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Engaging Staging on a Budget

It’s more important than ever to have listings in tip-top model home shape. Here are a few case studies that show you, step by step, how to make it work.

Engaging Staging
With more homes on the market now than in the past two years, it’s vital that you help your seller’s home stand out.  That means more than just getting rid of clutter and moving some furniture. Instead, it means giving extra oomph to the parts of the home that will dazzle buyers and pique their emotions.

“Showcasing helps buyers to visualize the home, and gives them a foundation for their imagination,” says Josel Suarez, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker’s Aventura office. We looked at four very common scenarios—a neglected exterior, an overwhelmed interior, a vacant home and a fixer-upper—and found the best ways sales associates can work with sellers to give the home the sprucing up it needs without offending the seller.

Here’s what Florida real estate professionals had to say:

A “Tired” Exterior
Linda Wosiak, a sales associate with The Keyes Co./Realtors® Weston office, knew her new listing—a five-bedroom house in Pembroke Pines—needed more curb appeal. “My goal was to work with the sellers so when potential buyers arrived, their first impression would be, ‘I absolutely adore this house,’” she says. “If someone doesn’t like how a home looks from the street, they won’t even get out of the car.”

Wosiak started making a to-do list for the sellers. “If there’s anything the buyer considers an eyesore, you can expect them to take $1,000 off the offer,” she says. When Wosiak has a new listing, she walks through the home and yard with the sellers, noting conditions that might detract from the home’s value. “I reverse role play with them, acting as a potential buyer who is looking for reasons to make a lower offer,” she says. “I tell them that this or that condition might result in a $500 or a $1,000 reduction, and they quickly get the point.”

In this case, she had the sellers begin with the weather-beaten front door. She had them give it a fresh coat of paint and sand down the oxidized metal door handles to restore their luster. After that, the sellers removed more than a dozen old nails over the door and along the front fascia board that they had used to hang holiday lights.

Next, Wosiak’s son used a pressure cleaner to remove grime from the sidewalks, circular paver driveway and decorative rocks.  He also pruned two palm trees inside the circular driveway to give the front door greater visibility, and he painted the lantern post for the main front light.

“The landscaping beds had been filled with little stones,” she says. “We asked the seller to remove them and put in some red mulch, which gave the front yard more color and added ‘oomph’ in terms of overall appeal.” The yard’s highly visible tall sprinkler heads were replaced with low-lying heads that blended into the landscaping.

Several upward-facing outdoor lights were also removed, along with their unsightly cords.

Other touches to the exterior included removing yellowish water discoloration from the front of the house and scraping excess paint off the rain gutter.

Turning her attention to the back yard, Wosiak suggested rearranging the patio furniture to make a more inviting outdoor entertainment area. Several loose patio pavers were reset with fresh sand, and a number of overgrown plants were cut back.

Wosiak estimates the sellers’ total cost for the makeover was less than $100, primarily for the mulch and paint. That small financial investment, plus the owners’ “sweat equity” will more than pay off, she adds. “It’s always in the best interests of the seller to be proactive and take care of the problems right at the start.”

A Cluttered Interior
Simplifying a cluttered interior is one of the most common selling scenarios, according to Karen H. Sarno, ASP (accredited staging professional) and owner of Staged to Perfection in Longwood. “I tell sellers that since you’re planning to move anyway, you might as well start boxing things up,” says Sarno, who adds that the cost of a professional staging service is almost always less than the first price reduction on a listed home.

In late 2006, Sarno helped a couple in their 20s showcase their $225,000 three-bedroom condominium. “When I walked in the door, I saw clutter, clutter and more clutter,” she says. “And they had begun remodeling their unit a year ago, so their tools and other materials were scattered everywhere.”

While Sarno’s husband helped with some finishing touches on the remodeling work, like putting on baseboards, painting the ceilings and adding towel bars to the bathrooms, Sarno focused on opening up the condo’s interior.

Her first step was to help the sellers clean out their one-car garage, so it could be used as a holding area for items in the rest of the house. “In many cases, we recommend that the sellers rent a storage unit to remove their belongings from the premises—but in this case, the garage provided a suitable alternative,” she says.

Sarno then had the sellers begin putting their excess belongings in storage. First came the containers and cardboard boxes filled with items that wouldn’t be needed for some time.  Then, half a dozen boxes in the entry hallway were quickly moved to the garbage. Next came boxes filled with extra pots, pans and dishes from the kitchen.

