Why Staging Matters

Dining, Living Room Condo

© windy Li – AdobeStock

In its early years, staging was occasionally used in vacant and hard-to-sell homes. Nowadays, more listings are staged than ever. Here’s why.

March 5, 2020


Selling a home these days can be tough. Buyers have become more particular. Few people care that a seller spent decades collecting snow globes, colorful Fiestaware, or mugs from around the world. Instead, they’re looking for fresh, thoughtfully furnished rooms where they can create their dream setting rather than buy into the seller’s life.

This is why staging has become so important.

Fiona Dogan with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty in Rye, N.Y., is a diehard staging advocate who recommends the strategy to all her clients. “You can’t list a house without staging it, unless it’s going to be a teardown,” she says.

The prime reasons staging has become commonplace is due to consumer demand and the proliferation of online home shopping, says Amanda Wiss, a professional organizer and owner of Urban Clarity in Brooklyn, N.Y., who added staging to her skill set.

“Most buyers first see a home online, so photographs matter,” she says. “If it’s too cluttered, they might not go look at it in person.”

While staging may have attained its popularity in higher-priced and vacant listings, it now appears in all segments of the market. As a result, more savvy real estate pros like Dogan recommend sellers have their homes staged before they list, no matter the price, size, condition, or location.

The goal is the same for all listings: to help the seller achieve the highest sales price in the quickest time, says Adelaide Mulry, an agent with Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty in Locust Valley, N.Y., also a professional stager and designer. The good news is that the number of people available to stage a home has increased dramatically in recent years, with 28% of listing agents staging sellers’ homes before listing, according to the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2019 Profile of Home Staging report.

Sellers can take their pick of whom to hire. There are full-time professional stagers, real estate professionals who have jumped in to learn, and professional organizers like Wiss. Some home owners like to do staging themselves, motivated by reality TV shows and Marie Kondo–style decluttering books.

There’s a growing list of courses as well, such as the three-day program offered by stager and designer Kristie Barnett of The Decorologist in Nashville. Other accreditation programs and industry designations—such as the Accredited Staging Professional or the Designer Society of America’s Certified Home Staging Professional—give a stager the chance to tout their expertise. Companies that offer staging resources have also become more plentiful in the form of attractive rental furnishings, artwork, and accessories. Some stagers and real estate pros prefer to buy merchandise, which Dogan has done.

Staging Works

After Wiss staged a two-bedroom condominium in Brooklyn, the owners received four offers at an open house that sparked a bidding war. The property sold for 25% more than the listing price.

Sellers who don’t stage a home before it’s listed risk losing out to comparable staged homes, says Christopher Barrow, co-managing partner and broker with Foundation Homes Property Management in California’s Marin County. “Nobody wants a home with Venetian plaster from the ’80s,” he says.

Staging first emerged in the 1970s after real estate pro Barb Schwarz, who has a background in theater, developed the concept and trademarked the term to help show her listings. It originally involved simple decluttering, making basic repairs, and arranging furniture; nowadays, it’s used to completely transform rooms and sometimes entire homes, so they look new. It can even go beyond adding furnishings; some use luxury towels, designer shoes, and handbags to suggest a lifestyle, says Lynn B. Telling, an agent and luxury specialist with Illustrated Properties in Palm Beach, Fla.

The number of rooms staged in a listing typically depends on a home’s overall condition, market competition, and listing price. But usually staging a few main rooms will suffice. “You can always leave a few spaces to a buyer’s imagination rather than do the entire house,” says Marcie Barnes, director of strategic growth at Prevu Real Estate, a New York–based real estate company that focuses on buyers.

Buyers consider the living room the most important to stage, followed by the master bedroom and kitchen, according to NAR’s staging report. In each staged space, the goal is to create a universally appealing, updated, clean setting—what Dogan calls “today’s staged aesthetic.” Common denominators include neutral colored walls and hardwood floors (a rug is OK as long some flooring shows), a few pieces of comfortable, modern furniture to hint at a room’s use (perhaps a laptop on a table), mostly empty countertops and bookshelves, good modern lighting, a few accessories, and some art or a bit of color to add a pop so the space isn’t devoid of personality.

