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Changing the way real estate is sold

Authored: Don Fraser
Publisher: The Standard

'Staging' is a new niche service aimed at giving home vendors an edge in attracting the eye of the house-hunter and accomplish a sale

In the world of real estate, it's not just about "location, location, location."

A house-hunter's first impressions can mean the difference between a home closing fast at a good price or languishing unsold for weeks.

And there's nothing harder than trying to sell a pad littered with distractions and disrepair.

Just ask Christine Rae, 52, the St. Catharines owner-operator of two-year-old Decorating Solutions. She has yet to see a residence that can't be tweaked to become "top drawer" in the eyes of homebuyers.

Rae -- a certified interior refiner and accredited "staging professional trainer" -- is at the vanguard of a niche service called "staging." Put simply, professional stagers believe home vendors have "one clear shot" to woo a buyer into snapping up a good offer.

By shuffling that misplaced couch, depersonalizing the kitchen and emptying closets, a 2001 realtor's study of eight California cities suggested a staged home can sell faster and at a higher price, said Rae.

The study showed on average, unstaged homes were on the market for 39 days, and staged homes for 13.

"It's like merchandising," she said. "Just like you merchandise your store product -- say, repackage that video -- you are merchandising your home for sale.

"If you don't do anything, you shouldn't be surprised if your realtor brings you an offer less than what you expected," said Rae.

Today's homebuyers are often two-income families in their 30s, who aren't thrilled by the prospect of spending ages making a new home livable, she said. Staging to ensure it is maintenance-free after the move can be a big selling point.

Rae left a 20-year career in the corporate world two years ago, having no idea staging would be her next turn.

But she knew she had a flair for understanding decor. "It's something I always wanted to do -- I'd done it for family and friends," said Rae. "'Usually, someone bought their stuff already, and it just wasn't coming together."

A few hours on the Internet led her to the world of staging, which was making inroads out west and elsewhere.

She honed in on Barb Schwarz, a U.S. real estate veteran who seemed to Rae to be the only one at the time with staging accreditation.

After completing Schwartz's 82-hour course two years ago, Rae developed a two-pronged focus to her new business.

Part of it is decorating and staging; the other half a two-day program to teach real estate agents, decorators and others who want to learn staging principles or to start their own business.

The two-day course includes a lecture, role-playing discussion and actual staging in a home. She teaches across Canada and the northeast U.S., for fees ranging from $375 US to $1,250, depending on whether or not a "staging" trademark is intended to be licensed as a new business.

Either Rae, or one of her team of Carole Zwiers and Andrea Meyer, will also do a one- to two-hour walk-through and/or a consultation.

The process also incorporates oriental principles of Feng Shui, which stresses the placement of things to create harmony and balance.

The service includes a report for the homeowner or real estate agent preparing a home for sale, with most suggestions being low cost. Staging services are paid by the real estate agency, the homeowner or a combination of both.

They'll even do the staging themselves. Depending on the consultation and work required, total fees range from $150 to about $1,000.

Rae recalled her first St. Catharines client last July, who made use of these painstaking techniques. It was a huge success, she said.

After an intensive week's work following up on recommendations such as repairing wall cracks and doing a garden cleanup, the homeowners sold their house to the first walk-through. It sold at the highest price ever for the neighbourhood, she said.

Often, however, they're called when that For Sale sign has become a neighbourhood fixture. The suggestions Decorating Solutions gives can be wide ranging, but more often than not it will be Rae's advice: "This has to go."

"It's not meant to be offensive, we just have to make it more neutral," Rae explained.

"The better it works for a prospective buyer, the slower they'll be in their tour through -- the more they visualize living there."

In one instance, a couple had a backyard filled with grapevines, cherry trees and vegetables. A little patio set beneath the vines made the setting perfect.

Last summer, one home was discovered to be both pretty in pink and filled with sports memorabilia. That had to be neutralized.

Elsewhere, traces of pets and nagging odours caused by a sickness or painting have to be eliminated. Here, an ozone machine used by Rae can help sanitize the home.

Still, in much of Niagara's current real estate market, homes are selling pretty fast. Third-party fees such as title searches, lawyers and movers can take a chunk out of home equity.

Given that, is staging really a needed expense?

"What would you do before selling a car," Rae responds. She suggested that detailing and throwing on new tires were two examples.

"Now, where do people have the most equity? Their house or car?" she asked.

"And have you ever sold a house for too much money?

At first, realtors were also skeptical about the need for a service they thought they provided, until they saw results, she conceded.

Some realtors confessed their biggest challenge was getting the homeowner "on the team" and making changes needed to sell a home faster at a top price.

While a realtor's advice was typically viewed as a "tip," third-party staging offers professional advice to be taken seriously.

"They listen and they do it," said Rae.

In Ontario, realtors have to take 26 hours of approved continuing education every two years to keep their realtor's licence. Rae's accredited staging professional course is now among those approved programs.

Phyllis Lottridge, who has been a realtor for 25 years, has taken the new staging course and found client sellers to be receptive to staging techniques.

"We used to think 'add a flower pot here, a quilt there,' "said Lottridge, who works for the Royal LePage Niagara Real Estate Centre in St. Catharines.

"Well, we're taking it away -- we're only using props if we absolutely need them."

The process also emphasizes to home sellers that staging is not meant to be an invasion or a lifestyles insult.

"It's to make it into a model home," she said.

Still, staging has not exactly caught fire in Canada, although Rae expects it will soon. And she'll be more than happy to fill that void as she cleans out someone's living room.

"Whether you like it or not, staging is a happening thing, the new thing," she says confidently.

"It's changing the way real estate is being sold."

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