Staging the House

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances’”
William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (II, vii, 139-143)

Every house should be staged for its starring role in the endless drama of Real Estate sales. Many cast members, including buyers, sellers, appraisers, brokers and several bit players will step under its lights to perform parts with their varied forms of experience for the roles.

House stylists as stagers are sometimes called, would be the ideal way to go. Their consultation services are not expensive, usually costing $200 to $350 for a consultation, depending on the market. However, costs for hiring the professional to actually carry out recommendations can range from $500 to $15,000 depending on the extent of the work to be done. The seller should pay for these costs, although some sales associates pay for the consultation as a complimentary service for their clients.

Homes Sell Quicker and For More

In an article in Realtor Magazine, Tom Edelstein, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Burnet in St. Paul, Minn., goes with the pros. “I believe my homes sell quicker and for more money as a result of staging.” He stages even moderately priced listings. For example, he used Lynelle Hartman of Minneapolis to work on a condominium he listed at $184,900.

The unit was vacant and Edelstein knew that vacant homes are difficult to sell because buyers have trouble visualizing what they’ll look like furnished. So he paid Hartman $1,000 to furnish the bedroom, the baths and dining room, using props from her own inventory. The unit sold within a week for more than the listing price.

If professional styling is too expensive for the seller, the broker and sales agent must become the understudy and be anxious to replace the stylist. It’s an opportunity to add credits to her list of performances while also fattening the bank balance.

Valerie Torelli, a broker and owner of a Costa Mesta, Calif., firm, enthusiastically fills that role of the stylist. She has been staging her listings since 1991.

Five Seconds to Impact

“I have five seconds to sell a home – five seconds to make an impact on the buyers when they first walk in the door. Staging ensures that the impact is a good and lasting one.”

Torelli stages all the homes she sells, which usually fall into the $400,000 to $1 million price range. “A $400,000 home is a starter in my market. My clients can’t afford a professional stager because all their money is tied up in their homes.”

When one house Torelli listed had already languished on the market for three months before she took the listing, she removed it from the market for a month and rolled up her sleeves. She took out some odd-looking lamps and furnishings from the 1970s and stored them in the garage. She removed the homeowner’s artwork from the walls. She put away all the personal photographs. The gloomy appearance from the heavy greens and golds were given a secondary part in the overall picture of the house after Torelli added some subtle earth tone accessories. Outdated accessories were replaced with candleholders and plants and Torelli covered a shabby bedspread with one of her own and added mounds of pillows to create a cozy look.

The house sold within a month at just $5,000 below its listing price in the high $400,000s.

By doing the staging herself with props she had bought for that purpose and reuses in other listings, Torelli spent less than $1,000 of her own money in the process. The gross commission on the property was estimated to be more than $20,000.

Barb Schwarz, a real estate practitioner, and a guru for house-staging ideas, is a former interior designer and self-proclaimed founder of the home-staging industry. She says she first coined the word “staging” about 30 years ago. (Schwarz holds the U.S. federally registered word stage as it pertains to preparing houses for sale)

Every Home Should Be Staged

In a comment to Realtor Magazine, she said, “Every home should be staged, whether it’s an $80,000 house or a $4-million one. The home becomes a house; the house becomes a saleable product.” She added a clincher: “Homes that are staged sell faster in slow markets and at higher prices in stronger markets.”

Briefly, the goal of home staging is to make the house more appealing to the greatest number of prospective buyers. In order to do that, the home must be depersonalized so the taste and style of the home’s owner is muted as much as possible while at the same time being appealing to the eye. It should be tasteful, not totally empty, and impersonal enough to not infringe on the buyer’s own sense of style.

Everything short of making the house vacant should be done to clear the clutter and allow the buyer to imagine living in the home.

Four Keys to Great Staging

In her book, Secrets of Successful Home Staging, Schwarz offers these tips:

  • Do the sniff test. If your sellers have dogs, cats, hamsters, old carpeting, mildew problems, or if they love to smoke or to cook foods with pungent odor and you can smell it, chances are buyers will, too.
  • Pack up early. Sellers should pack up several large pieces of furniture and as much of the clutter in each room as possible. Don’t just shift the stuff to another room or garage – rent a storage space and get it out of the house before showing. “The way you live in your home and the way you sell your house are two different things,” Schwarz writes.
  • Stick with beige. Carpeting shouldn’t look like a box of crayons. Shades of purple, yellow, shocking blue, black or white, will not be as pleasing to the buyer’s eye, as will patterned or shaggy carpets. Don’t assume the buyer will look past the bad carpeting and ask for a credit off the purchase price; most buyers will continue looking for a house with fresh carpeting.
  • Use the rule of three. Three items are pleasing to the eye. Whether it’s artwork, figurines on a shelf, a magazine stack, pillows, afghans, or candles, arrange them in threes for a pleasing display as accents in any room.

Home Staging Basic Guide

While these tips may provide general guidelines for stagings, here are some more specific ones Schwarz suggested:


  1. Clear unnecessary objects from furniture throughout the house. Keep decorative objects on the furniture restricted to groups of 1, 3, or 5 items at the most.
  2. Clear unnecessary objects from the kitchen countertops. Clear refrigerator fronts of messages, pictures, etc
  3. In the bathroom, remove unnecessary items from countertops, tubs, shower stalls and commode tops. Keep only your most-needed cosmetics, brushes, perfumes etc., in one small group on the counter. Coordinate towels to one or two colors only.
  4. Rearrange or remove some of the furniture if necessary.
  5. Take down or rearrange certain pictures or objects on walls.
  6. Review the inside of the house room by room, paint any room needing it, clean dirty carpets or drapes, and clean the windows.
  7. If you need room to store extra possessions rent a storage unit.
  8. Leave on certain lights during the day. During “showings” turn on all lights and lamps.
  9. Play a soothing music FM station during the day for all viewings.


  1. Walk the perimeter of the house and move all garbage cans, discarded wood scraps, extra building materials, etc., into the garage or the trash heap.
  2. Check gutters for roof moss and dry rot. Make sure they are swept and cleaned. 
  3. Look at all plants. Prune bushes and trees and don’t let them block windows.
  4. Weed and mulch all planting areas. Keep lawn freshly cut and fertilized. Remove dead plants or shrubs.
  5. Clear patios or decks of all items such as small planters, flower pots, charcoal, barbecues, and toys.
  6. Paint the house where needed, especially the front door and trim.

By following these guidelines the true star of the show, the house itself, stands a far better chance of getting rave reviews and calls of encore from the audience of buyers. The work behind the curtains is justified.

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