Selling a home these days can be tough. Buyers have become more particular. Few people care that a seller spent decades collecting snow globes, colorful Fiestaware, or mugs from around the world. Instead, they’re looking for fresh, thoughtfully furnished rooms where they can create their dream setting rather than buy into the seller’s life.
This is why staging has become so important.
Fiona Dogan with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty in Rye, N.Y., is a diehard staging advocate who recommends the strategy to all her clients. “You can’t list a house without staging it, unless it’s going to be a teardown,” she says.
The prime reasons staging has become commonplace is due to consumer demand and the proliferation of online home shopping, says Amanda Wiss, a professional organizer and owner of Urban Clarity in Brooklyn, N.Y., who added staging to her skill set.
“Most buyers first see a home online, so photographs matter,” she says. “If it’s too cluttered, they might not go look at it in person.”
While staging may have attained its popularity in higher-priced and vacant listings, it now appears in all segments of the market. As a result, more savvy real estate pros like Dogan recommend sellers have their homes staged before they list, no matter the price, size, condition, or location.
The goal is the same for all listings: to help the seller achieve the highest sales price in the quickest time, says Adelaide Mulry, an agent with Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty in Locust Valley, N.Y., also a professional stager and designer. The good news is that the number of people available to stage a home has increased dramatically in recent years, with 28% of listing agents staging sellers’ homes before listing, according to the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2019 Profile of Home Staging report.
Sellers can take their pick of whom to hire. There are full-time professional stagers, real estate professionals who have jumped in to learn, and professional organizers like Wiss. Some home owners like to do staging themselves, motivated by reality TV shows and Marie Kondo–style decluttering books.
There’s a growing list of courses as well, such as the three-day program offered by stager and designer Kristie Barnett of The Decorologist in Nashville. Other accreditation programs and industry designations—such as the Accredited Staging Professionalor the Designer Society of America’s Certified Home Staging Professional—give a stager the chance to tout their expertise. Companies that offer staging resources have also become more plentiful in the form of attractive rental furnishings, artwork, and accessories. Some stagers and real estate pros prefer to buy merchandise, which Dogan has done.
After Wiss staged a two-bedroom condominium in Brooklyn, the owners received four offers at an open house that sparked a bidding war. The property sold for 25% more than the listing price.
Sellers who don’t stage a home before it’s listed risk losing out to comparable staged homes, says Christopher Barrow, co-managing partner and broker with Foundation Homes Property Management in California’s Marin County. “Nobody wants a home with Venetian plaster from the ’80s,” he says.
Staging first emerged in the 1970s after real estate pro Barb Schwarz, who has a background in theater, developed the concept and trademarked the term to help show her listings. It originally involved simple decluttering, making basic repairs, and arranging furniture; nowadays, it’s used to completely transform rooms and sometimes entire homes, so they look new. It can even go beyond adding furnishings; some use luxury towels, designer shoes, and handbags to suggest a lifestyle, says Lynn B. Telling, an agent and luxury specialist with Illustrated Properties in Palm Beach, Fla.
The number of rooms staged in a listing typically depends on a home’s overall condition, market competition, and listing price. But usually staging a few main rooms will suffice. “You can always leave a few spaces to a buyer’s imagination rather than do the entire house,” says Marcie Barnes, director of strategic growth at Prevu Real Estate, a New York–based real estate company that focuses on buyers.
Buyers consider the living room the most important to stage, followed by the master bedroom and kitchen, according to NAR’s staging report. In each staged space, the goal is to create a universally appealing, updated, clean setting—what Dogan calls “today’s staged aesthetic.” Common denominators include neutral colored walls and hardwood floors (a rug is OK as long some flooring shows), a few pieces of comfortable, modern furniture to hint at a room’s use (perhaps a laptop on a table), mostly empty countertops and bookshelves, good modern lighting, a few accessories, and some art or a bit of color to add a pop so the space isn’t devoid of personality.
Fresh greenery offers a bit of warmth, says Barnes. Often, the desire to show some creativity is reserved for a small space, such as a wallpapered powder room. Barnes also likes to include a seasonal reference—a beachy vibe come spring and summer or cozy feel in the fall and winter—and at least one hot trend, such as a smart-home tech device.
Sometimes, however, more work is required to make a listing showing-ready because of the home’s condition or the market it’s in. Agent Barb St. Amant with Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International Realty recently had a listing in an Atlanta suburb that required interior and exterior paint, wood rot repair, kitchen and master bathroom renovations, and property landscaping to compete in that area. The home sold for 96% of its list price, went under contract within a month, and closed 30 days later. “There were nine to 11 months of inventory in that area, and typical days on market were from two to three months,” she says.
Although staging often calls for a spare look, in some areas complete household settings are making inroads—at least in trend-setting Los Angles. There, luxury staged homes are displaying more furnished interiors that are so complete, some buyers purchase what’s featured after they buy the house, says Meridith Baer. Her 30-year-old eponymous firm, Meridith Baer Home, in L.A., is hired both by agents and developers to stage their listings. The firm routinely stages 30 properties a week. “We want buyers to fall in love, and we do a variety of looks, from more minimal to very layered,” she says.
The Cost Breakdown
What a seller typically spends on staging is proportionate to the home size and condition, listing price, estimated return on investment, and competition. Sometimes sellers may not have to spend funds at all since some agents offer their time for decluttering, rearranging furnishings, and making suggestions. That’s the approach Kati Baker takes, a luxury home staging specialist with Downtown Realty Co. in Chicago. She rearranges furniture, bookshelves, and art and removes anything in the house that may cause an off-putting smell.
Dogan always works with sellers to determine the level of staging needed to best show off their home and within their budget. She covers the cost of a staging consultant to assess the home pre-listing. If the seller wants to use the stager, Dogan hires the person, but the seller pays for the services and any related costs. Dogan will also tap into her own inventory of items for some stagings. Typically, her sellers’ costs range from $2,000 to $5,000, which might involve a simple paint refresh or furniture rental, she says.
However, staging a large vacant house may cost significantly more, upwards of $30,000 for some of her listings. But Dogan says the return on investment can be $50,000 or greater in her New York market. On average, sellers see about a 5% return on investment nationwide, according to the 2019 NAR report.
St. Amant offers sellers a free two-hour consultation with a stager. Most stagers in her area charge $125 to $250 an hour. The goal, she says, is to spend the least amount of money and get the greatest return. And some sellers invest significantly. A client of St. Amant, who lived in a neighborhood with $1 million homes, recently spent more than $100,000 getting the house ready to list, half of which went toward deferred maintenance.
“With advice from the stager, we made necessary changes to the 30-year-old home and quickly got an offer that was nearly $200,000 over what we might have if it hadn’t been updated and staged,” she says.
Not all sellers can afford to do this, so it’s important that agents work within a budget.
Mulry reminds sellers that the cost of staging is nominal compared to a possible price reduction they’d have to make if the home sits on the market, unstaged, with little interest from buyers.