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Behind the scene

Sellers are turning to professional stagers more than ever to give their homes a look that will hook buyers.

March 16, 2008|Ann Brenoff | Times Staff Writer

Is staging a magic bullet that moves a house into the sold column?

Professional stagers -- the people who come into a home and make it look like Martha Stewart lives there -- are growing in ranks, in no small part thanks to the stagnation of the real estate market.

Sellers today are ready to try pretty much anything to defrost a frozen-on-the-sidelines buyer. Five years ago, there were only a few hundred professionally trained stagers, says Shell Brodnax, owner and chief executive of the Real Estate Staging Assn. Now, there are more than 20,000 in North America.

On the most elementary level, staggers de-clutter, rearrange furniture and accessorize a house. To those more prone to hyperbole, they set an emotional tone for a home, one that suggests a lifestyle and perhaps "speaks" to potential buyers in a way that a kid's roller blades left in the middle of the living room just can't.

Stagers aren't maids or house cleaners. But they understand why a couch's backside shouldn't face the entrance to a room. And they can create a living space that is, in general, far better than the one the homeowner occupied.

What stagers charge depends on the services rendered. For about $150, a stager will do a walk-through, giving a written report -- or expecting the owner to take notes -- on what needs to be done. If it's an empty house, furniture may need to be rented and the price could go up significantly.

But each month that a home languishes on the market is also costly, Brodnax notes.

Does staging work?

Though the National Assn. of Realtors has not done market research on the effect of staging homes for sale, NAR spokesman Walter Molony acknowledges that the topic frequently comes up. In a 2005 study -- at about the peak of the market -- Coldwell Banker tracked 2,772 properties, ranging in price from $229,000 to $4.8 million, in eight major U.S. cities. It found that while the average home was on the market for 31 days at that time, the typical staged home sold in just under 14 days. And while the average unstaged home sold for 1.6% above the asking price, staged homes went for 6.3% more.

Michelle Minch, the owner of Pasadena-based Moving Mountains Design & Home Staging, and her crew staged a vacant California-cottage-style home in Silver Lake, finishing up around 5 p.m. on the Thursday before Christmas. She planned on coming back the next day with a few more throw pillows for the window seat, but the listing agent had scheduled three showings for that morning. Before Minch and the extra throw pillows could arrive, the sellers had a full-price offer. Days on market: one -- in what was the slowest December sales market in about a decade. The house sold for $1,442,500 without making it into the Multiple Listing Service.

The job cost just under $7,000, which included the rental furniture for up to 60 days. Minch staged the front porch, living room, kitchen, dining room, sun room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms in the main house and a guest cottage with a bedroom, office area and bathroom. Teak furniture was brought in to stage the poolside patio area. (See before and after photos at

"Due to the character of this particular house," she said, "we decided to stage it in what we call 'Anthropologie' style. We understood the type of buyer that would be looking to purchase a home in that price range and that neighborhood, and we customized the staging to be appealing to them."

Think it's a fluke? Minch's company staged a 1926 Spanish colonial in San Marino that was listed at $5.78 million in January. The home, designed by California architect Roland E. Coate, had not been on the market since the early 1950s -- and, according to Minch, needed upgrades.

The power of staging

Even with the Coate cache, it looked to be a hard sell. A contractor made the needed plumbing and electrical upgrades, and Minch's firm brought in furniture for the public rooms on the ground floor -- entryway, dining room, living room, foyer, powder room, butler's pantry, kitchen and sun room. Minch also staged a twilight open house for brokers with banquet tables and strings of lights in the trees. The cost for the staging: $8,500. Ten days after the home was staged, the seller was entertaining multiple offers. Selling price: the full $5.78 million.

Connie Tebyani, a stager based in Moorpark, offers her own batting average as a testament to the power of staging: Of the 15 homes she has staged within the last six months, the average time on the market was 10 weeks after she staged them, and they fetched an average of 95% of their list prices. Not bad for a market where homes can linger for months and buyers rarely make offers -- even low-ball ones.

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