Home sellers may be daunted by the idea of renovations, but there are other ways to improve a house's market prospects without breaking the bank.
"The most important thing that doesn't cost any money is to declutter your home," said Leslie Piper, consumer housing specialist with Realtor.com. This can be done by the seller or in conjunction with the real estate agent or professional stagers. It may be as simple as throwing away accumulated possessions or having a garage sale. But real estate professionals are at a consensus on this one: decluttering is a must.
Other basic staging techniques for showing and selling a home include removing personal items, painting in neutral colors, removing outdated features like wallpaper or ceiling popcorn, introducing pleasant scents through baking or scented oils and ensuring the entire home is lit with natural light or soft electric light.
What follows are staging tips and techniques that go beyond those basics, collected by consulting with real estate agents, brokers and other home design professionals.
By Colleen Kane, Special to CNBC
Posted 20 Dec. 2013
Many home sellers know the basic advice to depersonalize their home, but they might not be aware that some items can be so distracting to potential buyers that they're considered turnoffs.
"You may love your kids to death. You may love your dogs to death. Not everyone feels the same way. A buyer can be completely turned off seeing dog food bowls or kids toys laying around," said Ben Kruger, a real estate agent with Teles Properties in Beverly Hills, Calif..
Other turnoffs he mentions include religious objects, taxidermy, lewd artwork, ashtrays, decorative weapons and overly patriotic items.
"If an item causes a buyer to stop thinking about the house and focus on an individual object, it's probably best to put it away," he said.
Some sellers and real estate pros have taken the creative step of using their homes as showcases by hosting events that draw local residents (and potential buyers, or people who might know potential buyers).
The midcentury modern home pictured here was staged as a gallery for local artists, crafters and furniture makers by Jenelle Isaacson of Living Room Realty in Portland, Ore. The home sold immediately. She also staged a vacant home with spectacular views as a setting for a monthly supper club, and invited members of the local media.
These tactics were effective because it's not just about selling a home, but a lifestyle. "Buyers often fall in love not only with the house, but a lifestyle that they envision coming with a house," said Kruger of Teles Properties. He recommends suggesting that lifestyle through staging, whether it's placement of yachting and luxury travel magazines, lining up shiny cars in the garage like an auto museum, or propping up a cookbook with fresh baked cookies in the chef's kitchen.
"Buyers want to know that the home has enough storage, built-in," said Sharon McRill, owner and president of The Betty Brigade in Ann Arbor, Mich., a personal assistance and concierge company. For sellers, that means removing any storage units like bookcases or shelving that don't come with the house, or at least removing enough of their contents so they look more spacious.
"Buyers will interpret crammed shelves as meaning there's not enough storage in the house," she said.
Pay special attention to organizing closets. "Buyers will open closets, and we want them to look beautifully organized, even if this means some items heading to the storage unit," said Jameson Sotheby's International Realty agent Mckinze Casey. "Buyers are desperate for storage space and want to see that you live there comfortably without having stuffed closets. This gives them the impression that they, too, can have an orderly life in your home, a life where there is a place for everything—and everything has a place."
Plastic flowers and dead plants are obvious no-nos. However, fresh flowers and vibrant plants can have a pleasant and calming effect on the home environment.
"It's a trick often used for very high-end homes," said Kruger. "It's inexpensive and highly effective." Just be sure those flowers are alive by debuting new arrangements before showings.
"Avoid flowers like lilies that have a strong odor and produce a lot of pollen," Kruger said. "The last thing you want is a potential buyer having an allergy attack."
Kathy Nixon specializes in staging smaller homes and condos. She cited a recent success story of a Westside Los Angeles property that had 13 offers and was closing escrow in less than three weeks. Some of the tactics she attributes to that quick sale were staging the master en suite to show off how you can fit a bed, dresser, nightstands and a flat-screen TV in a space that, if unfurnished, might appear small. She also used twin beds in a back bedroom to show how spacious it is.
Andie Day, founder of personal services for men, echoes the twin bed technique, saying: "It's easier for buyers to imagine going from two beds to a single than the reverse. For the children, they can imagine a place where their friends can play, and that's enticing to them."
