By Robert Hollis
Walk into any busy retail store these days and take a critical look at what is before you. The best displays provide a feast for the eye, sending a seductive message: Come hither and inspect the merchandise up close.
Masters of this technique of showcasing include successful businesses like the Nature Company, Sharper Image, furniture retailers and even your neighborhood florist. Restaurants likewise strive to create a comfortable atmosphere in which customers maybe inclined to linger, perhaps over an extra dish.
It follows then that people interested in maximizing the sale price of their home should be willing to devote time and resources to present their merchandisein this case the dwelling and its lotin the best possible light.
Real estate agents generally agree that with a modest amount of planning and some elbow grease, sellers can literally turn a sow's ear of a house into a silk purse of a home. This process, called "staging," often results in a quicker sale at a higher price.
Staging is basically a variation on the model homesales approach used by big developers for decades to promote everything from condos to track homes. The difference, of course, is the home to be showcased is now or recently been occupied.
It isn't unusual for a developer to spend tens of thousands of dollars decorating a model. Creative staging can cost no more tan a few hundred dollars to pull off, agents say.
"There are so many houses on the market today that you want yours to stand out," says Sheila Sabine, an Oakland real estate agent with Prudential California Realty. "Staging not only helps a home stand out, it also conveys a sense of quality in the way people want to live."
Most of us, whether we admit it or not, live amid a certain amount of clutter, often surrounded by personal items that we wouldn't dream of showing to a stranger, be it dirty laundry or last night's sinkload of dirty dishes.
But what surprises many would-be buyers is the number of homes for sale, even in today's glutted real estate market, that show little or no concern for maintenance or pride of ownership. Often this is the case with former rental dwellings that have been abused by the tenants.
"Selling a house and living in a house are two different things," Myrtice Wong, an Oakland real estate agent. Clearly, the less clutter a home seeker beholds, the more likely he or she will take a closer look at what's for sale, she said.
This usually involves clearing out much of the seller's furniture. The less clutter in a room, the bigger it looks, Wong noted.
Dian Hymer, an Oakland agent with Caldwell Banker, recalls a home she listed in the hills that was owned by a well-known sports figure and his wife. "He had a fabulous baseball and baseball cap collection," she said. "I told him to put it all away. Otherwise people (coming through) concentrate on their stuff instead of the house itself."
If sellers balk, she argues: "They're moving anyway; just start packing."
"The goal of staging," says Sabine, "is to create in the minds of the would-be buyers a sense of elegance, of fun, of fantasy when they walk through the door of a home."
"I try to let them see where they can sit by the fire and sip a glass of wine, where they can have their dinner parties, and where they can end their stressful day in their master bedroom," said Sabine, an agent with Prudential.
"People fall in love with what they buy because they consciously and unconsciously see themselves living there," Sabine said. "We're talking about living theater."
"The process starts with what agents call 'curb appeal.' Aside from a fresh coat of exterior paint and a neat and tidy yard, add a big terra cotta pot of colorful annuals by the front door," suggests Sabine.
If the yard has a drought-afflicted lawn some staging experts tearing it out and resodding, although they acknowledge that it's an expensive operation.
"In general," said Wong, "color and lighting are the two essentials of staging."
"Painting is probably, dollar for dollar, the cheapest fix," said Hymer." "Use neutral colors, nothing garish. Navajo white is the decorator's color of choice."
Careful pruning of trees and shrubs can open a yard up, letting more light fall on windows. Then, by opening the drapes, natural light floods the interior.
Like real theater, lighting is essential to home staging. "Put the highest wattage lights you can in your fixtures," suggests Hymer. "Open the drapes. Have the house show as light as possible."
In some cases, Wong suggests bringing in a decorator to provide "a third-eye view" of a home and offer suggestions for ways to show it more effectively.
This can cost as little as $50 or as much as $500, agents say. But if the outside expertise brings in several thousand dollars more or helps sell a home that's languished on the market for months, the money is well spent, she said.
Sabine recalls walking into one house in Montclair which had been sitting vacant and unsold for so long that the listing had lapsed. "There were bars on the windows, it was very dark and dingy inside, and it was way overpriced," she said.
Sabine convinced the sellersadult children of the former owner-occupantto paint the interior, remove the bars, throw open the drapes and lower the price.
Then Sabine brought in some furniture, part of a collection she keeps in her own home for her stagings, and went to work. Like many agents she provides the service for free, because in the long run it brings in new clients and boosts her income, she said.
"We had an offer the first day we showed it," she said.
Since virtually every Eastbay house on the market these days is incorporated into the Multiple Listing Service, staging is also important when a newly listed home is first inspected by local agents, Hymer said.
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