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Separating emotion from reality: Home-staging companies help 'sell that house'

April 10, 2006

Shakespeare wrote that "all the world's a stage," but when it comes to the competitive home-sales market, one might say all the world's about staging.

Home staging-the process of making a home more appealing to potential buyers-has gained recognition through popular cable television programs such as "Designed to Sell" and "Sell This House." It can run the gamut from repainting walls to tearing them down, or from changing window treatments to replacing windows.

Interior designer Marion Stewart and her longtime friend Carolyn Kennedy started Transitions Inc., an Indianapolis-based design firm, six years ago. Since then, their business has evolved from simply clearing clutter and rearranging clients' furniture to handling complex remodeling projects.

Their original intent was to help homeowners "refresh" their homes or work with people who were making a move.

"It evolved into staging, and real estate people starting calling," Stewart said.

One of the people who called the Transitions team was John Teter, a real estate agent with F.C. Tucker Co. in Carmel. Teter had heard the women speak about the benefits of home staging and decided to enlist their advice on behalf of a homeowner whose $800,000-plus home had been on the market for more than a year.

Stewart and Kennedy put together a proposal to make the home more appealing to today's buyers. Changes included painting, changing light fixtures, installing new countertops and making other updates to the decades-old home.

"The sellers' response was shock and awe to begin with," Teter said. "They were skeptical about investing between $12,000 and $14,000 to make changes to update the house."

Teter told the homeowner if the changes made the house sell quicker, the cost would be worth the investment-and it was. The home sold three weeks after the women completed their work.

He even hired the team to advise him on remodeling his own home.

Tom and Susan Hurd brought in Transitions when they moved to Carmel from Illinois last year to help arrange their home furnishings in a temporary town home while their Asbury Park home was being built.

"My wife was so happy with the job Carolyn and Marion did that when we moved into our new home, they were there when the truck arrived and pretty much had everything arranged, including hanging the pictures," Tom said. "When I came home that night, everything was done and it was beautiful."

Removing the "personal stamp"

Linda Barnett, owner of Indianapolisbased Home Matters LLC, started her home-staging business in 2004 after working many years as a Realtor. She felt there was a need-particularly in the resale market-to help sellers "understand the psychological reasons for presenting your home differently than the way you live in it."

"If you have too much of your own personal stamp in the house," Barnett explained, "it's hard for people to envision what it would be like to live there."

She took a cue from model homes, where builders hire interior designers to show the home from a "buyer's point of view."

"In order to be competitive, you have to position and package your product-your home-so that it will stand out from the rest," she said. "It's about showcasing each room to its full potential."

That might mean arranging furniture to take advantage of a great outdoor view or creating a spa-like retreat in the bathroom.

Barnett counsels homeowners to bring in this type of service when the home is being listed rather than waiting until it has been on the market for months and the price has been reduced.

Emotions cloud judgment

Transitions' Stewart and Kennedy had a client whose home had been on and off the market for two years.

"She was despondent because it wasn't selling," Stewart said. "She did all the right things-thinning out the furnishings and had done a thorough cleaning-but it needed staging and updating."

Two showings were scheduled and the decorating duo spent two days restaging the home. The result? The homeowner received two offers and accepted one the next day.

Even so, the professionals said it's sometimes hard to convince people who are selling their home to make an additional investment in staging.

"We all think our home is perfect," Stewart said, "but when you put a house on the market, you have to broaden the appeal. Sometimes our emotional attachments cloud our judgment."

She also says homeowners have to realize that when selling their house, it's a product and you have to make sure it's in top shape.

"If you were going to sell your car, you would get it into No. 1 condition before you ever showed it," Stewart said. "It's the same with a house."

Barnett agrees.

"I tell them that home restaging costs less than your first price reduction" when the home stays on the market for a long period of time.

Don't go halfway

Sometimes Kennedy and Stewart turn down business when they feel a homeowner "isn't getting it" and wants to do only a portion of what's recommended to help sell the house.

"We want the home to sell as much as the homeowner," Stewart said.

Kennedy likens it to heart surgery.

"A surgeon says you need four valves replaced and you say, 'No, I'll just replace two and do that later if I really get sick,'" she said. "We're doing house surgery."
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