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Dream Big!

De-Clutter, Pre-Pack, and Reflow

With a few tweaks and a little decluttering, you can showcase a listing and get top dollar. Here’s how.  

The young family needed help selling their house. The task of transforming their home into a showcase property seemed monumental. After all, while their abode reflected charming memories, the toys, knickknacks—even the wall colors—bore telltale traces of small children and rambunctious family fun.

Laura Napoleon, a sales associate with Watson Realty in Lake Mary, plunged in with a Rambo-esque attack on the home’s style. Napoleon took a gamble. She then helped the homeowners pack and clean before listing the property. “I said, ‘We’ll blow it out. Let’s pack everything we can and put it in the garage,’” Napoleon says.

She and the family repainted the walls in neutral colors, rearranged furniture and packed up personal photos. “There was nothing on the desk or cabinets,” she says. They placed a couple of accessories in pertinent locations—on the mantel, for example. And a vase of fresh flowers strategically drew the eye to a sunny spot near French doors.

The result: “It looked and smelled beautiful, like a model [home],” Napoleon says. The next day, a caravan of 50 real estate sales associates came through, as well as four scheduled buyer appointments. By 10 a.m., Napoleon had six offers—four tangible contracts and two verbal. By noon, she had executed a contract for $20,000 over the asking price, which had been in the $400,000s.

Time (and Money) Well Spent
Showcasing a home may seem like common sense, especially in the current market, where buyers rule. But many sales associates and their clients don’t understand the advantages, says Priscilla Stowe, co-owner of Style Sisters in Sarasota. Her firm, which she started last year with business partner, Susan Maggio, specializes in helping real estate professionals and homeowners get properties buyer-ready—whether they decide to totally revamp the property or just spruce it up.

Real estate professionals have been sprucing up homes and making suggestions for years, but it’s only in the last several years that the word staging has caught on. The concept’s originator is Barb Schwarz, president of of San Francisco, who says she invented staging back in 1972.

Today, Schwarz holds the U.S. federally registered trademark on the word stage as it pertains to preparing homes for sale. She speaks often on the subject, and in 1998, she developed an Accredited Staging Professional (ASP) course. [For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the term showcasing.]

“[Sales associates] were afraid to tell sellers what to do with their homes for fear of insulting them, and many of them still are,” says Schwarz, who is also a real estate broker. “We all knew about the cat smell and the bad wallpaper, so everyone was very hungry for a way to alleviate those issues and sell the homes quickly, and at the right price.”

Sometimes showcasing can be as simple as removing personal photos and mementos, packing up some furniture to open up rooms, putting out some fresh flowers and doing a thorough cleaning. Other times, it means a complete overhaul, painting rooms, repairing tile, re-facing cabinets and even buying new furniture, rugs and accessories. However, before you spend money, consider your return on investment. Experts says that expensive facelifts are best reserved for problematic homes or high-priced listings where the return on investment is substantial. However, most homes just need some elbow grease, a little imagination and some money to pay for supplies such as paint.

“The market has changed. There’s a higher inventory. The days when you’d throw a house on the market—and, boom, it would sell—are gone. There’s an increased need for the seller to justify the asking price,” Stowe says.

Here are some of the reasons showcasing is beneficial and some strategies to help your clients present pristine properties:

Reduce the Listing Period
Peter Erdmann, a sales associate at Illustrated Properties in West Palm Beach, usually pays for extra work done on a home, including provision of new furnishings. Showcasing is particularly advantageous in developments where homes have similar floor plans and few differences in their accessories, Erdmann says.

While Erdmann pays for renovations himself, sales associates can also choose to offer the direction and labor but have the sellers pay for any materials, props or professional labor.

Regardless of who pays, Erdmann finds that when he takes time to furnish and decorate key rooms, the house sells faster. The amount he spends depends on the price point of the home and the target buyer, but he’s spent as much as a few thousands dollars. “It’s worth it,” Erdmann says. “You definitely see people get more excited,” he says. “If you have energy about the place, you’ll shrink the days on the market from 180 to 50, for example. When you’re dealing with a client [who needs to sell] in less than two months, it’s a big plus.”

Sometimes Erdmann lets the sellers keep items that he buys, other times, he just moves the new furniture into an unfurnished investment property that he has listed. Many associates have the sellers pay for fixes like painting, furniture and accessories. Still others keep a stash of accessories and small tables in a garage or storage unit and let the seller borrow the items until the property is sold. Sometimes, real estate professionals even let the seller or buyer buy the items at cost after the sale.

If you lack the funds to fully showcase a home, consider a partnership with a furniture store, Erdmann says. He knew of a sales associate who did just that—she furnished the home with furniture on loan and paid only a delivery fee and a deposit on the furniture. If buyers want the furniture, they buy it from the store.

Katerina Sellis, also a sales associate with Illustrated Properties in West Palm Beach, recently sold a house that had been sitting on the market for two months in a very competitive neighborhood. Last year, there would have been 14 competing listings—this year, there are 84. On top of that, the property had some aesthetic challenges; for example, the owner was an artist who had painted an orange design on one of the walls.

