For sellers, it's a stressful real estate market: Lots of houses are available; buyers look and look, leaving them panicked and their agents frantic.
But increasingly, some are suggesting a possible cure for the angst: staging, or decorating a house to appeal to the target buyer.
"Staging is . . . part of an overall marketing plan for individual houses, to set them apart from others for sale in the neighborhood," said Prudential Fox & Roach agent Bari Shor.
In the fall, HomeGain, a California-based online service that generates real estate leads, surveyed its 2,000 member-agents nationwide about the value of staging.
The results indicated that while professional staging cost between $403 and $584, it added $1,938 to $2,431 to the final sale price of a house. Ninety-one percent of the agents surveyed recommended professional staging as a marketing tool.
And with houses in this region staying on the market an average of 83 days last month, compared with 71 days in February 2007, every tool can be important.
"Homeowners are beginning to understand . . . that proper staging can give them a competitive edge," said Susan Brown of Creative Staging in Southampton, Bucks County.
"We are definitely beyond busy," Brown said, crediting a sea change by agents eager to move houses and growing consumer familiarity with staging because of a spate of real estate reality shows.
Typically, staging aims to create spaces buyers can see themselves living in. That might mean setting up a breakfast area in a kitchen where none exists, or clustering an armchair and ottoman in a comfortable reading nook. At its most basic, staging includes decluttering and cleaning, to refresh rooms.
David Boerner of Long & Foster Real Estate has called Brown in to help sell the Doylestown house Deborah Yerger bought in 1999 for $185,000, then rented.
When her tenants left, "I didn't want to keep it, so I put the house on the market for sale in the summer," Yerger said. Listed at $399,000, the house has sat unoccupied - and unsold - since then.
"Debbie's house has a lot of charm and potential, but all the buyers can see is an empty house," Brown said. "They don't see rooms . . . just four walls, and the emptiness creates echoes when you walk.
"There is no size perspective or wow factor, and even savvy buyers can't begin to figure out how their furniture will lay out."
So on Friday, Brown and her crew arrived to turn Yerger's empty spaces - the kitchen, a family room, the master bedroom, and a sitting room - into something the affluent, older-but-with-kids-still-at-home Doylestown buyer expects: "upscale, formal [with] contemporary furnishings and accents."
In a Center City house, Brown said, she would likely stage the space to attract singles or young couples without children, "the Crate & Barrel audience." Consultations are free, she said, but it's hard to set a price range for her services because "every house is different."
For an average-size home (about 2,300 square feet), staging costs start at about $500 and can go past $1,000, based on a 2007 survey of 400 agents by the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (NAEBA). The prices generally included painting, carpet, accessories and labor.
Some high-end houses - listed at more than $1 million - can cost $25,000 and up to stage because the buyers being courted are wealthier and expect the best.
Agents responding to the NAEBA survey, however, said that 82 percent of prospective buyers are likely to be distracted from important issues when they go through a staged home. In addition, 51 percent said staged homes often cover up real defects, including structural damage.
Whether a house has been staged or not, buyers are almost universally encouraged to have the property inspected, to uncover problems.
"Staging in no way takes the place of a home inspection and the accurate completion of the legally required seller's property disclosure statement . . . provided to a buyer prior to the agreement of sale," said David Krieger, senior vice president of Coldwell Banker Preferred, Philadelphia.
Exactly how many home stagers there are nationwide is difficult to say - some are interior designers or professional organizers, among other job descriptions.
More than 4,300 real estate professionals in the United States are accredited by Stagedhomes.com, founded 30 years ago by Barbara Schwarz. The International Association of Home Staging Professionals, also founded by Schwarz, lists 70 stagers in Pennsylvania and 80 in New Jersey.
In October, David and Ruby Ann Bell searched for a real estate agent who also did staging. Ruby Ann's new job in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., meant they had to sell their two-story, 3,000-square-foot Colonial-contemporary in Ambler.
"The house was in pretty good shape," said David Bell, "but the market was sluggish and we wanted to sell quickly because we had to move." (The couple paid $433,000 for the house in 2000.)
Diane Williams of Weichert Realtors in Spring House, an accredited stager, took a look, priced the house at $670,000, and called in Lansdale stager Kim Kratz before listing it.
"The house was in fine shape and nicely furnished, but I thought that it needed just a little polish," Kratz said.
She spent the better part of a week getting it ready for the market, charging $200 up front for her analysis. The total staging cost was $1,200, David Bell said.
Kratz had the Bells remove some furniture to open up the space, and rearranged pieces in the family room. Some walls needed painting, which the Bells did themselves, though many stagers have staff do it or refer sellers to contractors.
Kratz provided about $2,000 worth of accessories - vases, candles, artwork, "even a wrought-iron headboard mounted on the wall behind a bed that needed it," said Bell.
A couple of weeks after the staging was complete, Jay Kreiling, designated by his wife, Hope, to find them a house locally, made an offer.
"I didn't see it until after he bought it," Hope Kreiling said. "He was already here, and I was back in Colorado, waiting to be able to move." She left the decision to Jay, she said, because she had already made three house-hunting trips, looked at 30 to 40 houses, and found nothing.
"You'd see them on the Internet and they looked wonderful, but when you saw them in person, they didn't look anything like the pictures," Hope said.
The couple liked the Ambler house enough to pay $645,000, and would have paid full price if the appraiser had agreed, Williams said.
To sell the 3,800-square-foot, two-story contemporary in Blue Bell they bought for $410,000 in 1993, Jeffrey and Susan Brown (a different Susan Brown) needed more help from Kratz than the Bells did. Their house was listed for $700,000, but "if we hadn't staged it, we never would have sold it," said Susan, who has moved to Arizona with her family.
"The house was too customized," she said, "so Kim had a crew in here that had to do a lot of work, including painting just about every room." Kratz tailored the paint palette to the contemporary architecture.
The Browns' home also needed furniture, Kratz said, to flesh out the "playrooms" used by 8-year-old twin boys and a big dog. She keeps pieces in storage, but deals with a rental company for big jobs.
After just three days on the market, the staged house sold in June for $660,000.