by Kathy Sena
When my husband and I were ready to sell our two-bedroom, one-bath home, “Whatever we have to do” became the family motto. Pressure wash the house? Sure. Paint the trim? No problem. We were motivated and ready we thought.
Then our real estate agent showed up with her own ruffled, rose-colored comforter, smiling and talking about “just sprucing up the back bedroom a bit.” Next came some throw pillows... and a small lamp.
Within a week, and for not much money, our agent helped us “stage” our home, turning a standard-issue bungalow into an adorable cozy cottage which sold quickly for a good price in a down market.
Our agent asked us to watch a DVD by Barb Schwarz, president of Stagedhomes.com. Following the video’s instructions, we rearranged furniture, packed up personal items, added a rustic cinnamon broom to the fireplace hearth and basically felt like we were living in a museum. Even the toothpaste got put away.
Says Schwartz, “Buyers only know what they see, not the way it’s going to be.” By hiding the shaving cream, stashing the coffee pot and packing up those family portraits, you’re giving prospective buyers a chance to visualize their coffee pot sitting on your kitchen counter.
Make staging your home a family affair, suggests Schwarz. Including the kids. and remembering to ask for their staging suggestions, can make staging seem like a fun family project. Here are a few tips:
Young Children. “Even young kids understand the concept of staging, and they get very enthusiastic,” says Schwarz. “Children as young as four years old can help. Just make it fun for them. Ask your child to put his toys into two piles his favorite toys and those he’s tired of for now. Then suggest he pack up the less-interesting toys in a special box marked ‘open me first.’ When he opens this box in the new house, all the toys will seem new again. In the mean time, you’ve cleared out a lot of the clutter from you child’s room.”
Another way to stage a child’s room is to buy inexpensive cardboard chests to hold extra clothing, toys and books, Schwarz suggests. Under-the-bed storage is another easy option, she says.
Older Kids. Older children may sometimes be less-than-enthusiastic about a family move, Schwarz says, and therefore uncooperative when it comes to staging their bedrooms and keeping the house clean. She suggests offering older kids a “staging reward” a new computer game, tickets to a concert or sporting event, or a gift card in exchange for their cheerful cooperation.
Is she advocating bribery? Schwarz laughs. “Just remember,” she says, “it’s important for your kids to feel like they’ve won, too. “When you sell your house quickly, everybody wins.”
Think clean. “Many buyers will walk out of a dirty house without even considering what’s underneath the dirt because they feel so uncomfortable,” says Schwarz. Professional steam cleaning for carpets and draperies is usually well worth the expense, she adds. But there are a lot of cleaning jobs you can do yourself.
Clean the top of the refrigerator, scour the stove, scrape the Dora the Explorer stickers off the refrigerator.
“Your house should be clean beyond clean,” says consumer advocate Alan Fields, co-author of Your New House. “Having a cleaning crew come through is good, but it’s not enough,” he says. “The kitchen and master bath are extremely important. Polish the faucets (paste wax works wonders), wipe down the sinks, bleach the stained grout. A nasty kitchen or bathroom really turns people off.” Clean the windows and most houses seem brighter.
Look at your walls. Is your child’s bedroom filled with posters? Potential buyers may see only holes to be filled and walls to be painted. Ask your child to pick one or two favorite posters to be re-hung after you fill the holes and repaint.
Collections of family photos on the living room walls, decorative items on the bathroom walls and certificates on the home-office walls also can turn off potential buyers.
Simply painting all the walls off-white can make your home appear more spacious. It also allows potential buyers to more easily visualize their belongings in your home.
Start packing now. “When you get ready to move, you’ll need to pack anyway, so just start packing early,” suggests Schwarz. Pack extra books, out-of-season clothing and sporting equipment and stack the boxes in the garage or in a rented storage space.
Clear away unnecessary objects, especially on coffee tables, dressers, kitchen counters and night stands. Hint: Buyers don’t look under beds.
Don’t strip the house bare, of course. “Just limit ornaments and knickknacks to groups of one, three or five,” Schwarz advises. Remove extra pillows, afghans and newspapers from the den and living room.
Create more space. If you have a small dining room, remove the extra leaves in your table. Consider moving extra chairs to storage. But if your dining room is huge, leave in the leaves to show buyers how nicely a large table fits in the room.
If you have a hutch or buffet in the dining room, pack away extra items. (It’s also a good time to remove valuable items from throughout the house, starting with the family silver or crystal. You’ll have one less thing to worry about during open houses.)
In the kitchen, you probably will be too busy to bake homemade bread or fix gourmet meals, so stash the food processor and mixer in a cupboard. Try to show the maximum amount of counter space.
Ironically, if you’ve already moved and you’re selling an empty house, it’s tough for potential buyers to visualize how their furniture might look. “You may want to rent a few key pieces of furniture,” suggests Olsen, noting that smaller-scale furniture will make rooms seem larger.