Fresh greenery offers a bit of warmth, says Barnes. Often, the desire to show some creativity is reserved for a small space, such as a wallpapered powder room. Barnes also likes to include a seasonal reference—a beachy vibe come spring and summer or cozy feel in the fall and winter—and at least one hot trend, such as a smart-home tech device.

Sometimes, however, more work is required to make a listing showing-ready because of the home’s condition or the market it’s in. Agent Barb St. Amant with Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International Realty recently had a listing in an Atlanta suburb that required interior and exterior paint, wood rot repair, kitchen and master bathroom renovations, and property landscaping to compete in that area. The home sold for 96% of its list price, went under contract within a month, and closed 30 days later. “There were nine to 11 months of inventory in that area, and typical days on market were from two to three months,” she says.

Although staging often calls for a spare look, in some areas complete household settings are making inroads—at least in trend-setting Los Angles. There, luxury staged homes are displaying more furnished interiors that are so complete, some buyers purchase what’s featured after they buy the house, says Meridith Baer. Her 30-year-old eponymous firm, Meridith Baer Home, in L.A., is hired both by agents and developers to stage their listings. The firm routinely stages 30 properties a week. “We want buyers to fall in love, and we do a variety of looks, from more minimal to very layered,” she says.

The Cost Breakdown

What a seller typically spends on staging is proportionate to the home size and condition, listing price, estimated return on investment, and competition. Sometimes sellers may not have to spend funds at all since some agents offer their time for decluttering, rearranging furnishings, and making suggestions. That’s the approach Kati Baker takes, a luxury home staging specialist with Downtown Realty Co. in Chicago. She rearranges furniture, bookshelves, and art and removes anything in the house that may cause an off-putting smell.

Dogan always works with sellers to determine the level of staging needed to best show off their home and within their budget. She covers the cost of a staging consultant to assess the home pre-listing. If the seller wants to use the stager, Dogan hires the person, but the seller pays for the services and any related costs. Dogan will also tap into her own inventory of items for some stagings. Typically, her sellers’ costs range from $2,000 to $5,000, which might involve a simple paint refresh or furniture rental, she says.

However, staging a large vacant house may cost significantly more, upwards of $30,000 for some of her listings. But Dogan says the return on investment can be $50,000 or greater in her New York market. On average, sellers see about a 5% return on investment nationwide, according to the 2019 NAR report.

St. Amant offers sellers a free two-hour consultation with a stager. Most stagers in her area charge $125 to $250 an hour. The goal, she says, is to spend the least amount of money and get the greatest return. And some sellers invest significantly. A client of St. Amant, who lived in a neighborhood with $1 million homes, recently spent more than $100,000 getting the house ready to list, half of which went toward deferred maintenance.

“With advice from the stager, we made necessary changes to the 30-year-old home and quickly got an offer that was nearly $200,000 over what we might have if it hadn’t been updated and staged,” she says.

Not all sellers can afford to do this, so it’s important that agents work within a budget.

Mulry reminds sellers that the cost of staging is nominal compared to a possible price reduction they’d have to make if the home sits on the market, unstaged, with little interest from buyers.

10 Questions to Ask When Hiring A Stager

Help clients do their staging homework. First, find out what comparable homes look like and whether they’re staged. Then interview potential stagers with these questions.

  1. Can I see before-and-after photos of jobs you’ve handled? Can you explain what you did and why?
  2. Do you usually stage all the rooms in a house or condo, or just a few key rooms? Which ones?
  3. Do you recommend taking down artwork and curtains and removing most accessories?
  4. Do you have access to a staging inventory that you own or rent? If the furnishings will be rented, how long is the rental period?
  5. Can any of my client’s furnishings be used for staging, and if so, which ones?
  6. Do you recommend other improvements, such as painting, polishing floors, or resurfacing kitchen cabinets if you believe it’s required?
  7. Do you offer expertise concerning the property’s exterior?
  8. How will the seller will be charged? Is it by the number of rooms, hours on the clock, or a flat fee for the entire project?
  9. What’s your average return on investment? How much might my seller might realize if the home is staged versus not staged?
  10. Can my client get the specifics of your staging proposal in writing?

