Behind the scene

Times Staff Writer

Is staging a magic bullet that moves a house into the sold column?

Professional stagers -- the people who come into a home and make it look like Martha Stewart lives there -- are growing in ranks, in no small part thanks to the stagnation of the real estate market.

Sellers today are ready to try pretty much anything to defrost a frozen-on-the-sidelines buyer. Five years ago, there were only a few hundred professionally trained stagers, says Shell Brodnax, owner and chief executive of the Real Estate Staging Assn. Now, there are more than 20,000 in North America.

On the most elementary level, staggers de-clutter, rearrange furniture and accessorize a house. To those more prone to hyperbole, they set an emotional tone for a home, one that suggests a lifestyle and perhaps "speaks" to potential buyers in a way that a kid's roller blades left in the middle of the living room just can't.

Stagers aren't maids or house cleaners. But they understand why a couch's backside shouldn't face the entrance to a room. And they can create a living space that is, in general, far better than the one the homeowner occupied.

What stagers charge depends on the services rendered. For about $150, a stager will do a walk-through, giving a written report -- or expecting the owner to take notes -- on what needs to be done. If it's an empty house, furniture may need to be rented and the price could go up significantly.

But each month that a home languishes on the market is also costly, Brodnax notes.

Does staging work?

Though the National Assn. of Realtors has not done market research on the effect of staging homes for sale, NAR spokesman Walter Molony acknowledges that the topic frequently comes up. In a 2005 study -- at about the peak of the market -- Coldwell Banker tracked 2,772 properties, ranging in price from $229,000 to $4.8 million, in eight major U.S. cities. It found that while the average home was on the market for 31 days at that time, the typical staged home sold in just under 14 days. And while the average unstaged home sold for 1.6% above the asking price, staged homes went for 6.3% more.

Michelle Minch, the owner of Pasadena-based Moving Mountains Design & Home Staging, and her crew staged a vacant California-cottage-style home in Silver Lake, finishing up around 5 p.m. on the Thursday before Christmas. She planned on coming back the next day with a few more throw pillows for the window seat, but the listing agent had scheduled three showings for that morning. Before Minch and the extra throw pillows could arrive, the sellers had a full-price offer. Days on market: one -- in what was the slowest December sales market in about a decade. The house sold for $1,442,500 without making it into the Multiple Listing Service.

The job cost just under $7,000, which included the rental furniture for up to 60 days. Minch staged the front porch, living room, kitchen, dining room, sun room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms in the main house and a guest cottage with a bedroom, office area and bathroom. Teak furniture was brought in to stage the poolside patio area. (See before and after photos at www.movingmountainsdesign.com/index.php?link=silverlake.)

"Due to the character of this particular house," she said, "we decided to stage it in what we call 'Anthropologie' style. We understood the type of buyer that would be looking to purchase a home in that price range and that neighborhood, and we customized the staging to be appealing to them."

Think it's a fluke? Minch's company staged a 1926 Spanish colonial in San Marino that was listed at $5.78 million in January. The home, designed by California architect Roland E. Coate, had not been on the market since the early 1950s -- and, according to Minch, needed upgrades.

The power of staging

Even with the Coate cache, it looked to be a hard sell. A contractor made the needed plumbing and electrical upgrades, and Minch's firm brought in furniture for the public rooms on the ground floor -- entryway, dining room, living room, foyer, powder room, butler's pantry, kitchen and sun room. Minch also staged a twilight open house for brokers with banquet tables and strings of lights in the trees. The cost for the staging: $8,500. Ten days after the home was staged, the seller was entertaining multiple offers. Selling price: the full $5.78 million.

Connie Tebyani, a stager based in Moorpark, offers her own batting average as a testament to the power of staging: Of the 15 homes she has staged within the last six months, the average time on the market was 10 weeks after she staged them, and they fetched an average of 95% of their list prices. Not bad for a market where homes can linger for months and buyers rarely make offers -- even low-ball ones.

Tebyani's business, Platinum Home Staging, recently tackled a lakefront property in Westlake Village that had sat vacant for more than a year. Staging included bringing in furniture, accessories, bedding, and plants for the living room, dining room, master bedroom and patio. (See before and after photos at www.platinumhomestaging.com/Leeward.html.)

