Setting the stage for a perfect – and quick – home sale

Is your home ready for its close-up?

You've cleared away the clutter, shampooed the carpets and repainted the walls. But selling a home in today's market may require a bit more imagination.


Home stagers, who specialize in readying a home for the market, say it's important to set a scene that invites a prospective buyer to linger. Put out a board game in the family room, set the dining room table for a romantic dinner or place a bowl of apples on the kitchen counter.

"Staging allows buyers to mentally envision living there," says Barb Schwarz, a Seattle real estate agent who coined the term "home staging" in 1972 and for many years has offered courses in it.


Schwarz says she hit upon the notion of home staging one day when she was looking at a property in Bellevue, Wash. Having done some work in theater, she said it occurred to her that the home was the stage, the seller was the actor and the prospective buyers the audience. What the production needed was someone to set the scene.

Usually, home stagers will use items they find in the home to add interest to a room or accentuate its features. Even rooms that would seem beyond hope have possibilities, Schwarz says.

She gave an example of a boy's room she staged. The draperies were torn, posters were plastered on the walls, the bedspread was dingy and an old lamp stood on a table.

She found some fishing gear in the basement of the home and transformed the room. She fashioned a curtain rod out of a fishing rod, made a headboard with a fishing net, put some fishing books in a tackle box and tucked the lamp into a fishing boot.

"People say they didn't believe what we could do with their things," Schwarz says.

The point of staging a room or an entire home is to create a memorable impression and get the buyers to linger, Schwarz says. She cites statistics that show 90 percent of customers shopping for homes on the Internet look at a listing for three seconds. Buyers who go to a home make up their minds within six seconds of walking in the door.

Jessica Garrison, who followed the advice of a home stager, sold her Medfield rowhouse for the asking price within days after listing it. After cleaning, painting and decluttering, she added little touches to make the house homier, she said.

To draw attention to an instant hot-water tap, she positioned a tea kettle in the sink, complete with tea bags. She covered small scratches on the kitchen counter with a tea towel and mugs. She set the dining room table for a romantic Chinese dinner for two, complete with chopsticks. She made a fake bed out of an air mattress.


"It very much looked like it was nice hotel," Garrison says.

Which points out another trick to home staging: depersonalizing the home.

"Staging is not decorating," Schwarz says. "Decorating is personalizing. Staging is depersonalizing."

Family photos, diplomas and collectibles are packed away. Furniture and artwork that seem too idiosyncratic are moved to less conspicuous places.

Although many stagers are accredited through Schwarz's organization, the International Association of Home Staging Professionals, they take different approaches. Some believe less is more. Once the clutter is removed, they might reposition art work or furniture, but not necessarily set theatrical scenes.

Julie Sweeney, an Easton home stager, says it's important to start with the view from the street. She advises clients to paint the front door, put down a new welcome mat and add a pot of flowers.


"This market being what it is, you have one opportunity to make a good impression," she says.

Vickie Williams, an Ellicott City home stager, offers a "One Day Miracle" service in which she and her team send the owners out and get to work. They rearrange photos, move furniture, bring in soft lighting and add high-quality artificial plants.

"When you walk in a room, you'd like to linger and notice the architectural features. From room to room, you want to draw the person in," she says.

It's especially important for sellers who are trying to attract buyers on the top end. Sandy Kennedy, a Howard County Long & Foster agent, frequently employs Williams to stage homes where the asking price is $375,000 or higher. She says a real estate agent can tell a client to reduce clutter, clean and paint, but a home stager offers the vision of how to make rooms look better by rearranging furnishings.

"The goal is from the time the buyer walks into the house, every room has that wow factor," she says.

The key to successfully staging a home is to create a scene almost any buyer will find attractive. "Go mass-market retail," advises home stager Joy Waida of Fallston. "Think Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel — pretty much what everyone can get on board with."


Depersonalizing a home can be a difficult step for some sellers. "When you're offering your home for sale, a homeowner needs to emotionally detach themselves from their home where their children took their first steps," says Kim Hildebrand, a home stager in Glenwood. "You need to be able to look at this home objectively. It's a very difficult thing ... to do."

A home stager brings an independent eye to the home. "I can look at that house objectively. I can see things potential buyers would love to have," she says.

And while home stagers might use props as a set designer would in a theater, the focus should remain on the home, not the items, stagers say.

"You show off the wonderful things about a home and set the scene so that a potential buyer can envision themselves living and loving in that home," Hildebrand says.

According to Schwarz's website,, homes that are staged are on the market an average of 29 days, compared to 145 days for homes that aren't.

Home staging can range in price from about $125 for a single consultation if the seller does the work to $2,800 for an entire house if the stager does the work. Also, vacant homes will cost more to include furniture rentals. Sometimes the agent pays the cost of staging and sometimes the seller pays.


Erica Solomon, a Long & Foster agent and member of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, says she uses stagers in most of her homes and is convinced staging works. In one case, she tried to sell a small Washington Village rowhouse that had sat on the market nearly two months. Days after the home was staged, it sold.

"Getting a house to move when the inventory is plentiful — your house has to stand out," she says.

Sometimes buyers like the staging so much that they buy the furnishings along with the house, she says.

The downside to staging? Occasionally sellers are sorry they didn't see the potential in their houses sooner.

"I had one client where we made her house look so beautiful, that every house she's looking to buy doesn't look as good her house," Williams says.

Tips for staging


After the clutter is removed, including most family photos and knickknacks, and the house is thoroughly cleaned, set the scene:

Position a comfortable chair

next to a lamp and small table. Throw an afghan on the chair and put a book on the table to replicate a cozy reading space.

Set the dining room table.

Take out the table leaves if necessary to make the room look larger. Use a place setting that will bring out the colors in the room. Add fresh or artificial flowers for color. In the kitchen, place a bowl of fresh or artificial fruits or herbs

Create a theme


in a child's bedroom. Sporting equipment such as balls, bats and gloves can accessorize the room.

Remove heavy draperies

to let in natural light. Add floor lamps to further brighten dark rooms.

Make closets look bigger

by removing unneeded clothing and using matching hangers.

Use plants


— real or artificial — to fill small spaces.

If the home is vacant,

stage small areas rather than entire rooms. For example, put a nice chair and side table next to a palm tree.