By Trisse Loxley for President’s Choice Magazine

Several years ago, if you were trying to sell your home, you might have resorted to warming an apple pie or cinnamon buns in the oven or putting out a few bowls of potpourri. Today, a slightly more sophisticated marketing strategy is being used. Home proppers- also called home stagers, resale decorators or fluffers- are a new breed of decorators who specialize into turning houses into hot properties. New to Canada, the idea of hiring someone to make over your house just for resale originated almost a decade ago in San Francisco, California, the most expensive real estate market in the United States, where nearly half of all the properties that are listed for more than US $500,000 have been propped. In Canada, homeowners are beginning to see the merits of such an approach.

In Toronto, where a record number of houses are on the market, propping is seen as a way to give your home an added advantage. “When you’re competing with other homes in your neighborhood, you need to make your property stand out,” says Elise Kalles, vice-president and associate broker of Harvey Kalles Real Estate, a company specializing in the city’s high- end neighborhoods.” “Making a house look the best it can is all about enhancing what the clients already have in their homes,” explains Bernie MacMillan, marketing director of B.B. Bargoons’s, a Toronto-based fabric and home-decorating chain that has just added house propping to its lineup of services.

Ironically, making the most of what you have often seems to involve getting rid of a lot of things you own. “Clutter is a big offender,” says interior designer Adrianna Urtasun, whose company, Urtasun Design, has been propping houses since 1998. Too much furniture, an overabundance of knickknacks, overstuffed cupboards and closets in disarray are some of the common roadblocks to a sale, she says.

“If it is crowded, people will think the house is small,” says Karyn Elliott, owner of Calgary-based Crazy House, which specializes in home propping. “People want to buy space,” she says. “They need to see there is room for their belongings.” Elliott also believes potential buyers need to be able to imagine themselves living there, which is why she recommends he clients “depersonalize” their homes by packing up the family photographs and other mementoes.

Overall, agents and proppers agree that today’s design-conscious, decorating savvy home buyers expect more for their money: more space, more sophistication, more pizzazz. And that is exactly what home stagers give them. More than an illusion of space, it is something closer to an illusion of grandeur. “We’re selling a lifestyle. We’re not selling a house,” explains Urtasun, who describes her job as a mixture of decorating, psychology and marketing.

Proppers literally set the stage for a sale. In fact, once the decks are relatively clear, the remaining furniture is often rearranged and the cupboards and closets are organized (with clothing hung from darkest to lightest, as they are in stores). Then the props arrive. Oriental carpets, antique tables, artwork, mirrors, lamps and other accessories deemed necessary to achieve the desired effect or “lifestyle” are pulled from their private inventories of supplies, rented from shops or – in the case of the requisite armloads of fresh flowers – purchased.

No corner or surface goes unnoticed. Urtasun, a propper with a fondness for adding “fluffy pillows and mile-high duvets” to bedrooms and “specialty soaps, thick towels and fresh shower curtains” to the bathroom, has been known to prop right down to the “spaghetti in canisters, designer rubber boots in the mudroom and toothbrushes on the vanity.”

Proppers will often make cosmetic changes to the house itself. Some have replaced carpeting or countertops. But their retinue of painters, plumbers and electricians is usually relegated to simpler improvements, such as giving the baseboards or the front door a fresh coat of paint, replacing the light fixtures or updating kitchen hardware and bathroom fixtures.

“You have to pick your priorities,” notes Anne Michaels, who runs Toronto-based Perks and Props. When recently faced with an immense foyer in a “dreadful shade of green”, Michaels opted to cover the offending color with a collection of paintings instead of paint. “You only have so much time,” she says. Aside from living by the real-estate mantra that you have ninety seconds to make an impression, stagers also deal with the reality that “there are usually just a few days to get the job done,” says Michaels.

A lack of time, according to Elliott, is also what makes hiring a professional appealing. Having someone else prop your house will cost approximately $75 to $100 an hour. Multiply that by a few days labour, add the furniture rental fees and, depending on the extent of the propping, the total will come to anywhere from $1,000 to more than $5,000. For those who prefer the do-it-yourself approach, most stagers also offer consultation services: A two-hour inspection of the house will produce a list of tasks to tackle for a fee of $175 to $350.

Whether you pay someone or take on the job yourself, according to Kathryn Harris, a Toronto agent with Chestnut Park Real Estate, there is a payoff. “Because the house is a pleasure to show, it sells faster and for more money,” she says. “If you do the minimum, you will see a return of about $5,000. If you spend $5,000, it could translate into $20,000 when you sell the house.”

When Carol Moskot, the art director of President’s Choice Magazine, first set eyes on her house, there were pink roses arranged in silver goblets in the foyer and eggplants artfully displayed on the bathroom vanity, and the dining table was set with Gianni Versace china and organza napkins. “Even though I knew I was being scammed,” says Moskot, “after all the houses I had seen where people hadn’t put away their junk, I appreciated the fact that someone had gone to this trouble, and I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.” She bought the house for a price that exceeded her original budget.

Calculated, yes, but devious? According to the agents, no. “Propping is just a better visual presentation, like dressing for an interview,” says Harris. Kalles, one of the few brokers, who stills offers staging as a complimentary service, agrees. “You wouldn’t show up for an interview in a rumpled suit and a stained blouse, would you?”

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