Stage To Sell

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For staging, too much small stuff is called clutter.  When moving, misplacing the small stuff  is another matter.  Don’t spend time and energy sweating about the small stuff.

Of course, I hope that clients will take this in its larger symbolic meaning.  But I also want them to take me literally, to round up all the small stuff, because really, so much of what we need day to day is really, really small.  So, pack all real jewelry, passports, cell phone charger, extra car keys, extra contact lenses, checks, pending bills, prescription meds, etc. in one suitcase and carry it with you.  Chances are they won’t get stolen, but, they might get buried in boxes, and once missing, you will obsess until they are found.  Clients of mine recently found their extra set of keys in a butter dish.  When they found them, after much searching,  they, of course, remembered putting them there for safe keeping!

I heard Julie Powell speak the other night at a women’s networking event.  Her blogging which Nora Ephron ultimately made into the hit movie, Julie and Julia, has made her an instant icon for many women.  She was funny, inciteful and irreverent.  What I loved most was her reasons for loving Julia child:  Julia was more sure about how to bone a duck than Julie had been about anything in her life up until that moment.  It was refreshing to see the heads nodding in this room full of high powered women (it was hosted by  a law firm) deep down they seemed to relate the insecurity more than the many obvious successes these women had had in their lives.  Is this good?  I don’t think insecurity has a value. But it is the reality.  It is human, and that, in all our contradications, and successes and bad decisions are what we are.

I am sensing a theme emerging here:  perhaps it is Anglophile month.  Farrow & Ball  is a great British brand of paints—they make wallpapers too—that I are now readily available in the United States.  Yes, I know it is more expensive than other paints.  Yes, I love Benjamin Moore colors, especially the HC line where you cannot make a bad choice.   But, boy do I love Farrow & Ball paints.  They are worth the cost.  They go on “like buttah” and once on, they have a depth and interest, I have not seen in other paints.  Why?  They have 30% more pigments than other brands.  F & B is the only manufacturer that makes all the products sold under their name. Unlike other paints, they do not incorporate plastic fillers.  The paints are made with natural ingredients like Linseed Oil and China Clay, and not harmful ingredients such as ammonia and formaldehyde. The company continues to make and check each and every batch of paint itself, not mix it “in store.”  Their edited palette of 132 colors in thirteen finishes has been honed and perfected since 1940, when it was founded by two chemists in Dorset.  Environmentally, they are award winners.  Their VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) levels are so close to zero that most of their finishes are classified as ‘Zero VOC’ when tested to US Environmental Protection Agency standards. And best of all:  Farrow & Ball paints are pretty.  I got a call yesterday from a client who arrived from his home in St. Louis to see his home in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, freshly painted in Farrow & Ball paints.  The cell phone message said, “I don’t know why I am calling on the weekend, except to tell you that the paint is really, really beautiful.  Thank you.”   I know I sound like an infomercial, but you need to know that Farrow & Ball the smart/casual of the paint world.

I  just got an email from a friend confirming dinner at her house a few weekends out.  “7:30PM, smart/casual” it read.  Now, my friend is a good ten years younger than me, British, very attractive, with a stylish husband who is part Brit, part Belgian and grew up in Madrid.  Smart/casual.  I am impressed by this wording.  One thing I love about having British friends is the realization that even if we speak the same words, it is a different language.  Smart/casual is what this generation is all about:  the confidence to do and wear what pleases, to be smart about it, not to conform to formal norms without good reason, at the end of the day, to be comfortable.  Smart/casual:  this is staging.  To think about how someone wants to live in a space (or dress for dinner) and make it stylish and comfortable, even if one breaks a few antiquated design rules to get there.  Your Gen X and Gen Y buyers embrace smart/casual.  All the rest of us aspire to it.  Give the buyers smart/casual.  Your house will sell.

We just staged a house with a whole hutch in the breakfast room was devoted to bunny figurines, a year long Easter festival.  The owner’s other holiday decorations apparently come and go, but the bunny’s stick around in some odd kind of holiday favoritism.  Not only does this woman’s poor husband have to look at these saccharine studies everyday as he looks up from his breakfast, anyone entering the house immediately knows that the owners of the house celebrate Easter. My problem with this is that it is too much information about the seller.  I don’t want buyers to know anything about the sellers except that they cared for the property impeccably and have extraordinary taste.  No family pictures, religious, political, or school information should be visible.  You want the buyers to imagine themselves in the space and anything that is not about them reminds them that this is not their house, their dream.

