Getting Your House Ready to Sell: What Is “Staging” and How Do I Do It?

7 Jun

So, you’ve made the decision to put your home on the market.

Of course your house is perfect just the way it is, and everyone is going to love it just as much as you do from the moment they walk through the door, right?

Well, not so much.

In all likelihood, prospective buyers (and their agents) will see your home quite differently from how you see it.  Your sleek and minimalist abode might become “too stark,” your homey and comfortable pad might become “too cluttered,” your eclectic styling might become “just plain weird,” and on, and on, and on.  No two buyers are alike, of course, but as a seller who is preparing to put your home on the market, your goal should be to appeal to the number and type of buyers who are most likely to want to pay top dollar for your house.  If you have a halfway competent agent, he or she should be able to help you get your house ready.

Staging Sounds Difficult.

Honestly, it really isn’t.  I’m pretty sure nearly everyone has been to a model home for a new housing community at some point in their lives.  Generally, the developer will bring in a professional decorator to furnish the house.  Notice how they placed a comfy-looking recliner facing the large picture window?  Did you see the upstairs bonus room that’s large enough for a pool table and an entertainment center?  What about the clean, lush landscaping?

Obviously, nobody is asking you to go out and buy a pool table.  But you can take away a couple important messages from model homes:  First, a good decorator will arrange the furnishings so that they draw attention to the best features of the home.  Second, the home is not overly “personalized”—that is, you don’t feel as though you’re walking in on someone else’s life.  These will both make a huge impact on how welcoming your house feels to a complete stranger.

Let’s look in a little more detail at some ways to help buyers better appreciate your home, thereby helping you get more money out of your home.

Outdoors

The first thing you should do is go to your curb, stand across the street, and assess the outside of your house.  Is the yard overgrown?  Is the lawn dying or unkempt?  Is the paint peeling?  Are the rain gutters falling off the eaves?  Is the driveway full of unsightly oil stains?

Flowers are an easy way to add color to your yard.

Flowers are an easy way to add color to your yard.

Unless you’re marketing your home as a “fixer,” get those things taken care of!  Your buyers are going to be forming an opinion of your home from the moment they pull up.  You want them to feel welcomed.  You want them to feel drawn in.  You want them to feel as though they could come home to that sharp-looking house every day.

So re-seed the lawn.  Buy some flowers and plant them along your walkway.  Sweep up the pine needles that are covering half the yard.  Re-paint the trim if need be (of course, this can cost a fair amount of money—but you will almost certainly make that money back in increased value).

Once you’ve done that, step into your backyard and take a look.  Clean up and remove any stuff you aren’t using—the dog house rotting away in the corner, the old swing set that hasn’t seen any action for a decade, and so on.  Make it as welcoming as reasonably possible, though you needn’t break the bank doing so.  For example, if you have a bare patio, a few tastefully positioned potted plants can make a huge difference.

Indoors

Here’s where you are probably going to have to do the bulk of your work.

The Free Stuff:

You want your kitchen to look like this.

You want your kitchen to look like this.

First and foremost, your house needs to be clean.  I mean sparkling, immaculate, totally totally CLEAN.  Floors, walls, showers, toilets, and even inside your refrigerator.  Buyers are going to assume (perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously) that if you can’t bother to keep your house clean, you probably aren’t the sort of person who has been maintaining the air conditioning, furnace, plumbing, electrical, and other costly systems.  Conversely, a clean and organized house will imply you are generally detail-oriented and that there are probably fewer underlying issues that might negatively impact the value of your home.

Once you’ve cleaned your house, it’s time to think about packing a few things away.  Remember: you want buyers to picture themselves living here, so you may want to take a few steps to de-personalize your place.

What does that really mean, you ask?  Here’s what I would do.  Bring in an impartial friend, or your agent, or your neighbor, or someone else who hasn’t been in your house countless times.  Take them into each room, and ask them to point out the first thing they notice.  If the first thing they notice in your living room is the 3’ x 5’ portrait your 6-year-old nephew painted of Uncle Herbert and Aunt Ethel that is hanging over the fireplace, take it down and put something less eye-catching (read: less distracting) in its place.  Why?  You want them to notice the cool fireplace, or the twin sets of French doors, instead.  Ditto for the kitchen.  Get that collection of Elvis Presley commemorative plates into a box, and show off the new appliances instead.

Why is this important?  I’ll tell you two quick stories.  First, I visited a house fairly recently where an entire room whose walls were filled—floor to ceiling—with family photographs.  It was not only distracting, it was borderline creepy. (OK, fine, it was downright creepy.) Not only did I not want to buy the house, I wanted to leave.  Immediately.  Second, once I had gone out with a friend during his own home shopping adventures; when we walked into one of the homes, we saw that the living room was similarly crammed full with the owner’s collection of snow globes.  At the end of the day, what stood out about that house?  Not the view, not the yard, not the large master bathroom…but snow globes.  I don’t even know if the house had a view, a yard, or a large master bath, because the only things we could clearly remember were the snow globes.

You do not want your kitchen to look like this.

You do not want your kitchen to look like this.

Bottom line: You don’t want a buyer’s clearest memory of your house to be something not related to the house itself.  It’s not uncommon that buyers will see five, six, or even ten houses in a single day.  If they can’t name a single remarkable characteristic about the house itself, you don’t stand a chance of selling your home to that buyer.

