In years past, when home sellers held all the cards and bidding wars were waged daily, getting your home ready for prime time—for showing to prospective buyers, that is—was a simple matter of dusting and putting away the laundry.
“Back in the day when the market was busy, there was a sense of urgency among buyers, so condition was not as important as, say, price or location,” says Cheshire real estate agent Ruth Ratner of CT Properties at Keller Williams. “Clients were in a rush, they didn’t think they had time to even come back for a second look, so they overlooked a lot of things.”
In today’s market—and this has been true for close to a decade now—the way a house shows makes all the difference between whether it closes quickly or withers on the MLS vine. If at first blush your property doesn’t shine from curb to the corner of every closet, savvy buyers with a sense of entitlement will walk out the door. And that, as industry insiders like to put it, is even if the house is “priced right.”
“Even an outstanding home needs to be properly prepared for showing,” according to Ratner. “I like to say that everyone wants the crisp, new dollar, not the old, dirty one. So every home has to look new and fresh.”
A case in point: “My clients had a house in Wallingford that would have been worth around $500,000 in a good market. But in the condition it was in, I figured they’d get only about $420,000 or $430,000, tops,” says Ratner. “It was a nice house, but it had clearly been lived in. They’d never painted it or refinished the floors.” Ratner knew it needed more than just tweaking—and luckily, when she discussed her concerns with the homeowners, they agreed. “They immediately got it that the house was a commodity, a product,” she says, “And that it had to look its best.”
The owners were persuaded to make some wholesale changes—they installed new granite countertops, painted the entire house, even rented furniture to make the living room look more “livable.” Says Ratner: “All told, they made about $20,000 in improvements. The house went on the market for $489,900, and we got three offers in the first week. There was some negotiation, and after a few small concessions by the homeowners, it sold for the asking price.”
For that, Ratner says she has Patti Stern to thank.
Stern is a home staging professional whose business, PJ Home Styling & Co., offers a wide range of services—from consultations and quick DIY fixes for sprucing up homes, to full-fledged reconstructive surgery. A blanket (king-size) home staging makeover by Stern, along with her crew of cleaners, carpenters and painters, may include everything from handyman-type repairs to switching out bathroom faucets and bringing in new furnishings and window treatments. She’ll do it fast, too; she’s especially proud of a 17-room house that she staged in a single day.
“I was a decorator and a lot of real estate agents were my clients,” says Stern, “so I saw the need for staging. It’s something I enjoyed, so I got my accreditation from the ASP [Association of Home Staging Professionals].” She admits that convincing homeowners to “un-decorate,” which is what staging is sometimes called, can be a challenge in Connecticut. “We are the ‘Land of Steady Habits,’ for sure,” says Stern. “What I do as a home stager is get homeowners to declutter, to take away all the distractions that keep prospective buyers from really seeing a home. That means family photos and collections,” she says. “It isn’t always easy. In the beginning clients don’t like me very much, but in the end, they love me.”
Depending on square footage, Stern charges between $250 and $350 for a consultation. She helps homeowners identify their “target audience” . . . whether it’s a young family, a couple or empty nesters, and then plans accordingly. She’ll provide a detailed written report for $450 to $600 and make recommendations that run from “good” to “better” to “best.”
Deluxe staging can run between 1 and 1.5 percent of a home’s asking price—a bargain, claims Stern, when you consider the frustration of price reductions. “Having your home staged is really about protecting your list price,” she says, “and national statistics bear this out.”
At least one award-winning builder is convinced home staging works.
Five years ago, Stern launched a program with Toll Brothers, builders of new homes in 20 states. Designed to help the builder’s prospective buyers sell their existing homes, Center Stage employs Stern’s staging expertise—with Toll Brothers footing the bill. To date, Stern has staged 17 homes for the builder; all of them sold in 55 days or less, she’s happy to report; 97 percent went for the asking price.
Joan and Leonard Nole met Stern at a preconstruction meeting at a Toll Brothers “resort-style” community called The Summit in Bethel. The couple had lived in a home they loved in Larchmont, N.Y., for 40 years. Now with grown children living in Bethel and Redding, they were ready to make the move. “While we were there, we saw her portfolio—some of the work she’d done,” says Joan, “and we liked what she had to say. She told us what we needed to do to make our home interesting, more attractive and marketable to a younger audience.”
“Patti rearranged furniture, painted, put area rugs over our wall-to-wall carpet,” says Joan. “And she told us our personal belongings had to go.” That part was tough. “We had to live with different things, different surroundings, and it was a little hard to deal with,” she admits. But in the end, it was worth it, as the house sold for close to the asking price—in a little under five weeks.
Home stagers agree that it can be very difficult to ask a grandmother to take down pictures of her brood, to pack away her delicate teacup collection, or to find another (albeit temporary) home for the urn holding her faithful dog’s ashes.
That’s why it takes a pro to get the job done right, according to Barb Schwarz, who says it was she who coined the phrase “home staging” in 1985. A real estate agent with a background in theater, Schwarz says she started training colleagues in the ways of home staging in the ’80s, and turned that into a business in 1999 when she founded the Association of Home Staging Professionals, based in Seattle, Wash. Since 2002 she has trained close to 22,000 people; there are currently some 7,000 active home stagers (accredited by the ASP) working in the U.S.
“If I had to say staging is about one thing, it is living by the rule ‘less is more,’” says Schwarz. “Clutter is nothing but stressful—and it eats equity. I teach home stagers to be sensitive to homeowners and help them through the process of downsizing.” It’s all about baby steps, she says. “A good home stager will walk through a home and make note of things like family photos, and later comment on them—acknowledging that they are lovely, but distract from the primary purpose: to sell a home at the highest possible price. What I tell them is we want people buying your house—not your family!”
