Home staging secrets from a pro

Could your house be someone’s next dream home?  Home buyers are savvier than ever before, and now there’s more to getting top dollar for your property than a good location. While there will always be people looking for “fixer-uppers”, most people are looking for a little polish.

“More people are looking for something that’s ‘move in ready’,” says Dana Smithers, founder and creator of the PRES Staging Program and author of Start & Run a Home Staging Business. “People are busy…  They don’t have a lot of time and energy to upgrade. When they’re looking at your home, they’re looking at how much time and effort it will take to fix up and maintain.”

If your home isn’t exuding that fuss-free vibe, you’re not alone. Most places need a little love before they hit the market. Aside from repairs and a good cleaning, a few improvements can make your home even more appealing.

“The way you live in your home is not the way you sell your house,” says Smithers. Her clients call her “the staging guru” for a reason — she knows what sells and what leaves people wanting.

We talked to Smithers to learn some of her top tips:

Think ahead. Staging may seem like something you do at the last minute, but the process can take much longer. How soon should you start? Smithers recommends giving yourself at least three months to figure out what needs to be done and to enlist expert help (like movers, contractors or painters.) It also gives you plenty of time to tackle the dreaded chore of de-cluttering.

Consider your target market. Any sale starts with understanding your customers’ needs — and fulfilling them. For instance, if you live in a four bedroom, two story home, chances are a family or young couple will be a good fit. What about a three bedroom bungalow? It may appeal as starter home or the ideal place for empty-nesters looking to downsize.

“The first question you should ask yourself is who is going to buy this house?” advises Smithers. Once you’ve thought about that, you’ll have a better idea where to target your time and energy.

Clear the clutter. Even if a home is spotless, clutter can be a big turn-off for buyers. Surfaces covered with stuff and rooms packed with furniture aren’t just a distraction — they can make people think the home is difficult to keep clean and lacking storage space. Worse yet, clutter makes spaces feel small and cramped.

How much stuff needs to go? Smithers estimates most people need to clear one third to one half of their belongings. Moving is a good time to get rid of unwanted items, and renting a storage space will take care of the things you want to keep and protect.

Remove distraction. Your collections, photos, knick-knacks — even if they aren’t clutter they can still keep potential buyers from visualizing their new life in your house. Ultimately, you want them to imagine their things in the home.

“You’re not giving people a tour of your home,” warns Smithers. “It’s an investment, a piece of property, merchandise. You have to detach and de-personalize.”

Besides, you never know what people are going through. Your family photos could invoke a sense of loneliness in someone who has lost a family member or gone through a divorce. You want people to have a positive emotional response.

Focus on the most important rooms. Time and budget may not allow you to make every room equally polished. So which spaces make the biggest impact? Smithers recommends focusing on the entrance way and anything on the first level — the kitchen, powder room, living room, etc. — that creates the crucial first impression. Upstairs, buyers will be paying extra attention to the master bedroom and bathroom. Smithers recommends aiming for a “hotel look and feel” in those spaces.

Stick with the original function. You may have made a few adaptations over the years, but Smithers recommends staging each room according to its original purpose. For instance, if you turned your dining room or part of your family room into a home office, it’s time to clear out and bring back the original furniture.

“You shouldn’t leave a lot to the imagination,” warns Smithers. “Don’t assume that buyers are able to visualize what the room should look like. If it’s a dining room, it should look like a dining room.”

Show off your floors. Got hardwood? It’s what the majority of today’s home buyers look for because it’s easier to keep clean and better for allergies. Wall-to-wall carpeting isn’t the current trend, but it’s still okay in formal living rooms and bedrooms — and an area rug in a living room helps frame the space.

Hardwood not in the budget? Laminate still wins out over carpet. If you’re installing new flooring, keep this rule-of-thumb in mind: try to have no more than three different types (including carpeting) on each level of your house.

Think neutral. When it comes to colour, everyone has different tastes and sense of style. When you’re picking a colour for your walls, choose light, neutral hues with a matte finish and white trim. Light colours make rooms seem more spacious, and they appeal to more people than dark colours.

“Your home needs to have broad buyer appeal,” says Smithers. “Most people are comfortable with beiges and greens, and those colours are easy to paint over when it’s time for a change.”

Another tip: Paint to match your floors, not your furniture (you’ll be taking it with you, after all.)

Modernize with inexpensive décor. Neutral walls don’t have to mean boring rooms. Use your accents to add some colour and personality — like a colourful throw or decorative bowl. You don’t have to go high end. Stores like Ikea and HomeSense offer inexpensive items to dress up a space, or you can go online and hunt for items on Craigslist and Kijiji.

Another option: talk to your friends and family — they may have something you can borrow.

Create a vignette. Even though you are de-personalizing your home, that doesn’t mean it has to look bare. Smithers recommends setting up little areas that invite in potential buyers. For instance, in a spacious bedroom a chair paired with a small side table with a book, clean coffee mug and some flowers suggests a space that someone would want to use.

Update the hardware. Little details matter too — like lighting fixtures and the handles and knobs on your cupboards and doors. Replacing them is another cost-effective way to update the look of your room. If you want to tap into current trends, nix the brass and look for brushed nickel or stainless steel. Again, you don’t have to go top-of-the-line, but you shouldn’t skim the bottom either: aim for the middle for all finishings.

Rent or borrow. Don’t have a lot of cash to put into accessories or furniture? Many companies rent furniture, and you’ll want something in each room if you’ve already moved out because vacated spaces are hard to sell. Buyers like having a frame of reference so they can imagine how their furniture will work and get a sense of scale.

Get a professional opinion. Think hiring a home stager will cost a lot? You can have someone walk you through the process — from de-cluttering to setting up your new home — but you also learn a lot from a consultation. It can be hard to be objective about our own homes, but the $100 consultation fee can pay off the advice you’ll get — including where best to spend your time and money.

Planning to DIY? A book or e-book is an inexpensive way to get expert advice.

One final word of advice: photograph your home looking at its best. You may be in a hurry to sell, but your listing should show off your staged home, not the “before” pictures. Why? Smithers notes that almost 80 per cent of buyers look to the Internet first. Clean, well-maintained and appealing homes will get people in your door — but chances are they won’t stop by if they see clutter, dirt and dated décor.

“We buy based on emotion,” says Smithers. “We want something that looks nice, that’s appealing. All those subconscious things make a difference. Ultimately, you want potential buyers to look at your home and think ‘wow, I can see myself living here.’


Curious to see the transformation? Smithers shared some of her “before and after” shots:

Living room/office before staging.

Living room/office after staging. (Notice how the room now fulfills its intended purpose.)

The “Rabbit Room” before staging.

The “Rabbit Room” after staging. (Note the new colour scheme and lack of clutter.)