To open up the bedroom closets, the seller bought clear plastic stackable containers and filled them with extra clothes. “We got the containers with wheels, because they can be moved more easily when loaded with heavy items,” Sarno says.
Several “dreary” plants were dumped, while others were trimmed back to retain some greenery. Unlike many Florida homes, the condo was not over-filled with furniture. This allowed Sarno to separate the L-shaped couch and loveseat to give the open living/dining area a more spacious appearance.

The total cost to the sellers was about $500, including Sarno’s fee and the purchase of 11 plastic storage containers. “Having a home in 100 percent condition is critical to selling it right away,” says Sarno. “And there’s also a real bonus for the sellers: When they move to their new home, their possessions will be much better organized.”

A Vacant Residence
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the vacant residence, which needs simple furnishings and accessories to make it more “homey” to potential buyers.  As Gloria Mills, ASP, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker’s downtown Sarasota office, says, “When the home is vacant, you have to show buyers where to put their sofa and TV.”

Beverly Pennington, a former real estate professional and owner of Shabby to Chic, a showcasing firm in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland, recently helped the owner of an investment property in Pompano Beach.

“The investor had bought a 1950s three-bedroom vintage house and gutted it,” says Pennington. “When I took a look at it, I could see that the home could be charming, but at the moment it was just very plain.”

One of the first additions to the house was furniture. After reviewing the cost of renting furniture for six months, the owner opted to buy a sofa, dining room table and chairs from a discount retailer. Like some other professional stagers, Pennington has some furniture in storage units that she loans to clients for this purpose. In this case, the seller chose to buy some furniture and, after the residence is sold, will resell the purchased items at a yard sale or donate them for a charitable tax deduction.

In most vacant homes, Pennington showcases only the master bedroom, bringing in props (that she owns and lends to clients) like a blow-up air mattress with attached bed skirts, a colorful comforter and pillows. “In this case, we staged all the bedrooms because it was a smaller home, and we wanted people to see the different options,” she says.

For instance, Pennington staged the smallest room as a home office, using a desk with sawhorse legs and chair (again, using props that she owns and lends to clients). To complete the look, she also placed a few office supplies on the shelf in the closet.

Because the bathrooms were totally white, Pennington added blue and green towels and a shower curtain, creating a “beach” theme.  In the kitchen, she set a tray with two margarita glasses on the pass-through counter.

To bring some warmth and color to the new tile flooring in the living and dining areas, Pennington added area rugs. A light-filtering bamboo shade in the Florida room added to the warm feeling, while blocking the view of the neighbor’s house to the rear.

In this case, the total cost to the seller was about $1,500, including the furniture and Pennington’s fee. “When we were done, the house was as cute as possible,” she says. “I understand the house just sold for close to the $300,000 asking price.”

A Home in Disrepair
Not all homes can be showcased quickly and easily. One recent listing in the upscale Miami suburb of Pinecrest required six weeks of concentrated effort and an investment of more than $26,000 by the owner, says JoAnn Roberts, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker’s Pinecrest North office.

“When I approached the gate for the first time, my heart sank,” says Roberts. “The front light pole was askew, and the gates were not working. The mailbox was rusty and [because of overgrown trees] you couldn’t even see the house from the gravel driveway.” While this seller was extremely motivated to get the property sold for a price as high as possible, Roberts says it’s important for every home to look its best in today’s market.

In many cases, she makes suggestions for decluttering the home or improving its curb appeal to increase the potential sale price. Sellers are receptive to her “facts and figures” approach, she says. “Buyers understand the importance of showcasing their properties.”

The seller, in this case, agreed to follow Roberts’ suggestions for fixing up the house before putting it on the market. “I told the owner I didn’t even know what the listing price should be until all the improvements had been made,” she says.

One of the first steps was to raise the tree canopy to make the home more visible from the street. Then came more exterior work, including planting red bromeliads to bring some color to the landscape.

At the same time, Roberts helped the seller prepare the interior. Dark green carpeting was replaced with a more neutral beige.  Plumbing leaks in the bathroom were fixed, and spots on the tile flooring were removed. Lime-green walls in the dining room, dating back to the 1970s, were repainted in a more attractive off-white hue. The pool in the back was drained and repainted as well.

One of the home’s appealing features was a large garage in the back. However, the coral rock facing had become discolored with age, and several brown wooden beams made the structure look small. “Once the tree canopy was raised, the garage really stood out,” Roberts says. “We had the coral rock pressure cleaned and the beams repainted white so the eyes were drawn to the beautiful front of the garage.”

Roberts says the owner’s “end-to-end” work to renovate and showcase the entire property paid off. “The appraised value of the home before the work was done was $850,000,” she says. “The sale price was $1.1 million, and we had two contracts come in at that amount. This was a great transformation that really benefited the seller.”

Richard Westlund is a Miami-based freelance writer.