Staging for Dollars

With real estate bubbles bursting, a buyer’s market whittling down the asking price and multiple offers suddenly an impossible dream, selling the family home can feel overwhelming. Just watching HGTV’s Designed to Sell or A&E’s Sell This House is enough to induce mental paralysis. It’s bad enough that you’ll soon have to pack it all up and move it all out, but then you learn that doing some of this in advance might be the ace up your sleeve, the best way to swiftly turn that FOR SALE sign to SOLD.

Having professionals stage your home with added furnishings — and in many cases, furniture — is the new way to sell it fast and at the best possible price. Introduced in 1972 by then Seattle–based Barb Schwartz, CEO of, staging is now state of the art for realtors on the West Coast, an approach that’s spreading nationwide. Its buzzwords — de-personalizing, de-cluttering, sprucing up and paring down — are the new home-marketing mantras. In briefest translation, the savvy seller sets the stage for a prospective buyer to fall in love.

“Homeowners need to understand that once on the market, their home is a product — like a Mercedes- Benz. You’re after the emotional response,” Barb says. “Martha Stewart may not live in your house, but it should look as if she does.”

Why? Just do the math: A 5 percent price reduction on a $500,000 house slices the seller’s profit by $25,000; a 10 percent reduction, by $50,000. An investment in staging runs dramatically less — just $4,000 can accomplish miracles — and has been shown to produce quicker turnover at higher profit margins. In southern Fairfield County, for the right kind of property, a $25,000 staging investment can increase the selling price by $75,000 to $100,000.

For Greenwich’s Barbara McEntee, staging is a natural complement to her career in interior design (she is the founder of Greenwich Showcase Design and a partner in La Maisonette Antiques). “With my own homes, I did what came naturally and got offers right away,” she says. “I didn’t know I was ‘staging,’ and I’d never heard of Barb Schwartz. It just seemed like a good idea.”

Her décor clients with slow-moving properties on the market soon asked for her help, then local brokers began calling. In her first year, Barbara staged three Greenwich houses, in her second, seven and in the first three months of her third year (2006) in business, another seven. Of that most recent group, only two are still on the market.

Barbara has inventory to completely furnish three houses. Her two two-car garages are jam-packed with armchairs, couches, dining room tables, sideboards, rugs, armoires and myriad accessories. The latter range from paintings, antiques and miscellaneous artwork to pillows, curtains, bedding, books, baskets, lamps, cashmere throws, candles, potpourri and even plants.

You name it, stagers have multiples of it, everything necessary to turn drab and dreary into warm and welcoming. Some use basements, garages and attics for storage, others rent warehouses; but not one of the four stagers interviewed for this article would allow a peek behind the scenes. Each seemed to have a foolproof system for finding exactly what they need when they need it, as well as a photographic memory for details, a little black book of sources and a genuine enthusiasm for finding and placing every item. “What fun to have an excuse to buy beautiful things,” Barbara says, adding that it does get crazy sometimes. De-staging is part of the package. “All of a sudden, three houses sold,” she says, “and I had to take everything back.”

Carolyn Clark of New Canaan, a broker whose staging service to real estate clients includes free use of her $75,000 inventory of furnishings and accessories, jokes that her associate Cathy Wooters had no idea her whole house would be taken over when they started staging together. “We’re very organized, but full to the rafters,” she says. “It’s definitely a ‘ten pounds of stuff in a two- pound bag’ sort of thing.”

Carolyn’s base price for eight hours of staging runs $2,800. The final cost depends on how much of an investment the client chooses to make. Every detail is planned meticulously in advance; the actual installation typically takes two days. “Sometimes existing furniture just needs to be rearranged,” she says. “We decide what needs to be edited out and what to bring in.”

A recently staged in-town home on New Canaan’s newly trendy South Avenue, for example, merited a soup-to-nuts, inside-and-out update so the circa 1929 house could compete favorably with new construction in a neighborhood suddenly very much in demand. “It took six months of work,” Carolyn says. “The sellers, still living in the house, played an active role.”

The exterior was repainted a lighter color; pristine white picket fencing, gravel to lighten the driveway and new rose bushes were staging additions. “Cathy was our pruning artist,” Carolyn says, “out there supervising literally branch by branch.” Inside the house, the owners chose to completely redo bathrooms and replace kitchen appliances and counters. The two women don’t have official staging credentials but it’s not necessary, Carolyn says, adding that their end result and sales track record speak for themselves.

In the living room, sunlight streams through sparkling clean windows previously hidden by floor-to-ceiling curtains. Refinished wooden floors and a fresh coat of ivory paint frame more traditional furnishings — inviting, but not too intense. Most of the furniture is Carolyn’s, but the seller’s Oriental rugs, rejuvenated by a thorough cleaning, provide the perfect palette. “Some of my pieces are becoming familiar to area realtors,” she says, smiling. “But they look different in every new location, which I love. They get to shine, even if just for a limited time.”


