After 25 years in the Bethesda area, Kenneth Hanson was ready to return to the West Coast, where he grew up. But first, he and his wife, Luba, had to sell their three-bedroom, two-bath house in Kensington.
For 200 days, the single-family home sat on the market. Finally, in December 2012, the Hansons re-listed the house with Long & Foster. That’s when real estate agent Adam Isaacson sent certified home stager Laura Zuckerman of wowed! Home Staging and Redesign in Bethesda to take a look.
After her initial walk-through, Zuckerman gave the Hansons a five-page report of recommended changes to make the house more appealing to buyers. “We were shocked at first,” Kenneth Hanson says. The list seemed overwhelming until Zuckerman helped the couple prioritize, separating the items into what they would and wouldn’t be willing to do.
Six weeks later, after moving half of their belongings into storage, painting the interior warm shades of gray and having Zuckerman rearrange their furniture and accessories, the result was dramatic.
“The house really looked fresh and uncluttered,” Hanson says.
Within six days of staging, he had an offer.
According to a 2012 study by the Real Estate Staging Association, both vacant and occupied homes that were staged spent 73 percent less time on the market than unstaged homes. Furthermore, HomeGain.com’s 2011 home improvement and home staging survey found that money spent on staging provided almost a 300 percent return on investment.
Local real estate agents and sellers alike say it works.
“Home staging removes all personal traces of the homeowners so that a house appeals to the largest percentage of potential buyers,” says Jody Wilens, principal designer and president of Interior Design Transformations in Bethesda. “Buyers form an opinion about a house in the first 10 seconds. You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression.”
By using homeowners’ existing furnishings or bringing in new things, professional stagers create glimpses of a potential life for the buyer, Zuckerman says. In a vacant house, buyers have a hard time imagining how their possessions would fit into empty rooms, which can look smaller than they are. In an occupied home, the homeowners’ possessions and design choices—family photos on the mantel or purple walls in the master bedroom—can easily distract buyers and make them think the house doesn’t fit their style.
Stagers set up a home’s main living areas—most importantly the family/living room, dining room, kitchen and master bedroom—so buyers can see themselves having coffee at the kitchen table, reading a book in a cozy corner of the den or relaxing in their bedroom at the end of the day.
“A basement is important to stage and declutter, too,” Zuckerman says. “It’s where a lot of homeowners’ things accumulate, and it’s usually buyers’ last impression of the house.”
Many successful stagers have a strong background in design, but the industry has no formal requirements or regulations, though there are courses offering certification. Not surprisingly, prices for home staging can vary widely. Some stagers charge flat fees based on the size of the home; others have hourly rates of $100 or more. In most cases, the price depends on the number of rooms being staged and the tasks required, including the management of storage rentals, overseeing painters and contractors, bringing in and/or rearranging furniture, hanging artwork and boxing up personal items.
“A smart investment in staging should be about one-half of 1 percent to 1 percent of the home’s asking price,” Zuckerman says.
For an $800,000 home, that means $4,000 to $8,000—a fraction of the price reduction that may occur when an unstaged home doesn’t sell, stagers say. After a house has sat on the market for a month, Isaacson says, prospective buyers are likely to offer a lot less than the asking price—as much as 10 percent less.
The staging process starts with a walk-through and a detailed report of what needs to be done. What happens next depends on the homeowner and the stager.
Rachelle Roth and Terri Johnson of Urban Country in Bethesda typically clear everything out of a house and start from scratch with furniture and accessories from their retail store on Bethesda Row. The pair started the staging side of their business about six years ago and work mainly on homes that generally sell for $5 million and up. The oversize rooms in some of these homes can be challenging. “They just eat up the furniture so quickly,” Johnson says. “It can be hard to make a room look cozy and not like a ballroom.”
Roth and Johnson charge clients based on the size of the furniture package they bring in—anywhere from 20 to 40 pieces—plus the delivery fee. Other stagers use rental furniture and pass on the fees to the client. But many stagers maintain their own inventory of furniture, along with smaller items such as lamps, bedding and art, which they rent or provide for free as part of the service.
Although some houses require major changes, such as new countertops or carpeting, simply decluttering and adding accessories can make a big difference.
Former Bethesda resident James Hurley found that out after he accepted a job in Berkeley, Calif., early in 2013. Real estate agent Jane Fairweather of Coldwell Banker in Bethesda advised him and his wife, Sabrina, to stage the house before putting it on the market.
“We were still living there, so we didn’t want to do a full clear out,” Hurley says. “But we did put nearly half of our stuff in storage.”
After rearranging the furniture, Fairweather’s staff brought in wall hangings, art, area rugs and even shower curtains with matching towels. “The result was dazzling,” Hurley says.
The couple took a trip to Costa Rica that spring to “get out of the way of buyers.” Hurley was in the middle of the rain forest when he received a top-dollar offer within three days of the open house.
Some sellers, however, don’t want to turn over their house to a stager and pay full price. “After they get my initial report, about two-thirds of my clients want to do a lot of the work themselves,” Zuckerman says. “Sellers can get almost all the way there following my detailed report—but staging is really part science and part art, and the art part is hard to capture in DIY reports.”
Sellers can move furniture, declutter and paint rooms, but they don’t necessarily know how to place accessories to draw buyers into the rooms, Zuckerman says. With art, “people hang things too high, and paintings end up looking lost in space and don’t relate to the furniture anymore,” she says. “There’s no substitute for having a professional who really understands the subtleties of staging.”