This carpet, for instance.
"This will definitely be banished," says interior design consultant Mary Sullivan, gesturing down at the 1970s-era black-and-orange carpeting as she descends into the basement rec room in Wayne and Vera Thomson's Annandale home. The Thomsons, a couple a couple in their sixties, trail meekly in her wake.
Sullivan pauses by the basement bookshelf and swiftly begins rearranging, yanking Wayne's 50-volume set of classics into a neat row, removing a stack of dusty board games. Her half-moon glasses are sliding down her nose as she quickly shifts and tidies.
"Neatness and cleanliness," she says. "This says, 'When there is order here, there is order everywhere. This is a house that has been cared for.' "
Out goes Wayne's treasured University of Pittsburgh flag, along with the pencil drawing of a squirrel that the Thomsons' daughter, Connie, drew in fourth grade. Sullivan adds a small vase among the books. "That looks great, Mary," Vera Thomson says.
Several weeks ago, the Thomsons decided to sell the six-bedroom home, in the Forest Grove subdivision near Inova Fairfax Hospital, where they have lived for 26 years. Like many older homes, the house suffers from a dated decor, and so their real estate agent has hired Sullivan to "stage" the Thomsons' home. Sullivan will rearrange, accessorize and redo the rooms -- as if setting a stage for a play -- just before the house goes on the market, to tempt buyers into paying a higher price.
Sentimentality is not part of the stager's job description. Honesty, sometimes brutal honesty, is. As Sullivan is about to add a plaster cupid candleholder to the "discard or donate" pile, she catches sight of a drooping plastic flower arrangement of sad yellow hollyhocks and worn hydrangeas in the corner. She freezes. She says, "These flowers are going to go, right, Vera?"
Wayne and Vera Thomson had hoped to live out their lives here in this brick-front Colonial with the mansard roof, with its view of the winding stream in Eakin Community Park, its master bedroom suite with the romantic hot tub, and the gingerbread-trim window boxes that Wayne made eight years ago as a valentine for his German-born wife.
They have so many memories of this place, where they have lived for much of their 37-year-marriage. "It is the old homestead," says Vera. When their two children were small, the house was a neighborhood gathering spot, not surprising given that Vera is the kind of mother who usually has a fresh apple pie sitting on the counter, who grabs your shoulders when you're on your way out the door and asks, "Are you sure you don't need a pastrami sandwich for the road?"
But the three-floor, 4,100-square-foot home, for which they paid $82,000 in 1976, has proved too much for them now that they're older. "She told me the only way we could stay was if I bought her a riding vacuum cleaner," quips Wayne, a semi-retired information technology consultant.
So, with mixed feelings, the Thomsons hired Annandale real estate agent Carol Greco to sell the house. Greco, among the top 10 brokers with Long & Foster in Northern Virginia, has decided to list the house in the mid-$500,000s.
When Greco first meets with clients and determines that their home needs some staging -- a little landscaping, for example, or a more tasteful furniture arrangement -- she calls Sullivan, a Fairfax Station design consultant who has 14 years' experience in the field. Greco foots the bill for Sullivan's hourly decorator fee, and the clients supply the necessary budget for paint, flooring and new accessories.
Greco says she stages 95 percent of the properties she sells, even during the recent real estate boom, where houses have been snapped up on the day of their first showings and the region's housing prices have increased by 40 percent since 1999. "It's all about the first impression," she explains. "You're setting a stage, literally. Buyers make their mind up about a home within the first five minutes, so it better look good."
Real estate agents have long advised homeowners on small fixes they should make before putting a house on the market, but in the last few years home staging has become a rapidly growing niche within the interior design and real estate markets, according to several agents. Because the field is so new, there is little data to support or debunk the theory that staged homes garner higher market prices, but veterans like Greco swear by the practice.
"I'm maximizing profit," Greco explains. "I think the money [sellers] put into it is well spent. They get the money they put in, plus more." Still, she says, in the hot Washington market, home staging is "the exception rather than the rule."
Staging's advocates say it works because people shopping for a new house usually lack imagination. "Buyers only know what they see, not the way it's going to be," explains Barb Schwarz, a Concord, Calif., agent who has taught this and other staging mantras to more than 2,000 real estate agents and design professionals in classes around the country. Staging pays off, Greco says, because these days busy families want a "turn-key" house, not a home where they will immediately have to begin painting and remodeling.
If buyers visited the Thomsons' house as is, for example, they'd probably be turned off by the red wall-to-wall carpeting upstairs, or the wood paneling in the den, or the dated, clashing wallpapers. Sullivan has decreed that the red carpet must go, to be ripped out and replaced with a fluffy nylon carpet in a soft barley beige. The orange-and-black basement carpeting will be replaced with neutral Berber wall-to-wall. The old wallpaper in the upstairs bedrooms is to be torn off, and the wood paneling in the family room painted bone white. The puffy blue toilet seat is out, as is the 20-year-old tile in the kitchen. That will be replaced with Pergo pine laminate flooring. Adding all that to the new roof the house needs, the Thomsons expect to spend $18,000 fixing the place up before it goes on the market.
In general, stagers' advice can range from basic common sense -- "clean, clean, clean!" -- to the inspired. Sullivan suggests hiding space heaters and electric fans before buyers come through, so they won't get the impression that the heating or cooling systems don't work properly. Sullivan and Greco also advise packing up kitschy collections -- hide those Hummel figurines -- and the trophy wall of grip-and-grin photos so common in the homes of Washington bureaucrats.
The idea is to leave the house looking blandly tasteful, and to edit out as much of the personality of the homeowner as possible.
