Setting the Stage

Maureen Costello writer

Kristin Burke/Third Rail Studios photographer

While the softening housing market nationwide has created a playground for first-time buyers and those who don’t need to close on one property to buy another, it has forced everyone else to be clever when trying to sell a house.

Even the blue-chip communities of Wellesley and Weston are not immune to the tough housing environment. Well before the sub-prime mortgage fiasco came to a head in 2007, the tables had started to turn. Houses stayed on the market longer and slashed closing prices practically eliminated the phrase “it sold for over asking.”

In this environment, first impressions count. A property that lingers on the market loses its appeal and value when the asking price drops by tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to attract a buyer. In the wake of these abrupt changes in the housing market, a relatively new concept called “home staging” is being put to use to help sellers sell their property without sacrificing profit.

“It’s the newest trend in one-stop shopping,” says Amy Mizner, a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Weston. “Not only are buyers falling in love with the house, they’re falling in love with the furnishings and decorations emanated from staging the house. It’s a real turnkey operation.”

Home staging essentially sets the stage so prospective buyers feel immediately at home once they see the property. It can be as simple as adding a colorful bowl of

fresh fruit on a kitchen table to revamping the landscaping. “There are a lot of ways to ‘stage’ a house that will allow the buyers to see themselves living there,” says Mizner.

Mizner and her business partner Sheryl Simon recently employed the services of “stager” Betty Wheeler to add the homey touches to a listing on Weston’s Westerly Road. The new construction, listing at more than three million dollars, boasted a spacious and sparkling kitchen with state-of-the-art stainless steel appliances, gleaming hardwood floors and pristine woodland views from both the family room and the sunroom. But something was missing. Wheeler arranged caramel-colored leather couches and chairs, textured throw pillows, lighting, and tables in the family room, along with a still-life painting on the stone mantel and birch logs near the hearth. In the sunroom, she added a crisp white couch, some carpeting, a sturdy pine table, a few plants and other carefully selected accessories. Wheeler also added a dining set and tall, dark wood chairs along the breakfast bar in the kitchen. As a result, an offer was accepted in days.

A report conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development states that a staged home will sell at a price 17 percent higher than homes that were not staged. A 2007 survey of 2,000 real estate brokers nationwide conducted by the online real estate resource,, revealed that sellers who spent at least $500 to stage their homes recovered more than 343 percent of that cost in the final sale.

“The results are dramatic,” says Candace Bouley, a Wellesley resident who earlier this year opened Channing Design L.L.C. Home Staging and Redesign with fellow designer Kathy Abrams. “Most of us would enhance the attractiveness of our cars by detailing before selling. Staging a home provides that competitive edge so necessary in today’s market, and the investment of staging is almost always less than the first price reduction.”

While staging is a relatively new concept for homeowners when selling the properties in which they have lived – and very often raised their families – it has long been used by developers. Model homes, finished with every detail from guest towels in the powder room to plasma televisions in the family room to blooming rhododendrons in the garden are expected in newly-constructed residential developments and condominium complexes. Older properties are also benefiting.

Time is the first investment. “I tell people to get as many things out of the house as possible,” says Sarah Patrick, a broker with Prudential Town & Country in Wellesley. A harmonious, clutter-free interior, straight from the crisp pages of a Pottery Barn catalog has long been a seller’s best friend. In contrast, outdated light fixtures, pet odors, stacks of magazines you keep meaning to read, and a refrigerator covered with magnets and photos are the enemy.

Brokers and home stagers are cognizant that homeowners may not believe some of their personal treasures may break a sale. The bottom line, says Patrick, is making the buyers feel at home. Buyers today are busy and want to be able to move in as soon as possible.

“People want a house that doesn’t need a lot of work. A lot of people buying homes today are very busy, both parents are working. To redo a house takes a lot of time and a lot of money,” says Donna Scott, a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Wellesley, who regularly draws upon her interior decorating career to spruce up listings.

“Some prospective buyers have a really hard time visualizing the space, especially large rooms, when they are looking at someone else’s furnishings, photographs and other personal items,” she says. “You want them to be able to say, ‘Oh, I can see my stuff in here.’”

Broaching the subject can be delicate but the professionals are ready for the challenge. “Many homeowners do have difficulty viewing their home objectively, but come to realize that our service enhances the value of their home, and love the staged-to-sell look,” says Bouley.

There are many things to consider when getting a property ready for its first open house. Mizner and Simon adjust furnishings and decorations to the scale and position of the rooms they are in. “Sometimes it’s just accessorizing a house, and sometimes it’s something like refinishing the floors,” says Mizner. “Other times you bring in the professional stager and really start from scratch.”

Scott regularly displays her china and bed linens in sellers’ homes to help create ambience. “Whatever it takes,” she says. “One time I brought by a round table. We put a pretty tablecloth on it. The homeowner borrowed some mahogany chairs from a neighbor and we placed a vase of beautiful flowers on the table. It looked like the dining room was like that forever.”

The homeowner is responsible for the cost of updating the home, and the costs of both renting or purchasing furnishings and decorations. Costs can run as high as $5,000 a month for rentals. “And not everyone has the luxury to stage a home,” says Mizner. Costs have been rolled into the asking price, and purchased items have been sold separately. It is not unusual for buyers to inquire about purchasing staged pieces. What isn’t sold at the closing may be sold separately or reused in another listing. “Everything in real estate is negotiable,” says Patrick. “If you like it, ask and sometimes they’ll throw it in.”

It is never too late to stage a home. Bouley believes that “if the house hasn’t sold after being on the market for some time, all the more reason to use a professional stager.”

The ideal time for staging is before the first open house, especially since many buyers first look at photos of prospects on the Internet. “Buyers are a lot more educated at this point, and the Internet is really helpful,” says Patrick. “The first showing now is usually on the Internet. The second showing is when you actually get to the house.”

Maureen Costello is a writer in Concord and former assistant editor of the Wellesley Townsman.

Summer 2023