Spring Real Estate 2009

Publication Date: Friday, April 24, 2009

Put on a happy face
Staging can give prospective buyers a good idea of a home's best features

In today's market "you assume the house is going to be staged," said Coldwell Banker Realtor Helen Miller of Woodside.

Last year one of her clients worked with Jan Martin of Van Cott Design in Mountain View to get a multi-million-dollar house ready for sale in Woodside. Miller figures the staging helped bring in an additional $500,000 when the property sold.

This year it may be taking houses a little longer to sell in general, but more and more Realtors and homeowners are turning to stagers in hopes of selling properties quickly at the highest price.

Martin majored in interior design and has a real estate license. In a "natural market" she said, it takes 30 to 60 days to sell a house, whereas she estimates now "half of the homes are selling in about 60 days, the rest in three to six months."

She's busy and foresees staying that way given today's market.

Martin strongly believes staging a home is an essential marketing tool, and that to stay competitive, experts need to be hired to pay special attention to space planning, scale, style, architecture, color and traffic flow "to pull a house together to make it look inviting to appeal to the largest market possible."
Last fall "nothing was selling, then December was the busiest December we've had in 19 years," said Jonathan Glendinning, owner of J.A.G. Staging in Palo Alto. And now, "there's a lot of activity."

One of the first things he does when he does a staging consultation is think about how to depersonalize a house, such as putting personal photos away so people will look at the "best features of the house, and nothing is distracting."

He will give clients guidance on colors, what flooring or other finishes need to be redone, but "we don't do general contracting," he said.

"Very high-producing agents get it that high-priced homes need to be staged instead of showing grandma's furniture" or something that's "soiled or worn out," said Cindie Candau, principal designer of Millennium Design and Staging in Palo Alto, who has been in the design business for 26 years.

She can be hired by the hour, but usually, like other stagers, she charges an overall design fee where "we come up with the concept, and then I have two girls shop up and down the aisles of our warehouse and tag the inventory. Then we pack, load, put it all in place and pick it up when the property is sold."

"Inventory" in this case refers to all the furnishings and accessories she owns, and then rents out for a separate fee, based on a one-month minimum, then prorated after that by the day. Most stagers operate the same way, charging a rental fee for their items out on loan, but sometimes they will sell the inventory.

Prices range at Millennium, but for a 2,000-square-foot ranch-style home where the master bedroom and bath are staged, as well as common living areas such as the living, family and dining rooms and kitchen, the design fee plus first month's rental could start at $3,500, and go up from there.

Candau said she's always freshening up her inventory, reupholstering pieces, buying new furniture and selling off items. Recently, she donated three truckloads of goods to Habitat for Humanity.

Another staging company, Stagers, stores its inventory in four warehouses spread out in San Carlos. Designer Sandi Geenen said they've been coordinating a lot of trucking back and forth lately because "about 15 of our clients' homes sold in the last 30 days, and several sold over asking price with multiple offers on the first day."

The owner of Stagers, Chris Cooper, used to be a Realtor, and has noticed a recent shift in the way houses are marketed and sold. "Eighty percent of buyers first see the house on the Internet," she said.

She sees virtual tours becoming one of the most important parts of the shopping process. Because of that, she says when she is making a bid on a house to stage, she goes through "mentally taking a picture of each room and how it's going to photograph."

Susan Dawson has a house for sale in Woodside. She was willing to leave it fully furnished, but says her Realtor "highly suggested" she hire a stager before the photographer came to take pictures for marketing purposes.

Dawson said she has been very pleased with Doss Spadia Designs of Redwood City, and all the artwork, rugs, bed, bedding, kitchen table and fake (plastic and cardboard) TVs that were brought in to stage the house. She is also impressed with the flexibility of her arrangement. When she had the house taken off of multiple listings, she was charged a lower rental fee for the inventory.

Nearby neighbor Mark Bowles is also selling his house, and credits his Realtor, Diane Carr of Alain Pinel in Woodside, with helping him stage the property. He admits the place looks much fresher after touching up the landscaping, de-cluttering the house, repainting and rearranging the furniture.

Stagers call it editing or making "enhancements" when they have to work with an owner-occupied home, but about half the time they face the challenge of filling new or vacant houses.

"I never sell an empty house," said Kathy Bridgman, a Realtor with Alain Pinel, Los Altos.

Stager Cooper explained why. "A vacant house will not photograph well because people don't have any idea of scale; there's nothing of interest to look at."

Glendinning agreed, saying, "If a house is completely empty, it's going to read very cold."

To prove his point, J.A.G. Staging's website features an eye-catching before and after photo of an empty living room that magically fills up with warm touches such as leafy plants, colorful pillows and stylish knickknacks.

However, Realtor Bob Taylor of Taylor Properties in Palo Alto thinks these days, buyers are looking beyond the props and curb appeal.

"Yesterday, you could sell everything 'as-is' and buyers would swallow it whole," he said.

"Today, buyers want to conserve cash and would prefer to pay more for a property they will not instantly have to invest a lot more money in because of the previous owner's lack of maintenance and upkeep of the home."

In his experience, "buyers are sophisticated enough to look past the wine glasses and napkins to see the crumbling foundation, leaking roof and termite damage."