By Andrea Pflaumer
One Sunday afternoon, you step over the threshold into a lovely living room, simply and tastefully decorated, a vase of cut flowers on the coffee table and John Coltrane on the stereo. In the kitchen, a bottle of merlot and two wineglasses beckon from the granite counter, below a shelf of gleaming copper pots. The sparkling bathroom is appointed with thick terry towels, the bedroom boasts a four-poster piled high with pillows, and in the backyard, flower beds brim with bright posies. So pretty! So comfortable! So clutter-free!
“Now this is a house I could live in,” you think. And that is exactly the response that has spawned an entire new industry: the home staging business.
Making the scene
Realtors and sellers who share the same goal—a quick sale at the best price—have good reason to hire a stager. While it can cost up to $7,000 to stage an entire house, the fee for just a few rooms can be as little as $1,000. “Staging brings you a return that is much greater than the cost,” says Maya Trilling of Berkeley Hills Realty, who recently sold a house for $250,000 over the asking price—in large part, she believes, because of good staging.
According to experts, the two most obvious factors that make a home look appealing are good rugs and high-quality picture framing. But there’s much more to staging than borrowing a couple of ritzy items: The process involves complex decisions grounded in psychology, aesthetics, and financial reality. Stagers offer clients unsentimental, professional advice about how to make a home more marketable through repairs, redecorating, and removing some (or all) of their possessions from the premises.
“It makes an enormous difference,” says Trilling, a 35-year veteran of East Bay real estate who can cite the history of almost every house in Berkeley. “That, and window washing.”
One thing buyers don’t want is to walk into a home so glamorous or crowded with furniture and accessories that they can’t imagine themselves actually living there. “If things aren’t simplified, it gets hard to see the house,” says Oakland stager Linn Thygeson. “It really doesn’t take much before people start looking at the furniture rather than the house. So I try to simplify and get the big scope and keep a rather neutral palette. It shows off the house better.”
Still, there’s something to be said, says P. Scott Silvera, a staging specialist and founder and owner of Scout Design Group in Berkeley, for “texture, color, and a touch of whimsy.”
The veteran of a Southern California childhood that featured frequent moves and home sales, Silvera had plenty of opportunity to observe what potential buyers responded to. “A compelling environment is a natural one, one that has layers, one that tells stories,” he says. “I want to do more than install the beige sofa on a diagonal in the living room and call it a day.”
That said, the shrewd placement of tables, chairs, and couches affects how viewers respond. In addition to warming up cold-seeming spaces, furniture—counterintuitively—makes small rooms look larger. Berkeley real estate agent Gene Millstein describes the effect on one of his listings that indicated four bedrooms. “A few of the agents asked, ‘Where’s the fourth bedroom?’ When I showed them, they said, ‘We thought that was a closet!’ So we put in a bed and that ended that. Everybody could see that it was, in fact, a bedroom, and that you could easily fit a bed in there.”
Stagers say that a buyer’s first impressions are formed within moments of stepping through the front door. So, like a first date, the home needs to say “Pick me!” and not “Fix me.” Before stagers place the first coffee table, artfully position the charming set of cookbooks on the kitchen countertops, and line the front walk with flowering planters, the real estate agent does a walk-through to see what the owner often doesn’t—the discolored carpet in the hallway, the behemoth bush blocking sunlight through the dining room window, the grungy grout around the cracked bathroom tile.
Stagers then point out areas that need prep work. For homes that are basically in good shape, this may mean only a cosmetic touch-up. “If there are toothpick columns in the front of the house we’ll bring in a contractor to beef them up,” Thygeson says. “Or we’ll replace light fixtures. Some of those dated, jewelry-type things get in the way of seeing the home.”
Free of fingerprints
Hiring a stager doesn’t mean, though, that the sellers get to sit around twiddling their thumbs. In fact, their hard work in cleaning up their home and removing personal items can be key to a successful sale. If the owners’ imprint is too obvious, would-be buyers feel as though they’re invading someone’s privacy rather than envisioning the home as their own. Sellers need to do much more than just stash the toothpaste and the dirty laundry—they also have to remove personal memorabilia like family photographs and religious artifacts.
