TINY red-and-green Christmas lights snake up a railing above the "for sale" sign in front of a home in the Hollywood Hills. More lights twinkle from the roof and the trees on the front lawn.
Inside, a Christmas tree sporting tiny candy canes stands waiting for Santa, and cranberry-scented candles alternate with clusters of red and white poinsettias along the mantle in the living room. A second tree, decorated with white snowflakes, is in the dining room.
So, is this seller sabotaging a chance to hook a buyer or just doing the holiday version of "stage it and they will come"? Whether to decorate a home that's for sale during the holidays -- no matter the holiday -- is a question of some debate.
Purists recommend depersonalizing a home -- down to removing family photos -- to speed up a sale, but some agents and professional stagers say that dressing up a house for Christmas helps potential buyers visualize how they would celebrate in that home. But what if a home seeker doesn't celebrate Christmas? Is it off-putting, and can potential buyers see beyond the reindeer on the roof?
No one wants to make buyers uncomfortable.
"We're not putting the Christ child out," said Holly Purcell, an agent with Prudential California Realty John Aaroe Division in Los Angeles. She and partner Phil Missig have the listing on that two-bedroom, one-bathroom Hollywood Hills house priced at $938,000. "We're getting into the holiday spirit."
Not everyone shares her vision.
"My first instinct is that I wouldn't want to alienate anyone because of their religion. If I were to decorate for Christmas, that could be a problem if the buyer was Jewish," said Dana Dickey, vice director of Interior Redesign Industry Specialists, a trade group that includes stagers who furnish empty homes to make them more appealing to buyers. For the holidays, Dickey said she prefers a festive color scheme featuring gold and maroon.
Some homeowners eschew Christmas decorations on religious grounds. For instance, they may be Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, atheists or agnostics. Others choose not to decorate due to the hassle factor or because they believe the holiday has become overly commercialized.
"You don't want to offend anybody," said Sandi Sinicrope, president of ASF Interior Redesign Inc. in Alhambra, who added that she wouldn't put a Christmas tree or Nativity scene in a house.
Instead, a welcome wreath -- grapevine studded with tiny yellow flowers -- hung on the front door of a Pasadena home her company recently staged.
"You want to make it universal," said Ana Lossada, an agent with Coldwell Banker, George Realty in Alhambra, who has the listing on the three-bedroom, two-bathroom hillside house priced near $1.2 million. "You don't want to go overboard, but holidays are holidays, and people have their traditions."
In the living room, a huge wreath tied with a red velvet bow filled the wall above the fireplace. Three stars and gold tinsel covered the mantle. A large, faux terra-cotta Santa Claus stood on the hearth.
There are "holiday touches all the way through," Sinicrope said, pointing out a crystal vase in which small red ornaments peeked through ivory potpourri. "We're not over the top. There's no big Christmas tree with lots of lights."
Like those two trees at the Hollywood Hills house listed by Purcell and Missig. They promised live music and holiday cheer at their recent open house, and sent out invitations with silhouettes of a glamorous lady in a spangly red dress and a white feather boa dancing with a man in a black tuxedo, each holding a glass of Champagne.
At the open house, serious buyers, looky-loos and neighbors sipped warm apple cider and nibbled from a red-and-green holiday spread while Bobby Jamieson played "O Come All Ye Faithful" and other carols on his tenor saxophone.
"You're creating a warm environment. You want people to think, 'I could live here.' You want to make it feel like a party so they can visualize entertaining here," Purcell said. "You need sound, scents and sights."
Tina Tabb, an insurance broker, came with her boyfriend, Jeremy Kaufman, who is a lawyer, and an entourage prepared to give him advice as he contemplated buying his first home.
"When you come in, you smell that hot cider brewing. That warm cinnamon is a very inviting smell. The Christmas decorations do give it more of a personal feeling," Tabb said.
"She loves Christmas," Kaufman said. While his girlfriend admired the decorations, he paid more attention to the quality of light from the sun-room windows, the updated kitchen, the tile work and the contemporary fixtures in the bathroom.
"This is the second time I've seen this house," he said, adding, "I saw it before the decorations.
"It's very homey, but it's a little more cramped. The Christmas trees take away from the openness."
That's another downside of holiday decorations: They can make a home feel crowded.
But they can also improve a house, said Pam Nelson, an agent with Keller Williams, Studio City.
"Sometimes, the properties actually look and smell better with the decorations up," she said. "Buyers who are still looking at this time of year, in this moribund market, are serious, but that doesn't mean they aren't also sentimental about the holidays and all they entail."
Some sellers are also sentimental.
"You've got to live there while the house is on the market," said Dr. David Wyndhamsmith of Pasadena. His wife, Patrice, recently hung more than 100 imported ornaments on their 10-foot-tall Christmas tree. Their large home is listed for $2,995,000, according to their agent, Maggie Navarro, with the Old Pasadena office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.
There is no Christmas tree in the secluded Beverly Hills home listed by Nancy Gerber, an agent with Coldwell Banker Previews International. There are no holiday decorations inside the large house, priced at $2,596,000. Outside, two big green wreaths with red bows hang on the wrought-iron gate that closes off the private driveway.
The newly pregnant owner had planned to put up a Christmas tree in the three-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bathroom hilltop home, the agent said, but morning sickness limited her to buying the wreaths.
The absence of a tree didn't prevent one couple at Gerber's open house last Sunday from falling in love with the hilltop home and making an offer.
Which, from the sellers' perspective, may be the best holiday gift of all.