Of course, it also helps spatial perception to avoid oversized furniture and artwork, which can make rooms appear smaller. "You should ideally be able to see 30-40 percent of the floor in any given room if there aren't rugs," said Kruger.
While the prevailing wisdom is to depersonalize a property to maximize its appeal, it still helps in some cases to have a sense of the age group to which the space appeals.
"Work with an agent to get a sense for the age group of the buyer. In a case with many bedrooms, it made sense that the buyer(s) would have children, and design accordingly," Day said. For properties appealing to buyers in their 20s through their 40s, he recommends incorporating a more transitional design aesthetic, shown here.
Just as you would want to showcase a great lake view by not blocking the windows with furniture, the opposite holds true when a window faces a brick wall. Barbara Brock at recommends using color to create focal points.
The example pictured here was a condo in the Gramercy neighborhood of New York City that was lingering on the market without selling. The brick wall view turned off many buyers, according to Brock, who said the sellers then used accessories and art with an intense yellow. "The arrangement created an interior focal point, drawing buyers' attention to the fireplace instead," she explained.
Low ceilings are frequently an issue in spatially limited city abodes like New York City, where "uptown prewar classics showcase 9-foot and 10-foot heights, and downtown lofts can be several feet higher. Sellers with 8-foot ceilings find themselves at a significant disadvantage," Brock said. The problem is perception. "Not only are low-ceiling properties considered undesirable, they also inherently 'feel' smaller. Buyers discount the square footage on perception alone. When that happens, the value of the property drops."
One way to address low ceilings is decoration, specifically using vertically aligned artwork, especially in the three-panel triptych formation as shown in this condo in the Yorkville section of New York City. It was on the market for months before designers from Sold With Style took a crack at it, then it got three offers on the first day of showings and went into contract.
Another tactic to add the impression of height is hanging curtain rods closer to the ceiling, according to Kruger.
According to the National Association of Realtors, an updated kitchen is the best way to add appeal to a home for sale. Bathrooms are oft cited as the second-place contenders. However, a new kitchen can run $40,000 to $50,000, said GlassTileStore.com owner Eli Mechlovitz, who recommends adding a backsplash for around $1,000 or $500 if it's a do-it-yourself project.
Others point to the inexpensive replacement of kitchen and bath fixtures as well as door and drawer pulls (as was done in the example shown here) to quickly update the look of a kitchen without a complete overhaul. Piper of Realtor.com cites a recent example of a smaller three-bedroom home where the owners painted particle board kitchen cabinets a lighter warm gray tone next to a nice cream, put on new knobs and left the dishwasher—which was probably 20 years old. "The kitchen looked great and offers are being taken," she said.
And if the bathroom has a tired old tub, Jay Hart, founder of Sold With Style, recommends reglazing for a fraction of the cost of buying a new one. "For $400, a seller can fix a problem that buyers expect will cost them thousands of dollars—yielding an ROI of 500 percent or more."
However, one room that could be worth the overhaul is the basement—which is not included in a home's calculation of square footage if it's unfinished.
"Sellers should absolutely finish their basements! It's a matter of math," said Hart. "By adding square footage, sellers increase the home's market value. For example, let's take a home located in a neighborhood whose properties are moving at $250 per square foot, and has an unfinished basement that's 450 square feet. If the seller were to finish that space, they can conceivably add over $100,000 worth of value to their home."
Modern home staging is no longer just about the in-person experience of a house. A property's Web presence is critical.
According to Piper of Realtor.com, "something like 100 percent of buyers are going online and poking around to look at properties or looking on their smartphone or iPad to look at properties, and because of this, Web appeal has become the new curb appeal."
Thus, "I don't suggest taking your own photos, and I don't really see it done," Piper said. If the agent can't get someone out to shoot the property in its best light, keep pictures limited. "Better one good photo than 10 crummy photos," she said.
To address a market of unfurnished properties for sale, Krisztina Bell founded Virtually Staging Properties, and an example of its work is pictured here. It offers packages priced by the amount of photos, in which photos of real furniture and decor are inserted into the photos of the home's unfurnished rooms.