Source: Christopher Barrow, Foundation Homes Property Management, Marin County, Calif.

staged baby nursery

© Kati Baker

The Anatomy of Staging

Staging should celebrate a property’s features while attracting a large pool of potential buyers. Here are two before and after examples.

The Before and After of Two Homes
The key to staging is showcasing a home’s best features without making it look like a furniture showroom lacking character, says Kati Baker, luxury home staging specialist with Downtown Realty Co. in Chicago. These before-and-after photos help reveal the staging process in two different properties.

Living Room: Before
Professional organizer and stager Amanda Wiss, owner of Urban Clarity in Brooklyn, N.Y., worked on the living room of a home that included two cluttered etageres, heavy window treatments that concealed light and views, and dark wallcovering that made the room appear smaller. The walls were lined with artwork and the room had too many furnishings, so it didn’t encourage sitting and conversation. A dated rug covering most of the floor.

Living Room: After
Wiss decluttered the two etageres and moved them along one wall. She added a large, neutral rug that expands the space and defines the seating area while still leaving the flooring exposed. She improved the arrangement with a few pieces of comfortable furniture and a good walk-around space that’s still close enough for conversation. Pops of color complement the room and a trio of mirrors creates the illusion of depth and makes the area feel bigger. The piano in the corner adds a handsome focal point, expressing refined taste and adding warmth with its wood case. The neutral background of crisp white paint also makes the room appear larger and brighter in an easy, affordable way. For more light, windows were left uncurtained. “Curtains are fine as long as they are not fussy,” Wiss says. “But in this room, the lack of them adds a clean, modern focus.”

Dining and Living Room: Before
Real estate agent, designer, and stager Fiona Dogan with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty in Rye, N.Y., staged a dining room and living room that was overrun with dark colors and grains. The windows had old-fashioned patterned valences that made the room look dated. It also included an outdated table lamp, dark walls, a dark, old-fashioned wood table and chairs, and dark fabrics on the sofa and other upholstered pieces in the living room. The busy patterns on two Oriental-style rugs were distracting and covered a large area of the floor.

Dining and Living Room: After
Dogan had the walls and fireplace painted white to freshen and lighten up the space. She added a contemporary pendant light for a big accent and replaced the table lamp with a floor lamp in the corner for a more modern vibe. She replaced the heavy wood table with a glass dining room table and modern chairs for style and lightness with one simple, modern objet d’art as a centerpiece. The left deck is without furniture to open up the space. Dogan also removed the patterned dark furniture and replaced it with white upholstered seating for a contemporary look. The rug under the table was removed to show off the flooring, while another contemporary area rug was added by the seating area.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).

A Vision for the Greenest Homes Ever

This year’s New American Home, an annual concept build at the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, reflects the most technologically advanced methods of achieving energy efficiency.

February 20, 2020


It’s not new-fangled gadgetry that makes the New American Home, a model reflecting the latest in construction and design standards, so cutting-edge. The 6,428-square-foot, five-bedroom property, which was unveiled at January’s International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, doesn’t spare technology—check out the “transitional” outdoor entertainment space with a custom fireplace and “vanishing edge” pool. But it’s the multitude of ways the home slashes energy costs that’s most noteworthy.

Located in Henderson, Nev., overlooking the Las Vegas skyline, the home was constructed using the industry’s most advanced building products and techniques to optimize energy efficiency, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The property is expected to achieve LEED Emerald-level status—the National Green Building Standard’s highest efficiency rating.

New American Home

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The home features spray-foam insulation, high-quality solar panels, automated LED lighting and green appliances, and the most energy-efficient doors and windows, according to Drew Smith, a Florida energy and green building consultant who worked on the project. While the average new home has a HERS rating of 100, the New American Home scored –16. “That’s tied for the lowest for a New American Home,” Smith says. “Solar made a difference. Without it, [the home’s HERS rating] was 49. And for a house that large, that’s the lowest HERS index we have ever seen. The calculated energy savings is about $4,000 a year because of the solar and total design of the home.”