But take it from Bernie Schimbke of Berkeley—it’s hard to shock a stager. “I’ve seen some pretty amazing houses, with walking paths through all the stuff in the rooms,” says Schimbke, who worked as a graphic artist, set designer, and television food stylist before embarking upon his current career as a stager. “You know they’re going to have to go through and make decisions about it all. It’s not easy, but once they start they find they can do little parts at a time. I just helped somebody throw out 1,000 Betamax tapes.”
Not every staging requires removing or storing all the existing furniture, though. When empty-nesters Abby Cohn and her husband put their Piedmont home on the market, Schimbke had to work around the fact that they were still living in the house. “We have three [adult] children and lots of photographs and kids’ artwork,” Cohn says. “It was really helpful to have someone go room by room with us and say, ‘This stays,’ ‘Pack that,’ etc.
“A lot of what Bernie did involved rearranging and making really good use of what we already had—and then, very artfully, adding his own things: carpets, framed artwork, plants, some bedding,” Cohn continues. “It was amazing what a little work on his part could do to change the look of the house. It looked a lot cleaner and more open.”
The Cohns’ home sold within two weeks of the open house, illustrating why sellers are willing to put up with the annoyance of having someone challenge their taste and the inconvenience of shuttling their belongings out of sight.
It sounds like a fun gig—checking out people’s homes, changing up the furniture, and redecorating as the space suggests. But staging requires more than an artistic eye. For one thing, a stager has to manage a warehouse full of furniture and home accessories in a variety of styles to suit different types of homes.
“And there’s a lot of schlepping involved,” says top-selling realtor Bebe McRae of Grubb’s Berkeley and Oakland offices who, before staging became popular, hired movers to transport her own living room furniture to an empty house she was representing.
Sometimes, in fact, staging gets downright heavy-duty. In 2003, Gary Faber of Berkeley started a staging business that he named Nurture Source Designs. But he soon found himself dealing with properties that needed more than a little TLC, and the enterprise “quickly grew into what I call a home transformation company,” Faber says.
Depending on the size of a home and the scope of work required, Faber’s fees run from $20,000 to $60,000. “Today, the buyer buys all the prep work—new painting, new kitchen countertops, the replaced cracked windows,” he explains. “Staging is what’s rented.”
Faber describes one Berkeley home that required major work before he could stage it. “The tenant had torn out everything in the kitchen, even ripped the wiring out of the walls,” he says. “The real estate agent couldn’t sell the house because there was no longer a legal kitchen; no lender would give it a loan.” By expediting the city’s permit and inspection process, Faber was able to fix up the kitchen in time for the sale.
Christine Mattsson, owner of Berkeley’s Nest Egg Staging, has dealt with similar challenges, like a 1970s-era home in Oakland that had remained untouched since its construction. The owner planned to list it for $600,000. “I think it would have sat on the market for quite a while,” Mattsson says.
Mattsson encouraged the homeowner to hire a team of renovators who redid the entire kitchen and all the bathrooms; changed the fireplace from rock to tile; put in new hardwood floors, carpeting, and light fixtures; and painted the interior—all for about $90,000. “The home went on the market for $850,000 and sold with multiple offers for well over the asking price,” she says.
Often the sale of a family home stems from one or more of life’s major transitions: divorce, a move to assisted living, dissolution of an estate, relocation to another school district, a change in or loss of a job. “You really have to be a people person,” says Schimbke. “Sellers are in the most gelatinous state. They’re giving up their port in the storm.
“If there are kids in the house, they get sort of flummoxed when you change things around, so I try to make sure that what I do works for everyone in the home. I tell them, ‘This is what I’m going to do for you—that’s on my plate. You just prioritize what you need to do for your move.’ And when they get that, I can see the relief in their faces. ‘Okay, I don’t have to do that.’”
