Spring Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 7, 2004

All the home's a stage
Staging maximizes potential of a house

by Gretchen Roberts

Bill Bull was selling his mother's ranch home in Menlo Park. The house was packed so full of furniture and memorabilia, it was difficult to see its potential. Bull's real estate agent suggested hiring a home stager to maximize the value and price of the house.

Soon Stage Right, a Palo Alto-based staging firm, removed old carpets and drapes, repainted inside and out, refinished the hardwood floors, replaced light and bath fixtures, spruced up the garden and patio and staged the interior.
Bull and his wife liked the place so much, they thought about keeping it for themselves. "It was so nice and cozy, so enlightening," he explained.

And that is precisely the point of staging: to show what the home could be. We become immune to the horrifying things a prospective buyer would notice first thing when touring the house -- the kids' fingerprints on the window, the layer of filth atop the refrigerator, the dank smell pervading the basement.

You may think these problems shouldn't affect the buyer -- after all, it's your stuff -- but home buying is a very psychological business, and though buyers may see the potential in a house, no one pays top dollar for a house with potential.
It's almost a given that you'll at least slap a coat of paint on your house and dust the television before putting your home on the market, but staging takes that concept one step further. Staging, simply defined, is furnishing and decorating the rooms of a home on the market to make it more appealing to a potential buyer. Staging can include anything from rearrangement of your existing furniture to replacing your floors and moving in rented furniture.

Most real estate agents and stagers in the area believe staging will help sell your home more quickly and for more money, but monetary results are hard to quantify.

Joy Valentine, a Los Altos-based real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, wanted to test that theory. She analyzed 2,772 properties between March and September 1999 in eight cities in the Bay Area to determine what effect, if any, staging had on the net price, the percentage of sales price over list price and the length of time on the market.

For all properties, both staged and unstaged, the average number of days on the market was 30.89, and the average difference in sales price over list price was 1.6 percent. In the staged sample, which included 129 properties, the average number of days on the market was 13.9, and the average difference in sales price over list price was 6.32 percent.

Valentine's results prove what we instinctively know: People like to be impressed. But, she said, "there is a fine line between enhancement and camouflage, and staging is somewhere in between."

Staging is a combination of interior design and neutralization. While a stager might use some basic design principles in color and placement, the design cannot be tailored to a specific taste. "The main difference is we're working for the buying public," said Jenny Bisset of Stage Right. "It needs to be pleasing to a number of people."

Bisset said people know the home is staged when they come in, so it's not deceitful. "It's selling the idea of an open, spacious home without the clutter problems. For a lot of people, that's a fantasy."

Any stager or real estate agent could tell you clutter is one of the biggest targets when preparing a home for sale. Kit Davey, owner of A Fresh Look in Redwood City, said most people are immune to their own junk and need a neutral party to help them get rid of it. "This is the number-one issue, the quantity of clutter," Davey said. "Eighty-five percent of staging is having things clean and put away."

Davey doesn't stage empty homes. She uses existing dÈcor to create a simple, clean look that will appeal to buyers. "It's often a matter of editing, of taking out pieces that aren't working, and finding things that exude the right message," she said. A bonus for homeowners: You'll take Davey's furniture-placement lessons with you to your new place.

However, the prevailing trend in the Bay Area is to move out and stage an empty home. Stage Right advises sellers to move out if they have the opportunity. "It's easier on everyone," Grace Stratos of Stage Right said. "And in this area, a decent house, properly staged, usually sells within the first month."
Staging can cost anywhere from $300 for an initial consultation to $2,500 to stage a still-occupied home. A vacant home will run higher, averaging around $4,000, but stagers say it's worth the price. "You don't want an empty home to be a cold environment," Stratos said. "You want people to be able to visualize what it could look like."

But staging isn't supposed to upstage. "We attempt to show the house rather than the staging. It's not overdone so you can't see the house's bones," Stratos said.

The most surprising feature of staging is that it will always work to a seller's advantage. If the housing market is sluggish, staging will give your home an attractive edge over the competition. If the market is strong and the home will sell regardless, you can use staging to increase the selling price.

Bill Bull said he would use home staging again. His overall investment to revamp his mother's home was $23,000 -- a hefty sum. But he estimates that the staging work increased the home's selling price by around $80,000. "You get your money back and much more," he said. "Staging maximized the potential of the house."