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Trying to sell your home? Take a theatrical approach.

The work of a professional stager, such as this arrangment by Commonwealth Staging, can help some prospective buyers better envision a home's potential.
The work of a professional stager, such as this arrangment by Commonwealth Staging, can help some prospective buyers better envision a home's potential. (Photo from JIMKIRBYPHOTO.COM)

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By Sandra Fleishman
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:16 AM

Is it easier to sell a vacant house that always looks pristine, or a lived-in unit that shows how a family is using the space?

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There's considerable debate over this question, says Michael Seiler, a professor of real estate and economic development at Old Dominion University and co-author of many studies about the psychology of real estate.

"What to do with the furniture is a big question for everyone trying to sell a house," he says. "Should you move it all out, or remove some of it to make the house look as spacious as you can, or keep it furnished?"

There's no scientific answer, Seiler says. But, he says, "most people say if the house is vacant, it looks bigger."

Long & Foster agent Creig Northrop advises his suburban Maryland clients "to move out" whenever possible. "There's a myth that a vacant house doesn't show well, but they actually show better," he says. "People can visualize their own furniture in the space better," and it cuts down on "the hassle of trying to sell in this market, especially if children are involved."

"When people can, they're moving out" first, says Joanne Darling, head of the Prince George's County Association of Realtors and owner/broker for Darling Real Estate in Greenbelt. Those who've been waiting to buy and have paid down their mortgages are taking advantage of low interest rates and low prices in the Washington area and in cheaper places across the country to make their move, she says. "There's a lot of pent-up demand to buy."

All of the houses Darling has as listings are vacant. Listing information tells buyers that the homes are not foreclosures, which typically carry below-market prices. Instead, Darling says, some owners have moved out because they can afford to move on before the home sells. "They don't want to live with people wandering through their houses," Darling says.

Still, when real estate agents talk about vacant houses, they don't necessarily mean empty. Many hire staging experts who will rearrange furniture and decorative items that owners don't need right away in their next houses to show off the property to its best advantage. Or they'll bring in rugs, furniture and other decor from their company's stock or a rental firm.

It could help. "People have a very limited ability to imagine themselves and their furniture in a home," Seiler says.

Costs for staging depend on "the size of the home" and how much the clients need or want to decorate, says Cindy Fortin, who runs Cynthia Anne Interiors out of her Loudoun County home and a warehouse and who stages houses throughout the Washington area. For a 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot house, the cost could run $2,000 to $3,500, she says. "But it depends on things like how many windows there are, how many doors. . . . The more windows in a room, the less artwork you need on the walls."

"My experience has been that a two- to three-hour consultation with a stager is around $300 to $400," says Pat Kline, an associate broker with Avery Hess in Springfield. It's "sometimes paid by the Realtor and sometimes by the seller. The stager typically tells the seller what to remove, repositions some furniture and pictures to be more attractive to buyers or to make rooms 'flow' better.

"If the client decides to rent furniture to supplement what they have, or if the home is vacant, it typically is charged by the room and might run $2,000 to $3,000 per month for multiple rooms, usually with a minimum of a couple months," Kline says. "In my opinion, staging the living/dining room and possibly the family room is the most useful. The kitchen can easily have some plants, cookbooks, etc., added by the homeowner or Realtor to make it look lived in."

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