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Home, Bland Home - Agents Strip Home's Personality All in the Name of Faster Sales

Authored: June Fletcher
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal

Steve and Karen Mazzo's California home was a lively testament to their world travels, with Buddha statues on the end tables and Champs-Élysée paintings on the walls. But when they put it on the market four months ago, their real-estate agents made them pack it all away -- and then showed up with a van filled with chairs, china and antique books. The result was clean, stylish, and nothing like their home.

"Everything personal was gone," says Mr. Mazzo.

When it comes to selling homes these days, agents want one thing out of the house: you. And that goes for your high-school hockey trophies and your Hummel collection, too. Armed with data they say show homes sell twice as fast when they've had the seller's personality sucked out, agents and consultants are turning this into a growing business -- charging from about $100 an hour to $100,000 for a full-home makeover. It's called everything from "staging" to "fluffing," but folks in the real-estate business have another quiet name for it: "blanding."

Agents, of course, have long been taking on taste-challenged homes, adding a throw pillow here or ditching a few chairs there. But the idea of neutralizing the seller's personality really started taking off three years ago, after Los Altos, Calif., real-estate broker Joy Valentine published a study showing professionally "staged" homes sold in 13.9 days, half the usual time on the market -- and went for 6.3% over list price, or four times the average markup on unstaged homes. Business has doubled in the last two years at Los Angeles's Designed to Move, and the company now has affiliates from as far away as Florida. "The idea is to depersonalize," says Barb Schwarz, a San Franciscan who runs, a competing service, and has even trademarked the word "staging." "Your house has to become a product."

The Jury Is Out
The depersonalized-home movement has its detractors, of course. For some sellers, the advice seems basic, and they can't see spending hundreds of dollars for someone to tell them to paint the walls beige -- especially because these decorators don't need licensing or training to dispense the advice. Buyers, too, never know whether those blanding fees may have been added to the sale price. And anyway, the jury's still out on whether bland is better: There's a competing school of interior decorators who say the best way to sell a home is to add color -- and, yes, "family photos."

Roy and Jane Ann Williams decided blanding may be worth a shot, so they hired a "stylist" before putting their Bronxville, N.Y., home on the market recently. After hearing they should buy white carpeting and hide their recliners, photos and books, the retired couple arranged most of the work themselves, from painting walls and refinishing floors to putting in a beige couch. To make up for the $8,000 price tag -- including $450 for the consultant -- they upped their asking price by $10,000. And if no one wants to pay? "Then we'll have gambled and lost," Mrs. Williams says.

For their part, these consultants say this work isn't easy, and that even the wealthiest home sellers need to be protected from themselves. Aimee Miller, a property enhancer with Los Angeles's Designed to Move, says even million-dollar homes have big issues. She's found everything from pet smells and silverfish in books to black velvet nude self-portraits, altars for five religions, and a C3PO statue in a foyer. And Mary Sullivan, a home stager in Fairfax Station, Va., says she persuaded a customer to paint over the fresco reproduction of Michelangelo's David he'd put on his dining-room wall. "Money does not always equal style," she says.

'Move That La-Z-Boy'
To dispel criticism and provide credentials, some of these consultants have created professional associations. Ms. Schwartz created the International Association of Home Staging Professionals two years ago, and it has grown from 25 to 105 members, while the competing Interior Arrangement and Design Association has grown sixfold since 2000, to 300 members. Both say their courses, which cost as much as $4,000, teach marketing as much as they do design sense. "Everyone knows what's OK in terms of aesthetics," says Shell Brodnax, a spokeswoman for the group. "The challenge is to convince the client to move that La-Z-Boy."

The irony is, while these folks are taking the personality out of homes, there's a whole competing school of people, "new-home merchandisers," who are trying to put it back in. In Corona del Mar, Calif., Karen Butera-King says she sprinkles homey touches throughout, like bedroom slippers and framed pictures of faux families. And over in Pacific Palisades, an outfit called Color Design Art often paints walls bright blue or yellow, and throws around colorful rugs, to help buyers connect emotionally with the home.

Home buyer Kim Bowman says it wouldn't have made a difference either way. She bought the Mazzo home after it had been cleansed of its books and Buddha statues -- but says that it was the home's location, size and big backyard that sold her. "In fact, the house was more decorated than I would do," she says. But Paul Conti, the San Jose, Calif., real-estate agent who threw in the staging as part of the listing service, says that while people don't notice the effect, they'd miss it if it weren't there. "The fact that they bought the house in two weeks is proof enough," he says.

And in the end, some sellers are just happy for someone to come in and force them to clean house. In Fairfax, Va., Charlene Gromley was thrilled that her stager decreed that the books and records had to go. That's something Ms. Gromley has been nagging her husband and grown sons to do for years -- but with the word coming from a pro, they finally capitulated. "I finally had the excuse to get rid of these things," she says.

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