They were a retired couple in their early 60s who fled an expensive city in favor of a tranquil town in a lower-cost state. They were living in a rental apartment but were desperate to sell their stucco cottage in the city to free up funds to buy a modest place in the new area.
Unfortunately, the cottage sat unsold for two months without so much as a nibble from a potential buyer. Instead of slashing their price — already set at market value for the neighborhood — they took their listing agent's advice and hired a "home stager" to present their place in the best possible light.
"The cottage looked dark and dingy. So it had no appeal — especially in a neighborhood with a sea of For Sale signs and better houses to choose from. My goal was to make it the most attractive place in the whole area," says Michelle Minch, a veteran stager and a director of the Real Estate Staging Association (realestatestagingassociation.com).
It took Minch and her assistants just a few days of intense work to complete the makeover. They hauled out excess furniture, rearranged the remaining pieces and brought in a van load of eye-catching accessories borrowed from their warehouse. They also removed heavy draperies to make the cottage seem more bright and airy. Just as the final touches were added — clusters of scarlet flowers for the front yard — a buyer came by and immediately bought the place.
As the owner of a small firm called "Moving Mountains Design," (movingmountainsdesign.com), Minch is accustomed to such turnarounds. But many stagers lack a proven track record, says Barb Schwarz, founder of The International Association of Home Staging Professionals (iahsp.com).
Some stagers are devotees of television programs on home renovation and decorating. Others come from interior design backgrounds yet often lack an in-depth understanding of the home-selling process.
"Decorating is not staging. Staging is depersonalizing a home so it will appeal to the home-buying public. Decorating is about personalizing a home for its owners," Schwarz says.
Check out more than one stager before making your selection. Minch, who publishes her own home-staging blog that links to her Web site, urges home sellers to seek out several names of experienced stagers from real estate agents or through an Internet search and to then examine the quality of their work. Ideally, you should interview at least three stagers before hiring one.
"Study the stager's Web site and ask to see a portfolio of properties she's staged that led to actual sales," she says.
When scrutinizing the stagers' work, Minch says you should think less about whether the redone rooms suit your taste than whether they'd appeal to a broad cross-section of potential buyers.
"Staging is about selling the single largest asset your family owns. Most of all, a great stager knows how to market to a large audience," she says.
To get a sampling of reactions to stagers' work, ask five or six of your friends to visit their Web site, Minch suggests.
Get a firm grip on the stager's pricing from the outset. Most professionals in the field of home staging operate in a businesslike manner and can accept payments either by credit card or check, says Schwarz, author of the book "Home Staging: The Winning Way to Sell Your House for More Money."
Once they've seen your property, serious professionals should give you a firm quote on the full cost of staging it. This is helpful, Schwarz says, because a bid on the whole job protects you from the risk of getting hit with higher-than-expected hourly fees if the job takes longer than your stager expected.
Contain your costs by doing some of the work yourself. Hiring a professional stager can be pricey, particularly if your property is located in a prestigious neighborhood with big homes or if it's vacant. Staging fees — which typically range from $1,000 to $3,000 — can be especially hard to accept for those who have little or no equity in their home yet still need to sell it.
As Schwarz says, you can reduce the cost of a stager's services by taking on some of the workload yourself. Instead of asking for a bid for having the stager do the full project, ask for a "consultation."
This costs about $350 and should yield you a lengthy report itemizing the specific steps you need to take to prepare your home for showings, such as what colors to paint your walls and the kind of carpet to install in your living room.
Alternatively, you could decide to contain your staging expenses by sharing the workload with the professional you hire. "It's OK to box up all your extra belongings and to put them in the garage, unless you're selling a very high- end property. Then you need to clear out the entire place and put all your extra things in a storage unit," says Schwarz, who's been staging homes since the early 1970s.
Have all your staging done before you list your property. Although homes now take longer to sell than before in many communities — due to a glut of supply — the early days and weeks of your listing are still the time when your property will probably get the most attention.
By getting your home in top-notch condition — including the staging — before your listing agent arranges the first showing, you stand the best chance of receiving reasonable offers without a lengthy wait, Minch says.