When Darren Schaeffer put his Beverly Hills home on the market, he kept his Cabo San Lucas-inspired furniture in vivid purples and greens and continued to display his personal photos. He didn't give a thought to home staging.
"I had plenty of furniture. Why would I move my furniture out just to move new furniture in again?" said Schaeffer, 50, a pharmaceutical distributor and former owner of the now-shuttered Friars Club in Beverly Hills.
But after the home was months on the market without any offers, his agent called in professional home stager Anna Marshall of MDG Estates.
Home stagers are fairy godmothers to for-sale homes in need of a quick and modern makeover. With their eye for design, access to a vast collection of furniture and accessories and a small army of helpers, they turn frumpy, outdated homes into catalog-worthy havens.
Although staging a home can be pricey, the rationale is that the hopefully higher sale price will more than make up for the upfront cost.
After a walk-through of Schaeffer's 6,500-square-foot home, Marshall suggested simple fixes: a paint job to remove the wild colors on the walls, removing odd-colored carpets from the rooms and sprucing up the landscaping.
She also swapped out Schaeffer's colorful furniture for contemporary seating and accessories in more modern white and chrome but kept a few pieces such as coffee tables or simple artwork that wouldn't be too distracting. Marshall calls this a partial staging, where a few pieces from the owner are retained.
Once done, the home — which Schaeffer spent about $30,000 to stage — was ready for its second debut.
"After she did the staging, we started getting multiple offers," Schaeffer said. "I got more than I imagined."
The property, which was listed at $5.2 million, sold for $5.5 million in fall 2014.
A good stager will help a home — not the homeowner — look its best.
"The furniture, accessories and artwork we choose are meant to help enhance the finish of the counters, the color of the walls and floors — everything that you're buying in a home," said Marshall.
Though home staging seems very much like interior design, it isn't, said Meridith Baer, a grande dame of the home-staging industry who has worked with Kanye West, Bob Dylan and Harrison Ford.
"It's not meant to reflect the style of the clients. It's not really about them; it's about selling the home."
So, that bobbleheads collection? Or that awkward family portrait you have hanging in the living room? That's all got to go.
Costs for home staging vary greatly and depend on the home's location and stageable square footage. Staging a three-bedroom home starts at $10,000, but for larger, sprawling mansions, the bill can run into the $100,000 range.
Leslie Whitlock, whose company helped sell the homes of actress Leighton Meester and Olympic medalist Greg Louganis, also uses design to help potential buyers navigate maze-like luxury homes.
Furnishings should be oriented to allow for maximum effect while optimizing the space available. Artwork at the end of a long hallway helps pull buyers to the bedroom at the back.
Apart from scouring estate sales and auctions, stagers often custom-make their own furniture to keep up with ever-changing design trends. MDG Estates manufactures its own couches, chairs, beds and even has artists on staff to create that perfect piece of art.
Meridith Baer Home has a specialized team working on finishes, furniture frames and upholstery.
This corps of craftsmen comes in handy, especially when you're working with a 2,700-square foot Manhattan apartment that belongs to rock star Keith Richards. It needed the perfect-sized furniture, which MBH was able to provide.
Since Baer began home staging, she says, the styles have changed from more traditional and antique — think dark Persian rugs — to a more contemporary vibe.
Clients have also become more demanding.
"In the beginning we'd put in sofas, pillows, maybe one or two accessories. Now they want rooms to be designed to a T, like something you'd see in Architectural Digest," said Baer, whose company has offices in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and London.
A stager's practiced eye can also spot simple, inexpensive improvements that can add that extra oomph.
Whitlock has found that easy fixes, such as WD-40 to erase pesky fingerprints on stainless-steel appliances or mulch to cover up bare garden patches, can significantly add to a home's appeal.
Just like a Cinderella spell, a home stager's magic lasts only until the metaphorical midnight. When a sale is finalized, the furniture, accessories and artwork all make a hasty exit onto movers' trucks.
"We're out before the name on the property changes," Whitlock said.