But Does it Work?

Real estate professionals who use staging swear by it, no matter what part of the country they work in or the price range they serve.

Valerie Torelli, broker/owner of Torelli Realty in Costa Mesa, Calif., has been staging homes since 1991. "I have five seconds to sell a home—five seconds to make an impact on the buyers when they first walk in the door," said Torelli. "Staging ensures that that impact is a good and lasting one."

Torelli stages all of the homes she sells, which usually fall into the $400,000 to $1 million price range. "I always do it myself," she said. "A $400,000 home is a starter in my market. My clients can't afford a professional stager because all their money is tied up in their homes."

Torelli gets her staging ideas by looking at design magazines. Plus, she views about 50 homes a week and has learned what features interest her buyer clients and what turns them off. Although Torelli has no background in design, she claims her staging techniques work: her houses sell faster than comparable listings.

One house Torelli listed was decked out in colors from the 1970s, with avocado green and heavy gold decor and a seller who didn't want to put much money into the house. The house had already languished on the market for three months, but when Torelli took the listing, she removed it from the market for a week and got to work. She took out the old-looking lamps and furnishings and stowed them in the garage. Then she added subtle earth tone accessories in order to play down the heavy greens and golds in the house. She removed the homeowner's artwork from the walls, replaced his outdated accessories with candleholders and plants, covered his shabby bedspread with one of her own and added mounds of pillows to create a cozy look. She even had her own gardener plant flowers for added curb appeal. When the house sold, she dug them up and used them at her next listing.

By doing the staging herself with props she’s bought for that purpose and reuses in all her listings, Torelli spent less than $1,000 of her own money to get the house in shape. The payoff? The house sold within a month—at just $5,000 below its listing price in the high $400,000s.

Tom Edelstein, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Burnet in St. Paul, Minn., has been using professional stagers for about 10 years. "I believe that my homes sell quicker and for more money as a result of staging," he says.

Edelstein stages even his moderately priced listings. He recently hired Lynelle Hartman, a stager with New Concepts Home Staging in Minneapolis, to work on a condominium he listed at $184,900. The unit was vacant, and Edelstein knew that vacant homes are difficult to sell because buyers have trouble visualizing what they’ll look like furnished. So Edelstein paid Hartman $1,000 to furnish the bedroom, the baths, and the dining room, using props from her own inventory. The result? The seller received multiple offers on the unit, and it sold within a week—for more than the listing price.

Renee Gallagher's clients in swank Greenwich, Conn. usually have impeccably decorated homes that need little styling. But when she lists a spec home, she relies on staging to give it lived-in appeal.

Gallagher, president of Round Hill Partners, recently hired Show to Sell, a professional staging company, to fill a 7,000-square-foot spec house with furniture, draperies, and accessories. Although Gallagher had not used the firm before, she was impressed that the company was able to stage the house within a week. Gallagher paid between $15,000 and $20,000 to stage the house, absorbing the expense herself and treating it as part of her marketing plan.

The payoff? The house, originally listed at $3.995 million and on the market for six months, sold within three weeks, for $3.75 million. "That house actually had very lovely architectural features," she said. "But it was empty, and a lot of times buyers just don't have any vision. Once it's staged with furniture, however, they can see themselves sitting by the fire."

Selling Staging to Clients

Although the subliminal effects of staging can't be ignored, that doesn't mean that all clients will be sold on the idea—especially when they realize that you're planning to hide their favorite plaid recliner in the basement or stow all of the adorable family portraits in a drawer. It takes finesse to avoid insulting or offending a seller, said Betsy Nickel, a sales associate with RE/MAX Action Realty in Maple Glen, Pa.

Nickel convinces her sellers by emphasizing that their homes will sell faster or for more money if they make a few changes. But she does it with the utmost caution and care. "You could really put a seller off because it is their home after all," she said.

Schwarz believes that the best way to make staging acceptable is to get homeowners to separate their emotions from the sales process, to convert the image of "This is my family's home" into "This is a house, a commodity that I need to sell."

Nickel finds that getting her sellers focused on the house they're purchasing helps make staging go easier. "If they invest their emotions in their new place, it helps them let go of their precious home a little bit more," she said.