Stress levels shoot extra-high when a move involves an aging parent or estate liquidation. At one home, Faber encountered a 93-year-old woman with full-blown Alzheimer’s disease being cared for by her 60-year-old son, who had his own health problems. “The agent was just beautiful,” he says. “She explained, ‘This is what must happen before we even get to the house.’”
Faber’s company “started adding other services when the human element started showing up—especially after the housing crash,” he says. Now one goal is to “help the family, kind of like an estate organizer. We refer them to estate liquidators. If someone needs to move to Rossmoor [retirement community] or store things, we can help them in the process.”
When Bob and Maggie Drake’s mothers died within a year of each other, the Drakes found themselves in the unenviable position of having to liquidate two houses in Kensington, practically across the street from each other. “They both lived in their homes for 50 to 60 years,” Bob Drake says. “It was time to clear things out.”
And the decision to get professional help was a no-brainer. “You’re paying a little bit to hire a stager, but you’d be crazy not to,” he says.
Faber helped the Drakes contact Kathy Pimpan, an estate liquidator. “We had done a couple of garage sales, but you don’t get as much as you do in an estate sale,” says Drake. “Kathy held the sale over two weekends. We sold about 95 percent of everything, and what we couldn’t sell we gave to charities.”
Once the homes were free of clutter, Faber went on to manage the remodeling and staging. At the time, Drake says, “many homes in Kensington were on sale for more than six months. [But] from the day of the broker tour to the date of the offer was 10 days—on both houses.”
Whatever the circumstances surrounding a home sale, almost everybody finds it wrenching to say goodbye to a beloved house. Some people, though, also have trouble letting go of their stager. Frequently, Faber says, a satisfied seller will hire the stager to arrange furnishings in the new home. And once in a while, he swears, a client is so delighted with a stager’s upgrades that they decide to take the house off the market altogether. “Yes, it’s happened,” says Faber. “And believe it or not, the Realtor still talks to me.”
Andrea Pflaumer is a Berkeley-based writer who, with her husband, spent four and a half years searching for a home. She writes dance previews for The San Francisco Examiner and is working on a book about shopping.
The following is a partial list of local staging resources.
Rebecca Bowman, Sorella Staging, Oakland, (510) 466-5787; sorellastaging.com.
Gary Faber, Nurture Source Designs, Berkeley, (510) 504-6502; nurturesourcedesigns.com.
Modern Hjem, (415) 496-6101; modernhjem.com.
Natalie Lynch, Casa di Vita Staging, Alameda, (510) 393-4488; casadivita.com/contact.html.
Christine Mattsson, Nest Egg Staging, Berkeley, (510) 368-5873; nesteggstaging.com.
Ken McHale, Berkeley, (510) 527-7741; kenmchaledesign.com.
Grace McHugh, Grace Interiors, Alameda, (510) 388-6044; email@example.com.
Pauline Pearsall Staging, Oakland, (510) 773-9400; paulinepearsall.com.
Kim Pierce, Pierce Design and Staging, Emeryville, (510) 923-1326.
Janina Roberts, J. Posh Design, Oakland, (510) 922-1447; jposhdesign.com.
Bernie Schimbke, Room Service, Berkeley, (510) 525-2489; roomserviceinterior.com.
Scout Design Group, Berkeley, (510) 595-3400; scoutstaging.com.
Joanne Sherwood, Joanne Sherwood Designs, Oakland/Piedmont, (510) 547-7713; joannsherwooddesign.com.
Linn Thygeson Designs, Oakland/Piedmont, (510) 658-6795; Thygeson1@comcast.net.
Beverlee Jeanne, Vignette Home Styling, Oakland and Berkeley, (510) 418-9010; vignettestyle.com.
Marlene Wharmby, Staged by Marlene, Oakland, (510) 384-9572; marlenewharmby.com.
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(top) Clean contemporary: Berkeley’s Scout Design Group spiffed up this bungalow using a neutral backdrop splashed with a bold pattern (photo courtesy Scout Design Group). (bottom) Nice and neutral: Experts say homes sell for a higher price when the owner’s imprint is invisible, as in this design arrangement by Nest Egg Staging (photo courtesy Nest Egg Staging).