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Post Magazine
This Week: Packaging a House for Sale
Hosted by Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, March 17, 2002; 1 p.m. ET

To get top dollar for your home, you might want to consider hiring a stager like Mary Sullivan to redo, rearrange and re-accessorize the place to make it more neutral, more appealing and less YOU.

Annie Gowen, whose article "Brewing Up a Sale" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, March 17 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the article and the practice of house staging.

Gowen is a reporter for The Post's Metro section.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Forestville, Md.: Okay. I am not spending thousands of dollars to fix up my townhouse (1,050 square feet of living space) for sale. What are the basics? Paint, new carpeting, finish the wood flooring upstairs? The house is 12 years old, could use new counters and tiles in the kitchen, but I'm not inclined to "go there."

Annie Gowen: Great question. The basics of home staging are easily adaptable for those home owners who don’t want to go to the expense of hiring a professional but still want to optimize the value of their property. Obviously, paint is the easiest and cheapest fix, especially if you do it yourself. New carpeting and flooring is more expensive, yes. But it is often sorely needed and is another relatively quick and easy (although not inexpensive) option. Neutral colors—various shades of white, cream or beige--are the best options.
Whether or not to add new countertops and tiles in the kitchen really depends on the condition, how much wear and tear they show. Imagine you were look at your kitchen for the first time. Would you feel comfortable cooking a meal there? If you do decide to replace the countertops and are worried about cost, stay away from costly materials like granite.
The other aspects of home staging are free and just require a bit of hard work and discipline on your part. In the story, the realtor recommends beginning to pack before you even move, to remove unnecessary clutter from around your home. She suggests going through your house with three boxes, one to pack, one with items to give or throw away, and one with items to reconsider before you actually move. One of the experts I interviewed mentioned such easy fixes as clearing away all the unused appliances on your kitchen countertops, like the coffeemaker, coffee bean grinder and even the microwave, until the house is sold. This will make the countertop space look bigger. Children’s toys and personal items in the bathroom should also be packed up or at least, stowed temporarily away.
Cleaning your house from top-to-bottom, including washing windows, is a given.

University Park, Md.: I enjoyed the article, but find it ironic that stagers advise removing personality from lived-in rooms when, by contrast, designers of model home interiors fabricate personalities for the nonexistent residents. Why would a prospective buyer shun one and gravitate toward the other?

Annie Gowen: I don’t think that what stagers do vs. interior decorators do is much different. In both cases, they’re selling a fantasy. Stagers work with existing décor to make a home seem inviting, whereas interior designers take an empty model home and fill it with furniture and accessories to do the same thing. In both cases, the messy detritus of real life—dirty dishes, discarded newspapers, toys all over the floor—is tucked away.

New York, N.Y.: I don't have a question, but I'd be curious to hear your comments on this.

Last summer I was looking at several new high-rise apartment buildings in New York City, and was fascinated to see how the model apartments had been accessorized. In addition to very nice furniture and artwork, they obviously wanted to send the message that these apartments were intended for hip, upscale tenants. Kate Spade cosmetic bags in the bathroom, TSE sweaters on the closet shelf, Acqua di Parma perfume on the dresser, etc. In the apartments that allowed cats, there were even a few cat toys scattered on the living room floor. All of these things to make it look like you had just walked into someone's apartment.

Annie Gowen: That's interesting. Again, it's about creating a fantasy for the buyer. Not unlike the merchandising at Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel. You might not actually buy a Kate Spade bag, but you could aspire to be the kind of woman who would carry one.

Fairfax Station, Va.: this online discussion is very new to me so I may be duplicating my question. Can you tell me how to contact Mary Sullivan, the stager featured in your article?

Annie Gowen: Several of you have asked how to contact Mary Sullivan. Her interior design business is in Fairfax Station, and the telephone number is 703-426-9682.

Burke, Va.: How does one "stage" the house when one's spouse is a packrat? I could haul it all off to a self-storage place. But then I'll just have the same problem in my new house.

Annie Gowen: That's a tough one. I have relatives who are the same way. I would tell him that you are moving, anyway, so you might as well start packing now. Packing up the stuff would at least eliminate the clutter in the current house. If he takes his stuff to the new house, you are on your own.

Springfield, Va.: What a terrific story.

I am a true believer in staging. Four years ago, we were able to sell my husband's condo for the full asking price (in a slow condo market) and I know the staging made the difference. In addition the the advice in the article (eliminate clutter, remove excess furniture) My real estate agent told to arrange our clothing in the closets by color, keep the table set at all times and to use clean "stunt" towels in the bathrooms to avoid the wet human smell. The condo sold in eight days.

Annie Gowen: Congratulations. I had not heard of "stunt" towels before. That is a new one. Arranging the clothes in your closets by color seems a bit much to me, but whatever works, right?

College Park, Md.: I have a quaint 64-year-old smallish (cozy?) bungalow home in College Park. My wife and I have no children, we are 25 to 30 years old. We love bright, vibrant colors, and when we bought the home we painted each room with its own color, giving each a certain character. It was a lot of work, and frankly I don't like the idea of re-painting everything in nuetral colors as your article suggests. Is it still viable to seal the home for younger couples who may enjoy the distinct and fun aspect of different colors? It is a perfect home for singles and young couples with no children.

Annie Gowen: Dear College Park: I can guarantee you that other younger couples or prospective buyers will not like your paint colors, however “distinct and fun” you may think there are. This is just my opinion, but there is nothing worse in a home than a lot of gaudy paint, and the newly married first-time-home buyers are the worst offenders.
I have a bunch of friends who are young and in their first homes, and their biggest decorating mistakes are always paint-related. Think of a dining room whose walls are covered in a red that is the color of lamb’s blood. Or a midnight-blue powder room that is so dark when you shut the door, it is hard to see.
Last week, I was a guest in the home of a young couple who recently bought a row house in Northwest that is over 100 years old, with lovely high ceilings and woodwork. They are spending most of their time painting over the painting mistakes of the previous owner. Those mistakes include a living room in a navy-blue and baby-blue combo, a teal dining room and a orange kitchen.

Ashburn, Va.: Can individuals hire stagers or do you have to go through a real estate agent?

Annie Gowen: If you are looking for a stager, your realtor may be able to recommend someone who specializes in staging, and many real estate agents are taking classes to learn staging themselves. But you don’t have to go through a realtor. Many local interior designers also do staging of one type or another. You could hire someone to come in for the day to advise you on furniture placement and paint color.
Michelle Snyder, the public relations manager for the American Society Of Interior Designers, says that there are a variety of ways that designers charge for their fees. It could be hourly or by the job. The ASID has a free online referral service at www.interiors.org. You fill out the form with such criteria as what type of project you are planning, what kind of style you want and your price range, anything from under $1,000 to over $50,000.
They’ll provide you with a list of at least three designers in your area that work in your price range.

Virginia: How did the staging work for the couple? Did they sell the house right away?

Annie Gowen: I think the Thomsons were pleased with the results. The house just went on the market, actually. They are having their first open house on Sunday.

Washington, D.C.: I found the article this weekend disconcerting for a couple of reasons. I understand the reasoning behind the red carpet overhaul and perhaps a repainting of the wood panels -- but one of the reasons I fell in love with my house was that it was not boring white or beige walls and that it had and still has character. I shudder to think that we cannot maintain some sort of style within our homes that may not invite some to purchase but may interest others. For instance, the walls in the first floor of our 1924 tudor house were painted a lovely butter yellow--the kitchen is a baltic blue. The furniture was white/off white with antique accents. We have since kept one of the rooms yellow but have painted the living room a cherry red and the tv room a mango orange. Some may shriek and say that we will never sell our house--but I would rather leave that to the buyer who can always re-paint or work out a deal to re-paint. I hate the idea of "giving in" or making my house boring so I can sell it. Just my two cents. Thanks.

