At the end of every year, my mind naturally drifts to what did and didn’t work this year, in an effort to double down on my successes and avoid repeating my mistakes. Occasionally, I’ll take a look back at my whole lifetime in this same way, reflecting on poor past decisions ranging from old high school sweethearts to bad fashion choices, misguided career moves to things I said and wished, instantly, I could take back.
Rather than letting them fester into regrets, it’s best to look at our mistakes as holding lessons - pitfall avoiding, action-inspiring material we can draw on as we move forward in life. In fact, I actually call my painful past mistakes “tuition”: the price I’ve paid to learn a valuable lesson. The keyword here is valuable. In school, tuition is worth paying because the learning you get in return holds economic value or is otherwise worthwhile.
Tuition is a lot like staging, really: they’re both up-front investments with the potential to make or save you money, in your life, your career, or the sale of your home.
As we grow older and wiser, the goal should be to learn not just from the mistakes we’ve committed - but from those that others have committed, as well. Think of them as tuition-free lessons. I say we should try to do the same with staging - let’s take these ten shockingly bad staging decisions that other home owners have made and continue to make every single day, and boil them down into lessons every home seller can use to drive their own home staging success.
1. Bizarre collection overload. Let’s face facts: it is very difficult for almost any collection to look orderly and neutral, two high-level aims of home staging. Unless you have attractive, high-end built-in cases for your collections and target buyers are share your affinity for the objects, even your cool clock collection or the dolls your grandmother gave you can come off as a pile of space-consuming clutter.
But when it comes to shockingly bad staging decisions, the choice to give your taxidermy collection or your gun collection a starring role in your home’s staging ranks up there in the top few. These collections are highly likely to trigger (pardon the pun) ethical and sanitation concerns in the minds of many home buyers, and are completely distracting from the strengths and features your home has to offer.
Lesson Learned: Pack up your clown collection and put your bowling trophies in storage before you start showing your home. And if it once ran, flew or swam, think twice before putting its body out on display as part of your staging showcase (unless, of course, your home is a hunting lodge or in an area where hunting is de riguer).
2. Echo chamber staging. In an echo chamber, sounds are amplified because they simply bounce around in that closed space. The same can happen with your thoughts and ideas about staging, if you don’t open yourself up to outside input. And unfortunately, it seems to be the bad staging ideas that get amplified, more than the good ones.
For instance, no matter how great your taste is, if your home is heavily customized around your personal preferences, it can be very difficult for buyers-to-be to envision themselves, their families and their belongings in the place. Echo chamber staging happens when the sum total of your staging team is you, yourself and you - so that the only conversations that take place about your home’s staging plan are those that take place in the echo chamber of your mind.
For that reason, I’m a big believer in professional staging (if you have the budget) and in professionally-assisted staging (if you don’)t. That’s because the sellers who stage with zero external or professional input, are often the sellers who are unable to see:
- that their homes are still significantly cluttered or over-full,
- that their furniture is too plentiful and too large to show how spacious the home truly is, or
- that their sweet feline companions are also rather malodorous to strangers.
The truth can hurt - so many home owners avoid it. Don’t fall into this trap. Bring in some trusted pros who are both invested in your success and willing to tell you the unvarnished truth.
Lesson learned: Get input from the pros - and get out there on the market, to see what your competition is like, from a staging perspective, rather than being your own, sole staging adviser. Read some books on staging. View model homes or professionally staged homes that are on the market. Get input from your real estate agent. If you have a bare bones budget, consider hiring a pro stager for just an hour’s worth of advice - let them come into your home and tell you what they would do, if they were you. (And write it down!)
3. Failure to edit. You’ve heard thirty-somethings who still live at home diagnosed with failure to launch? Well, failure to edit is a close cousin of this syndrom. As the New York Times recently put it, “the job of stagers is to reverse the accumulated creep of hundreds of small and misguided design decisions, and to erase any hints of the messiness of daily life.” You might have a fantastic rug, a beautiful sofa, amazing tchotchkes and the highest-end personal effects are high style. But chances are good that their cumulative first impression to a buyer viewing your home will still fall short of the “one broad stroke of gorgeousness” the Times piece correctly says home sellers should aim for, with their stagin.
The failure to edit is a generalized syndrome which can manifest in all sorts of specific staging woes, from garden variety clutter to disastrous decor style mashups.
Lesson learned: When you think you’ve edited as much as you can edit, edit again. Think of it as pre-packing. The goal should be to remove virtually everything that would allow (or force) a buyer to picture you or your family, or your daily life functions taking place in the home. As well, you want to create as much ‘visual white space’ in your home as possible. If you’re a do-it-yourself stager, ask your agent and your friends to come in and help you decide what still needs to go, once you think you’re done removing furniture and personal effects.
