by Ann M. Colford

Staging - also known as real estate merchandising or decorating to sell - is a relatively new buzzword in the real estate business. Akin to retail merchandising or theatrical set design, staging is a way to create a mood that tells a story and enhances the desirability of the product for sale - i.e., your house. The trend began with higher-end properties but has spread to most segments of the market. In larger cities, some interior designers now act as home staging consultants, charging hundreds or even thousands of dollars to create an illusion of comfort and warmth for prospective buyers. Here in Spokane, however, most home presentation advice still comes from real estate professionals.

"Staging means different things to different people," says Ken Fry, a Realtor with Windermere/Johnson. "Generally, it means making the home more welcoming so potential buyers say, 'I can see myself living here.'"

But what exactly is it? Some consultants compare home staging to wearing a suit rather than jeans for a job interview. Top-of-the-line stagers may go so far as actually moving the homeowners' furnishings out and renting totally new decor until the house is sold. Local agents generally don't advocate such a radical approach, but they say it is important to cast a critical eye on your home once it becomes a commodity on the market.

"I start with the outside of the house," Fry explains. "I go across the street and look at the property to see what jumps out at me." His scan includes the condition of neighboring properties as well as an unflinching study of the client's home and yard. "Does the grass need to be trimmed, the weeds pulled, the fence fixed? Is the rain gutter coming loose and flapping in the wind? People get used to living with certain things and they just don't see them anymore. I advise them to find their most critical relative or friend and invite them to come over and be really honest."

Linda Knaggs, an agent with Windermere/North Wall, adds, "Street appeal is really important. Don't forget to look at the roof. And the front door has to be absolutely spotless. Something as simple as a new mat can make a difference."

An old adage says there's no second chance to make a good first impression, and research shows that holds true for potential home buyers. Fry says it's important to consider what kinds of unspoken messages are being conveyed by your home.

"If the lawn mower is sitting in the middle of the yard versus next to the garage, it sends a very different message," he says. "When everything is neat and in place, it says, these people care, they love this place."

Thinking about the message transmitted by your home carries indoors as well, he adds. "Inside, the main thing is to reduce clutter. Make sure there's open space around the furniture even if you have to move some pieces to the basement. Keep the countertops clear, have dishes in the dishwasher, make sure the sink's clean, and put the bills in a drawer. It's important to have everything swept and vacuumed and the beds made every day."

Fry says some clients complain about living in a showplace, but he assures them the inconvenience is only temporary. "They say they feel like they're living in a museum," he laughs. "And I say that's perfect. The people coming in may not be paying admission, but they're coming to view what you have."

The museum metaphor doesn't extend to large personal collections of photographs or tchotchkes, however. "You don't want to delete everything that's 'you,' but the whole photo gallery can attract a buyer's attention," cautions Knaggs. "And if they're looking at the photos, they don't see the house." This is not the time to display valuables, either, Fry adds. "Don't leave jewelry out or leave money around. Dust your things and make them look quaint, but put the family heirlooms away."

Buyers like spaces that are spacious, open, and bright, so hallways should be clear and all lighting fixtures in working order. Beyond cleaning, homeowners should strive to create a homey feeling. "It's been shown that emotion follows thought," Fry says. "If people think, 'This is so charming,' then they'll have that warm feeling and they'll be able to see themselves in the house doing comfortable things."

One specific hint Fry offers his clients is to keep the table set in a formal dining room. "I'll have them put out the silverware, the glasses, the flowers," he says. "Make it look like a Sunday dinner is about to happen, where people will be coming together, laughing, talking, and enjoying each other. That way, the buyers see a warm room where people love each other." And with a little bit of luck, some of that love will spill over to the house itself.

Publication date: 05/01/03

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