Marina and Daniel Ein acquired an extraordinary collection of Oriental rugs, antiques and art over a lifetime of travel. When it came time to sell their 5,500-square-foot house in Northwest Washington, they assumed the furnishings would add to the appeal.
“Our house was on the market for a year and a half, and we had no offers,” Marina Ein said.
They turned to their friend, Theo Adamstein, a real estate agent with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty who also has a background in architecture, design and photography.
“It took him to tell us the house was not going to sell as is,” Ein said.
Adamstein knew immediately what needed to be done. They needed to stage their house.
“I walked in and said, ‘We have to get rid of the furniture, take the paintings down and repaint,’ ” Adamstein said. “We actually fought a bit. I told them what they thought about their house didn’t really matter because prospective buyers wouldn’t think so.”
Sellers have mixed feelings about staging. On the one hand, they want the best price possible for their home. On the other, they think their home is beautiful as is. It is often left to the real estate agent to help them understand that the best way to market their listing is to remove the things that make it their home and add the things that turn it into a buyer’s home. The National Association of Realtors estimates that for every $100 spent on staging a home, a seller can potentially recoup $400.
“When the front door opens, people walk in and say, ‘Oh this looks great.’ They’re responding to the lighting, well-placed furniture and objects in place. That’s what staging does,” Adamstein said. “They don’t consciously think that they won’t get any of those things. They say, ‘Oh my God, look at this beautiful lamp or coffee table.’ It’s the overall impression that sells the property.”
The two instances when staging makes the most sense are an empty home and a cluttered home. Few buyers can envision the space in a room without furnishings. Will a king bed fit in a bedroom? What size table fits in the dining room? Can a sectional fit in the family room? Furniture helps a buyer imagine which of his possessions will work in the new house.
Clutter hides a home’s potential.
“People have way too much stuff, yet advice to declutter can be taken heavily,” said Catarina Bannier, an agent with Compass. “Agents have to be brutally honest.”
Bannier had a client who had lived in her home for 45 years. The walls were olive and orange. The dining room wallpaper had brown and green flowers with gold accents.
“I gently suggested ways to make the house more attractive,” Bannier said. “She refused. We talked several times. She wouldn’t make any changes. We couldn’t get anywhere. I finally said, ‘I can’t sell your house,’ and I walked away.”
Several weeks later, Bannier offered her a compromise: Move out and then she would sell it. The woman agreed. Bannier emptied the house, painted it and added new furnishings.
“It went on the market, three offers came in, and it sold,” Bannier said.
The woman never returned. She told Bannier that it wasn’t her house anymore.
“But she sent her children a link to the online photos and a son told her it looked grand, he’d buy it,” Bannier said. “She said that was the moment she understood why we were doing all this.”
Larry Bivins, an agent with Long and Foster, will stage houses at all price points, not just high-end listings.
“If a seller can afford to hire a professional stager, then even a $200,000 condo or house could benefit” from staging, Bivins said. “In fact, [lower-priced] properties probably would benefit even more from professional staging than, say, a newly renovated, freshly painted, vacant single-family home.”
Bivins also will stage distressed properties such as short sales, foreclosures and fixer-uppers.
Holly Theis, a senior project manager with Red House Staging and Interiors, has a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Hyattsville, Md., stocked with furniture, decorative decor, rugs and artwork. She views each property individually before deciding what to use.
“I let the house and neighborhood dictate the style,” Theis said.
Theis brainstorms ideas with the listing agent, who often has a certain look in mind.
“It’s a collaborative effort,” she said.
On top of minimizing possessions, painting walls a neutral color and grouping furnishings, a thorough cleaning is essential.
“Bathrooms and kitchens are the most important,” Bivins said. “They should sparkle.”
Sweep hardwood floors and vacuum carpets, Bivins said. Wash the windows. Make the beds with clean sheets and a bedspread. Buy new towels, bathmat and shower curtain.
“You have to make the house look worth the price,” he said.
The outside of the house matters as much as the inside.
“Don’t forget about curb appeal,” said Brendan Doyle, proprietor of Planterra, a landscape design and planning firm. “The front yard is the first thing people see when they drive by.”
Prune trees, shape bushes and mow the lawn. Paint the front door. Wash the windows. Polish the hardware.
Bivins recommends cleaning the gutters and repairing fences. Repaint or at least power wash the siding.
Naomi Hattaway, founder of 8th & Home, a real estate and relocation company, suggests sweeping the front steps and clearing the driveway.
“Add pops of color with flowers in decorative pots,” she said.
The Eins eventually realized they should heed Adamstein’s advice if they wanted to sell their house.
“Our approach clearly wasn’t working,” Ein said. “So we denuded the house, put the furniture in storage.”
The walls were painted a neutral color. The hand-painted tiles on the backsplash were replaced with ones that mimicked the look of subways tiles. The linens and towels were changed. Art that matched was added to the walls.
“We had buyers the first week,” Ein said. “One couple even wanted to know if they could buy all the furnishings. Theo couldn’t have been more right. When we listened to him, we got results right away.”
A well-staged house can be a revelation to the sellers as well as an enticement to the buyers.
“Families are surprised when they come back after staging,” Bannier said. “They say, ‘We should have lived like this the past 10 years.’ ”