Sellis paid $1,000 to revamp the 1,366-square-foot town home. She neutralized the painted wall, decluttered the knickknacks, rearranged the furniture to accent the flow plan and filled the home with candles and flowers. After one week and eight showings, the property sold. Sellis says that even though she pays, it’s her way of standing apart from other real estate professionals. And besides, she says, her return on investment is high. She even rents out a storage facility for $70 a month that sellers can use so they don’t fill their garages during the decluttering process.

“You run the risk that the house will not sell and [you’ll end up] leaving the seller with [new furnishings, renovations and accessories], but for every listing I have, I get about 20 buyers that I can convert. I will never be in the negative because I gain clients,” Sellis says.

Stowe and the associates who practice showcasing agree that there aren’t hard statistics on how much you’ll be able to increase a selling price by doing this. However, they point out that if showcasing reduces the listing period, you’ll be able to turn more sales and decrease marketing costs, thus increasing your income.

Level the Playing Field
Rather than paying for the tweaking himself, Raul Elizalde encourages clients to pay for the services of Style Sisters, both to showcase listings and to help with advertising photo shoots.

Elizalde, a sales associate with Michael Saunders & Co. in Sarasota, says that for a nominal price—in his case, $45 per hour for Style Sisters—a home seller can avoid having prospective buyers ask for a discount off the house’s price because of needed home improvements. “Buyers typically demand thousands of dollars off the [listing] price for items that can be fixed for a few hundred,” he says.

For example, he was trying to sell a house that had an old pink bathtub. He painted the tub white with epoxy paint. “You wouldn’t believe it—[you could have] one person come in and say the bathroom is ugly when it’s pink. But make changes here and there for a couple hundred, and the argument is less potent.”

Stowe notes that it’s important to be able to justify the seller’s asking price. She and Maggio make a list of things that sellers should do before they list the house, like recaulking showers, replacing light fixtures, rearranging furniture or even replacing an old comforter or towels. The goal is to create an open space that is clean, light and inviting.

“It’s not a question of bumping up their price. It’s a question of not accepting a lower price. [Almost] every offer is a lowball offer. What will cause a buyer to mentally knock the price down in his head? Everything visual that is outdated or in disrepair,” Stowe says.

Don’t overlook the outside of the house, either, she adds. “Curb appeal is huge. I’m not the one who will prune the shrubs, but I’ll give the client a list of pressure washers and landscapers,” she says.

Create Warmth
The home’s inner entryway makes a huge impression, Erdmann says. He once tried to sell a 1925 Mediterranean style home that had a stark-white floor and white walls in the entry. “It detracted from the warmth and charm,” he says. He did a few simple things—he brought in palm trees in nice pots and put down an attractive oriental carpet, as well as a console table to enlarge and open the area.

Decluttering helps the seller focus on the sale, not emotions. For many sellers, parting with a property is really parting with memories. But, it’s important to rid the home of personal artifacts so that buyers can envision themselves living there, Napoleon says. “You have to separate emotions from the sales process and convert the family home image into, ‘This house is a commodity to sell,’” she says.

Napoleon usually recommends that her clients pay for a showcasing service, which averages $75 to $100 per hour and is provided by space planner Cathy Conachalla. Napoleon’s average listing is valued at $300,000, and the clients willingly sign up for the overhaul. She has advocated showcasing for the past two years.

The seller has to open the space to buyers’ imaginations. So Conachalla removes all personal photographs and other items like diplomas. She places accessories like eye-catching vases in the right places so that buyers focus on the home’s best features. Bright paintings or busy-patterned sofas go into storage.

“I see people standing at the fridge and looking at pictures of the kids,” Napoleon says. “Or someone will see a diploma and say, ‘Oh, I went to college with her.’ You have to get rid of all of that.”

“From the minute [prospective buyers] walk into the door, there needs to be an impressive, lasting impact,” she says.

Play on Emotions
Many buyers don’t have the vision to see a home’s potential, especially if all the rooms are blanched, open spaces. By contrast, a home that’s been strategically showcased can help buyers envision themselves relaxing and enjoying their family there.

Erdmann has a current listing in a high-end condo and yacht club, which is filled with properties worth $1 million to $2 million. His seller is an investor who buys properties and then resells them as vacation or second homes. Target buyers are attracted to ready-to-use, fully furnished homes.

To differentiate his 2,400-square-foot condo from others, which have a similar floor plan and a stale, whitewashed feel, this client paid to furnish it and also to outfit it with marble floors, crown molding and new carpet. Should a buyer want to fill the condo with his or her own furniture, Erdmann will just move the current pieces to a new project and renegotiate the price.

“It walks them down the path to buy that much further and faster,” Erdmann says. “You want the buyer to say, ‘I can envision myself [here] with my feet up watching TV on Sunday,’ or, ‘Wouldn’t my kids love this room with the bunk beds?’ You want them to think, ‘I would love to be in this home.’”

And, with a little tweaking, you and your sellers can encourage that reaction and sell the home quickly.

Heidi Russell Rafferty is a Georgia-based freelance writer.