Annie Gowen: You raise a good point. Many older homes have a unique charm that is missing in today's cookie-cutter suburban dwellings. Butter yellow walls sound lovely, but a cherry red living room and a mango orange TV room are not likely to appeal to many home buyers. Your role as home seller, not home owner, is to maximize your profit by appealing to as many potential buyers as possible. What if the couple turned off by the mango TV room went up the street and paid $10,000 more for a home with equal value, just because they were turned off by your electric orange wallcolor and didn't want to buy a house that needed work?

Arlington, Va.: Neutral colors seem to be the preference of the "stager" -- but can you define "neutral color?" I look at off-white paint chips and carpet samples see faint shades of -- blue, green, pink, gray. Is my color vision above average, or am I just looking too closely?

Annie Gowen: I don't think you need to tie yourself in knots over various gradations in color, especially since you're not the one who is going to be living in the house after you sell. But it's important to mention that sometimes pure or brilliant white can be jarring on walls, and so it's good to have a white paint color with a tint of blue, pink or cream.

Washington, D.C.: Why spend thousands of dollars redecorating to no one's taste? I for one would never pay an extra $15K to get a bland beige/white house. I'd rather pay slightly less and decorate it myself, and I know many other buyers doing the same thing. Especially since these last minute paint jobs are so often poorly done and require much sanding and spot removal to redo properly. A home that looks loved I trust is in better repair than one that looks hastily redone to potentially cover up water damage, etc.

Annie Gowen: That's good advice for the buyer rather than the seller. Realtors and home stagers take advantage of the fact that so many buyers have little imagination when it comes to looking at prospective homes, and have a hard time seeing past the purple shag carpeting to the home's potential. Also, many busy families want a "turn-key" house they can move right in that doesn't need a lot of updating.
Those with the vision to do their own decorating and remodeling, and who are willing to hold out for the fixer-upper, often end up getting a better deal.

Towson, Md.: Dear Annie -- certainly enjoyed the article, what a great idea for the couple that does not have the time to get house ready for sale. Do all realtors offer this to homeowners?

Annie Gowen: Not all realtors provide full-scale staging, but they all provide similar basic advice to clients, such as doing a major cleaning and eliminating clutter.
In the area, realtors who work with home stagers are the exception rather than the rule. Several Washington, D.C. area realtors who may have advocated staging during the early to mid-1990s, when the housing market was slow, found the practice less important in the hot real estate market of the last three years, when homes were snapped up within days or even hours of being listed.

Arlington, Va.: What, exactly, constitutes a "neutral" color?

White? Off-white? Khaki? Sage green? Where's the line?

Annie Gowen: I don't think there are any hard and fast rules, but I think anything in the white to light khaki range is probably neutral. Sage green is too dark.

Morris, Conn.: My home is on Bantam lake. It has been vinyl sided but there are decorative parts that need to be painted. Do I need to paint before I can sell?

Annie Gowen: Experts say that prospective buyers make up their minds about a home within minutes—seconds even—upon arriving. So the way the house looks from the outside—whether or not it has “curb appeal"—is key. Stagers always recommend painting the outside of the home if it needs it, as well as the front door, shutters and other trim. Landscaping also needs attention in some cases. One of the realtors I interviewed recommends bringing in mulch to tidy up flowerbeds.
It’s just as important to de-clutter the outside of the yard as well as the inside of the home, the expert say. Remove children’s outside toys and lawn furniture. The couple featured in the story, for example, had lots of little pieces of plastic yard art a la pink flamingos, as well as an old Christmas tree wreath on their front door. All that was taken down.

Bowie, Md.: I'm in my home a couple of years now, and plans for the spring were some repainting, reflooring and the first steps in a kitchen remodel.

Your article has me questioning what I actually ought to do. While I intend to stay for the foreseeable future, things do happen. The thought of replacing a new carpet with newer, neutral carpet is a little frightening.

How does a homeowner reconcile "decorating for us" versus "decorating for the next owner?"

Annie Gowen: I think you should decorate for you, unless you are really seriously considering putting the house on the market in the next six months. Do what makes you happy.

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