Houses dressed to sell

The Star-Ledger, March 7th, 2006

The Star-Ledger Archive COPYRIGHT © The Star-Ledger 2006

Date: 2006/03/07 Tuesday Page: 033 Section: BUSINESS Edition: FINAL Size: 1294 words

A few finishing touches can help your property stand out from the rest

By SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

When Karen Doyle decided to sell her three-bedroom home in Mount Laurel, she knew it needed an edge if she hoped to move the home faster than the competition down the street and add as much as possible to its selling price.

The dark wood paneling in the living room, the chocolate brown rug running up the stairs and the brown molding and doors in almost every room may have been fashionable in the 1970s. But Doyle had watched enough Home and Garden television shows to know her crib badly needed a makeover.

So, she did what more and more homeowners are doing on the eve of the spring selling season. She hired a "stager" – a professional whose job is to primp the house for quick sale and to bring in top dollar even if the residential real estate market is lukewarm.

Enter Cathy Hartman, the 39-year-old owner of Creative Home Staging & Design, also based in Mount Laurel.

Doyle's 2,000-square-foot house was well maintained, but it was bland and blah, dark and dim; no color, no focal points, nothing to lift the eye or the spirit, Hartman said.

The solution: a coat of cream-colored paint reinvigorated the walls, the paneling and ceiling and wall-to-wall beige carpeting to freshen up the floors; the molding and doors were painted white.

Every lighting fixture in the house was replaced. Family photos and personal knickknacks were packed away. New paintings were hung on the wall.

And finally, Hartman, who has a storage unit filled with props – everything from antique furniture to art to silk flowers – replaced much of Doyle's furniture with her own.

In the end, no one would have ever guessed Doyle had lived there at one time – not even Doyle. And the transformation worked wonders: Hartman finished staging the home on a Friday, held an open house on a Sunday and got a full-price offer – $325,900 – that evening.

"The day someone decides to sell their home is the day it becomes an investment," said Hartman, a former intelligence analyst with the Air Force. "It's no longer your home. Your home is where you are moving to. It's an investment. You put in, you get out."

Staging, traditionally a privilege of the wealthy, has flourished and thrived in competitive West Coast markets for years. A&E Television airs a home-staging show called "Sell This House" and HGTV has "Designed to Sell."

But local real estate agents said the trend is becoming increasingly popular, especially among sellers such Doyle, with homes priced at less than $500,000.

And now, as the housing market slows and gets even more crowded with a deluge of homes for sale at the start of the spring season, a growing number of local real estate brokers are convinced such makeovers will become more crucial than ever.

"I wasn't going to give anyone a reason to bring my price down," said Doyle, 57, a commercial underwriter with Selective Insurance in Hamilton.

Indeed, the days of homeowners hammering a For Sale sign in their front yard and igniting a bidding war in a matter of minutes are a thing of the past, as the pace of new and existing home sales slows and the level of inventory starts to rise.

But Hartman, like many professional stagers, said staged homes sell faster and for more money, regardless of how hot or cool the real estate market is.

Historically, houses that are staged are on the market an average of 13.9 days, while homes that have not been staged are on the market for an average of 30.9 days, according to Staged- Homes.com. Also, the average amount greater than the list price on staged homes is 6.3 percent, versus 1.6 percent for homes that aren't staged.

JoAnne Cialfi, who teaches home re-design and staging at Warren County Community College in Washington Township, said the goal of staging a home is to set a scene that will encourage buyers to imagine themselves living in that home.

Set the dinner table with your best china. Use the coziness and romance of the fireplace to advantage. Put a pair of wine glasses and a vase of flowers on the coffee table in front of the fire.

"Some people like to fill the bathtub with water and put floating flowers on top of the water or light candles," she said. "You can even bake cookies every time you show the house. You may gain 20 pounds, but when you pass out the cookies and put them on the table as part of the staging, people feel like they are coming home."

The concept of home staging was pioneered by California Realtor Barb Schwarz in 1972.

Since then, Schwarz's company, StagedHomes.com, which has trademarked the terms "stage," "staging" and "staged," has trained and accredited thousands of real estate agents and decorators nationwide.

Hartman, of Mount Laurel, is one of them.

In 2003, Hartman went to California to train under Schwarz after returning from Oman, where she had been stationed as a member of the New Jersey Air National Guard after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Hartman said she has always had a gift that allows her to walk into any room, look around and transform it in a matter of minutes, either by moving furniture, clearing off the coffee table, or rearranging the potted plants.

Indeed, in the middle of her conversation one recent afternoon, at a Starbucks in Montclair, Hartman stops mid-sentence and looks at a large display of coffee beans near the side entrance.

"This whole big thing is totally blocking everything," she said, gesturing toward the coffee beans. "It would be better if it was against the wall and out of this space. It has to flow. Things have to be high, low, in or out. You are selling space. You are selling a feel. A look."

Back in Oman, Hartman said she bunked in a place the soldiers referred to as Tent City in the desert – the military's method of creating bases without hard quarters. Eight people were housed in each tent, sleeping on cots, with cardboard boxes for shelves.

Of course, Hartman couldn't resist the urge to stage her tent.

"There was a cardboard little drawer thing and I put pictures on it and I had things hanging," she said with a laugh. "It was really cool. Anywhere I go – my office, my house – is all about space."

In fact, staging can be as minimal as moving furniture, clearing off the coffee table, rearranging the potted plants or as complicated as hiring a professional home decorator, painter, contractor or landscaper.

Stager's fees can range from $50 to $150 an hour, approximately $350 for an initial consultation, and an average of $1,500 to stage a whole house, according to StagedHomes.com.

But while it need not cost a fortune, it is not unusual to spend as much as $10,000, $20,000, or even more to reinvent your home for a sale.

Schwarz of StagedHomes.com said homeowners typically "invest 1 percent of the sale price," on preparing the home for sale.

Doyle, for example, went the whole nine yards and spent about $10,000 to ready her house for sale – money she feels was well spent.

"My first instinct was to resist because it was a little scary," Doyle said.

But when buyers started walking through house, she knew she had done the right thing, she said.

"One of the Realtors said to me, 'I don't know about them, but if these guys don't want to buy your house, I do,'" Doyle said. "That made me feel good hearing that from a Realtor who sees many places. I did everything I could to make sure people would want this house."

_____________________________________________________________________________________________ Sam Ali may be reached at sali@starledger.com or (973) 392-4188.

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