What's the Story?
It's happened to every Agent I know. You show up to your newest listing expecting to be awed and amazed, only to walk in to find that the stager your Seller insisted on hiring (because they were less expensive) has done an absolutely terrible job of "setting the stage." Instead of elevating the property, the design looks cheap. (Think of these staging missteps as the Real Estate equivalent of "Botched.")
Speaking to a well-respected colleague on this topic, he said "I'd rather sell a house empty, than sell it with bad staging. If staging is meant to tell the story, what does 'tacky' say?"
Exactly my point.
Over the years, Jill, Sarah and I have worked with several different stagers, primarily because the good ones are booked weeks - if not months - in advanced, meaning we can't always get our favorite team, especially on short notice. As such, we're constantly on the look-out for gifted stagers ("gifted" being the operative word) to add to our pool of tried, true, and trusted vendors for those times when Plan B is required. Unfortunately, finding good stagers is not as easy as you'd think.
As is true with Realtors, we've discovered that all Stagers are NOT created equal. The good ones apply all kinds of clever tricks, like bouncing light off strategically-placed mirrors to make rooms look larger, adding personality where none exists, dressing up outdoor spaces to create inviting vignettes, and creating a fresh and welcoming atmosphere throughout. They are constantly adding to their inventory and upgrading their wares, they are juggling hyper-sensitive Sellers who are married to their personal design aesthetic and opinionated Agents who have their own viewpoints about what works and what doesn't, and they are coordinating their own large crews while managing several design jobs simultaneously. (It's not an easy task.) Oh, and did I mention that the best of the best do ALL this without bringing any drama to the process?
If the finished rooms look as if anyone could do it, that's the magic of seamless design. The fact is that anyone can't as I was abruptly reminded last week when previewing another Agent's listing for potential Buyers. I knew this Agent was unhappy with the job, and as it turned out, she had good reason . . . .
"Let me know your thoughts," she said. "Is it as bad as I think?" (Yes, I'm sorry to say, it is.)
Evidently, the stager thought a pop of orange in every room was the ticket, along with waaay too many plastic plants. Ooooh, NOT GOOD. Moreover, the bedding was shabby, the art was less than inspiring, and every room was missing accessories. Whole walls were left empty with nothing to anchor them, the shelves were bare, there wasn't a towel in sight, nor any area rugs beneath the mediocre furnishings. In short, the house was understaged by anybody's standards and just plain sad. Meanwhile, the Agent was racing around town, buying items - ât her own expense - to fill in and correct the obvious gaps. (Been there, done that. I feel your pain.)
Unfortunately, a few years back, Jill and I walked into our own Montclair listing and had the same gut-punch response. At which point, we tucked at least 50% of the stager's items into the garage, grabbed the truck, stripped my house of pillows, comforters, art, lamps, and patio furniture and spent the evening restaging the property just in time for photographs the next morning. (Thankfully, the Seller never knew.) It wasn't the first time we've had to step in, but it was a reminder that beautiful staging is a critical part of the selling process and why we hate to bend on this point. (BTW, bad staging is almost always a result of the Seller insisting on the service they found online, against our strident objections.)
Listen, I understand your desire to save a buck or two as the costs to bring your property to market mount, but with all due respect, staging isn't the place to do it. Good staging can reap huge dividends and more importantly, it creates the "emotional hook" that's required for Buyers to fight for a listing. Remember, homes are emotional purchases, not pragmatic ones, so it's going to take more than a clean bill of health and a few orchids here and there to achieve top- dollar. Depending on the house, its architecture, and its location, the story can change dramatically from hip sophisticated professional pad, to family-friendly community home, to empty-nester easy living, BUT alway, the story should be fresh, warm, and welcoming. Anything less, is just a waste of time and money.
Likewise, if you are selling your house with your own items in place, get hypercritical about the story your rooms are telling, keeping in mind that today's Buyer isn't necessarily drawn to antiques and saturated colors. Nor does the "story" they are seeking center around your home's utility, foundation, or engineering (although all of those things are no less important); it's about first-impressions and romance; about celebrations and family gatherings; and about hopes and desires . . . . I've yet to meet the Buyers who when asked to describe their "perfect home," starts with, "Well, it should have a strong foundation first and foremost . . ." (It should, but that's beside the point; foundations are rarely the stuff of dreams, unless you're an engineer.)
Keep in mind that today's Buyers are highly visual; having grown up with Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, and their aesthetic tends to run more modern to transitional, so think "less is more" when it comes to your possessions. Take you family photos off the walls, put away any prized collections, be critical about the hanging art (boudoir photos should remain private) and tidy every closet in the place (you can bet that Buyers will be looking inside); ditto for the attic and basement as well. Every space should look orderly, spotless, clean, and inviting. If the design also happens to be on-trend, timeless, and crisp, so much the better! (That's where the stager comes in and creates the "wow" factor.)
Because when it comes to selling a home, let's make sure the story we tell includes a "happy-ever-after" ending.
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Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 18 years and has published more than 670 essays on life and real estate.