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Staging a high-end home for sale requires a different kind of makeover

SOUTH FLORIDA – July 27, 2009 – The crashing economy and crumbling real estate market have had an unexpected side effect: an emergence of the frugal rich who no longer buy just because, but demand to visualize themselves in a palace before they plunk down the cash.

For most people trying to sell their house, that visualization has always meant “staging” – the strategic placement of a borrowed La-Z-Boy chair, the shifting of a floral arrangement, the hanging of that painting that has gathered dust in the garage for 10 years.

High-end staging, or “hyper-staging,” as some South Florida experts have taken to calling it, is another thing altogether.

We’re talking custom-made light fixtures the size of a small car, hundreds of color-coded books placed in the home’s library to stimulate a buyer’s visual cortex, the removal of a kitchen wall, and the placement of a temporary wall in a bedroom, to name a few changes.

“I would say that we’ve gotten two dozen requests for this hyper-staging over the past couple of years,” said Giselle Loor of Hollywood-based B&G Design. “The way it started was, homeowners and their sales agents began asking us for our opinion, ‘Why won’t this house sell.’ And after we studied the market and even social factors we figured out that it was about buyers in all income categories being cautious.”

Until recently, many high-end home buyers were not as discriminating as the average home buyer, says Barb Schwarz, founder of Staged Homes, a sort of staging university for home decorators and related professionals in California.

Rather than needing to “see themselves in a home” to be convinced, they simply needed to be convinced that the home – the structure and the grounds – and the surrounding community were high quality, she said.

The recession has made many of those buyers more cautious.

Alex Bruno, a RE/MAX agent and historic-home and staging expert, agrees that the failing economy has made staging necessary for top-flight houses.

“It’s strange, but it’s true,” Bruno says. “People with money to spare are not so carefree. I’ve found it with many of my listings over the past couple of years. And now, when I list a higher-priced house, I don’t even wait to see if its size and beauty can sell it anymore. I just automatically stage it, unless it is already well-appointed.”

Bruno says his first sign that high-end home sales were no longer a given was when he listed the Young mansion, the 7,200-square-foot East Hollywood home built in 1925 by Hollywood city founder Joseph W. Young, in mid-2008.

A lot of history

“That house came with so much history, so many stories. It’s on three lots. And the structure itself is just beautiful,” Bruno says. “And at one time, someone who could afford to pay $2 million to $4 million for a home would have just snapped it up, because of its location. That didn’t happen with this house.”

Indeed, the Young mansion hasn’t had any decent offers until recently, Bruno says.

The difference?

“In my mind, the difference came after we changed the look of the inside of the house to suit a new kind of high-end buyer,” he says. “Yes, I mean a more careful buyer. But I’m also talking a more modern buyer who will accept that a home is well built and therefore spend less time questioning the structure and more time trying to see if it feels right. And if people are going to feel right in a house, it has to look like a place where they would live.”

The mansion got new window treatments, less stodgy living room furniture, and bed dressings that emphasized comfort over style.

“It is true that hyper-staging often involves more expensive changes,” Bruno says, “but not always. Sometimes it is the simple things you have to convince a high-end homeowner that he needs to do.

“But even if the price of the staging items isn’t substantially higher, it still tends to cost more than traditional staging because you’re doing more. Suddenly, two sets of drapes and an area rug aren’t enough. You’re outfitting five or six bedrooms, four or five bathrooms, a pool house, and so on.”

According to Debra DiMare, host of In a Fix, a home remodeling show on The Learning Channel, “hyper-staging involves not just furniture and art. If necessary, you alter the landscape of the house itself. This is a huge trend right now. Often you’ll find the architectural changes are temporary.”

When Loor and her partner Brett Sugerman were called in to stage Bruce Weiner’s empty 7,500-square-foot mansion on Indian Creek Island, near Miami Beach, much of what they did involved architectural changes.

“We literally moved walls,” Sugerman says. A wall separating the kitchen from the living room was removed as part of the hyper-staging. Sugerman and Loor also turned a walk-in wine closet into a bar, complete with stools and countertop.

A fireplace in another sitting room that jutted out from a bland yellow wall was resurfaced in hand-carved marble.

And a library/home office, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that in past years would have impressed on their own, featured several hundred new books purchased by B&G.

“Notice they’re color-coded,” Loor said of the books. “You think it’s not a big deal. But again, our research shows that the variety of colors has a psychological impact and gives an impression to the viewer that the books all serve a categorical purpose. It makes the library look well-used and important.”

Weiner, president of condominium builder Turnberry Associates, put the $15 million home up for sale two years ago. When the house had not sold a year later, he called in B&G. Within the past few weeks, Weiner has finally begun getting offers.

Weiner admits he “didn’t get it” at first, but insists there is a clear before and after with his Indian Creek home.

“I’ve worked with B&G to have homes decorated,” Weiner says. “But I’ve never really had to do anything to a house to sell it. Frankly, I was skeptical of the whole notion. But I have to say that I didn’t even get a nibble for more than a year. When I heard about this intense form of staging, I threw my hands up and told them to go for it. Since they’ve completed their re-working of my house I’ve gotten several offers – not ‘the’ offer I’m looking for. But they’re getting better!”

Schwarz, of Staged Homes, says she has been urging high-end homeowners to “lose the pride” over the past year or two “so that they can keep up.”

“The problem,” Schwarz says, “is that many of them got spoiled. It’s sort of like the prom queen who thinks she’s the better person because she’s the prettier person. You must have substance, too. And I’ve been telling these types of clients that substance means giving prospective buyers something to look at, the same as middle-class families have been doing for years.”

Schwarz advises clients in high-end homes to study their potential buyers and stage accordingly.

Different strokes

“There is no one-size fits all,” she says. “You may find a trend of home buyers in your area who are looking for a million-dollar home and want that home to feel old, and artistic, museum-like. Or you may find that your wealthy buyers are younger, more energetic, and more carefree. If it’s the latter, you stage with bright, colorful art, oversized furniture, pieces that won’t cause your guests to worry they’ll break ‘em.”

Even in today’s market, staged homes tend to sell almost 150 days sooner than non-staged homes, Schwarz says.

“The bottom line is if you have the kind of money that you can afford a mansion or a McMansion, then you can afford to alter its look to make the next person coming along feel at home,” she says.

Copyright © 2009 The Miami Herald, James H. Burnett III. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

  Related Topics: Seller services
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