You wanna re-think that staging!?!

by Rik Goodell

I have little talent for design. Actually I’m still fond of the cable-spool, coffee table I had in college. So it goes without saying that I believe staging, done right, unquestionably helps present a property in its best light. It makes small spaces look more useful and large spaces look more functional; even if it simultaneously makes me whisper, “Does anyone actually live like this?”. But, done carelessly or misleadingly (I guess that’s a word since spell-check didn’t bounce it) what’s with staging closets and storerooms to look like a quaint second or third bedroom? When the greed factor pushes to that level of cunning, it can create problems that I suspect non-inspectors aren’t aware of.

Last week I inspected a lower unit in a two-unit, TIC building. At the back of this small apartment, there was a room with a 6’ 8” ceiling, no compliant means of emergency egress, no installed heating system, a gas-fired water heater (not approved for bedroom installation) no smoke alarm and only one small window (less than required to meet standard natural lighting and ventilation requirements). We’re talking a store-room! But it had cutesy curtains, beautiful new hardwood flooring, draperies across the water heater closet and a BED with a very pretty coverlet! Finding fanciful, deceptive staging is not a unique experience for me.

When I mentioned this misrepresentation to the seller and the buyer during my wrap-up, and told the buyer he should not plan to use this room as a habitable space, let alone a bedroom, both acknowledged that they were aware that this was not a bedroom. Huh? Someone enlighten me please. If we are all saying it is not a bedroom and we don’t want anyone to think it as a bedroom, why are we making it look like a bedroom?

I grew up in the biz. I not only think staging (it used to be just a matter of rearranging the occupants furnishings and trinkets for best advantage) is smart but I think it is a valuable service as it can truly help a prospective buyer see the potential of a home. Staging like this, however, is not only disingenuous but it creates a tremendous increase of negativity in the Contractor’s Report because we inspectors are required to report on and describe what is there. The above-described stuff (dare I call it deception?) added several negative paragraphs to my report; more than a page-worth of making it sound like this is a “bad” house. On the bottom line, I don’t think that adds value for anybody. Maybe Stagers and Realtors and Home Inspectors ought to get together and strategize so that the best outcome is met for all.

More columns by Rik [theFrontSteps]

18 thoughts on “You wanna re-think that staging!?!

  1. Rik, I was so mortified to see that one of my “own” had done something so very silly. You are correct that this can do nothing to help the sale of a house but may even hurt. In this case the buyers seem to have overlooked the nonsense. I agree with your idea concerning the alliance of Stagers, Realtors, and Home Inspectors. Your post was so interesting to me that I linked to it in my own post. I am a home stager who knows the difference between a storage room and a bed room. I think most do.

  2. Rik – I have never seen this type of thing being done, but there are unscrupulous people in every profession I guess. I think most Home Stagers are ethical and would not purposely deceive potential buyers. I never cover things up while staging, even at the homeowners request – I always tell them – it is going to come up at the home inspection anyway. Lets take care of it now so you won’t have any reason for buyers to back out after the inspection.

  3. Rik – thank you for writing this post. It brings up a good point that needs to be discussed. There is a slight misconception about home staging ‘out there’ as a result of this type of behavior and it brings to mind the magician; you watch the magician with the hope of catching how hr/she does the trick. Everyone’s efforts in the marketing of a house would be wasted with this type of image about what staging is.

    Yvonne – thank you for bring this post to our attention.

  4. Excellent post Rick.

    Staging, if done correctly, should accent the home’s positive features, allow buyers to envision themselves living there, and evoke a comfortable feeling and lifestyle. What happened here is not Staging done by a professional. I wish you better examples of Staging in your future inspections.

  5. ok, well…here’s the architect mouthing off again. thats me,

    as an architect, I dont like staging at all. I’d rather see the house empty, clean and fresh…but no “fake pottery barn” look on the interior.

    i personally think its a new trend..and just a waste of time. and money. and i think a lot of realtors use staging to “mask” over defects, or pretend a room is bigger than it really is. seems like its dumbing down the prospective buyer. like they can’t visualize how THEY would furnish the house?

