Stage Magic

By staff November 1, 2005

Real estate agent Charlotte Hedge tried for six months to sell the 1920s waterfront sea captain's house. Narrow hallways and small rooms made it difficult, because "people couldn't visualize what to put in these nooks and crannies and little rooms," she says. So Hedge tried a hot new marketing tool: She had the house professionally staged with new furnishings and accessories. The result? "It sold within a week," she says.

Staging is designed to put a home's best face forward, and statistics make a case that it works. In a 2004-2005 survey by Staged Homes in California, homes that were staged sold up to 20 times faster at a minimum of 3 percent more profit. Homes that were not staged sat on the market for 4.5 months; after staging they sold in an average of 7.6 days. Home sellers benefited financially, too, with an average increase in equity of $26,000.

In Sarasota, real estate professionals often encourage sellers to apply their own simple staging techniques, and some are recommending professional stagers.

As part of a luxury marketing package, SKY Sotheby's offers complimentary design consultation on staging to all its listing clients. CEO Brandyn Herbold cites a 6,400-square-foot Siesta Key listing that sold for $4.65 million in one week after staging design was applied.

The more expensive the home, the more staging is endorsed. Corbin Brady, owner of Staged, prepares homes for SKY clients and notes that Sarasota is a competitive market at the high end. "People are pushing the market with pricing, and with the condo influx, the $1 million to $2.5 million area is flooded. You need to set your condo apart from others."

Taube Levitt of Coldwell Banker listed a $1.5 million Longboat Key penthouse that wasn't selling as quickly as she wanted. The condo had beautiful corner views of the Gulf, but she thought the home's blank walls left buyers bored. "Once we staged it, we got some great responses," she says. Carol DeLoach of Showcase Design furnished the main living areas and added decorative towels in the baths and cookbooks in the kitchen. "It gave a great sense of warmth," says Levitt. "People would feel comfortable enough to look around to see the beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico."

Levitt recommended DeLoach to another realtor, so when the condo sold, the temporary furnishings simply moved down the street to work their magic in another multimillion-dollar condo.

The Home Makeover

Professional stagers point out that homeowners often don't realize how prospective buyers may see their homes, which is one reason an outside stager can help. Stagers aim for generic furnishings, because homes with a particular style, whether Oriental, country or contemporary, don't fit every buyer's taste. Julie Martelo of Time to Redesign sums it up well: "Big giraffes, no. Silk plants, yes."

Like most stagers, Martelo suggests that clients repaint bold-colored rooms a neutral shade, usually an off-white or taupe. Dirty carpet needs to be cleaned or replaced. And even if furnishings are not included in the sale, their condition reflects on the home. If a sofa has a stain, Martelo suggests a furniture throw or judiciously placed pillows.

The sense of smell is important as well. Dog or cooking odors are a huge deterrent to buyers. "Depending on who's showing the house, we recommend potpourri. Or bake some chocolate chip cookies, then put them on a plate in the kitchen," Martelo says. "It reminds you of something good."

Clutter control is essential. Kathy Hoonhout of Coldwell Banker suggests that clients remove things they don't use and start packing early. "Bookshelves cluttered with hundreds of photos are nice but distracting," she says. Corbin Brady agrees. "To prep to sell, you neutralize and de-personalize the space to appeal to the broadest market possible. Get rid of personal pictures. Let buyers envision themselves in the home."

Eliminating clutter is not the same as leaving a home empty. "The home has a higher perceived value when furnished," says Carol DeLoach. "When people come in they're not wondering about placement of furniture." This is especially true for homes with problem areas.

Stage Training

Coldwell Banker trains its agents to help homeowners create the right ambiance. In addition, the national real estate company presents an advanced staging course twice a year in Florida. According to Gary Kopco, director of training, the full-day class includes staging tips that make a home look nicely furnished without a large investment. One trick? "They place two blow-up beds, one on top of the other, to create the right height, then buy two identical comforters with a loft to them so they have fluffy appeal," he says.

The course gave Kathy Hoonhout more self-confidence in working with home sellers. "Much of it is common sense, but our homes become our comfort zone, and much of that common sense goes out the window," she says. "It empowered me to be able to say things to people that needed to be said."

Gail Wittig, an agent with Michael Saunders & Company, agrees that discussing problems in front of the home seller is "kind of delicate, but we try to say it nicely."

One unique version of staging uses feng shui principles. Barbara Miller, who is with Coldwell Banker, purchased training tapes expressly designed for real estate sales. "They tell you the different areas in the house and what each stands for: friendship, romance, spirituality, relationship," she says.

One major suggestion was to put a black or charcoal gray mat at the front door. Miller adds that the door should also be freshly painted, with good hardware. Beside the door should be bright flowers in fiery colors. "It's strange, but it works," she says.

Calling on Caretakers

Showplace Homes of Sarasota adds another twist to the staging trend. The firm specializes in matching high-end caretakers with empty homes that require staging. Owner Randy Pearse finds retired people or young couples relocating to Sarasota who will move into a home, agree to show it by appointment, and move on when the home sells. The caretakers pay a monthly fee that is much less than comparable rent. Meanwhile, they enjoy living in a lovely home, usually with pool and waterfront view.

"It's a good thing for everyone all around-homeowners, realtor and caretaker," says Pearse. "It's good for security because someone's in the house, and the caretakers highly appreciate staying in a home." And the home, he adds, sells 40 percent more quickly than an empty one.


  • Paint rooms a neutral shade of off-white or taupe.
  • Simplify the style for general appeal.
  • Eliminate clutter throughout, including closets.
  • Remove personal pictures or knick-knacks.
  • Clean or replace carpet if necessary.
  • Warm up the space with greenery.
  • Show rooms as they were designed; if you've converted a dining room to an office, change it back.
  • Paint the front door and replace hardware if necessary.
  • Keep landscaping mowed and well trimmed.
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