It closed escrow with a cash offer at almost full price -- $1.2 million -- less than six weeks after it was staged.

Just days before Christmas, she staged a 2,100-square-foot Moorpark home listed at $790,000. It sold for close to asking price in about two months. Staging cost: $3,000.

Vacant homes are the hardest to sell, stager Tebyani said, because would-be buyers don't have a frame of reference. "They can't envision their furniture, their couches in the living room, and if there's an awkward floor plan, they can't see ways around it," Tebyani said.

Staging shows them the potential, she said. Empty houses also feel cold and are off-putting to buyers, she said.

Tebyani charges $250 for a two-hour written consultation. De-cluttering is definitely part of most jobs, she said. Her company changes $450 for a half-day and $850 for a full day. A crew of workers comes out to the house, de-clutters, rearranges furniture and provides accessories where needed.

"We do everything . . . paint, whatever needs to be done," she said. "We can do a full overhaul if needed."

"It just makes all the difference in the world," said Lana Ng, broker with Prudential California Realty, San Marino, who regularly recommends it to sellers. "Staging helps a buyer visualize a home's potential."

But not all realty agents give a carte blanche stamp of approval to staged homes.

The National Assn. of Exclusive Buyer Agents in August issued a report, "How to Not Get Tricked by Staging," at www.naeba.org/staging. The report outlines some common staging practices and how they could influence a buyer to purchase a home that might be hiding serious defects.

"We represent buyers and we want them to see past the staging of a home," said Jon Boyd, 2007 president of the buyer agents' association.

Trying to cover?

"A well-staged home isn't always the same as a well-maintained home," he said. "Remember, you are not buying the pretty furnishings; you are buying the house."

Stager Minch rejects the idea that buyers are being misled by staged homes. "My job as a stager is not to hide structural flaws or defects. We always suggest that the homeowner repair any flaws or structural defects before putting the home on the market," she said. And prudent buyers should have a home inspected as a contingency of the sale offer.

A consumer-beware twist for the seller is that not all stagers are created equal. Although the staging industry has ballooned in recent years, it lacks a national accrediting or licensing board, so there is a certain "hang up a shingle and earn as you learn" element to it -- making choosing the right stager extremely important.

Sellers who want to hire a stager are advised to interview several, ask to see a portfolio and speak to references.

"Don't just go by the lowest price," Tebyani cautioned.

Home seller Bruce Carlson was a little hesitant about hiring a stager for his parents' Pasadena home of 55 years. But living in Seattle now and not wanting the house to languish on the market, he knew he needed to do something.

"I've seen a lot of those TV shows on staging," he said, "and it seemed to make such a difference." To improve the chances for a quick sale of the five-bedroom, four-bathroom, 3,900-square-foot home, he committed to staging the house for two months with rented furniture at a cost of $2,500. The house, listed at $1,385,000, went on the MLS this week.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," he said.

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ann.brenoff@latimes.com

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A few tips for picking a pro

Pasadena-based stager Michelle Minch offers these tips to sellers:

Hire the stager with the most real-world experience.

Ask to see the stager's portfolio. If he or she doesn't have one, move on.

Does the portfolio display a wide range of styles, or do all the homes look the same? Make sure the stager is capable of presenting the home in a manner that accentuates its architecture.

Ask if the stager rents furniture from another source or owns the furniture he or she will be using. Renting will cost more. Make sure the furniture the stager uses is appropriate to the style of your home and not just what he or she happens to have in inventory at that time.

Make sure none of the photos in the portfolio are stock photos that were purchased or lifted off someone else's website. All photos should show that stager's work and not be part of a group class project from a training program. If you are suspicious, ask to speak to the client.

Ask for references, including phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses. Check those references and ask whether they would hire that stager again.

Ask for proof of liability insurance. If the stager is not insured, then you may be liable for any damages or injuries that may occur as a result of the staging.

Make sure that you are given a clearly written contract and that you understand all aspects of it. If you don't understand something, or something that you discussed previously is not in writing, don't hesitate to ask for clarification.

You often get what you pay for. You are selling your most valuable asset -- your home. Look for the staging professional with the greatest competency, experience and professionalism, rather than the cheapest price.

-- Ann Brenoff

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