  6. staging is dumbing down the buyer, but unfortunately it seems to work on enough potential buyers to keep it going strong! i am amazed that a house can be for sale and empty for months and then the week after it’s staged it goes into contract. so duggo, i have to say that some people don’t have the skills to visualize how they would furnish a home and that’s the people staging reels in. i do agree with duggo that staging seems to be used to pretend that a space is bigger and more usable than it really is and to mask defects, at least in sf…

  7. Lily,

    Thanks for your comments and support. i would agree with you completely. funny how staging does “drag in” that potential buyer. i dont get it, but its the way it is.

    now, if they would just stop putting in barbie doll furniture….

  8. Duggo — In loft or small spaces I think staging does a great job of showing potential buyers how the space can be used effectively.

    I just recently held open a TIC on Parnassus St and the majority of poential buyers enjoyed that the space was not staged — it was occupied and being lived in by mom, dad, 2 daughters and nanny — it had clutter — but places to put that clutter. It showcased that a family could comfortably live in the space.

    The super small bed is always worth a good chuckle — i crack up at the champagne breakfast in bed tray in the master bedroom – who really lives like that!

  9. Staging can be good or bad, as many have pointed out. In some spaces, it helps buyers to see what can be done with the space (in the same way that Ikea mockups can show you what can be done with a limited or strange shaped space).

  10. Rik, good post and no, staging is not about “masking defects”. Unfortunately not everyone has the ability to envision how an empty space can be transformed. For example, a client of mine had been marketing a vacant property for five months without success. After staging, the property sold within two weeks. The new home owner definitely said the staging helped in her decision making to purchase the home. Builders know this is true and that is why showhomes are “staged”. That is just good marketing. Staging is not deception, it is however a method of assisting buyers in envisioning the potential of a property.

  11. yea, right.

    staging didn’t really exist 5 years ago. now it’s the latest buzz. and I still say it is basically used to “mask defects” or rather “pump up” an average or even dump of a property. it’s a way to distract the viewer or buyer from really just seeing the property as it is..instead staging is trying to say…”oh, my look how pretty this house is…isn’t this a lovely property?”

    and then you start to look more closely at the sagging floor joists, the leaky window frames (freshly painted of course), the toilet that rocks on its’ base, the stair without sufficient head room to meet the code, the bedroom with only one electrical outlet in the whole room, the downspout that drains directly onto the ground…etc, etc, etc..

    i have seen this happen directly with various friends who have bought in SF…the house looked “fabulous” initially…they were wowed by the staging..and today they are stuck with a fixer that needs $100k of work.

    nice.

  12. duggo,

    I don’t think staging is a new idea at all. New home builders have been using this technique for years to sell their homes in subdivisions across the country. It may be a newer idea in used homes. I also think that, as an architect you truly appreciate the architecture of the home and also that you have an eye for good design as every great architect does. But, not everyone is an architect or designer. In fact, I’d say that there is a majority of people who have trouble visualizing how a home will look when furnished. I don’t see it as a dumbing down of those folks, rather an enlightening. For instance, if a home has been being lived in by a small family and a stager can make it appealing to an older couple by furnishing a bit differently it really can add to the potential of the home.

  13. Tonya,

    While I respect every opinion here, I don’t always agree.. and I still don’t.

    It’s a question, really, of semantics…you say enlightening..i say masking.

    let’s not drag this out, and just agree that I’m right.

    [Editor's note: Duggo, shall we put the ;-) in for you at the end of your last sentence? ;-) ]

  14. Rik: Had this home been PROFESSIONALLY staged, or had it been staged by the homeowner or the Listing Agent? I don’t know of any PROFESSIONAL stager that would have tried to pull a stunt like making a what was clearly a storage closet into a bedroom. Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt! Most Professional stagers adhere to an unwritten code of ethics to not stage in a manner that would conceal serious defects from the home buyer, but we have no control over an unscrupulous the home seller or the occassional bad-apple REA.

    Duggo: It is unfortunate that your friends purchased a home based upon its appearance and did not do their due diligence to make sure the home was in the condition it appeared to be in. Didn’t they have the home inspected by a professional home inspector? To portray the entire profession of home staging in a negative light because of a few bad experiences would be like portraying all architects as self-aggrandizing incompetents with no clue about how people actually live because I have been in a number of architect designed homes that were ugly and unlivable.

    Home staging affords the home buyer an opportunity to see a home in its best possible light. I’m sure if you were selling your car, you would have it detailed, have the upholstery cleaned, the engine steam cleaned and any necessary repairs done, because you want to get the most money for it and you want to sell it as quickly as possible. Is that being dishonest because you are not selling your car as it looked everyday for the past 5 years, littered with fast food wrappers, coffee and ink stains on the upholstery, with that annoying oil leak apparent?

