Real Estate 2005: How to Sell Now

Can the right pillows and wineglasses really get you $20,000 more for your home? Real estate stagers share their tricks and trades

An odd thing happened when Joanne Davidow of Prudential Fox & Roach got the listing for a house on the beautiful, European-looking little block called Quince Street, near Washington Square: She priced the three-bedroom house, with its sleek kitchen, walled garden and travertine marble master bathroom, at $469,000. Then, despite this fair price for a pristine property on a perfect street in a robust market, it didn’t sell.

Davidow didn’t fret (you can’t when you sell $50 million worth of properties a year), but she did call the couple who have become successful realtors’ secret weapon: the Busybees, Anna and Todd Powers. As real estate “stagers,” they deck out a home from top to bottom, adding their own couches, cushions, linens and lighting in such a powerful, Zen way that buyers are seduced into signing agreements faster than you can pipe soothing music through a ­department-store sound system. Most of their staging is done in about two days to homes already vacated by their owners; if sellers are still living in a property, their objets and decor get sent off to the Bees’ storage space on Girard Avenue.

“The owners had a big dining table here,” Davidow says, explaining the process while standing in the Quince Street home’s living/dining area. “And it made the space seem smaller.” Now staged, the room is furnished with a trim two-person table permanently set for dinner with china and wineglasses. There is a sleek modern painting behind a beige loveseat; a green suede armchair; a blooming orchid on the mantel; and a petite coffee table, upon which rest the current issues of Organic Style, Real Simple and Town & Country Travel. Everything in the house, from the spare closets upstairs — filled with a few J. Crew-looking handbags and scarves — to the votive candles in the bathrooms, is designed to make it look bigger, brighter and better. It’s also orchestrated to tell a story, the one about how stylish and blissfully organized your life will be as soon as you move in.

Do buyers really fall for all that? Could it honestly be worth it to spend, as Davidow asks of some clients, from $2,000 to $5,000 for a six-week staging of furniture, books, mohair throws, plants and flowers (plus weekly cleaning)? “Nobody wants to spend the money,” admits Prudential realtor Mike McCann, who has used the Busybees for 30 properties over the past two years. “But if your house is in the $200,000 to $400,000 range, you’re going to get about $20,000 more for it [after staging].” Demand is such that the Powerses recently quit their jobs as graphic designers to provide their service full-time. (They also offer consultations, which take several hours and, at $100 an hour, cost far less than full stagings.)

Bob Yizzi, an appraiser, says his Busybees revamp of a house he sold near Graduate Hospital cost $4,400 — a hard check to write, but worth it: “I got more money, definitely, than I would have without using them,” Yizzi says. “And just as important, it took less time. They changed the complexion of the house.”

SETTING THE STAGE

Your goal with a do-it-yourself house ­staging? Streamlined immaculateness — the kind you see when you throw open the door to a hotel suite. Here’s how to fake it.

Get rid of your junk.
Cleanliness is paramount, says stager and decorator ­Laura Brenner, who runs a business called I Can Arrange That, in Glenside. But before you can scrub — or have someone else do it—you have to pare down. “The first thing I do is get rid of clutter,” says Brenner, who charges $75 an hour, and typically stages houses around the Main Line and northern suburbs in one day. On your own, throw out anything you don’t absolutely need (you’ll do it anyway when you move), and ferry unsightly stuff to the garage or a temporary storage space.
 
Think spa bathroom.
Buy beautiful new white towels (don’t use them!); make sure mirrors and porcelain are gleaming and the hemorrhoid cream is hidden. Little things mean a lot: When Busybees stage a bathroom, they even replace toothbrushes. It’s a good idea to paint and regrout, too.

Add plants and fresh flowers.
Orchids are stagers’ favorite horticulture go-to; spare and very much in style, they’ll complement a mantel in a way those framed photos of your dog never could. As for arrangements, the more the better; stick to simple, elegant combinations of roses or lilies, and place them in entryways, on the dining room table, or atop a bedside table.

Seek color.
You might not care for chartreuse silk throw pillows, persimmon drapes or a giant cobalt blue vase, but buyers do like cheerful hues, says Anna Powers. So hit Ikea or Pier 1 for a few chic accents.

Size up the stoop.
“Invest in window boxes, fill them with flowers and ivy, and buy a nice doormat,” says Powers. Brenner agrees: “I sometimes paint the front door myself.” Many buyers do preliminary drive-bys without their realtors, and they won’t even look inside if a home’s exterior looks shabby.

Work with your windows.
If you have great views, show them off by tying back curtains with a colorful sash or tassel; if you have low ceilings, long curtains with a decorative rod hung above the moldings add height to a room.

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