The building standards of the project reflect how home builders across the country are prioritizing high-performance construction practices, NAHB officials say. A new study from the association shows that 91% of builders are incorporating energy-efficient practices—including tight building envelopes and high-performance ventilation systems—and 69% do so on a majority of their projects. “These findings complement the results of a recent study where home buyers ranked high-performance products and practices among the top features they want in a home,” says John Barrows, chair of the NAHB’s Sustainability and Green Building Subcommittee. “This shows us that the value of home performance is increasing among builders and consumers.”

But while builders credit consumer demand for prompting increased eco-friendly construction, they say even higher demand is necessary to influence more meaningful growth in the green-home market. Only a third of builders—still an impressive number—identify as green, according to Donna Laquidara-Carr, industry insights research director at Dodge Data & Analytics, which conducted the NAHB study.

A majority of builders and remodelers say their customers perceive green homes to be more expensive than traditional homes, Laquidara-Carr says. Still, about 70% of single-family home builders believe their customers will pay more for a green home, she adds.

Other Emerging Building Trends

The NAHB released a separate study naming the home trends, buyer preferences, and must-have features for 2020, including energy efficiency. Efficient lighting, programmable thermostats, and Energy Star–rated appliances are the green features most likely to be included in new homes this year, according to Rose Quint, the NAHB’s assistant vice president of survey research.

Additionally, the study shows that the average home size continues to decrease after peaking at 2,689 square feet in 2015. It has fallen four years in a row to its current 2,520 square feet and is at its smallest since 2011. The majority of both first-time and repeat buyers say they would rather have a smaller home with high-quality amenities than a bigger home with fewer features, Quint says. The percentage of homes incorporating four or more bedrooms, three-plus bathrooms, and garages for three or more cars has also dropped to levels not seen since 2012, she adds. “This points to an industry trying to meet the demands of the entry-level home buyer. Builders are struggling to meet these demands because of factors such as restrictive zoning regulations and lot prices, with the price of a new lot in 2019 averaging $57,000.”

The NAHB also highlighted home design trends coming in the future, including:

  • Colorful kitchens incorporating aqua, dark woods, and new, colored textures.
  • Crisp colors paired with warm woods.
  • Expansive, large-format windows.
  • High-quality signature front entries and improved streetscapes.
  • Nontraditional storage solutions. Instead of cabinetry, designers are opting for shelving, both as a storage solution and a design element.
  • Seamless indoor and outdoor connections.
  • Increased use of mixed metals, materials, and textures, including wallpaper, to add depth to designs.
  • Wood detailing to create texture.

Prefab Technology Evolves

Japan’s largest home builder, Sekisui House, and its American subsidiary, Woodside Homes, used the backdrop of January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to unveil its prefabricated homebuilding technology, which can speed up construction, address a shortage of skilled labor, and build homes more resilient to natural disasters.

The companies provided tours of a multimillion-dollar concept home in a luxury Vegas enclave as part of the unveiling. The companies’ leaders say the two-story, 7,200-square-foot home, with four bedrooms and five-and-a-half baths, showcases design and construction systems and techniques that are unlike any the U.S. homebuilding industry has ever used.

The model home was built using a technique called Shawood, in which lumber, with the aid of computers and automation, is precision-engineered, cut, and drilled in a factory near Tokyo and shipped to the U.S. The pieces were put together in the field using number sequences on a blueprint as a guide. It’s a holistic system that has been used in Japan for more than two decades, covering the home’s framing, foundation, and flooring, the companies’ officials say. That enables a simpler, faster, and more precise building process, including fire-resistant porcelain siding that also helps protects the home from earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, says Joel Abney, vice president of operations at Woodside Homes.

“The goal is to showcase how the trends are changing in housing and what the future can look like,” Abney says. “There hasn’t been much technological advancement overall in single-family home construction because we’re building the same way in the U.S. as we were 20, 50, and 100 years ago. This is looking at advancing it to that next level. The home provides U.S. companies with a template for how to build houses that are significantly more resistant to Mother Nature’s forces than the traditional American stick-frame structure.”

Buck Wargo is a real estate reporter and writer based in Las Vegas.