One other easy, and generally free, thing you can do is to look at each room and decide if what’s in there makes the room feel too small or too cluttered.  If it is, get your stuff out of there.  Put it in a box—you’ll need to do that anyway when you’re packing to move—and put it somewhere else.  You can get away with storing a few things in the garage, of course; however, if your garage is already too cluttered, or if you have a lot of stuff you’re clearing out, or if you are one of the few people who actually uses your garage for storing your cars, consider renting a storage unit for awhile.

Moving furniture around, or out, also helps. There’s generally no need to buy new stuff to make your place look better, but you can certainly do a lot with what you have.  Lose the ratty chair, or the enormous sofa that requires you to squeeze around it to get to the back yard.  That bookcase that’s blocking one of the windows?  Get it out of there, now!

The Stuff that Costs Money:

Assuming your house is in decent shape already, you shouldn’t need to spend much money fixing things up.  It’s good to fix any obvious defects such as a broken toilet or that sort of thing.

New paint is good.  It makes the house sparkle, especially if the old stuff is faded or scratched/gouged/scuffed/covered with your kids’ fingerprints.  But if you’re going to paint, you might consider going away from white.  I know, white is safe, and I admit that every single interior wall in my own house is white (that was a conscious decision; I wanted to draw the eye toward the beamed ceilings instead), but you might consider adding some warmer (but not too strong) colors, or tasteful accent walls (again, not too strong).  That will of course depend on your floorings and furnishings; the last thing you want is for your home to be an unsightly clashing of colors.

What about carpet/flooring?  Should you replace it?  Personally, I would say no.  Flooring is expensive, and many buyers are going to want to install flooring to match their own tastes anyhow.  If you have hardwood, tile, or some other hard surface flooring (my own favorite is polished concrete), re-finishing or re-grouting isn’t a bad idea and often doesn’t cost too much.

If you have carpet, a good shampooing and/or steam cleaning might be in order.  That will not only help to remove stains, but will also help your house smell fresher.  I don’t recommend replacing carpet, though.  If for some reason you do need to re-carpet, here are two tips:  First, use a neutral color; spending thousands to install forest green carpet will do little to increase the value of your home, and most buyers will factor in the cost of replacing that carpet into their offers.  Second, don’t use the cheapest quality you can find; buyers will recognize lousy carpet and will see it as having little or no added value.  My advice for carpet: if it needs to be replaced, offer to credit the buyer a specific dollar amount toward the cost of replacement so they can pick the style and color of their choice.

Sounds

Your goal, when you are planning for open houses or showing appointments, is to make buyers feel as though they’ve stepped into a serene retreat.  If your house is well-soundproofed—good insulation in the walls and dual-paned windows help—then you may not need to do anything.  If noises do intrude through the house, or if you just want to create a nostalgic feeling, soft piano or light jazz music can be helpful at accomplishing both (but don’t blare it through the house—you want it to be subtle!).

Sounds of nature will make your home feel more relaxing.

Sounds of nature will make your home feel more relaxing.

If the house is affected by ongoing noise—say, a barking dog next door or a major street behind the house—you may need to get more creative, and to spend a little more money addressing the situation.  Often, landscaping or improved fencing can make a huge impact.

Oh, and be sure to turn off any electronic equipment that creates an irritating noise.  I once brought buyers into a house that had some piece of equipment that was causing such an obnoxious, high-pitched warbling noise that we left after viewing only half the house.

Smells

I’ve seen widely divergent opinions on this.  Some agents will argue that you want your place to smell “homey.”  I’ve been in some model homes where the sales agents will bake chocolate chip cookies throughout the day, so that in addition to having a free snack, the house will smell like cookies.  Now, we don’t all have the wherewithal to stay at home baking all day, so we have the options of potpourri, flowers, or those wonderful sprays/scent sticks that smell like potent and synthetic imitations of an actual, attractive scent.

If I may veer off into a brief moment of psychology, your sense of smell is different from all your other senses in that, compared to your other senses, it is more directly wired into the parts of the brain that process both long-term memory and emotions.  So smells have a very powerful influence on one’s emotions.  Ever catch a whiff of something that immediately takes you back to a very specific moment in your childhood?  I mention this because smells associated with a negative experience can be strongly aversive.  Someone who had been, say, brutally attacked in the Otis Spunkmeyer factory (I suppose it’s possible…) would probably not love the smell of your freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

Further, a strong scent could suggest you’re trying to cover up another smell.

So if you’re going to use a scent, I’d suggest it be very subtle and non-specific.  My advice: you want your house to smell “fresh”—meaning, odor-free.  That means you should keep the trash can free of stinky objects, keep the bathrooms, refrigerator, and the cat’s litter box cleaned, and avoid cooking foods that leave strong, lingering odors.  Again, having your carpets thoroughly cleaned will also help get rid of any lingering musty odors.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully after taking all of these steps, your home will look and feel fantastic when buyers walk through the door.  Of course, there are many other factors (price, location, general market conditions, etc.) that will affect the level of buyers’ interest in your home, but making buyers who feel at home in your home will do much to influence them to pick yours over the more poorly maintained place three doors down.

I would encourage you to talk to your real estate agent, as he or she should be able to give you more specific advice regarding your own house.  Best of luck!

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