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Home staging sells real estate illusions

What to appreciate and what to watch out for

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

By Carol Lloyd
Inman News

When Shakespeare declared that "all the world's a stage," he couldn't have known the dark forces that would seize on his bit of metaphoric brilliance and turn it into the operative phrase for an expanding niche of the real estate industry three and a half centuries later. But now that theater has taken a permanent back seat to real estate as our most popular live spectacle, it's houses-not plays-that are getting staged.

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s and the early '90s, staging ? decorating a home to enhance its salability ? existed in the rarified realm of elite services. It was like personal shopping, poodle jewelry and asset management ? something the rest of us might read about in a glossy magazine but wouldn't be caught dead spending hard-earned cash on.

But that was before the boom made hundred-thousandaires of even humble low-wage homeowners. Now your house is probably the apogee of something: If you bought recently, then it's your greatest debt, and if you bought several years ago, it's your greatest asset. Either way, getting top dollar has become increasingly crucial to most people's finances.

So, what's an average home seller to do? Ask a lot of real estate agents and they'll tell you, in essence, "All the house's a stage! Hire a stager ? they'll make your property look better than it's ever looked, and that will translate into money into your pocket."

Real estate agents and stagers are cautious about stating the exact value of a stage job, since real estate is governed by the unpredictable rules of micromarkets. But some have hazarded guesses. Realtor D.J. Droubi of San Francisco, for example, has told The New York Times that staging can add $30,000 to $60,000 to a sale price. Another real estate agent told me every dollar spent staging your home will translate into $3 in the sale price.

One young San Francisco home seller confirmed these figures. She said she spent about $10,000 on the staging, and in the end she got about three times that much through the sale. (The service is usually paid for by the seller, though sometimes, for an especially attractive listing, the agent will pick up the tab.)

When it comes to more expensive properties, the difference can be dramatic. Arthur McLaughlin, the interior designer who founded the staging industry in the San Francisco Bay Area some 20 years ago, once did a $30,000 staging of a three-story home that went on the market for $2.2 million. When it sold for $300,000 above the asking price, The Wall Street Journal featured it as an example of staging success.

Yet that was 1998 ? when every property looked underpriced. What about now? Ironically, staging, which spread like some sort of designerly virus during the new economy fever, now shows no sign of abating, though its host economy is in serious decline. Staged homes can now be seen at all levels of the real estate market. Spend a few hours at open houses this Sunday in hot real estate markets like Los Angeles or New York and chances are that many of them will have been, as they say in the business, "fluffed up" for your viewing pleasure.

Ostensibly, staging, which can cost everywhere from $2,000 to $80,000, is about showing off the houses' best qualities and obscuring its deficiencies. Stagers will remove clutter and your beloved but unstylish mementos (like that bronze donkey next to the fireplace), fix the cracked plaster, paint your quirky orange kitchen a soft, innocuous yellow and clean like there is no tomorrow. They often recommend new paint, sheer curtains and refinished floors ? all very practical upgrades when trying to sell a house. They eschew grays and cool blues; they brush on the warm whites, soft yellows and sage greens.

But there is also a more theatrical side to staging. While it might seem to some a perverse coincidence, the term "fluffing" is also used to describe the act of arousing the male genitalia before a porn shoot, and this correspondence actually reveals a clue about staging's deeper modus operandi: the excitement of the viewers' imagination.

"Staging is about selling a fantasy ? of the way people really want to live," said McLaughlin, who leaves a bowl of Hershey's Kisses at the entrance of each of his homes. "In the fantasy, you never have desks in the bedroom, never have an exposed TV, and there are never paperback books. Trash cans are banished."

Since his early days staging elite homes in the Northern California cities of Piedmont and Oakland, McLaughlin has built an empire from a once offbeat idea and with a romantic San Francisco aesthetic. His design firm now employs 24 designers and maintains about 8,000 square feet of warehouse space stuffed with antique furniture, art, throw pillows, linens and just about anything else a San Francisco home could dream of. His firm has the capacity to fully furnish about two-dozen large homes at any given time and has worked on everything from low-priced condos to $25 million-dollar mansions. Much of his work involves traveling around the world for what can only be called extreme shopping; he's been known to buy 350 lampshades at a time.

