WINNING THE REAL ESTATE WAR
10 Tips From Home Stagers
By Julie Cazzin
Part 1: Introduction
Last spring when Jim and Heather Thompson decided to
sell their home in Vancouver, they realized they knew little
about how to get top value for their biggest possession.
"We were talking about our life savings," says Jim, 47,
who works as the head of sales for a technology
company. "But I was really clueless as to what sells."
The Thompsons enlisted the help of John Carter, cofounder
of DEKORA, a "home-staging" firm in Vancouver.
Carter spent a day going through their home room by
room and drawing up a list of suggestions aimed at
maximizing their house's appeal for prospective buyers.
After discussing his proposals — which ranged from
removing some shrubs in the front yard to powerwashing
the driveway and walkways — the Thompsons gave
Carter's crew the go-ahead to implement some of his
ideas. Total cost: $4,000.
We know what you're thinking — $4,000 just to get your
home ready for sale? — but consider the results. After a
single Sunday showing early last year, the Thompsons'
home attracted three offers, all of them higher than the
couple's asking price of $649,000. Three days later the
Thompsons agreed to sell their residence for a $41,000
premium over the listed price. While a hot real estate
market helped, the Thompsons are convinced that
Carter's primping and attention to detail was a big reason
for their house's runaway success. "Our place fetched the
highest price of any bungalow sold on our street — ever,"
Home stagers like Carter claim they can help anyone get
a premium price for their home. Practically unknown in
Canada even three years ago, stagers are now a
presence in the real estate markets of Toronto and
Vancouver and are popping up in many other cities as
well. These home professionals — many of them former
decorators or real estate agents — specialize in knowing
what motivates potential buyers. They use all the tricks of
the trade to help homeowners come out on top in the
perpetual battle between buyers and sellers. "Getting a
house ready to live in and getting a house ready to sell
are two totalldifferent things," says Carter. "Decorating is
about making a home comfortable for you and your family;
staging a home is about merchandising properties. It
involves making a house clean and clutter-free so people
can connect with the home. Done right, it helps your place
sell faster and for more money."
How much more? Coldwell Banker Realty tracked 2,772
properties, ranging in price from $229,000 (U.S.) to $4.8
million, in eight major U.S. cities. It found that while the
average home was on the market for nearly 31 days, the
typical staged home sold in just under 14 days. And while
the average home sold for a mere 1.6% over the seller's
asking price, the staged homes went for a hefty 6.3% more.
Home stagers perform their magic by playing up the best
features of your house and minimizing the worst. They
rearrange artwork on the wall, pack up your prized bowling
trophies and clear out your son's high chair. Most stagers
charge about $100 for an initial consultation; you then have
the option of executing their suggestions on your own or
hiring the stager to do it for you at $100 an hour.
We asked Carter and other home stagers to share their 10
best tips with us. Want to get top value for your home? Sit
back and listen up:
Part 2: Tips
1. Make an impression
Prospective buyers make up their minds about your house
even before they get out of the car. To ensure they have the
right idea, clean up your yard, rake the leaves, shovel the
snow, and sweep driveways and porches. Get out the rags
and cleanser and spend 30 minutes scouring your front
door, porch, railings and steps. Then tuck away all your
recycling cans and bins at the back of the house.
Debra Gould, who owns the Six Elements home-staging
firm in Toronto, says it's important to avoid planting negative
associations in buyers' minds. When attending an open
house she had to climb several steps to get to the front
door. "I couldn't help but think that this could be a nuisance
with groceries," says Gould. "Then, when I finally got to the
top, the recycling bins were sitting right there on the porch. I
immediately told myself, 'Imagine carrying one of those bins
full of newspapers, cans down several slippery steps.' I
couldn't see myself doing that, so I left, knowing it wasn't
the house for me."
Clutter eats equity, say stagers. So purge your closets,
empty cupboards, box up small appliances. Rent a storage
locker to keep what you want, then toss the rest. "I give
storage boxes to my clients and tell them to edit, edit, edit,"
says Theodore Babiak, a Toronto real estate agent with
Royal LePage. "I suggest they take some of their books off
the shelves, reduce the number of CDs or DVDs, pare
The stager's motto? Be ruthless. When Tamara Roberts
was selling her Vancouver condo last year, she paid $150
for a one-hour consultation with home stager Carter, who
gave her a detailed to-do list that included instructions to
leave only one thing on the kitchen counter (a bowl of crisp
green apples) and to remove fridge magnets and small
area rugs. "Everyone knows to unclutter," says Roberts,
"but John brought it down to specifics. He even had me
keep a storage container under the bed so I could throw
my pajamas and bedtime reading in there so buyers
wouldn't see it." The payoff? Her condo sold in one day for
$6,000 more than her asking price of $339,000.
