Faced With a Lack of Style, Invent It

Chris Torres, right, owner of Reincarnations Furnishings, and Frank Bauman, the store's general manager, move a mirror to the basement showroom.
Chris Torres, right, owner of Reincarnations Furnishings, and Frank Bauman, the store's general manager, move a mirror to the basement showroom. (Susan Biddle - Twp)

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 14, 2006

Alice Wilson paced the empty Capitol Hill living room. The manager of Antique and Contemporary Leasing, a company that provides furnishings and design advice for houses going on the market, pursed her lips and said, "Usually you want the bones of the room to show, but . . . "

What remained unsaid: There were no bones. It was a blank box without a single distinguishing feature.

"You have to have a focal point," she said, waving in the delivery men, backs bent under a mammoth black lacquered secretary, a Chinese antique of about the same size and scale as a fireplace.

"Living rooms are built around a fireplace," Wilson said. "If it doesn't have one, you need a focal point to make it more interesting."

With the secretary in place, the room quickly took shape. A white damask sofa, a few heavily carved chairs, a jewel-colored oriental carpet, a gilt mirror for glitz, a couple of wall-sized Chinese ancestral portraits and suddenly there's a British-occupation-of-Hong Kong motif. That utterly boring, characterless room positively screams for a chic load of guests clinking ice cubes.

Is it cheating for home sellers to imply detail where none exists? What happens when the secretary is toted out, along with the ancestors and the scalloped tea tray coffee table? When the new owners realize that they bought a bare box?

"It's not cheating. It's creativity," said Washington decorator Whitney Stewart. "There's no such thing as cheating. If something is transformed, one has creatively envisioned a new idea to enhance a space."

That's one way to put it. Yes, real estate agents generally recommend that sellers try to make their homes scrupulously clean and personality-free. But when you're trying to get top dollar for a house with, shall we say, flaws, sometimes strong measures are needed to lure the buyer.

"Most people don't have imagination. People have to see it," said Daniel Lusk, an agent with Tutt, Taylor & Rankin Real Estate. "Vacant rooms are the worst. They look smaller than they really are. It's hard for people to imagine what they'd use it for. You have to show them what it could be."

Like third bedrooms? "You go into a seller's house and they're using it for storage or the treadmill. That doesn't say to the buyer: This could be a usable, functional bedroom. Put a full-size bed in there. Even one of those inflatable beds with nice sheets and a duvet," Lusk said.

Real estate agents call it "staging," the craft of decorating a home to sell it. Staging generally involves removing clutter -- sending your cherished collection of magnets to storage, for instance. It can also include judicious additions: furniture, accessories and most frequently, paint.

Lusk frequently tweaks rooms to make the most of their sometimes imperceptible charms, rearranging existing furniture or suggesting the owner rent or borrow more elegant pieces. "It warms people up when they see a nice space," he said. "Especially if there's no color on the walls. I do recommend color, neutral colors."

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