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"Stage" Right

A new breed of real-estate pros focuses on first impressions


Published May 1, 2006 at 5:13 p.m.

Got a house on the market? Then maybe it's time to box up all those Barbie dolls cluttering the den. Or maybe you should consider moving some furniture and artwork into that cavernous living room, which looks and sounds like a bowling alley and feels just as cozy. Oh, and about that, um, "aromatic" Airedale? You might consider investing in a professional carpet cleaning - or at least a new air freshener.

Let's face it: Unless you're Martha Stewart, your home probably doesn't look like something that would be featured in Better Homes and Gardens. More likely it looks, well, lived in. A real-estate agent may be reluctant to break it to you that cow-centric decor - in every room of the house - isn't exactly wooing buyers to make a desirable offer.

These days, a different kind of professional clues you in. Like more competitive housing markets elsewhere in the country, Vermont has seen a rise in the use of "staging" services - experts who help sellers present their houses in the best possible light.

The timing couldn't be more fortuitous. According to the National Association of Realtors, the number of existing homes for sale is up 39.1 percent from last year. In Chittenden County, real estate agents report that houses are taking longer to sell than they did 12 months ago. Although it's not yet a buyer's market, house hunters can take more time making a decision.

"It used to be that a few years ago, if you wanted a house, you didn't ask for an inspection. You'd sell your first born and you'd sign on the dotted line in your blood and maybe you'd get the house if you offered $10,000 over the asking price," says Kendall Farrell, one of a handful of professional "stagers" in Chittenden County. "It's not like that anymore."

Farrell, who's been in the staging business for almost a year, explains that her job entails visiting a home and telling the sellers how they can increase their home's visual appeal. Much of the work is simply a matter of understanding and communicating the psychology of potential homebuyers - namely, that they decide whether they're interested in a house within minutes, if not seconds, of entering it.

"The way that you live in your house and the way that you show a house are two totally different things," Farrell explains. "Staging is going into a house and trying to play up the assets and downplay the challenges."

For seasoned home shoppers and viewers of the A&E television program "Sell This House," staging isn't exactly a groundbreaking concept. Part feng shui, part clutter reduction, part interior design, staging involves using existing furnishings, decor and architecture to the best possible advantage. According to Farrell, this often means eliminating or reducing the "negative visceral reactions" that can turn off a potential buyer, such as smoke or pet odors, outdated color schemes, and spaces that are under- or over-furnished.

Staging is more sophisticated than leaving cookies baking in the oven to make the place seem more homey -- an old sellers' trick. And Farrell doesn't just walk through the house, make her recommendations and leave. She actually helps her clients do the work -- from picking up laundry and moving furniture to spackling walls and repainting rooms.

Farrell, who has worked on homes priced from $200,000 to $1 million, says every seller's motivation and commitment level is different, depending on how much time and money they're willing to invest. Some homes can be successfully staged in a matter of hours; others take days. Staging can be a particular benefit when selling an empty house. Adding a few pieces of furniture, plants, or wall hangings allows potential buyers to better visualize how their own furniture might work in that space.

Staging also requires diplomacy. "It's hard, because people have lived in their homes for anywhere from five years to 40 years, and they get accustomed to the way it looks -- and smells," says Kim Fisher of Burlington, who has been in the business for about 18 months.

That's why real-estate agents often prefer to have a staging professional on board to preserve their client relationships. Sellers are more likely to trust a stager, who doesn't work on commission but benefits from a seller's positive reference. The house that goes quickly improves the stager's rep.

Currently, there are no figures available in Vermont comparing sales of homes that are staged to those that are not; the profession is still too new here to have reliable market indicators. But at the national level, Fisher claims that a staged house will sell, on average, in 13.9 days, versus 30 days for an unstaged house. And the property will typically sell for more than the asking price. Although Fisher hasn't yet seen the asking prices for staged homes rise in Vermont, in her experience, they do sell more quickly.

"A house that's staged looks ready to go," Fisher adds. "That's what people do when they walk into a house. They're calculating what they're going to have to put in, and then take that off the asking price."

Both Farrell and Fisher offer consultations and charge by the hour. Both also offer props, such as artwork, furniture pieces and other items, to help make an empty house look more presentable. The price of staging a house can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the amount of work involved and the size of the house. But as Farrell points out, the cost of staging a house is invariably lower than the amount a seller has to lower the asking price if no one's nibbling.

Staging a house doesn't always have the expected result, Farrell says. After seeing how good it can look, some homeowners decide not to sell after all.