3. Impersonal works
You want buyers to imagine themselves living in your
home, not to feel like a guest in it. So stash anything
connected to your family or personal interests. Hide your
son's hockey trophies, store family photos, remove all
traces of day-to-day life. "If someone goes into the
bathroom," says home stager Gould, "and the rim of the
tub is covered with shampoo bottles while people's
toothbrushes are lying around the sink, it's hard for that
person to imagine that this could be his or her bathroom.
The buyer becomes very conscious of being in someone
else's environment. That won't get you an offer."
4. Keep it fresh
Barb Schwarz, president of StagedHomes.ca of Concord,
Calif., has been staging homes for 30 years and she says
a disturbing number of home sellers don't realize that their
home … um, smells. "There's nothing worse than stepping
into a house that smells of smoke and pet odors," says
Schwarz. The easy solution is to keep your windows open
for 10 minutes a day. This strategy works better than
deodorizers, says Schwarz, since a lot of people have
allergies to artificial room fresheners. The oldest trick of
all? Leave chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. Yes,
it's hokey, but the smell does do wonders to help buyers
bond with your home.
5. Declare war on grime
Cleanliness helps put a buyer's mind at ease since it
suggests that you've probably taken good care of your
residence in other ways as well. So clean everything:
walls, door handles, light fixtures and pantry cupboards.
At Carter's suggestion, Jim Thompson, the Vancouver
home seller, hired a professional cleaner to scour the
inside of his home and a contractor to powerwash
windows, walkways, eavestroughs and pathways.
Toronto home stager Gould recommends you pay special
attention to the furnace room since every home buyer
wonders what shape the furnace is in. "If the furnace looks
clean, it looks newer," says Gould. That goes for the fuse
box and electrical panel, too.
Hall. "When those are dark, it gets depressing for buyers
going from room to room."
6. Hire a handyman
Dripping faucets, cracked tiles and mouldy caulking
around the bathtub can knock thousands of dollars off the
price of your home. "I have a lot of clients who say, 'Well,
that's a little problem, the buyer can deal with it,' says
Gould, who makes a practice of walking through sellers'
homes and compiling a list of what needs to be fixed. "And
I say, 'No, if it's a little thing, then we should deal with it.' "
7. Color it up
Your single best investment may be a fresh coat of paint
in key areas of your home. "Paint your front door and put
some urns with brightly colored flowers on your front step
or just inside the entryway," says Jane Hall, a Toronto
designer and owner of The Voice of Color in Toronto.
"Those things make a house seem cared for, different
8. Reduce furniture
An easy way to create a sense of space is to get rid of
some furniture. Moving a sofa and end tables into storage
can give a small room some much-needed breathing space.
So too can storing the table and chairs that normally sit
In your kitchen, piled high with mail, magazines, books
If your furniture dates from the Mulroney era, consider
packing it away and renting a few modern, stylish pieces or
borrowing a couple of well-chosen pieces of wall art. "Keep
it clean and simple," says Carter, "like a hotel room or the
show room for a new house."
9. Light me up
The brighter and sunnier a space, the easier it is to sell.
Start by investing in a good window-cleaning service.
Stagers say clean windows let in as much as 30% more
light than grimy ones. Then thoroughly clean the shades on
your light fixtures, change light bulbs and add floor lamps if
an area seems dim. Dump those energy-saving 60-watt
bulbs and go with higher wattage lights for maximum
illumination. Finally, when it comes time to show your home,
make sure all the lights are on. "Hallways especially should
be lit," says home stager
10. Add a touch of humanity
A couple of planters on your front porch, a vase of flowers
on your dining room table, even a simple rose in a bud vase
can warm up a room. This is where you can let some of
your creativity show through. "You want to get away from
making rooms feel dull and sterile," says the home stager
Gould. "Flowers and plants are good for that." Candles
Apply all these tips and the final results can be stunning. "I
could never have achieved anything as effective on my
own," says Thompson, the Vancouver home seller. "The
stagers helped me turn it into a show home. And even
though this might sound silly, all the changes made it so
attractive that it sort of made me want to stay."
Such feelings are common. Stagers say a few homeowners
actually change their plans and take their residences off the
market once they see how good their old places can look.
Many decide to stage not just their old homes, but their new
ones as well. "Home sellers will often ask me to come to
their new home and work some of my magic there because
they don't want to go back to their old way of living," says
home stager Schwarz, who's prepped more than 2,000
homes in the U.S. and Canada. In fact, Schwarz notes that
a lot of home sellers don't even want to see any of the stuff
they've put into storage because they discover they've
never missed it. "They want to live fresh, clean and clutterfree.
It's a wonderful thing. Because staging is, above all, a