Be brutal with bathrooms and kitchens. Put away all but the most-needed cosmetics, brushes, perfumes, etc. Keep necessary items on the counter in a small group, perhaps in a basket or on a tray. Consider re-grouting tiles that have moldy or cracked grout. “Also, put away small garbage cans or hide them behind the toilet,” Schwarz advises. “And keep the toilet lid down.”
Needless to say, dirty dishes in the sink, crumbs on the counter and jelly on the toaster don’t cut it. Keep-ing the kitchen consistently clean is a tough challenge, Schwarz says. “Unfortunately, you have to keep the kitchen clean every single day your house is on the market, because you never know when buyers will walk through the door.”
Stash scouring pads and dish drainers under the sink. Clear away messages, photos, cartoons and school papers that have accumulated on the refrigerator. “If you like to display drawings your child did in school, pick just one favorite drawing to display on the refrigerator,” suggests Schwarz. Stick with just one or two small (healthy) plants on the window ledge.
Follow your nose. Of course, pet, cigarette and cooking smells can send potential buyers scurrying off to the next house. An “aroma” that is unnoticeable to a homeowner may be quite offensive to a potential buyer.
Keeping litter boxes clean is an obvious way to cut odors. Also, try increasing ventilation by opening windows on opposite ends of the house. The carpet and drapes often need steam cleaning. To add a pleasant aroma, set out small baskets of potpourri, especially in bathrooms.
Spruce up the fireplace. Clean out dirty ashes and close the screen. If the screen is old and rusted, spray paint it with heat-resistant paint. (Our painter used black, heat-resistant engine paint, available from the local auto parts store.) Remove soot on the outside of the fireplace with soot remover or oven cleaner.
In the winter, plan to light a fire just before your open house. In the summer, put a plant in front of the cleaned-out fireplace.
Add decorator touches on a budget. When we staged our home, we went to an import store, bought a “cinnamon broom,” and placed it on the fireplace hearth. The broom cost about $5. It looked great, and potential buyers commented on our “cozy living room that smells so good!”
Don’t be shy about asking friends and relatives to loan beautiful framed prints, a large plant to cover a bare spot or a homey-looking wall hanging. Dump those old, withered plants that have seen better days.
Don’t forget the outside. Curb appeal. It’s what gets people to stop and check out your home in the first place. Walk across the street and take an objective look at your house, suggests Schwarz.
Does the front door need painting? Is the front porch crowded with dead plants? Is there a pile of old wood stacked against the side of the house?
Be brutally honest. “If the front door and porch look old and ratty, buyers assume the inside looks bad, too,” says Woodruff. “Also, make sure the doorbell works. If it’s broken, buyers will assume you’ve let everything else go, too.”
Plant overgrowth keeps potential buyers from really seeing the outside of your home. “You can’t sell it if you can’t see it,’” Schwarz says. Overgrown shrubbery also can make the rooms inside look dark. Plus, too much plant growth can make the house appear smaller. So trim the trees and buzz the hedges.
Next, decide if you need to hire a lawn service. If you decide to do it yourself, weed and bark all planting areas and groom and fertilize the lawn. Then make a commitment to weekly lawn mowing and maintenance. Now’s the time to buy new bedding plants to add color, too.
Clean the garage. Make sure you’re not parking your car on the street because you can’t fit it in the garage. It may be a two-car garage, but people need to be able to see that it’s a two car garage.
Don’t forget your pets. Be cautious about having pets around during showings. Ask your agent to note in the Multiple Listing that you have a dog, and note where the dog will be during showings. Also consider posting a note on the front door or near the lock box explaining where the dog is located in the house.
The best solution is to remove your pet from the property during showings, says Fields.
One more thing: Don’t forget to clean up after your dog every day. You don’t want any surprises when people walk around the back yard.
Showing Your House
Once you’ve staged your home, it’s time to add those final touches that will make your property stand out.
Dazzle them with your flyer. These days a “for sale” sign often includes a box of flyers to highlight the home’s features. But at the end of the day all the flyers and properties start to look alike. How do you make your home more memorable? Buyers love to see floor plans. Also include a sample mortgage rate sheet. A photo or rendering on your flyer is another good memory jogger.
Use highlight cards. You can’t put everything on a flyer. But you can create, either by hand or on a computer, folded stand-up cards that describe your home’s special features. If you have beautiful Kohler faucets, put a highlight card in the bathroom. If you have a new dishwasher, skylights or leaded-glass windows, make sure agents and buyers don’t miss them.
Show your home in its best light. When your house is being shown, turn on all the lights, even in the daytime. Also remember to replace burned-out light bulbs, suggests Fields. “It adds to the light in the house, and it makes things look well-maintained,” he says. Leave all curtains, drapes, and blinds open. And keep the stereo tuned to soft FM music, suggests Schwarz, not hard rock or “funeral music.”
“Staging can help you get the most equity from your home in the shortest time. The inconvenience is a small price to pay,” says Schwarz.
And after just three weeks of picking up our socks, keeping the toilet seat down, and playing elevator music on the stereo, my husband and I had to agree. Our house sold.
Kathy Sena is a freelance writer specializing in family issues.