5 must-knows about hiring a home stager

Like it or not, when you stick that for-sale sign in the front yard, your home becomes … well, merchandise — something for someone to buy.

And just as a successful retailer works to display his merchandise in a way that makes you want to buy it, a good real estate stager tries to figure out how to make someone want to buy your home. He or she may rearrange or add furnishings — or subtract them — and suggest changes to the house that are intended to play up its best features.

A field that was in its infancy a decade ago, staging these days is a routine part of the real estate transaction in many communities. But in this relatively unregulated profession, just about anybody can claim to be a stager, and members of the profession can come from widely varied backgrounds and professional training. What you get for your money can vary, too.

Five things you ought to know about hiring a real estate stager:

1. There’s no clear-cut career path to becoming a stager, according to Shell Brodnax, president and CEO of the Real Estate Staging Association in Valley Springs, Calif., which claims to have about 1,000 members.

It’s a field unto itself, she says.

"They are professional home stagers, which doesn’t preclude them from also being designers, decorators, real estate agents, etc.," she said. "They have a wide variety of backgrounds. The ones who seem to do exceptionally well have backgrounds in merchandising," or the visual display of products for sale.

Brodnax said the services they provide will vary, based on what a given house needs to make it show best to prospective buyers. Sometimes, that’s as basic as rearranging the furnishings for better "flow" or to emphasize a house’s best points. But usually their efforts are more extensive, and they may, with the owner’s permission, remove excess furnishings or bring in rental furniture or work with building tradesmen on changes to paint, finishes, etc.

"They’re going to counsel you on everything you need to do to properly prepare that property for sale," Brodnax said. "If the house is super-dated, they’re going to check whatever else is on the market to see what the competition is. If every other home has updated kitchens, baths, carpet or whatever it may be, they’re going to tell you, ‘This is what you’re up against — so you would want to change those avocado green countertops or that dark-blue wall.’

"They’re going to make all these recommendations, and it’s up to the client to choose what to invest in that the stager has recommended," she said.

2. Most, but not all, stagers have had some kind of professional training specific to staging, Brodnax said.

"There are two basic types of courses you can take: online and in-person," she said. "There are a few five-day programs, but most (classroom) programs are three days." The online courses, she said, are paced at the student’s discretion.

Much of the instruction in these classes, she said, will be weighted toward teaching stagers how to run a successful business, and although classroom sessions usually include some hands-on instruction about maximizing a home’s visual appeal in terms of saleability, it’s not usually the principal focus of the courses.

Having the visual skills, she said, is something of a given for those who take the stagers’ courses. "The majority of people who are going to take a class have already been doing this — they’re constantly rearranging the furniture at home," Brodnax said. …CONTINUED

3. Although some stagers will work on a per-hour basis, most charge by the job, and the costs tend to vary by region, Brodnax said.

"Most will offer a free look-see, where they’ll come out and give you a bid," she said. "They will say they will stage it for X dollars, and it will cost X (additionally) for rental furniture, and those numbers are going to vary widely.

"It can be as low as $500 (for the staging services), depending on where you’re located. It’s not unheard of for big mansions to pay $20,000 to $40,000 for staging.

"The average, though, probably comes in between $1,500 and $3,000."

Brodnax said that occasionally real estate agents will foot the costs of staging for clients, though it’s not the norm. At the height of the housing boom, though, it wasn’t unusual to have agents pick up the costs in order to get a listing, because their commissions would offset those costs.

"An agent may now pay for a consultation with a stager, maybe $150 to $300," but these days it’s the norm for the homeowner to pay for the staging, she said.

4. The average foreclosure buyer is unlikely to encounter homes that have been staged, Brodnax said, even though long-vacant, foreclosed homes may seem to be a natural project for stagers to tackle.

"The problem is, banks are unwilling to pay (for staging)," she said. "The banks usually will give a small stipend to fix it up, usually less than $500.

"Sometimes, though, it might take $300 just to get somebody to pull the garbage out of the house" that has been left behind by the foreclosed owner, she said. Little, then, is left for staging.

However, when some banks are willing to finance it, stagers might be brought in to arrange room "vignettes," such as a breakfast room or family room setting, to help buyers imagine what it might be like to live in the house, she said.

5. Homeowners seeking to hire a stager might get referrals from their real estate agents, Brodnax said; she suggests, however, that consumers interview at least three stagers to get a broader picture of which kind of merchandising is appropriate for their homes.

She said stagers should be able to provide photography of their work in a variety of styles, in order to demonstrate that they can stage a house appropriately for its architectural style, not just according to the stager’s own tastes. Stagers should be able to show they’re insured, she said. As with any other professional, the stager should be able to provide references, she said.

Brodnax’s group has a downloadable "Consumers Guide to Real Estate Staging" at its site, www.realestatestagingassociation.com. Other staging groups that provide geographical listings of their members include the International Association of Home Staging Professionals (IAHSP.com) and the American Society of Home Stagers and Redesigners (ASHSR.com).

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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