by Jennifer Sergent
Washington Spaces Magazine, Winter 2009
There was a lot of press when the late President Richard Nixon’s home in DC’s Wesley Heights went up for sale last year for $5 million. Despite the notoriety, the house sat on the market for more than a year before the listing agent called Caroline Carter.
“It was a tomb. It was so dark,” says Carter, president and CEO of Done in a Day Inc., a home staging company in Washington, DC. Noting that the “target market” for this home would probably be young families, she adds, “half the families looking [at the house] don’t give a hoot who Pat Nixon is.”
Whether it’s a home’s history, a precious art collection, or impeccable interior design, the area’s grandest addresses face a curious liability when placed on the market – those assets don’t sell. But if they are staged correctly, stagers argue, the cost of the staging ends up being significantly less than a major price reduction that follows when a home has been on the market for too long.
“The way people design to live and the way you need to design to sell are two completely different processes,” Carter says. Referring back to the Nixon property’s kitchen, she explains that the beech wood cabinets with copper fittings installed during the Nixons’ stay there wouldn’t resonate with a buyer. Forty years later, she says, “they just look old.”
Thirty days after Carter painted the kitchen cabinets, refaced bathroom tiles and kitchen appliances, replaced the Pepto-pink color of the dining room with a safer shade of cream, and re-furnished the rooms to approximate how a young family would live there, the house was under contract – to a young family with three children.
Carter had a similar experience consulting for another home in Cleveland Park recently, which had languished on the market to the dismay of several Realtors who looked at it. That’s because everyone thought it was one of the prettiest homes they had ever seen.
“Too much beauty,” was Carter’s explanation. “It was beautifully designed, but it was intimidating to a buyer.”
The home was being marketed as a family home, yet it was filled with precious (and breakable) Herend figurines, and the kitchen was lined with displays of historic flow-blue china. “It would make a young mom with two screaming kids run away,” she says. Carter advised the owner on how to remove all the “beauty” and replace it with a more family-friendly, Crate & Barrel style.
Alice Wilson, a partner with Antique & Contemporary Leasing Inc. in Alexandria, VA, agrees that multi-million-dollar homes have marketing issues that sellers in lower brackets don’t tend to worry about.
She mentions as an example the homes owned by diplomats and foreign service workers who have amassed impressive – and valuable – collections from their travels around the world.
“Sometimes it just takes your eye away from the architecture of the room. You don’t ever see the winding staircase because there’s this thick wall hanging overtaking the room,” Wilson says. “People don’t want to see your things. They want to see the house.”
When a home up for sale is empty, it brings a whole new set of issues. Wilson was brought in to stage a $13.5 million Middleburg, VA, estate built on speculation by neighboring landowners who saved the 103-acre property from subdivision.
Poplar Grange was built “so it looks like an old Virginia farmhouse,” says Sam Gunter, who is managing the process for the owners. But when they brought in photographer Mona Botwick to shoot the interior of the 13,000-square-foot house, she said, “I will shoot the pictures for you, but I cannot make it look like anything but big empty rooms.”
Botwick, who has a background in studio set design and styling, worked with Gunter to hire Wilson, who brought in large furniture pieces, while Botwick filled it in with accessories and table arrangements.
The result is a series of spaces that read of landed gentry in general, but don’t have a personality in particular – a feel stagers say is necessary for buyers to see themselves – and their own possessions – living there.
Another issue with large, open spaces is that people need cues as to how they should be furnished. Wilson staged a $7 million home in Massachusetts Avenue Heights that had been on the market for two years. It was empty, except for a huge dining room table and a piano. Buyers likely couldn’t figure out how to furnish the home’s enormous rooms, she says.
“Once you can see how the seating areas are, it makes a difference to people. It’s a lot easier to imagine,” she explains. Furnishings “give the feeling of space, proportion, the feeling of warmth. People don’t have to guess how everything is going to fit.”
After the house was staged, it sold in four months.
Now more than ever, real estate agents say, people should stage their homes to sell in the down market – no matter what price bracket they’re in. Here are some “top 10 tips” from Done in a Day Inc. that Carter hands out to prospective clients:
1. Update, don’t renovate. “Update key areas only to the extent that a new buyer can live with the changes,” Carter says. The buyer should be able to envision themselves living in that space for up to a year before embarking on a renovation.
2. Feelings are everywhere. “Buyers shop with logic but buy on emotion.” Don’t interrupt a buyer’s impulse with distracting personal “clutter,” from family photographs to excessive knick knacks.
3. Curb their enthusiasm. Create a huge first impression with fresh paint and hardware on the front door, a new door mat, seasonal wreath, and planted urns on either side of the entry.
4. Cleanliness is more important when Godliness is unlikely. “Be unrealistically clean. Buyers are immediately turned off by dust, dirt, mold, and stuffiness.”
5. The Goldilocks Zone. Set the thermostat so the house will be not too hot and not too cold. “Don’t distract your buyer with wondering why your HVAC system is not working properly.”
6. A rose by any other name. Get rid of any and all pet, smoke, and cooking odors. Don’t bother baking cookies, but open the windows if weather permits and burn a lightly scented candle in the kitchen.
7. Stay close to Nature and she will never fail you. Beautiful flowers and plants – both real and silk – will enhance the look of the house. Focus on the kitchen, bathrooms, living room, and dining room.
8. Music washes away the dust of everyday life. Set music to be playing softly during an open house. But never turn on the TV.
9. Let there be light. Store screens and thoroughly wash all windows “to allow for maximum light.” And make sure each room has ample sources of light from table and floor lamps. If there’s any question, buy more lamps.
10. All the world’s a stage, even your home. “A professional home stager will design a home to sell quickly for top dollar… Home staging professionals look at a property objectively, highlighting the best features of a home while minimizing its shortcomings.”