When first-time home sellers Linette Maldonado and her husband, Jorge, decided to put their Ellicott City townhouse on the market, they weren't sure how to get it ready for sale.
"We had lived in the house for 12 years and I didn't know where to begin," said Linette Maldonado, a customer service representative with American Airlines.
For help, they contacted Bonnie McIlvaine, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Ellicott City and one of a growing number of Accredited Staging Professionals.
"Staging," which got its start on the West Coast in the 1970s and is now catching on in other parts of the country, goes beyond the normal sprucing up.
At its core, staging is about making a house appeal to people other than those living in it, contends Barb Schwarz, the founder of StagedHomes of Concord, Calif., and the woman credited with coining the term "staged home."
"Staging is about allowing the space to sell itself. Until the buyer can mentally move their own things in, they're not going to buy the property," she said.
That means neutralizing a seller's imprint on a property to allow prospective buyers to more easily visualize it as their own. The process can involve rearranging or removing furniture and art, accessorizing as needed, painting, and reducing distractions that take away from the home itself.
Schwarz maintains that staging not only brings out the best in a house, it reduces its time on the market, which cuts down on stress for the seller and often increases its sale price.
Statistics compiled by Schwarz and other California and Washington state brokers show that staged houses sell three to four times faster than non-staged houses, with an average 169 percent rate of return on modest improvements up to $2,841. Some returns are higher.
"We recently staged a house that had been on the market for nine months with a $1.4 million asking price," Schwarz said. "In that case, the staging cost $25,000, most of which was for deferred maintenance on the roof, something the seller hadn't wanted to fix. When the agent saw the finished work, they changed the list price to $1.9 million and it quickly sold for that price."
Spending $25,000 to stage a home is highly unusual, said McIlvaine, the broker who helped the Maldonados. Much more typical is $200 to $1,200, which can cover an outside stager's fee, and "often, they don't have to buy anything at all."
In the Maldonados' case, it amounted to a total investment of $520, which included paint, a new brass fixture and the rental of storage space for two months.
"With three kids we had a lot of clutter," said Linette Moldonado. "Bonnie helped me by suggesting we get rid of a lot of framed family pictures and box up things we weren't using, like books and toys, and put them in storage."
They also painted all the baseboards and windowsills, and gave the house a rigorous cleaning. Maldonado said the house was transformed in a week.
"People were amazed at how well it showed for 12 years old," she says. "It sold in six days, for the $300,000 asking price."
McIlvaine said that relatively modest expenditures could yield impressive results. She noted the example of another woman who wanted to list her house, which hadn't been updated in 30 years.
"I said avocado wall-to-wall carpeting is dated and now we've got to sell your house. So we took up the carpet, let the hardwood floors underneath shine, changed kitchen knobs and replaced the countertops," McIllvaine said. "When we started showings, we had two offers come in. It appeared much more modern."
Helena and Dr. Theodore Stephens of Catonsville found that staging helped them sell their Catonsville home. Listed at $255,000, the house attracted 17 prospective buyers but no offers. A drop in price didn't produce results, so the couple took the home off the market and spent $500 and a lot of effort to get it in shape.
"We took everything out except for essential things. ... We went room by room, and she [McIlvaine] told us to put this over there, get some pillows, fluff them up, etc.," said Helena Stephens. He retiled the kitchen floor and installed a new countertop and cook top.
The couple had a contract for their $250,000 asking price four days after the house went back on the market.
"It's a lot of work, and it's labor-intensive, and every day I had to leave my home in show condition," said Helena Stephens, a social worker. "If you can tolerate the grueling job of staging it daily until you get a buyer, it's worth it."
McIlvaine doesn't charge her clients extra for staging. Home stagers who aren't Realtors typically charge $75 to $150 an hour.
If a seller doesn't undertake the work himself, a stager's fee can be as high as $1,000, although $350 is the average for a thorough in-house consultation and written plan. Stagers can be found through the International Association of Home Stagers, an organization that Schwarz founded.
Schwarz said the concept of staging homes is expanding even in the current hot real estate market, with thousands of brokers attending accreditation courses that she has been offering since 2002.
Schwarz is host of a radio program on staging and is in discussions with television producers for a home-staging show that would teach sellers how to stage their properties.
Jannette Lawrence, a broker with Long and Foster in Phoenix who is familiar with staging, says it definitely helps to sell a house.
"Most people only buy what they can see. I just sold a home that had been listed for over a year and hadn't sold. It was cold, so I put pictures on the wall, painted some of the paneling, rearranged the furniture in the family room and put flowers and linens out to warm it up," she said.
The house immediately received two offers. Lawrence, who is not an accredited staging professional, said brokers don't necessarily need training to do what she did.
Gary Zentgraf, a broker with American Residential Realty in Baltimore, concurs. Most of his buyers, he says, are middle-income earners and are simply looking for an affordable, quality house.
"I don't think the furniture makes any difference at all. There are so many buyers for these homes it doesn't matter. Maybe when you're looking in the $500,000-$700,000 range, but not in the $300,000- $350,000 range," he said.
Zentgraf's advice to sellers is to stick to the basics. "What I notice are the stains on the wall, the carpeting smell and if the bathroom looks like the wreck of the Hesperus," he said.
Schwarz disagrees, saying that most agents aren't adequately trained to help a seller realize a property's true potential.
"Agents have blown it, because they don't know how to talk to people," she said. "The way you live in your home and the way we market it are different. We're not selling your stuff. The house becomes a product."
Schwarz's two-, three- and four-day seminars teach brokers and others interested in becoming stagers how to assess a property and then talk with a seller about the work that needs to be done.
The sessions, which include a day staging a house that's about to be listed, deal with things like determining a room's focal point, arranging furniture, hanging art, and decorating techniques that minimize distractions such as canary yellow walls.
All of that, Schwarz says, accomplishes what all brokers are obligated to do on their clients' behalf: get the highest offer. "To get the top of the market, you need to merchandize your house like you detail your car."