One of the things that I love most about my work is that I learn so much from my clients.  We meet our clients on the cusp of huge life changing events.  We see their generosity, their tempers and their vulnerabilities.  We see them at their worst, and often at their best—we see them human, and I cannot help but to love them because of that. 

Last week was no exception.  We were hired to clean out and stage the home of a retired 18th British lit. professor.  “Jane Austen and all the good ones,” she said, a glimmer in her eye.  Never married, she had moved from a small town in the mid-west to get her degrees and never left the East Coast save a few years teaching in Rome.  Now some 50 years rich in friends, teaching, art, and, most recently, a diagnosis of early dementia, she was being taken home by  a brother and a sister to live out her days.  It was a poignant week. 

As we packed the few things that she wanted to take with her, a steady stream of friends paid homage, saying their goodbyes, stunned that their friend was leaving. Very few were aware of her inability to eat or sleep, the mysterious falls that she could not remember.  She took only a few books, no computer, none of her research.  She did not try to cling, as so many of us do, to our objects and achievements, to the things that seem to make us who we think we are.  Perhaps it was her brain going, but I think it was that she had reached a level of enlightenment few of us reach.  She stood present in the moment, in her self wallpapered gothic rooms, to be with her friends.  With her easy smile, she was there as they realized that this was goodbye. 

I don’t know if my client was religious, but her attitude last week was nothing less than beatific.    We all wanted to be near her, in hopes maybe, that some of her grace would rub off on us.  It seems that she had learned much from her scholarship.  She reminded me of one of those fabulous Austen characters.  She lived how she wanted to live, defying norms, and yet, when need be, coming to understand the circularity of life, the pull of family, and, when words for objects no longer come, their comfort.

“Really? Now really?” as my seven year old says.  Is the “living room”  really a room for living ?

How long has it been since Americans have truly lived in their living rooms?  I would wager a long, long time.  We as a nation, have a brag room, attached to our houses,  which  we rarely use.  These so called living rooms are often the best room in the home architecturally.  And yet, we walk by them, heading straight toward the family room or the kitchen. 

 I would argue that the living room should be as welcoming and comfortable as the family room.  It should show as much about your family as the other rooms.  You don’t need to sacrifice sophistication or formality.  You just need to make sure that it is comfortable to live in.  Try leaving bowl s of nuts and fresh fruit in the room for people to nibble on.   When guests are coming to stay, I leave a tray with sparkling water and lemonade so that they know they can get a drink whenever they  wish .  Make sure the lighting is conducive to reading and for your kids to curl up and do their homework. 

A well functioning home is one in which every room is lived in fully.  It always distresses me when I see these wonderful families owning a huge home and living only in the kitchen and family room.  Why, I wonder, did they leave their starter homes?  I argue that living rooms can be fabulous and showy and livable.  Help me bring life back into the American living room.

When I am at my initial meeting with a staging client, I always say “I am going to try to please you in every way possible, except,” I pause, “aesthetically. You are not going to like what we do,” I tell my potential client.  “….And I really don’t care.  My goal is to please your buyer.”

My goal is always to identify the statistically probable buyer and stage the property to please them.  I give the buyer visual clues that this property is their dream property. 

I remember in the 80s living in Manhattan.  One of my friends was an avid golfer, looking at life through golf analogies.  “Be the ball.”  He always advised, which as a non-golfer, I took to mean, get in the flow, think of nothing but the game.  Visualize a hole in one.  Now it could have meant something completely different, but that’s what I understood. 

Now while my golf is still largely non-existent, my tennis is a smidge better.  Recently, the zen tennis master, Ritesh, told me:  “Watch the ball.  The difference between a club player and a pro, is how long they look at the ball.  Forget looking at the court.  It will go where it is supposed to.  Just keep watching the ball.”

In staging, I have altered both bits of wisdom—switching out the word ball for buyer.  The strategy works:  Be the buyer.  Watch the buyer.

Probably the most important thing a seller can do is identify their probable buyer, and start to think like them.  Shop where their demographic likes to shop, read what they read.  Find out what is important to them and how they live, what they wear, and what colors they like.  (Or read the first chapter of my book:  Home Staging that Works.)  I identify the four generations of buyers and what they like and dislike. 

When you put your property on the market, everything in it will be judged, and weighed and internalized by your buyers as part and parcel of the home.  Buyers only rarely can see how it might be to live in the home.  They only see what is right out there in front of them, not how the space could be when they are living in it.  Give the buyer what they are looking for: not just the bricks and mortar, but the dream of the perfect life, and they will purchase your house.

Short sales are on the rise, at least here in Philadelphia. . Short sales (when the seller and bank negotiate the sale to preclude bankruptcy) and bankruptcies are not good for a house. They, by definition, exude distress and disrepair , the opposite of comfort: . No one wants to buy a forlorn home. It is scary and feels like bad luck.

Sellers need to find any way possible to maintain their houses. Whether by barter, DIY, or a loan if money is short, the seller will make their money back and more when the house sells.

Houses are expensive to own, and houses of people in financial distress have usually been ignored. As money gets tight, roof maintenance, gutter and window cleanings and utilities maintenance are all put on hold—not to mention interior and exterior painting, carpet cleaning and other aesthetic considerations. Almost every house my company, Tailored Transitions, works on has deferred maintenance—sometimes by the client’s choice or oversight and sometimes due to financial distress. I urge clients to remediate even if they have to take out a loan to do so. The money that they spend making their home as pristine as possible will come back at least 10 fold if not more at closing. The returns are huge: we recently staged a home that the realtor said would sell as is for $900,000. The seller spent about $30,000 with Tailored Transitions on staging and strategic upgrades. The house was so transformed that the realtor listed it at $1.7 million. It sold at asking within the week. Occasionally, we front the cost of remediation for a client, and then submit our bill to the realtor for renumeration, at a premium, at closing. In this climate, I am sure that sellers can find contractors and handymen in their areas willing to negotiate a deal like this.

Snow Day

As I write this, we are socked in, like most of the mid Atlantic, by a major Nor’easter.  Philadelphia has ground to a halt.  The mayor has declared a state of emergency.   My family’s weekend forays to indoor tennis and soccer, the local camp fair, and a dinner party have all been cancelled.   We have 18 inches of snow, and those small flakes from the big storms of my New England childhood are still falling.  Did you know that big flakes mean the snow is ending?  That is what I remember being told anyway, 30 some years ago in Connecticut.   We spent our snowy mornings on a virtually vertical incline in the woods above two skating ponds about a quarter mile from our house.  The skating ponds had an island we could skate to, or canoe to in summer, and a pipe connecting the two that in droughts we could run through, yell in, and later hide in to sneak cigarettes.  But that is another story.

Snow today.   Snow conjures Currier & Ives images of country roads, and simpler times, and smoke rising in curls from a stone chimney.  Snow covers the untended gardens, blanketing us in cleanliness and simplicity.  Snow makes for coziness and nesting: Tomato soup, fires, and grilled cheese sandwiches, dogs curled up, kids playing board games.   Snow gives houses the opportunity to protect us and warm our hearts.  A good snow storm is a romantic time to turn inward, when going out into the world means reading the paper by the hearth,.

Really, you think?  Yes, all of the above is true.  But snow is also work.  Snow means shoveling,  and  puddles of muddy water melting under boots in the front hall, mittens drying on radiators, and kids pulling down all the coats in the closet to build a fort with the neighbor’s kids.  Breathe, I say to myself, just breathe and enjoy it.

And if you are on the market, snow means extra work.  You can use the snow to your advantage.  Houses look great in snow.  But.   The paths have to be shoveled— within an inch of their lives.  It usually kills any potential sale, when a potential buyer wipes out on your front porch.  Bushes need to be brushed off so they don’t look like they are being dragged to the ground, garages need to be swept of all the old mud that tires have brought in, and all those boots and snow pants, hats and gloves, need to be stowed like you have all the space in the world.

For more tips on how to sell your house in winter, check out Piper Nicole’s Minyanville article:  I am quoted.    Here are my two cents: 

Hide the Shovel (and the Salt)
Make sure walkways are cleared of snow and ice. Porches, driveways, decks, and garages should have easy access. “Don’t leave your shovel or salt near the front door. These items tell the buyer that they’ll have to work if they own your home,” said Starr Osborne, founder of Philadelphia’s premier home staging company, Tailored Transitions, and author of Home Staging that Works (Amacom, 2010).