    As an Architect you have been trained and educated to be able to discern the merits of a structure looking at it empty. Your training, however, puts you in the minority. Most home buyers become paralysed by the thought of figuring out how they would arrange their furniture in a home. I have seen time and again a home sell days or weeks after it had been staged, when it had sat for months on the market, vacant and empty. Did the Stager hide fatal flaws in the structure to make it sell? No, they just made the empty shell into a home that the home buyer could imagine themselves living in.

  15. MM: Don’t know if it was staged “professionally” or not … maybe we need to define terms before we go there.

    My objective in this post is not to necessarily target stagers, professional or otherwise, but to speak to the quarterback of the whole shebang, i.e., the RE agents. Agents run the show, set the pace, hire the stagers, the painters, landscapers and keep their finger on the pulse of the process. I don’t know what agents or stagers know and don’t try to do their job. Likewise I don’t expect them to have my perspective but c’mon! … most seasoned agents know when staging has gone beyond showing a place in its best light and turned into turning out the lights on what would otherwise be a sore thumb.

    While we’re defining terms, let’s get clear about the word “defect”. “Defect”, to my inspector’s brain, refers to something that needs to be repaired or replaced because of a hazard,. failure or faulty installation. What does it mean to you? Hiding a defect is quite different from creating illusions about storerooms being habitable spaces. Both may be fraudulent, at least unscrupulous, but they are apples and oranges. Call me a nitpicker but I live by the words I use and it strikes me an important distinction.

  16. Rik, lots of great comments above and just for the record, one of my recommendations when I am consulting with clients is to recommend a pre-list home inspection to alleviate those “defects” and problems that will inevitably surface (if there anyway) once an offer has been made.

    My job as a home stager IMHO is not about covering flaws and defects or creating rooms where there are none (I’ll leave that to the magicians and sorcerers…) Trying to convey (and educate) that to others is a tough job when they’ve had some poor experiences. A few bad apples do not spurl….

    That being said I totally agree with what you wrote here:

    “Maybe Stagers and Realtors and Home Inspectors ought to get together and strategize so that the best outcome is met for all”

    I’m all about the team approach!

  17. Karen: I apologize for being a bit slow on the uptake here. I’ve been too busy driving a cab and washing dishes to make ends meet until Home Inspections pick up again. But this older post of yours is too good, and still way too relevant, to ignore.

    You are exactly, perfectly, right on-track! Teamwork. Can you imagine, as a home seller, that when you list your house a ‘team’ of professionals descends on your place to prepare it for sale? What’s that? This is exactly what happens now with the painters, gardeners and stagers? Oh … but then why is the Home Inspector conspicuously absent from the list? Shouldn’t we send in the doctor for diagnosis and assessment before we break out the scalpels or order from the pharmacy?

    We HI’s have ‘pushed’, promoted and begged for this opportunity to contribute to the home sale process and add value to the home for more than the quarter century that I’ve been in the biz but the concept has never really caught on in a significant way. My guess is that it has never been proven to make sense from a cost vs. profit perspective. That would be hard to measure but that perception is the only explanation I can hang my hat on.

    Part of the argument I hear against the pre-listing inspection is that the future buyer isn’t going to trust the HI that wrote the report for the seller and so will go hire his or her own Home Inspector and get a new report anyway. But that is thinking from a dark spot way too deep in the box. The Home Inspection report done pre-listing does serve to augment the TDS but that benefit should not be seen as its primary value to the seller. The biggest benefit for the home seller (and agent) is a heads-up so that intelligent choices can be made to repair or replace something before a prospective buyer discovers it. All homes have their list of issues so a moderate list of items raised by the buyer’s HI is to be expected. But that big, overwhelming list, or the one that is short but has a major issue or two, turns the starry-eyed buyer into a fearful person who’s favorite word is “Whew!”. Suddenly, she wants to go be a renter. At some point, if the defect-list is lengthy, it can say to the prospective buyer that he seller hasn’t cared for the home.

    There is a buyer for every home and certainly there are some buyers who are willing to buy a home with a long list of defects. They are not going to pay top dollar for a house though because those buyers are called, “Bargain Hunters”.

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