Setting the scene for selling

The Baltimore Sun

When Mark Dickson considered relocating from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, the trial attorney toured a slew of city neighborhoods and homes. Despite a market full of choices, very few grabbed his attention.

"I looked at properties in Canton, Union Square, Roland Park and Reservoir Hill," said Dickson, 48, a Chicago native and longtime district resident. "Some of them had been beautifully renovated. ... But I not only wanted a place where someone had taken great pride in their work, I wanted my dollar to go as far as it could."

Dickson finally found his desired aesthetic, at a suitable price, when his Realtor showed him a three-story, three-bedroom rowhouse in Patterson Park. The $575,000 property had been fully renovated, then carefully "staged," complete with chic furnishings, lighting and accessories.

"Walking through the door, the house was perfect," says the married father of two. "It had the right colors, accent pieces and nice rugs. There were no slips in style, quality or taste."

Did the staging help sell him on the home? "Absolutely," he says. "The staging didn't overwhelm the space, it complemented it."

Staging, which involves meticulously readying a home for sale in ways that appeal to potential buyers, is garnering attention in today's sluggish real estate market. With properties sitting longer, asking prices being slashed, and lenders scrutinizing loan applications more closely - anecdotal evidence suggests Realtors, sellers and investors alike are increasingly turning to staging, for that competitive edge.

During the housing boom a few years back, "people in the industry had more money, and they could afford to pay professional stagers," says E.J. Villarreal, 28, an agent with Long and Foster in Baltimore. "Now, many Realtors, like myself, are pinching pennies and staging the homes themselves. Baltimore has a lot of inventory now, and [to sell] you have to be a cut above the rest."

Villarreal staged the Patterson Park townhouse that Dickson found so appealing. When staging, she rents most of the furniture and has purchased a small collection of items - from end tables to a love seat - that she rotates among homes.

"If the staging is elaborate, I pass the cost onto the seller," she says, noting that the budget is usually reasonable. "You'd be amazed at the furniture and decorating bargains you can find in places like Target and Marshalls."

Launched on the West Coast in the 1970s, staging has entered the popular lexicon, and become an internationally recognized industry. Its growth is widely credited to Barb Schwarz, godmother of the "staged to live" concept, and founder of California-based StagedHomes.

The group helps train professionals, who can earn the Accredited Staging Professional designation (ASP). Schwarz also founded the International Association of Home Staging Professionals (IAHSP), which has members nationwide and in Canada.

The right props

Lisa Kane, president of Just Stage It in Sparks, earned her ASP last year. Kane, who's in her 40s, hung out her shingle in January, after completing a three-day course that StagedHomes offered in Columbia. Such courses can cost upward of $2,000, but for the divorced single mother, it was well worth it. "I got clients immediately."

Melding her background in fine arts, interior design and marketing, Kane now spends her days staging homes across the region. "I just did a three-story Locust Point townhouse for a client, top to bottom ... kitchen, bath, bedrooms, even the deck," she says. "I brought in everything, from the place settings to the shower curtains and floral arrangements."

Beyond her work transforming homes, Kane also educates real estate agents about staging.

"Not all of them know about staging, though I'd say that more are becoming aware," she says. "I sometimes do a PowerPoint presentation showing pictures. I explain the benefits."

Kane often refers to statistics StagedHomes has compiled on its Web site, stagedhomes.com. The data suggests that staging can make a difference in a tight market and also that staging may help speed the sale of a home.

In a 2004-2006 study, the group looked at 300 houses nationwide, breaking them into three categories. Those homes that were listed, but not staged, stayed on the market for about 163 days. After staging, the houses sold, on average, in about 14 days. The same study found that houses that were staged before they were listed, sold even more quickly - in about 9 days.

"I'm hearing that investors and Realtors are getting nervous," says Kane of the shifting market. "Many investors are overextended with mortgage payments, and there are million-dollar houses that are sitting empty. If you're trying to sell a home faster, then perhaps [staging] is something worth trying."

Abe Soumah of MIH Management in Gambrills is an investor who buys properties, guts and rehabs the places, then sells them. He's a fan of staging, especially for the higher-end homes in his portfolio.

"In this market, it's become a necessity," says Soumah, who either pays his listing agent to stage his homes or does it himself, often consulting magazines for ideas. "It has slowed down across the board. At one time in Baltimore, you would see Dumpsters and scaffolding on every street. Now crews aren't as busy."

Creating a vision

DeNedra McPherson, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty Centre in Howard County and an accredited staging professional, says it's important to recognize that staging isn't a catch-all.

"Price, condition and location are the three key factors in selling a property," she says. "While a seller cannot do anything about location, in most cases they can address pricing and condition."

Still, she adds, staging can be a crucial component when it comes to selling a home.

"Anytime a buyer walks into a property, you are leaving to chance whether or not they have vision," McPherson says. "By staging the property, you help take control of the process by creating the vision for them. ... For instance, if I have a buyer that wants 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths with a walk-in closet, they really want to see that, and in good condition. They don't want to arrive at the property and see that the walk-in closet has been converted into a small home office."

She adds that "a seller must do everything they can to reduce a buyer's excuse not to submit a full price offer, especially in this market."

Cleanliness is a crucial part of the staging process, too, say pros like McPherson. So is removing personal items that may detract from the visuals of the home. The idea of staging is to best use the available space, giving potential buyers a place where they can see themselves living.

Andrea Marshall, president of A Street Properties in Baltimore, says homeowners can also give their homes a face-lift by touching up paint and rearranging furniture.

"When a potential buyer walks in a recently renovated house or an empty space, all they see is four walls, a floor and windows," says Marshall, who recently made staging part of her overall investment/real estate management business. "By adding furniture, plants and accessories, they now can see how large the rooms are, get a feel for the space and ideas for where to place furniture."

This summer, Marshall showed a property she'd staged to a potential buyer and loved his feedback. "He told me, 'I sat down on the sofa, the windows were open and I could feel a breeze flowing through the house; it felt great. I could see myself sitting here in the living room every evening. It felt like home.'"

STAGING A QUICK SALE

Sellers may think of their house as a home, but once that property hits the market it is a product. Here are a few suggestions for preparing a house for sale:

Cleaning

-- Remove newspapers, magazines or any piles sitting on floors or surfaces. Clean like never before, including closets, underneath counters and inside drawers.

Clutter

-- Less is more. Remove personal pictures and artifacts. No pet dishes, kitchen garbage cans, toothbrushes or toilet scrubbers. You're planning to move anyway, so pack now and store the boxes.

Design

-- Sellers can be emotionally blinded by their property. Ask a third party, such as a relative or friend, who will be objective about the wallpaper, paint and other decorative enhancements that might make it hard to close the deal.

Furniture

-- Too much furniture or oversized furniture can make a room look small. Old, worn furniture can make a room look drab. Consider renting furnishings for an empty room.

Carpet

-- Remove rugs to highlight nice flooring. Clean wall-to-wall carpets or even replace the carpet.

Paint

-- Touch up paint or paint the house in a neutral color. You don't want to lose a buyer because they can't see past the orange paint.

Lighting

-- Make sure the rooms are all well lit, beginning with the front entry.

Appliances

-- Consider investing in new appliances, but remove small appliances off countertops so buyers can see how much usable space is in the kitchen.

[Source: DeNedra McPherson, ASP; Andrea Marshall, Lisa Kane, ASP]

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