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When staging a home for sale, what's important?

Are brightly painted walls really a turnoff? Could the mere sight of a cat litter box send prospective buyers fleeing? A psychology postdoc surveys home staging practitioners.

September 11, 2011|By Mary Umberger
  • Andrea Angott studied how homes are staged to appeal to a broad audience. Above an open house in Little Rock, Ark., earlier this year.
Andrea Angott studied how homes are staged to appeal to a broad audience.… (Danny Johnston / Associated…)

Reporting from Chicago — Andrea Angott has a doctorate in psychology and is a postdoctoral associate in the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. She generally spends her days studying how consumers make decisions about their healthcare. But last year she detoured into the curious world of home staging.

Staging, for those of you who have never flicked on the HGTV cable channel, is the process of decluttering, rearranging and otherwise dressing up your home to make it appeal to a broad array of potential buyers. It's a specialty within the world of real estate that has passionate proponents who say it creates an idealized view of "home" that makes someone want to buy it. Skeptics say it can be expensive and time-consuming and doesn't necessarily make any difference in getting a place sold. In any case, many tenets of staging practitioners have become entrenched in the process of selling homes.

Angott was curious about the motivations behind each design decision. Were brightly painted walls really a turnoff, as staging lore insists? Could the mere sight of a cat litter box in the house send prospective buyers fleeing?

To Angott's knowledge, staging never has been put to a rigorous, empirical test, and she wasn't in a position to undertake one. But she decided to take a preliminary step: to gather impressions from those with experience in staging of which principles appear to be most important. She explained how she approached it:

How does someone who's researching healthcare issues in a business school take up a study of home staging?

I had finished my Ph.D. and got a post-doctoral job and was moving across the country. My fiance said he would move with me for this job and said he was going to sell his house in the Ann Arbor, Mich., area. As part of the package from his real estate agent, he got a consultation with a stager, and I was there for that. She went through the house and told us everything she thought we needed to change. She mentioned some theories she had as to why some things would be effective. I got interested in what the underlying psychology of staging is.

When I got to Duke, I was chatting with this professor about research ideas, and he said that staging would make a great study, and I agreed.

How did you go about it?

We decided the first step should be to get a sense of what kinds of recommendations are endorsed on a large scale — what things people think are important to do. I collected some principles of staging from our stager, Kathi Presutti, who is based in Brighton, Mich. She put together these principles, and I created a survey from that. And she sent it to a stagers' trade group to see if they'd send it to their membership, and they did. They were interested that someone was trying to push this from a scientific point of view.

We got a huge response. I was surprised. At the time we did the analysis, we got 457 responses, and since then, we've gotten even more.

What did you ask them?

I gave them a list of statements, of actions a person could take [in staging] and asked them to rate how important each of those actions were.

What did they think was the most important thing?

The No. 1 in importance (6.55 on a 7-point scale) would be to remove personal items from bathrooms, such as used bars of soap, razors, toothbrushes, etc.

Why do you think it would be that specific thing?

I got this sense that the theory coming through in these answers is that people don't want to feel that the house they're buying is lived in — that other human beings are shaving and brushing their teeth in it. They don't want to imagine that other people are inhabiting the place we want to buy.

Other surprises?

The No. 2 concern was that home sellers should use rooms for their intended purpose, that the dining room should contain dining furniture and not be used as an office. It surprised me that buyers would be unable to visualize a space other than the way it already looks. Like with walls painted in really bright colors. I guess buyers will get hung up on that, but it's a cosmetic thing that could be easily changed, though it does affect their decisions a lot, according to stagers.

Umberger writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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