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Trying to sell your home? Take a theatrical approach.

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?

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."

Kline often uses Sandy Gardner, who has run Commonwealth Staging in Springfield for four years and is president of the Northern Virginia/Washington chapter of the American Society of Home Stagers and Redesigners.

Gardner's staging packages run from about $1,000 per month for a small condominium or townhouse to $1,500 or more for a larger home. The tab depends on whether the homeowner or agent supplies furnishings or whether they rent them.

For those on a budget, Fortin, a member of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals, has an option called "lighter vacant staging"- in which she might bring in two living room chairs, a rug, tables with lamps, and decor, rather than a heavy sofa or coffee table. And she will charge less for the lighter approach. Some stagers leave bedrooms empty to save money, or they furnish them with easy-to-move inflatable mattresses, dressed up with attractive coverings.

Agents often link their commissions to how much staging they will provide, Gardner says. Some include a consultation in their basic commission, but the homeowner has to pay for the staging; others increase their commission as more staging is done.

Robyn Burdett, a longtime agent and associate broker with RE/MAX Allegiance in Fairfax, said she swears by stagers. "People want to walk into a home and feel like they can live there. They want it to look warm and comfortable."

The proof, says Burdett, who uses Trish Kim of Stagedinterior.com, is in foot traffic and sales. "For every home I've had staged, the traffic has been huge. . . . In Fairfax City recently, with a teeny, teeny house, we had people coming back four and five times even though it was so small. It looked so good that they wanted to figure out how to fit their families in it."

Paint has to be chosen carefully, too, Burdett says. "You don't want the house to look stark, so go for warmer colors." Special touches include "everything from candles to little glass beads in glasses . . . to the right towels." Burdett pays for staging as a marketing cost.

Kim's Web site says houses she staged in the first half of 2010 went under contract in half of the days of the Northern Virginia average, for almost 3 percent more.

Today's Internet marketing of homes has increased the value of stagers, agents and stagers say. Because so many buyers look online to narrow their search, they're quick to reject uninteresting photos and virtual tours. "If you're clicking on an empty room, it looks like just another empty room," Fortin says. "Everybody's so busy now, they won't take the time to visit a house if it doesn't grab them."

Gardner has no doubt that a staged house beats an empty house, hands down. "You'd think it would look bigger if it's empty, but it doesn't. . . . Furniture actually gives perspective to the rooms."

Agent Kline says that "the toughest cases" in persuading to remove clutter and restage "can be seniors who have a lifetime of possessions in their homes. Since they're often downsizing anyway, I try to encourage them to start on that immediately. It saves them moving expenses and makes the home look more spacious and up to date."

She tries "to minimize expense while adding some 'pop' with some things I keep on reserve for that purpose - throw rugs, colorful plants, towels, books, pictures and knickknacks. One vacant home with a dated family room looked much more inviting with a card table set up with cards and a couple of glasses and a Twister game set up on the floor. It sold fairly quickly after we did that type of thing in each room. The key is to make the buyer picture themselves engaging in activities in the main rooms and to give them a sense of the potential of the house instead of presenting a cold, sterile environment."

Staging, Northrop says, doesn't just mean the inside of the house. "If it's winter, you want to do snow removal."

The National Association of Realtors offers a field guide to staging at realtor.org/library/library/fg303.

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