When a real estate agent helps an owner put a Midpeninsula home on the market, besides carefully setting the price and scheduling open houses, there is now another universally standard practice that can boost the selling price of a home -- staging.
Preparing properties inside and out for prospective buyers can increase a home's sale price and also cut time spent on the market. The practice has spawned a 21st-century industry.
"It has become a very widespread practice in this area," said David Barca, vice president of the Silicon Valley Region for Pacific Union International Inc. "I would say at least 80 percent of the homes listed in Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Atherton are staged to a greater or lesser extent."
As recently as the 1990s, the practice was virtually unheard of, Barca said. He recalled that his wife, Elyse Barca, currently a Realtor in the Menlo Park office of Pacific Union, handled a house sale in the 1990s where the property underwent a cleanup and improvement to make it look a bit less "lived-in" to potential buyers. "In those days, that was very unique," he said.
He said, however, that by the early- to mid-2000s, home staging became far more accepted and common among local home sellers.
"People listing their homes in our area are trying to optimize, or maximize, their selling price," he said. "They can afford the expense of staging and for every dollar they spend, it can generate $5 to $7 in return, an increase of between 12 and 18 percent in the price."
The early 2000s is when Sally Shreve -- a Palo Alto native, Stanford graduate and young business woman at the time -- launched her home-staging company, Mountain View-based Van Cott Design Group. Shreve named her new company after her grandmother, who had long had an interest in design.
"Unlike a lot of people in the (home-staging) business, I don't have a background in design," Shreve said. "My background was in business."
Big business. Shreve held management positions in the high-tech industry, managing companies ranging in annual revenue from $60 million to $350 million, for a quarter century before launching her new endeavor. Because of her background, Shreve focused her fledgling business on working most closely with real estate agents, making sure all of their needs were met.
"We focused on the Realtors, and if we were staging a house for them in Menlo Park and they needed us to help them with a property in Fremont, we'd do it," Shreve said. "And maybe it's just some flowers or pillows or a mirror, but we specialized in always saying 'yes.'"
She credits that approach -- and a whole lot of hard work by herself and others in her company -- with expanding it dramatically over the past 16 years. Van Cott now has the inventory and personnel sufficient to stage 45 to 50 houses. Shreve regularly attends annual home furnishings shows in Las Vegas and New York to find the latest, trendiest decor to fit in with today's neutral residential palettes.
Staging isn't cheap: Shreve's company charges both monthly rental and design fees. Monthly rental charges range from $6,000 to $7,000 for a 10,000-square-foot house that is fully staged -- filled with new furniture, artwork, accessories and window treatments. For a small home or condominium, the monthly rental can run between $1,500 to $3,000. Design fees can run even higher, she said.
This is all money well spent, said Xin Jiang, an agent in the Palo Alto office of Alain Pinel Realtors.
"Staging is critical today," said Jiang, who specializes in Palo Alto and Menlo Park neighborhoods, and has used the Van Cott Design Group's services. "Prospective buyers can envision how a home can look, how they can use various rooms in the house."
Staging is strategic, she said.
"Eighty percent of selling a home is in the presentation," Jiang said. "When buyers walk into a house, they will often pay more attention to the more cosmetic things."
Jiang will use home-stagers to bring in new light fixtures, door handles, artwork, flower arrangements and rugs to update and refresh the look of a home. It helps during robust markets, as in the past few years, when staged houses might be snapped up in a week or 10 days. Or in slower markets, as some in the industry are predicting for this fall, when houses may linger for a month to six weeks or longer.
When homes move quickly, staging companies double up on monthly fees by shifting furniture and decor to new locations.
Jiang sometimes must call multiple staging companies during the busy spring, summer and fall seasons. Another company she calls upon is Mountain View-based Susan Bacchi Design.
Bacchi recalls the earliest days of her company more than a decade ago, when she would carry around her infant daughter in a front pack as she went about building her business.
For Bacchi, staging is all about meeting the "aspirational goals" of potential buyers. She takes into account American buyers, but also those from China looking to buy on the Midpeninsula. She will add pops of vibrant color in flowers, accent pieces and even wall color to accommodate Asian tastes, as well as position furniture and accent pieces to appeal to feng shui concerns.
"Buyers want to see if a certain-sized bed can fit into a room," she said. "They want to see how parts of the house can be used for family activities, how they can incorporate play, family rooms and TV-viewing areas."
Staging can encompass all aspects of a property from window treatments and exterior paint color to landscaping, light fixtures and carpeting, Bacchi said.
Though there are undeniable challenges, Shreve said in a robust, affluent market like the Midpeninsula, staging companies have found a home sweet home.
"The market here has been strong a long time," she said. "Staging helps properties sell faster at higher prices. In a down market, which is rare, people often want to stage their home to make it stand out."
David Goll is a freelance writer for the Palo Alto Weekly. He can be emailed at email@example.com.