In the process, McLaughlin has honed staging to an art: It's about projecting a lifestyle free from the mundane mess of our chaotic, high-tech, disposable culture and harking back to an era when there was time to fill one's house with fresh-cut flowers and stare out the window and watch the bluebirds nest.

But in the beginning, McLaughlin said, the profession had an air of taboo about it. "It was sort of a secret thing," he said. "Real estate agents didn't want anybody to know if a house was staged. Even now, I get some clients who ask me to sign a confidentiality clause."

The aforementioned home seller, whose staging experience was both positive and lucrative, expressed discomfort about going public with hiring a stager in part because she was still in contract. In her case, $8,000 of her $10,000 staging fee went to the real labor of painting, replastering and refinishing floors, but she feared the buyer would believe he had been duped into buying the home. "Anything can happen. I don't feel we deceived him, but I just don't want him to feel that way," she explained.

Incidentally, stagers are careful not to deceive buyers. For instance, McLaughlin said he won't paint over stains on a ceiling that suggest a roof leak unless he knows the leak has been fixed. "It's just asking for a lawsuit," he said. "But I will put a palm in front of a window that looks out on some ugly power lines."

For the unsuspecting buyer, however, coming across a staged home can be downright perplexing. I remember one couple returning from an afternoon of open-house tours feeling strangely unsettled. "It was like visiting the Stepford wives," the woman said. "The table was set for two. But it wasn't like anyone really lived there."

This idea struck me as hilarious. The homes were obviously staged, but the oh-so-pretty facade hadn't worked its intended magic, and so this woman ? who happens to be an art designer with a very sophisticated visual sense ? was simply dumbfounded. From my classes for first-time home buyers, I've learned inexperienced buyers sometimes need a primer on how to interpret a staged house ? what to appreciate and what to watch out for ? so here are some tips:

  • If the children's room looks as if it's occupied by an angel who has never scrawled crayon across the wall, it has probably been staged. Check the garage for boxes of toys the stager hauled out of there to make the place look spacious. This strategy doesn't mean the house is deficient, though it may lack enough storage room. It may also mean that once you move in your own children's toys, you'll be drowning in shiny plastic once again.

  • If the rooms seem quaint, but everything seems to fit, buyer beware! Another characteristic of staged homes is making all props and furniture match the scale of the rooms, thereby concealing what might be called proportional flaws. I recall almost buying a beautiful little Craftsman in Berkeley, Calif., that had three bedrooms and two baths, as well as a formal dining room, all squeezed into about 1,050 square feet. Stagers had placed a tiny little couch in the living room and tiny antique beds in the bedrooms ? beds my husband and I could never have slept in. It all made the home look perfect, when in reality it would have been a nightmare to live in.

  • If there are closed windows with plants or sheer curtains covering them, make sure to peek behind them, open the window and check out the view of the alley or the four-lane traffic. It doesn't mean you won't want to buy the place, of course, but if you want some fresh air once in a while, you don't want to learn only after escrow closes that you're on a truck route.

  • Finally, some homes will make you imagine life as one long cappuccino break interspersed with reciting Ruskin and pouring generous amounts of fine olive oil on freshly baked breads. Under their influence, you'll turn to your partner and say, "I don't care how much it costs! Let's get it! I've just got to have those tulips on that wrought-iron table in the breakfast nook, or life won't be complete!" Such homes have probably been touched by the stager's wand.

The art of the stager is to employ even the tiniest details to create a look. The home seller, for example, said she couldn't believe the focus on details her stager went to make it just so, replacing stainless steel salt shakers with other, nearly identical stainless steel salt shakers and switching peppermint bath salts for the vanilla variety.

In the end, it's not like sellers of staged homes are out to fleece you for no good reason. They are out to fleece you for a very good reason: They've hired stagers to make the house attractive in both real and illusory ways. In some ways, stagers do buyers a great service ? they perform some of the nitty-gritty work that otherwise will not get done. But, as a buyer, it's also important for you to keep your guard up: Are you in love with the house, or with the lime-green velveteen couch? In the end, all the fancy dressing doesn't come with the house, and so you want to imagine this emperor naked.

Eric Bouler
Eric Bouler
Realtor