The Wonders of Home Staging

Fluffy towels and a well-placed book can add thousands to a selling price.

By Wendy Underwood for Western Living

When Suk Ting decided to sell her Vancouver townhouse last March, she had only one request of the real estate Fates: she wished to break even. Sure, it was a seller’s market – at the time biding wars were breaking out in most parts of the city – but Ting (not her real name) had purchased her Fairview Slopes home in 1994 during the peak of Vancouver’s real estate cycle. Her first mistake had been to buy high; she didn’t want to sell low.

Ting consulted with a neighbour who walked Ting through the house looking for flaws that Ting had grown oblivious to: a tiny crack in the wall, dirty carpets and a lack of natural light in some rooms. They also noted that the townhouse appeared small since it expanded vertically to three floors instead of spreading horizontally. And like most people, Ting’s furniture wasn’t exactly the showroom stuff but more an eclectic mix of pieces that she had acquired over the years. All dead weight was turfed.

The makeover then became funky pan-Asian, which meant Ting could mix some of her collected bits and pieces with borrowed artwork and furniture from friends, while making sure that it was western enough not to alienate. She bought white slipcovers for her old sofa and then splurged on bright pink silk cushions and a matching throw. The burn mark on her wooden dining room table was covered with a silk runner, and the table was set for a dinner party. She organized closets and removed everything that might ruin the image she was trying to project. Dog-eared books were tossed; Walden and works of Shakespeare were strategically placed. Perfectly fluffy white towels were purchased to stack in the bathroom. Ting had never really used the deck off the bedroom, but she realized that once she put plants and furniture out there, the bedroom looked bigger because the eye was led outside.

In all, Ting spent under $700 getting her home ready for sale. The result: six offers within two short days, and, according to Ting’s realtor, at least $5000 more than what she could have expected if she hadn’t staged her home.

Inadvertently, Ting had discovered the newest wrinkle in real estate. While cleaning up the yard, fixing a leaky tap and putting on a fresh pot of coffee have long been a realtor’s advice to new clients, “home staging” in its current incarnation goes way beyond the old scent-of-baking bread trick. The trend first appeared in California in the mid-90’s. Realtors were finding their multimillion-dollar listings languishing on the market because they were either vacant or badly furnished, and potential buyers had trouble envisioning themselves living in them. Interior decorators were brought in to dress up the houses with luxury furnishings and to make it look like some lucky homeowner was living an affluent and glamorous lifestyle. Almost miraculously, once the ugly-duckling houses were “staged”, realtors had little problem selling them. Now the trend has hit Canada, and it’s not just the owners of seven-figure mansions who are into staging. Suk Ting is one of a growing number of homeowners who are employing the same methods to sell mid-priced homes.

While Ting had the savvy neighbour’s free advice, there are people who have made staging their fulltime job. Vancouver’s Carrie McCarthy has been professionally staging homes for three and a half years, and business is good. “People are more aware of design these days”, says McCarthy, “and a lot of the people who are in the market for a home have already seen a lot of display suites for new developments. Display suites have elevated the expectations of the buyer. The idea is to entice the buyer into fantasizing about ‘living that life.’”

Calgary interior designer Karyn Elliott reports that she has seen a similar trend, although she adds that some of her business approaching her firm, CRAZY HOUSE, comes from realtors calling her in desperation with a stubborn listing that just won’t sell. The first thing that Elliott tackles with any new project is “curb appeal”. “Other than tidying the yard, I make sure the door and trim are in good shape, because as soon as a buyer rings the doorbell, they have that minute or so to just look around the front entrance,” she says.

On the inside, bad views are obscured by tilting the blinds, saleable points such as a hardwood floors are highlighted by getting rid of small area rugs; and the home is “neutralized”; all religious icons, personal photos and any artwork that may be seen as offensive are removed so that potential buyers can more easily imagine themselves living in the home.

To cut costs, both McCarthy and Elliott mainly work with possessions the owners already have. But the “stagers” have gone further, renting artwork from galleries and borrowing designer furniture for clients. They’ve even advised on new purchases. Professional help runs about $100 to $150 per hour, which can be pricey, although a home stager can just consult and leave you to make the changes.

Question is, do buyers feel misled when they find out the home that they’ve just bought had been staged? Elliott insists that they don’t, saying that it’s a win-win situation for all involved. Owners sell their home faster, often for more money and buyers get to see just how good their new home can look. Elliott, who also runs an interior decorating business, says she has clients who have sold a home that she has staged and then come to her to decorate the house after they’ve moved in.

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