There’s no doubt that staging can enhance most homes’ salability and improve pricing and terms. What is in question, however, is affordability. Although full staging is a given in many higher-priced markets, it frequently does not make financial sense for homes in the lower price tiers. Additionally, there can be pushback from sellers who either don’t understand the benefits of staging or don’t wish to foot the bill.

Fortunately, staging has levels, making it possible to leverage the benefits while staying within your budget.

When looking to provide a specific staging level, one overarching factor needs to be determined: Whether the house is occupied or vacant. If occupied, levels 1 and 2 apply. If vacant, the options are levels 3 through 6.

Level 1: Organizational staging 

Organizational staging at its most basic and involves two steps. Step 1 is working with the seller to declutter the home. All extraneous items need to be packed and moved out. We frequently encounter sellers with curio cabinets stuffed full of knickknacks, bookshelves loaded to the max, coffee tables with stacks of items, and family pictures plastered over every available surface, including the refrigerator.

The standard rule of thumb for any shelf or horizontal surface is three items at a max. All family pictures need to be removed, along with any religiously oriented objects. We frequently tell sellers, “Because you are going to have to pack everything for your impending move, it’s best to get it boxed up now, so it is out of the way and doesn’t become a distraction to any potential buyers.” 

We also explain, “Because people are intrinsically curious, we want them looking at your home and not your collections or family vacation photos.” We also want additional pieces of furniture removed during this stage. Extra pieces that make any room look overstuffed need to go. We frequently downsize large sectional sofas, remove unnecessary elements, take sections out of dining room tables and store the extra chairs. The overarching motto here is: Less is more.

Step 2 is reorganizing the seller’s belongings in a way that maximizes the spaces and showcases the home’s attributes. We will move pictures, rearrange furniture in rooms and do what we can to open visual space. We tell clients that the way a home needs to show when on the market is usually quite different from how families normally live. 

For those who feel inconvenienced by the rearrangements, we explain, “This is like a kidney stone — it too will pass. There might be some short-term pain, but it will be worth it in the end.” 

Level 2: Partial staging

This level also involves extensive decluttering, but instead of merely rearranging a client’s belongings, in this level, the staging company augments the seller’s belongings with items from its shop’s inventory to maximize the home’s appeal. 

It can vary in complexity from adding a few plants, pictures and decorator items in various locations to bringing in extensive furniture to augment or even replace seller items.

Of all the levels, this is the one professional stagers like the least. It’s the most challenging and time-consuming because the designer must take an inventory of what is already in the home, along with the wall, flooring and existing accent colors, and then go back to their shop and find items that match.

It can be a daunting task, especially if the homeowner’s existing color palette is “unusual.” It can also take much longer to do a partial than a standard full stage due to the extra work involved. Adding to the frustration of partial staging is the frequent expectation of sellers that the staging will cost less than a full stage.

Level 3: Vignette staging

If a home is vacant, this represents the entry-level. One of the definitions given by Dictionary.com is “any small, pleasing picture or view.” This level includes no furniture, and staging is limited to highlighting a few key areas of the home with accent pieces, such as a collection of counter items for the kitchen, a grouping of objects on a mantle, and accents a bathroom, and so on. 

The idea is to introduce a bit of interest into otherwise sterile rooms. The cost for this type of staging is minimal — it usually involves a single hour, a trip charge and the cost of renting the items for the duration of the listing. 

Level 4: Symbolic staging

If you are looking for staging that will define what can be done in a given area but cost less than a full stage, symbolic staging utilizing “prop” or “faux” furniture might be the way to go.

Instead of movers handling full-sized furniture, the staging pieces used are made of plastic or cardboard, come in flat carrying cases and are assembled on site. If the home in question is a walk-up or comes with limited access, this might be the way to go.

Although not the same as full staging, this approach helps articulate how a space might be configured without the higher costs of rental furniture or associated labor. CUBIQZ states, “An entire room fits in a car trunk and one person can stage one room in less than 30 minutes.” You just want to make sure no one sits on any of the faux staging pieces. 

Level 5: Virtual staging

As agents, we have always been firm believers in physical staging and have backed up our beliefs by owning one of the larger staging firms in our area. Over the years, after watching hundreds of buyers interact with empty versus fully staged homes, we have concluded that physical staging is critical. 

Buyers, when walking through staged properties, run their hands over the backs of furniture. They sit and gaze around staged rooms to imagine themselves living there. They discuss where a flatscreen TV might be located. The clincher for us has been the frequent requests to buy the staging along with the home: The interaction between visitors and physical staging has always been palpable and visceral.

I’ve also seen buyers react when the staging was either poorly done or nonexistent. Today’s buyers, having cut their teeth watching home shows on HGTV and, in most cases, having spent considerable time in interior furnishing stores, know what they do or do not like. As a result, our staging company has always worked hard to ensure that the staging in any given home reflects the tastes of the demographic most likely to visit.

Although virtual staging has been around for a while, we have historically avoided it for one fundamental reason: The reaction of buyers upon visiting a home they thought would be staged but, in reality, was empty. We had to, however, reexamine our position with COVID-19.

When the coronavirus first hit, our staging crew was deemed unessential and consequently grounded. Because we stage 99 percent of our listings, virtual staging was suddenly our only option. We explored the possibilities and quickly discovered several great virtual staging companies such as BoxBrownie for regular listings and Barion Design for high-end luxury homes

With today’s COVID restrictions affecting buyer access in many parts of the country, the likelihood of any buyer visiting any given listing is becoming increasingly dependent upon the pictures they see online. In our region, the expectation is that the photos will show fully upgraded and beautifully staged homes.

Although virtual staging provides gorgeous images that resonate with current buyer tastes, my concern has always been buyers’ reactions to empty properties versus physically staged homes.

In my opinion, there is a place for virtual staging, especially in markets where full staging is not economically viable. The cost of virtual staging is dramatically lower than full professional staging. Additionally, it’s an excellent option for homes where access is an issue. In a region where most of our market consists of detached single-family homes, traditional staging is relatively easy. 

However, our crew groans when confronted with staging condos where small freight elevators or countless stairs are the only options for access. Virtual staging is also a stellar option for properties that will more than likely be on the market for an extended period-of-time. Because most staging comes with stated timelines, the ability to stage once and then have pictures in perpetuity can be appealing.

Level 6: Full staging

Full professional staging has always been the gold standard, and for those who can afford the service, it’s the way to go. Even within full staging, there are numerous options and packages. Some stagers will stage most rooms but leave at least one bedroom empty.

Some packages will only address the primary rooms such as the living room, kitchen, master bedroom and one bathroom. