Starr Osborne

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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.

At 5PM today a medium sized box was left by UPS at our door.  About 2 feet long and one foot wide, it wasn’t of a size that said board game, or shoes, or something obvious.  I figured it to be the books that I ordered from Amazon.  Upon closer inspection, I found that it is addressed, not to me, but to a Caroline Carton, and addressed to an address that does not exist but is just two digits off of ours.  Packaged from Target, the shipping manifest stated that it housed one item of one.  There was no other information. What did Caroline buy and why?  Who is Caroline, and what made her want to purchase the mystery thing?  Now I am a shopper.  I have to tell you that it is really hard for me not to open a package, even a package addressed to a fictitious neighbor.  I want to rip it open, in hopes of figuring out Caroline and why she buys.  Why people buy is what a good stager has to understand.  Staging is using material culture:  the things we use and buy, to affect yet another purchase.  So who is Caroline?  Her name really does not give any obvious generational or demographic clues.  What did she buy?  That’s what I want to know.   What do you think  — 2 feet by 1 foot…..

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.

Buyers are younger.

Scratch that.  Everyone is younger.  I was at my son’s back to school night this fall, and we were asked to write down a memory of our first grade year.  One father sitting with me at the tiny table, started drawing a stick figure in bell bottoms.  His wife burst out laughing.  “What,” she scoffed.  “You think you grew up in the 70s?” as if anything so preposterous could happen.    I had kind of assumed they were about my age, but looking at them, I realized that he had just started shaving about three years ago, and she looked a lot like one of our babysitters.  I was the set of Zach and Cody meets the Twilight Zone.  “I am not THAT old!” retorted eye candy daddy.

At that moment, they both looked up, embarrassed, suddenly realizing that they were sitting with some oldsters like me, who, though amazingly well-preserved, had actually come of age in the 70s. It was quite a moment for everyone.  They were embarrassed; I was shocked that I was, in fact, not their age, but closer to their parent’s age.   

It is a truism that we feel at least 10 years younger than our chronological age.  I would like to add to that.  I think that younger people think anyone older seems 20 years older.  Just like the majority of your buyers cannot see how a house could be unless you show it to them, most people cannot imagine that they will ever be so old and fusty.  And even if they do have the imagination to realize that they will age, they do not want to think about it.

Combine this with the fact that buyers are invariably younger than sellers.  So you want to please your buyer, right?  Give them what they want:  a hip house worthy of an up and coming youngster.  Don’t show them your “it was stylish ten years ago before I needed a neck lift” decor.  They don’t want to see that.  Be honest, you don’t even want to see that.   Stage your house to please your buyer.  It will sell.

The Good Food Market in Chestnut Hill is slated to close next Saturday.  I live three blocks from the market, and am, if not heart sick, very sad.  Aside from the style and convenience it garnered on our little neighborhood, I hate what it says about the divisiveness of this community.  The owner Jennifer Zoga has been effectively chastised and shunned by the store’s neighbors.  For some reason, an upscale village market in a building that has always been zoned commercial is a problem to these folks.  I see it as a place to buy coffee at the last minute, run into neighbors, a snow day destination for my kids.  Let’s remember that before Good Food, with its mahogany doors and wonderful signage that would do proud any street in America, was a pack-n-ship store with temporary mailboxes, which pulled onto our street many less than appealing consumers.

Chestnut Hill is studied as an example of one of the most successful and earliest planned communities.  People of mixed incomes live and play together in Chestnut Hill, walking up the Avenue to shop and to the parks to relax.  The community was built this way, and anyone who is not interested in living like this might be better off moving to the suburbs.  In real estate, “location, location, location,” is an oft heard cliché.  Well-kept lawns, proximity to trains and to a fabulous gourmet market like Good Food are examples of what make a desirable location.  Those neighborly naysayers who are launching a battle against Good Food, might do well to remember that if Jennifer does close her store on Saturday, on Sunday morning, their real estate values will probably drop a price point.

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.

Every time I speak, I get the question:  what is the difference between   decorating and staging to live.  In many ways they seem like the same thing, I agree.  Both make homes prettier.  The difference, I would say, is the goal.  The goal in decorating is to make a room prettier, to be pleasing to the eye.  The goal of staging is a bit more complex. 

Staging is identifying how the people in the home hope to use the space, how they could use the space more efficiently, effectively, and happily.  Staging identifies how those living in the space aspire to live.  Once identified, we then, and only then, design the space to achieve these goals. 

Now the end product of staging and decorating may look very much the same, but the underpinnings are very different.  I use design to enhance how people live in a space, to help them become more who they want to be.  This holds true for staging to live and staging to sell.  We identify how the client—the buyer or the owner—dreams of living in the home, and I show them how to make it possible.

Excerpts from: How to Sell Your House in Winter

Published at By Piper Nichole Jan 05, 2010 11:15 am


Below are top tips on warming up your home sale when it’s cold outside.

1. Turn Up the Warmth
Many homeowners keep the temperature a little colder during the day when they aren’t home. Keep your house a touch warmer, said Mabel Guzman, 2009-2010 president-elect for the Chicago Association of Realtors. “Buyers will wonder what is wrong with the furnace or think the home is too expensive to heat,” said Guzman. The same applies for vacant homes. You don’t want buyers rushing through your house just to get out of the cold.

2. Just Because Winter Is Dark, Your Home Shouldn’t Be
During the day, draw back the curtains, open the blinds and if it’s a gray overcast day, turn on the lights so your home isn’t dark. At night, Michalene Melges, a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Realtor with Keefe Real Estate, recommends showcasing your home with lights outside. For example, adding spot lights that highlight your entrance or a favorite maple tree.”Light it up! Winter, if done right … can be magical,” said Melges. “The sun sets around 4 o’clock but, the world doesn’t go to bed.”

3. Let People In
Ohio Realtor Cecilia Sherrard said the biggest mistake she sees is when sellers postpone home showings — sometimes not allowing buyers in for a couple of weeks (for example, due to weather or holidays). Sherrard said she has seen active buyers purchase similar homes to theirs within that time.

4. 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). 


I am a home stager.  It seems oddly easy to define myself in two words, but for the first time in my life, I actually embrace my work life as my identity.  Sure, I am a wife and mom first, and way ahead of staging, but staging informs who I am and how I live my life.  It is who I am:  a home stager.  I started Tailored Transitions, a home staging company, in Philadelphia, in 2004—way before most anyone on the East coast had heard of home staging.   Since then, we have expanded to offer complete moving management services and interior design, all based on my home staging principles.  We have had good years and better years, but each year we have grown.   It has been a great ride, which means that  I spend way more more time than most thinking about how people live in their homes, what that means, and whether it leads to happiness.  Here’s the big secret:  beauty is in the details.  A well functioning home does foster happiness and is therefore beautiful.  Ideally, it will be visually beautiful as well.

I have always been unduly affected by my surroundings.  A bad smell can ruin a movie for me.    Maroon plush car seats can send me spiraling into a funk.  Conversely, my day can be made by sitting in their leather-like-butter alternatives.  I thought of my sensitivity as a problem, a shortcoming, that I was a bit of a princess, not cut out for the hard work of life.  Now, as the owner of Philadelphia’s most prominent home staging company, I realize that everyone is affected by their surroundings.  It’s just that, for better or for worse, I am more aware of my surrounding’s affect on me that is average bear.What I thought of as an affliction is actually an advantage.  I have made a science of codifying people’s sensitivities and using this information to sell properties.  I am here to tell you that it works, and that I feel really lucky that I have been able to monetize a shortcoming!

This job teaches a lot of life lessons.   Moving is one of the three top health stressors, right up there with death of a spouse or a child, and divorce.  Everyday we work with people at their most vulnerable.   I see what they are losing, what they love, what they yearn for.    We have moved a lot of older people, mostly downsizing them into continuing care facilities.  They are the ones that let go of their stuff more easily.  They know the cost of putting stuff ahead of people, they have seen loss.  I have heard more than once:  cherish everyday.  I listen to them in matter of fact, naked emotion, and can almost hear Joni Mitchell singing:  “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”  It is the sociology of the home, of how a home can be to make a life happier, that fascinates me.   I think it is a rich, untapped vein of awareness that they don’t teach us in school, and that affects every one of us, everyday.  Everyone wants to live better, live smarter, be happier, and very few know how to work toward this goal.    This is what I shall explore.  

What makes a home is so intrinsic to who we are and informs each of as we go through our days.  We have not evolved that far from the caveman.  Sure our articulation has become more sophisticated, but the premise remains the same.    We work to create shelter, bring back meat to our caves, protect our children from the weather, and maybe, in our free time, draw something important on the walls. 

So, here are my scribblings.  I like to think of them as ‘More Songs about Buildings and Food.’  This little homage to the Talking Heads probably ages me in some reader’s minds, and leaves others mystified.  But that is another detail about this business of living that I find so intriguingly obvious that we all seem to ignore, and is sometimes even considered politically incorrect:  we are all products of our time and place.  Sure we can transcend place if not time, but we are still reacting to whence we came.  In one guise or another this blog will explore how to create a home that encourages happiness for the owner based on their age and how they grew up. 

So here is my pragmatic advise: If you are staging to live in your home in a more authentic way, embellish the cave drawings (expectations and norms) of your childhood with your own scribbles.  And if you are hoping to sell your property, you need to erase your own drawings and stage your cave with drawings that will appeal to younger buyers. 

 More to come!


Starr C. Osborne is the author of Home Staging That Works: Sell Your Home in Less Time for More Money (AMACOM; March 2010).  She is the owner and founder of Tailored Transitions, Philadelphia’s premiere home staging, moving-management, and design company.  Their diverse work with realtors, developers, and private clients has included The Bank Building, Parc Rittenhouse, The Residences at Wood Norten, The Hill at Whitemarsh, Independence Seaport Museum, and Natural Lands Trust.  Tailored Transitions has been featured in USA Today, The Real Estate Professional, Philadelphia Style Magazine, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Starr’s background includes work with Sotheby’s, where she was Assistant to the President and managed international publicity campaigns, and later, with Christie’s, where she publicized all the celebrity auctions and was Editor of Auction News from Christie’s, the firm’s main publicity vehicle.  She later ran her own public relations firm servicing high-end artists, designers and products.  Starr has been published in Art in America, Artnews, House Beautiful, New England Antiques Journal, New York Woman and Victoria.

Ms. Osborne earned her B.A. in History of Art from Yale University and was Fellow at Historic Deerfield.  She lives with her husband and three children in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia.