Opinion

Staging trend reveals harsh truths about real estate values

Has staging led to the artificial increase of home value?
  • Staging professionals cite higher, faster sales, but the evidence is inconclusive.
  • Why isn't staging recorded as a factor of sales in national MLS records?
  • Real estate agents need to accept that homes are a commodity, like cars and other consumer goods.

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“Staging” is defined as “contriving a situation to create a specific reaction.”

When a person is on a stage, they’re usually there to act, juxtaposed with a set meant to look like somewhere else. Nothing about it is real.

For a movie or stage drama to work, the audience must willingly suspend their disbelief. It’s a two-way street. We’re all merely players.

I suppose the same is necessary when it comes to selling homes.

Today, it appears every buyer needs to willingly accept that the homes they’re touring were not deliberately arranged, repainted, de-cluttered, waxed, polished, buffed and scent-enhanced. They always look like that, right?

As I mentioned in the comments to Inman contributor Bernice Ross’s funny, well-written essay on staging, I believe firmly a seller should try to maintain a reasonably clean and organized domicile. It’s basic sales.

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An effect of reality TV?

I don’t see car dealers littering mini-vans with empty drink boxes, fast food wrappers, toy parts and tiny shin guards. But we all know that’s what they’re built to hold.

However, it seems that home staging has reached the point of necessity. I’m not sure why.

In discussion with a colleague on this topic, she offered as explanation the impact of real estate reality television.

It’s a good point.

Given the list of options I see in my channel feed, the trench of tripe on this made-for-TV topic is seemingly bottomless.

Problem is, every cast seems to have the same glaring inability to separate fame from wisdom, leveraging all they can of the former and demonstrating none of the latter.

These shows edit their way through the relatively pleasant homes of ordinary soccer moms and middle-management dads, condescendingly highlighting just how much money their taste in couch color will cost them at closing.

Collectively, these highly processed and meticulously edited 22-minute falsehoods have created a sort of hyper-reality, crafting a theme that what’s imagined for the screen is actually the way it is.

Unfortunately, sellers nationwide seem to be buying into the fact that the home they’ve lived in for 20 years isn’t marketable unless Betsy Newnose from Staging Secrets is given twice her market rate to put a couple of baskets on a shelf and stock the refrigerator with bottles of light vanilla cashew milk and some locally farmed organic kale.

Can’t have the savvy new buyers thinking a seller drinks whole milk! Or, you know, might have children. God forbid, maybe a dog.

What’s staging really about?

I can’t help but think that staging is really about making the job of the listing agent easier.

That assertion will no doubt be countered by a proverbial williwaw of vague facts put forth by the IAHSP. Yes, the International Association of Home Staging Professionals.

According to the IAHSP, homes staged by an Accredited Staging Professional sell in 11 days or less, and for 17 percent more. That number is based on “today’s” market. That’s pretty broad.

Elko, Nevada? Pocahontas, Iowa? Lander, Wyoming? Isn’t real estate hyper-local? Isn’t an ocean-front home going to be valued significantly higher than a home three blocks inland?

By the numbers

If numbers are going to be bandied about to demonstrate why a home seller should invest in staging, they should be applied correctly.

Real estate — historically, anyway — is an industry driven by numbers. Homes are priced based on stats compiled by the sale of other homes. It’s a numbers game.

A responsible buyer’s representative doesn’t tell his client, “Oh, mortgage rates are under 4 percent, so you can afford more.” Every buyer’s financial wherewithal is different, and Buyer A may not get Buyer B’s rate.

If staging is going to be sold to sellers, the industry needs to start being more concise.

On the contrary, it’s allowed the proliferation of the idea that staging is mandatory.

If staged homes sell for more, then isn’t that a form of artificial market manipulation?

Yes, it’s in the best interest of the seller.

Is it in the best interest of the economy, though, if today’s aspiring homebuyer has to save twice as much as he or she would have had to five years ago because a seller swallowed the idea that an organized closet would net him another $1,000 at settlement?

… if a home can sell for 17% more, it’s clearly a major contributor to sale price.

Home value, traditionally, was based on size, beds, baths, condition, location and a few additional desirables, like two-car garages and pools.

I didn’t have time to survey every MLS in the country, but I feel confident in making the assumption that staged/not staged isn’t a data field.

Yet, if a home can sell for 17 percent more, it’s clearly a major contributor to sale price. I argue it should become record.

A larger issue

This speaks to a much larger industry problem. For the sake of argument, I Googled “What is home price based on?” My responses:

  • How Much House Can I Afford – Home Affordability: Zillow.com
  • Home Affordability Calculator – Find A Price Range: Calcxml.com
  • Home Affordability Calculator: CNNMoney.com
  • How to Calculate a Home’s Value: Bankrate.com
  • 4 Different Rules of Thumb For How Much House You Can Afford: Mymoneyblog.com
  • Home Affordability Calculator: Realtor.com

One of the top six results attempted to answer my question. The rest of the pages assumed I wanted to know what I could afford to pay every month.

From what I can tell, homes today are really being priced based on what people can afford, which might very well explain why across the country, homes are becoming the tangible evidence of a major — and dangerous — economic divide.

I wonder: How much value is the industry really putting on actual home value?

Is it time to face the harsh reality that real estate is now driven by spit-shine and bedazzling?

I wonder, how much value is the industry really putting on actual home value?

Houses are widgets, able to be adjusted up and down because of color and decor and street name. Homes are truly, unequivocally, commodities. Like cars and shoes.

For a century, real estate agents marketed homeownership as the achievement of a dream, a societal benchmark of community status.

To help you achieve that now ever-more challenging rank, the National Association of Realtors, trying desperately to maintain a grasp on its all-caps, registered-trademark glory, remains committed to its long-standing standards of member integrity.

However, the real estate sales process has been enriched with bells and whistles. That ethical baseline is now dotted, and the spaces between are expanding.

It’s no wonder consumers use Realtor and “real estate agent” interchangeably.

In a free market, an object of value is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Let’s stop kidding ourselves that residential real estate is any different.

Email Craig Rowe.