To Exit, Stage Right

These scene-stealing techniques can help your home sell fast.

Attracting an audience for your home in the current buyers’ market takes preparation. The good news for sellers is that making a favorable impression matters more than price. Artful staging can put your house in the spotlight and reduce competitors’ homes to bit players.

Granted, buyers are purchasing only the property, not its contents. However, most people cannot see past your personal property and preferences to imagine themselves in your space. You can help them through the art of staging, by creating a sense of balance, simplicity, cleanliness, spaciousness and flow regardless of your home’s size or design. It requires that you use your furnishings to show off the house’s features, not to display your own style. Think generic. Think minimal. Think Pottery Barn.

Act one
Once you’ve decided to sell, you need to emotionally part with your home. When you put a house on the market, it’s no longer your personal space; it’s someone else’s future home. Consider the space temporary living quarters.

For a while, life will be less convenient: You’ll constantly be picking up and cleaning. You’ll have to live without some personal effects and avoid prominently posting kids’ artwork and family schedules. Your house may not feel as homey to you because it needs to feel like a potential home to someone else. To take your mind off the inconveniences, focus on the benefits: a higher value and a faster sale.

Setting the stage
Real estate experts say buyers often choose a property with their hearts before using their heads, and the presentation of your home can influence a potential buyer’s emotional response. A good presentation improves the aesthetics and functionality of your home – in fact, you may wonder why you didn’t make these changes sooner. Here are some steps to get started:

  • Declutter - Remove extra belongings from closets, the garage, cupboards, the basement, spaces under stairways, etc. To reduce inventory, hold a yard sale, donate items to charity or give them to friends and family. Pack up things you must keep but don’t need for day-to-day living (Aunt Marie’s china, the kids’ baby books, your first doll, etc.). Rent storage space if necessary.
  • Take this step in stages, advises interior redesign professional Jackie Olmstead of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “Go through and declutter your whole house. Then go through your house a second time to declutter again. And finally, have a friend go through and declutter with a fresh eye to see the good, the bad and the ugly that you have become accustomed to and look right past,” she says.
  • Neutralize and depersonalize - Applying a new coat of off-white paint can accomplish four important goals: freshening the walls, brightening the room, opening the space and neutralizing the color. To depersonalize, remove family photos and souvenirs. (Don’t worry; you can display them again in your new place.) Eliminate most collections, knick-knacks and excess decorative accessories, especially if they look dated.
  • Update the decor - Invest in a few fashionable accessories for the fireplace mantel and coffee table. Paint an accent wall or add a few throw pillows in a trendy color. Replacing outmoded light fixtures is a high-impact, low-cost way to keep up with current styles.
  • Improve balance and flow – Open up the space by removing excess furniture. Rearrange to create conversation areas and a focal point in the room. “Move large seating furniture off of the walls,” Olmstead says. “Pushing seating up against walls reveals more floor space and perhaps makes the room appear larger, but it can also make [the space] feel cold and uninviting, like a doctor’s waiting room.”
  • Keep it clean - Besides regular dusting, sweeping and vacuuming, this also means picking up after yourself. Eliminate back issues of newspapers and magazines. Keep houseplants healthy and pruned. “If artificial plants or flowers are used, make certain that they are appropriate to the season and that they are free of dust,” Olmstead adds. Don’t overlook your windows. Keeping them clean will open up the view outside and improve the lighting inside.
  • Appeal to all five senses – The need for visual appeal is obvious, but smell, taste, sound and touch are important as well. Consider baking cookies before an open house. Play pleasant background music during showings, and make sure handrails, cabinet pulls and doorknobs are not sticky. Be aware of pet odors and do something about them,” Olmstead says. “However, don’t use chemical air ‘fresheners’ as they can imply that you’re trying to mask an odor (such as mold). Artificial fragrances may even spur some shoppers to leave, not linger.”

Dining room: Buyers looking at this older house will appreciate its charm: arched doorways, coved ceilings, built-in hutch and hardwood floors. We removed the rug and extra chairs and replaced the ‘80’s ceiling fan with a modern fixture that suits the home’s bungalow style.

Coffee table: By removing magazines and changing accessories to a simple, yet more striking arrangement, we decluttered and decorated the room at the same time. The candles, scented with essential oils, provide an unobtrusive but pleasant aroma.

When taking all of these steps, maintain an objective perspective. You are probably somewhat blind to your home’s flaws. Enlist the help and advice of a trusted friend or family member to come in with a fresh eye (and nose) and offer honest feedback. Or better yet, seek the services of a professional who is trained in staging or interior redesign.

Adding marquee value
Homebuyers are greatly influenced by a home’s kitchens and bathrooms. So if you’re spending money on remodeling and repairs, these rooms are where you’ll earn the best return for your dollar.

Closets are also important, and upgrading them with organizational systems can make a strong impression. Put your existing closets in the best light by keeping them as empty as possible. Remove out-of-season clothes. Store nothing on the floor, even shoes. Olmstead advises arranging clothes by length, grouping all shirts together, all slacks together, etc. “If you really want to be obsessive, organize a step further by color,” she adds.

Entry: Moving furniture away from the small entryway and adding a long rug opens the area and creates an invitation to enter the room. (The rug also improves a buyer’s first impression by detracting from the dated vinyl floor near the front door.)

For more ideas on simple improvements, spend time shopping the competition. Attend showings in your area to see how your house compares with others. Adopt a buyer’s perspective and note the things you like as well as turnoffs. For example, did personal effects or an ugly couch make a home less appealing? This experience can help you to look more objectively at your own presentation.

Effective staging can help make your home more presentable (as well as more enjoyable) every day, so you needn’t wait until you’re ready to exit to grab the spotlight. Work with the props you have to create balance and flow and to make your home shine. That way it will be the perfect setting for any scenario, whether you sell immediately or stay for years.

Tips and Tricks
Though most of the steps we’ve recommended are simple and straightforward, a trained professional can take your property’s potential to the next level. “Stagers” or “redesign professionals” use several strategies to de-emphasize the negatives and highlight the positives of any home. Here are a few general principles:

  • Furniture placement - Balance the weight, focal points and architectural features to create an ambience of calm and comfort that invites a potential buyer to sit rather than walk past the room. For example, remove extra chairs from a crowded dining room to make it seem spacious.
  • Wall art and color - Place art no higher than 6 in. above seating furniture. Relate the size of a picture to the wall space. For example, don’t hang a single small picture on a large wall.
  • Accessories – Use a few carefully selected, well-placed items. Before an open house, set the dining room table as if it were prepared for guests. The coffee table is a good place to accessorize to add a bit of drama in a living room.
  • Lighting – Open the shades (unless the view detracts from the home’s appeal). Arrange a triangle of lamps in the room. When possible, turn on all lights and lamps during showings to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
  • Floors - If space allows, place a large rug in the foyer to create the feeling of a grand entry. An undersize throw rug can make the area seem small and crowded. In other rooms, you may want to remove area rugs to show off fabulous hardwood, stone or tile floors.