Staging for Life is Schwarz’s latest venture; it’s a program clients often sign on to after they’ve sold their home and moved into a new one. “It’s about living stress-free, in a home that is nice to look at, and easy to live in,” she says. “It’s not about decorating and buying more things. It’s about being green and living with less of what you already own.”
Beth Caldwell, a realtor with William Raveis in Newtown, is all over that. She believes you should never do tomorrow what will make you happy today.
“I always think it’s sad when sellers do all their ‘dream’ work just before selling, rather than when they can enjoy the changes,” says Caldwell. “I am a firm believer that if you think you’re going to list your home—even some time down the road—you make improvements over time. That way you can enjoy them, and it won’t be such a financial burden once you do put it on the market.”
A corporate wife who’s moved more times than she cares to mention, Caldwell knows only too well that one look at a home can make or break a sale. “Interior design is my first love [she’s an ASID member as well as a Realtor and home stager], so I know there is the good, the bad and the ugly. I know ‘relocation beige.’” She agrees wholeheartedly that clearing clutter is at the heart of a well-staged home but sometimes, she says, you can go too far. Caldwell recently listed a house that had been on the market for six months—by all accounts a lovely home—but in this case, a well-intentioned agent had all but stripped the home of its personality.
The homeowner, MaryAnn Murtha of Newtown, says her previous agent told her to get rid of too many things. “We understand that we want buyers to look at the house, and not our things,” says Murtha. “It was supposed to look like a ‘Pottery Barn’ catalog, but in the end it was just too cold.”
Murtha is quick to note that her house may not have sold because it went on the market the day of tropical storm Irene, then sat through the subsequent fall snowstorm, then the holidays . . . so the timing was pretty awful. But she’s optimistic now, thanks to Caldwell.
“Beth helped us make changes that made the house look more sophisticated. And she taught us things,” she says. “We learned that lamps shouldn’t be too low. They need to shine down on you, not up. She put some of them on books, and they looked good.”
The best thing about her experience? “Beth really does her job well. She had so many good ideas for making the house look better and feel warmer,” says Murtha. “But she was gracious, too. She never made me feel that my house wasn’t beautiful. She has a gift for making the seller feel a part of the process.”
Tips from the pros
Clean. This one is free, save the cost of cleaning products, and sends a very clear message to buyers (and guests): You care enough about your home to maintain it.
Fix it. If anything is broken, however small—a stair that creaks or a door hinge that squeaks—you can bet that is the first thing a prospective buyer will notice. Sure, you can negotiate repairs once someone puts in a bid, but even if you get that far, the estimates they’ll get will surely exceed the cost of fixing that broken window now.
Paint. Stagers and decorators alike know that a fresh coat of paint is by far the cheapest way to refresh your home. And yes, what they say is true: Neutral colors appeal to more people than dark ones.
Don’t get personal. Keep to a bare minimum all evidence of family pictures, collections and tchotchkes. Remember that buyers want to imagine themselves in your home, not you. Of course this rule of thumb doesn’t necessarily apply if you’re sticking around for a while—although home stagers agree that when you hang too many family photos, they become “wallpaper.” Better to display just a few important ones, so they get the attention they deserve.
Update. Nothing says “let’s get out of here” like shag carpeting and jalousie windows. Depending on your home’s price point, most home stagers insist that you update and upgrade some obvious features to make your place more energy efficient and easier on the eyes—and yes, that absolutely includes replacing laminate counters with granite.
Declutter. Every home stager will tell you the single most important thing you can do to promote a “home, sweet home” feeling is to pare down. Some go so far as to say you should do away with a third of your inventory.
Stick with it. To keep your home looking good during the selling process, you need a drill—especially if you have kids. Get the whole family into a routine, home stagers say, to keep clutter at bay and the day-to-day signs of life from sabotaging your best efforts. Have a place for everything and remember that decorative baskets can be your best friend.In a pinch, the safest place is under the bed.
The Great Outdoors
You get only one chance to make a first impression—and Pamela Stutz, a realtor with Halstead Property, believes that chance starts and ends with curb appeal. A longtime gardener who has been selling real estate in the New Canaan area for 20 years, Stutz says she got into exterior staging because so many clients were overlooking the all-important outdoors.
“The most wonderful home will never get a second look if the yard is overgrown,” says Stutz. “I feel very strongly that the entrance to a house has to be as beautiful as possible.”
As a matter of fact, if the exterior of a home she’s listing isn’t up to par, Stutz takes it upon herself to make improvements. “One older home had a driveway that was so overrun with bushes you couldn’t even maneuver to the walkway. So I spent almost a week trimming bushes and making it presentable,” she says.
More tried-and-true tips for making a great first impression:
• Be certain your mailbox is in good repair and not listing on its pole,
and that your house number is clearly visible.
• Make sure there is easy access to your front entrance. This means an obvious way in, and no unkempt shrubbery, low-hanging branches or any impediments to a quick and comfortable walk to the front door.
• Keep the path in good repair. If bricks are loose, pavers are broken or the walkway is slippery for any reason (moss, ice) remedy the situation
• Have your home professionally power-washed and painted.
• Keep your windows clean—and depending on the time of year, put window screens in or take them out.
• Make sure your front door is freshly cleaned or painted, and that your bell is in working order.
• Freshen up any plantings around your entrance (no matter the season).
• Place pots of flowers near the front door and replace your welcome mat.