Carolyn, Cathy and Barbara all say that they feel free to bend Barb Schwartz’s staging rules a bit. “If it works, it works,” Cathy says. “We will include personal things sometimes or keep wallpaper that we like. Sometimes an antiques collection is exactly right. It all depends on how you do it.”

Stage Right Design’s Trish Boyle, an accredited staging professional, doesn’t exactly disagree, but as a graduate of Barb Schwartz’s training program, she tends to stage more by the book. Seven years ago, after staging her San Francisco house, she sold it on the first day for 15 percent over the asking price. “A $30,000 investment,” she says, “made us $300,000.”

Trish isn’t an interior decorator but inherited “a great eye” from her grandmother. She and her colleagues at the Connecticut Chapter of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals were surprised to discover that, as kids, they all shared a similar passion to constantly arrange and rearrange their rooms and sometimes even the family living room.

Trish usually handles four or five projects at a time; not all require her to bring in her own furniture. “I do a lot of editing out,” she says, “because the typical home is much too crowded to show optimally.” Less is definitely more when it comes to selling a house. Buyers need to see some free space and be able to mentally move their own things in, to picture themselves living there. “Staging helps them do that,” she says. “It’s about marketing not decorating.”

“All the furniture and accessories in this condominium are mine,” Trish says, expertly grouping artwork, which she hangs using a laser level and Hercules hook. “This kind doesn’t damage walls,” she says. “You can Google it.” In this case, the staging will remain for six months or more if necessary, at a cost of $5,000 to the owner of the complex. But it’s rare that a unit takes that long to sell. The condo next door, also staged by Trish, sold immediately.

Westport’s Susan Hendrickson once worked in executive relocation; these days, her company, Unique Property Marketing, focuses on vacant houses waiting to be sold and offers another aspect of the staging process. “An empty, unlived-in house invariably languishes in the listings,” she explains. “It feels unloved, uncared for and usually stays unsold. That’s where our carefully screened home managers can make all the difference.” By moving into and furnishing a vacant house, making it buyer-friendly, a home manager can be the solution to seller stress.

Do you have gracious traditional furnishings? Are you orderly by nature? Are you between jobs, a new resident who needs time to learn the area before buying a home but doesn’t want to commit to a year’s rental? Perhaps you’re doing a major renovation scheduled for completion months down the road? Or maybe you just like the idea of living in a fabulous five-million-dollar house during your summer vacation for 20 percent of the normal rental rate? If so, you might want to consider being a home manager.

It’s not cheap. Managers must move in with furnishings that meet rigorous staging requirements; if they need to rent furniture for a high-end house, that could run $5,000 per month. Along with paying for utilities, liability insurance and a fee to the company, they’re responsible for maintaining the home in pristine condition, inside and out. They have to leave the house during visits from realtors showing it; once the property sells, they have about three months to move out. “It’s not for everybody,” Susan agrees, “but for some people, it works.”

Brian Moran, an entrepreneur weighing new opportunities, and his wife Cindy, an art therapist, moved back, as home managers, into a Weston house they’d previously sold. “Because they use their own furniture, it costs them just $3,000 monthly, including my fee,” Susan says, “much less than buying or renting the same house.”    

“The house is on the fifteenth tee of the golf course at Weston’s Aspetuck Valley Country Club; Susan knew we’d once lived there,” says Cindy, who describes herself as “fairly mellow” and finds packing up a catalyst for getting organized. But right now she’s just enjoying the house, particularly working in its light-filled art studio. “Everything slipped easily into place.” she says, surrounded by her paintings on the walls. “I love this house.”

John White, Lillian August’s son, moved into one of Susan’s vacant homes while he and his wife were doing major work on their house. “They stayed for nine months, and it cost them $1,500 per month,” Susan says, adding that it helped that they had easy access to Lillian August furnishings with which they staged the house.

Susan now stages using Lillian August decorators, furniture and accessories. “Their look is classic, exactly right,” she says, adding that, with new construction, builders are willing to foot the bill. “Done properly,” she says, touring a temporarily vacant new home on Bluewater Hill in Westport, “staging pays for itself many times over.”

With the current glut of McMansions on the market — many with rooms containing just aerobeds and Foosball tables — staging is even more critical. “Houses like that need to be shown as livable; in the raw, they’re intimidating,” Susan says, “especially supersize rooms with enormous glass windows. People need to see where they could put the couch.”

Susan recalls a ten-thousand-square-foot house that had been on the market, empty, for over two years. “After staging only five rooms,” she says, “it sold in six weeks.”

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