"The way you live in a home and the way you market and sell your house are two different things," Schwarz says. "You have to cut the strings of attachment. Your home has to become a house, and the house becomes the product."
Clutter is always the biggest problem. All houses have too much stuff, says Schwarz. Like those little doilies that seem to pop up everywhere, on armrests and under lamps. And "those daisy afghans? Pink and blue and yellow yarn? I see 'em all the time," she says. "Somebody's aunt or grandma made 'em. I say, It's too precious." She cackles. "Pack it up."
You live with clutter long enough and you don't even see it anymore, the experts say. Like the Thomsons' covered-wagon lamp. Or the Halloween scarecrow, Mr. Pumpkinhead, currently luxuriating on a chaise longue on their back porch. Sullivan always tells her clients to start by going through the house with three boxes, one for stuff to pack, one for stuff to throw away or donate, and one "maybe" box, to be reexamined before the actual move.
Once the painting is done and the clutter removed, the stager will go to work rearranging the furniture to look more inviting and adding, if necessary, different lamps, pillows and other accessories. In Sullivan's garage, she and Greco keep a cache of tasteful objets -- Chinese vases, throw pillows -- that they pick up at discount retailers like Marshalls or at garage sales for this very purpose.
And sometimes they work with what's already there. "My best story with staging," Greco says, "is that time we moved a vase from a side buffet to the center of the table. The seller said, 'Arthur would love this. He always had to be the center of attention.' It was the ashes of his dead lover!"
For the sellers, it's all about saying goodbye. What looks like clutter to a stager, after all, is beloved memories to a family. For the Thomsons' daughter, Connie, the house has the bedroom where she slept as a little girl in a white canopy bed. The back yard where one summer she released her pet turtle into the wild. The living room where she posed for prom pictures, in that poufy purple dress that clashed with the red carpet.
And over the years, the Thomsons have spent a lot of time fixing up the place. Wayne's woodworking talent is on view everywhere. Outside there is the long row of flower boxes he handmade for Vera, painstakingly cutting out the elaborate gingerbread designs with a band saw. For years she has been planting them each spring with geraniums.
Wayne remodeled the kitchen himself. "When I did that I didn't expect I'd be leaving this house except feet first," Wayne says, as the two of them proudly show off his 1992 remodeling project, with the cherry cabinets and the warm gold-flecked granite countertops and the stained-glass inserts in the cabinet fronts.
But when potential buyers come through, Greco says, the Thomsons won't be around to give them their friendly, personal tour. Instead, buyers will get a tutorial about Wayne's remodeling efforts on antiseptic little placards that Greco calls "silent salesmen's signs."
"We don't let sellers follow buyers around," she says. "A seller can kill the sale. They can point out the home's flaws, or say something like, 'My new house is going to be ready next week . . .' "
Vera opens one of the cabinets, a built-in with a turning shelf. "Look," she says, twirling it happily.
"Every time a seller opens his mouth, the price goes down $1,000," Greco continues.
Wayne opens up the drawer with the kitchen's built-in cutting boards. "These pull out," he says.
"Carol likes clients, if you can, to get in the car and take off when the house is being shown," Sullivan says.
And take those three friendly mutts, too.
"The dogs are not for sale!" Vera says.
In a few weeks, the transformation of the home is nearly complete. Wayne has been painting furiously, and the $8,100 worth of new carpet and flooring has been installed.
Sullivan has begun to do the final part of the staging, adding a few strategic decorations, rearranging the furniture and fluffing pillows. In the living room she has moved the Thomsons' worn blue velvet couch out from the wall and covered it with two sets of pillows, one set in brown tapestry and the other in leather. (The couch is actually the nap bed for their son's Labrador, Buckwheat, when Buckwheat comes to visit, but nobody needs to know that.)
She's repositioned the wing chairs, added a gold fringed throw and jettisoned two 1970s lamps -- big as cigar-store Indians -- in favor of four smaller lamps in brass and crystal. The windows have been swagged.
"I like to make it look elegant," Sullivan says, unfurling a bolt of teal-and-rust plaid taffeta and beginning to pin it into a balloon skirt for a side table. "What's good is you've taken the personality of the seller out a bit."
Vera thinks the new living room is pretty, but already "it feels like a different house."
She has begun thinking about the new family that will live here, wondering how long it will take their children to figure out the house's secret passageways, where her children and grandchildren played hide-and-seek.
"I'm letting go," Wayne says. "To tell you the honest truth, I don't think it's as cozy as it used to be. We spent 26 years making it cozy and now it's all sterile and white. It looks like a house you'd start decorating to suit yourself."
"A model home, I guess," says Vera.
Greco says she hopes to put the house on the market right away. That's a disappointment to Wayne. He wanted to wait and sell the home in the spring, when Vera's flower boxes are in bloom.
The Ten Commandments of Home Staging
According to interior designer Mary Sullivan and real estate broker Carol Greco
I. Thou shalt clean. Including windows. (And take those dusty drapes down while you're at it.)
II. Thou shalt declutter.
III. Thou shalt repaint in neutral colors.
IV. Thou shalt rid the home of mustiness or pet odors by any means necessary (including recarpeting).
V. Thou shalt not have a TV in the living room, or a waffle iron, coffeemaker or microwave oven taking up counter space in the kitchen.
VI. Thou shalt have fluffy new towels in the bathroom.
VII. Thou shalt light the home properly, adding extra lamps as needed.
VIII. Thou shalt tidy the closets, especially the linen closet.
IX. Thou shalt repaint the front door and shutters.
X. Thou shalt remove extraneous furniture (ideally, one-third of the furniture in each room), to make the house appear more spacious.
Annie Gowen is a reporter for The Post's Metro section. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.