4. Silly scenarios. The difference between staging and interior design is simple: staging is cost-and-time efficient design undertaken with the specific objective of showing a home off to its best advantage, playing up its features and helping prospective buyers visualize the best lives they could possibly live in the home, should they choose it. Unfortunately, this has led some well-intentioned sellers and stagers to believe they should stage one bedroom as a Parisian boulevard (Eiffel tower mural included), another with a full-blown butterfly theme and the third as the beach - complete with umbrella, towels on the wall and sunscreen bottles on the nightstand. I saw this house, folks. With my own two eyes.
Lesson learned: Stage your home to show off its space, light and conveniences, and the best, basic purposes that unusally small or large spaces could be used for. If your backyard is a huge selling point, stage it with outdoor dining or living room furnishings. Or, for example, if you have a very large Master bedroom sitting area and your home is in a school district sought after by new parent buyers, talk with your agent about staging your sitting area as a nursery with a compact bassinet and appropriate decor. Similarly, if your home is a 2 bedroom with a bonus room in an area of 4 bedroom homes, staging the bonus room as a bedroom or home office helps buyers understand the solutions that can minimize the brunt of your home’s challenges.
Staging your home to create “cute” scenarios with no relationship to the selling points or solutions buyers care about is of no value and can create a low-budget feel - which is the exact opposite of your goal.
5. The ‘lived-in’ look. When your home is being shown for sale, it must be immaculate, every single time it’s being shown. It should actually look like no one lives there: no toothbrushes, curling irons, protein shake mixes or paperwork allowed. No bowls of cereal on the counter - actually, nothing on the top of a counter or a table that is not intended to be a design element.
Is this difficult to keep up? Absolutely, especially if you have children or animals living in the home while it’s being shown. But you’d be surprised at how bad an impression just a few personal toiletries or dishes can make, distracting prospective buyers and making them wonder why you didn’t care enough to pick up before you let them in.
Lesson learned: Work with your agent to set up ideal showing windows, and to come up with a reasonable advance notice requirement they can communicate to buyers agents. And work with your family to set up a system for putting everything away and wiping down all kitchens, bathrooms and other daily mess hot spots every single time your home is going to be shown.
6. Paraphernalia gone wild. Similar to collections, any sort of paraphernalia that is allowed to take over a space has the potential to create an instant turnoff for buyers-to-be viewing your home.
This can include:
- work-at-home electronics, supplies, cords and paper clutter
- pet supplies like litter boxes, cages and food
- children’s toys and sporting goods
- cooking and crafting supplies
- books, magazines, notebooks, piles of mail and writing implements.
Lesson learned: See #6, above. If you’re going to live in your home while it’s on the market, create a system for putting all your paraphernalia and supplies entirely out of view every single time your home is going to be shown.
7. Closet cramming. If you have years worth of personal belongings of multiple family members that need to be out of sight, but not discarded, it can be very tempting to cram everything in a closet, shove the door shut and call it good. Problem is, home buyers today are desperate for storage space, so will undoubtedly open those same, crammed-tight doors in an effort to evaluate how your home ranks for storage.
Beautifully organized closets with ample room create an impression in the buyer’s mind 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. And even huge closets, if crammed to the gills, make buyers wonder how they’ll ever get by with so little closet space. (Closet cramming also makes some buyers wonder what else you might be hiding, whether or not that concern is justified.)
Lesson learned: Use the exercise of staging as an opportunity to sell, donate or throw out things you no longer need - then consider moving as much as possible of what remains to storage for a few months, if your closets are too full. Your agent can help you decide whether your closets show well, vis-a-vis what local buyers are looking for.
8. Failing to stage for all the senses. A house that smells like pet mayhem or smoke or has a noisily defective heater is a tough house to sell, no matter how beautifully it is staged. Unfortunately, smells and sounds are very easy to get acclimated to, when you live with them. Buyers, though, will detect them the second they walk in - and the moment they do is the moment we in the business call “turn-off time.”
Lesson learned: Ask your agent to reality-check you on how your home smells and sounds. And don’t get offended if they have bad news - work with them to fix it, for your own good.
9. Not to. Ultimately, the most shockingly bad of all staging decisions is the surprisingly frequent decision not to bother staging your home at all. This explains homes like the one I once viewed which had residents still sound asleep in their beds, in the dining room, as the listing agent walked myself and my mortified buyer clients through the property. On the less bizarre end of the non-staged spectrum, this is how lovely homes with vast potential - and vast, overstuffed 80’s couches and 60’s decor - end up selling at a discount, as cosmetic fixers at a discount. This is a particular tragedy in cases where the owners could have painted, spruced, moved loads of things out and a few newer things in and made much, much more money on their homes.
Lesson learned: Not staging at all - not even bothering to do DIY staging - happens every day, and it costs more than the costs of putting some time and effort into getting your home ready for the market. If you’re on a budget, talk with your agent, get some books and, again, consider hiring a stager just for a brief advisory session. It will, I assure you, pay off.