A Little Style Works. Just Not Yours.
Authored: Vivian Marino
Publisher: The New York Times
R. DIRK SOSTMAN and his wife, Maria Preka, had expected their
two-bedroom Upper East Side co-op to be snapped up quickly after
listing it last spring. And why not? They had heard myriad stories
of bidding wars and sky-high prices throughout the region.
To garner top dollar, "we did everything that everyone told
us to do," said Dr. Sostman, a radiologist. "We got the
windows washed, we got rid of clutter." But the apartment,
with an initial asking price of just under $2 million, languished.
"I showed it 55 times in two weeks and I didn't have any offers,"
said the couple's broker, Jackie Vincent of the Corcoran Group.
While the apartment was spacious and in a desirable prewar building,
Ms. Vincent thought that perhaps buyers were put off by its modern
décor: the yellow walls and entryway columns, the black granite
floors and black leather and chrome furnishings. "We loved
it, but the total effect was probably a little too harsh for most
people," Dr. Sostman agreed.
Determined to sell, he and his wife reduced the price, by around
15 percent, and at the suggestion of their broker hired Barbara
Brock, a "home stager" in Manhattan. Ms. Brock arranged
for the walls to be repainted a neutral light gray, removed the
bright-yellow columns and rearranged the furniture. She brought
in a ficus tree and throw pillows and installed torchiers to illuminate
The couple's $5,160 investment (which included Ms. Brock's $1,600
fee, $3,500 for painting and $60 for the lighting) seemed to pay
off: there were eight bids within two weeks, and the apartment sold
for close to the recent asking price.
Even in the best of markets, it often takes more than just putting
up a "for sale" sign and pulling out the vacuum cleaner
to sell a home. Increasingly, brokers are bringing in design consultants
who charge from $50 an hour to upward of $100,000 to give homes
a more polished look so that they sell faster and for more.
In most cases, stagers a.k.a. "home enhancers"
or "fluffers" will work with the homeowner's furniture
for a day or two, perhaps adding a few outside pieces here and there.
When a place is vacant, or in cases of more taste-challenged homes,
rented furnishings are brought in. The goal is to "neutralize,"
or in essence strip much of the owner's personality from a property.
Photographs, knickknacks and other "clutter" typically
get stashed away and well-worn recliners are relegated to attics
or storage bins.
"We encourage the homeowner to look at the home as a product,"
said Wendy Dilda, a vice president for the Interior Arrangement
and Design Association in Dallas. "We try to broaden the appeal
of the home, using the furnishings and placement skills to draw
the eye to the home's features a fireplace or a lovely archway."
The staging concept, which got its start on the West Coast, seems
to be catching on around the country. Both the design association
and its larger competitor, the International Association of Home
Staging Professionals, based in Concord, Calif., say they have seen
a steady rise in interest in their training courses and accreditation
Barb Schwarz, who pioneered home staging as a broker nearly 30
years ago and is the founder of the home staging professionals group,
says the popularity of home-design shows like "Trading Spaces"
is partly responsible for the growing interest. Ms. Schwarz herself
is working on a TV pilot about home staging for the ABC Family Channel.
But do average home sellers need to spend hundreds of dollars to
hear someone tell them to hide their junk and paint the walls ecru?
And besides, can't today's savvy buyers look beyond the superficial
to spot a true gem?
"Very few people are vision people," and that goes for
both sellers and buyers, said Ms. Brock, who took Ms. Schwarz's
training course and whose business, A Proper Place, also provides
home-organizing services. "A buyer will form an opinion within
90 seconds, and if they see a cluttered apartment that is not arranged
very well, their mind sort of shuts down."
Dolf de Roos, a real estate investor and author of "Real Estate
Riches" (Warner Business Books, 2001), agreed. "You want
to make people feel like they could live here," he said. "I'm
astonished by the number of people who won't buy a house because
there's a rubbish bag in the kitchen."
But Mr. de Roos thinks homeowners can make simple, inexpensive
changes on their own. A few ambitious brokers, too, will offer suggestions
or help redecorate homes, at no extra charge beyond their commission.
"I have my secret closet in the first floor of my house
I have pillows and bedding and little iconic graphic art pieces,"
said Roberta Baldwin, an agent with Re/Max Village Square in Upper
Montclair, N.J. "I don't mind taking pieces of art off my walls
and bringing in a side table from my own house."
She had to do just that last spring for Andrew and Frances Steggles,
who were selling their three-bedroom house in Cedar Grove. They
had moved back to Manhattan and were renting out the house for a
year. Ms. Baldwin had the interior repainted and the exterior power
washed, brought in some area rugs and made several other decorating
changes. The house sold in three days, for $461,500, about $12,500
above the asking price, she said.
Shell Brodnax, a spokeswoman for the home staging professionals
association, says a recent study of West Coast homes found that
17 out of 25 staged homes sold within seven days and the rest within
30 days. All were at or above asking price, she said. Ms. Brock
says that she has had a similar track record, but, "I can't
It took Iris and Alain De La Chapelle, two of her clients, two
months to sell their three-bedroom co-op on East 65th Street. "We
were asking too much," Mrs. De La Chapelle conceded. But she
is hardly upset. She said she learned plenty of useful home decorating
and organizing tips, and she got to enjoy her restyled home, which
was repainted an eggshell white and practically emptied of furnishings.
"The apartment is so beautiful now," she said, "I
almost don't want to part with it."