Using as much of the seller's own furnishings as possible and just rearranging and eliminating one or two pieces is a good way both hold down costs and make the process less threatening to sellers, suggests Schwarz. "I always tell them that if they were taking their car to trade in, they'd get all the junk out of the back seat and get it washed and waxed, maybe even detailed," she said. "All we're really doing with staging is detailing the house."

Schwarz also suggests telling reluctant sellers that it's your policy to stage every home you list. "I believe real estate salespeople are doing a disservice to their clients if they don't introduce the concept and ask the seller to get it done," Schwarz added.

What Does it Cost?

Fortunately, staging a home doesn't have to be expensive to be effective. A basic staging consultation, in which a home stylist evaluates the home and submits a report of what needs to be done, usually costs between $150 and $300, depending on the market. Schwarz advises the students who take her two-day staging course that the seller should pay for staging. "The salesperson doesn't pay for the home inspector to inspect the house or the roofer to put on a roof," she says. "So why expect the salesperson to pay for staging? It's the owner's home." Nevertheless, many sales associates absorb this cost as a marketing expense.

Edelstein pays for the cost of a staging consultation himself. "I give complimentary staging to my clients," he says. “It’s an added service that I can offer to give clients truly remarkable service.” Edelstein will also cover a few hours of a stager’s time to do some simple furniture placement and decluttering. If the stager suggests bringing in props or do substantial work in the home, however, he gets the seller’s approval, then passes the costs on to the seller.

The second phase of staging, when the actual cleaning, packing away, and primping are done, can get expensive. Costs for hiring a professional to actually carry out staging recommendations can range from $500 to $15,000 depending on the extent of the work to be done. Homeowners who are willing can usually do some of the staging themselves, making the option more viable for mid-range sellers. Another way to make home styling less costly is to suggest that homeowners purchase items to stage the old home that can be reused in the new one. That way, they get the desired temporary effect without wasting money.

Professional stagers will always attempt to stay within a seller's budget, says Bartell. She charges about $350 for staging an average three-bedroom, two-bath house and is able to keep her fee low because of her creative uses of the seller's own furnishings. She has even created window treatments from towels.

Finding a Qualified Stager

One place to start looking for a stager is the database of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals. This group has awarded the Accredited Staging Professional designation to over 2,000 individuals, who have completed the group’s two-day course and passed an examination.

But while a designation may be useful, other factors are of equal importance in choosing the right stager to work with you and your clients. Rapport is essential, for example. A stager should be about to communicate with homeowners about necessary changes without offending them, Schwarz says.

"They need to be good with people," Edelstein agrees. "It's a delicate thing to go into someone's house and say you could make it look nicer."

It's also critical that the home stylists avoid interfering with the work the salesperson is trying to do. "A stager needs to walk the line between what helps the agent and what the client wants," Schwarz says. "The stager's advice is very important, but the agent knows the market and should help determine how much staging needs to be done."

A stager should also know how to get the job done effectively—where to find the best buys on decorating items and good values on cleaning and other services that sellers may want to use. And, as in the case with any vendor, it is important that the stager complete the work in a timely fashion and keep the sales associate apprised of deadlines and possible delays.

Getting references for stagers—and checking those references—is also essential. Edelstein advises other salespeople to interview staging candidates and to visit homes that they staged. "See if you like what you see," he suggests.

Stager Lynelle Hartman feels that a real estate background is more critical for a successful stager than one in design. "Look for someone who really understands the real estate market and the stress of what it's like to be a seller," she suggests. "A designer may understand design, but stagers who understand sellers and the needs of the market can act a lot quicker and cater to those needs."

As the industry evolves and cut-rate brokers put more pressure on full-service real estate practitioners, success may ultimately hinge on an associate's ability to provide extra value. The ability to offer home staging does just that. "It helps keep the commission up," said Duncan. "It helps me compete with all the new companies coming out that will list a house for 1 percent."

Whether it’s a way to differentiate yourself in your marketplace or sales aid to give higher or faster offers, staging is a tool that all successful salespeople should add to their bag of tricks.

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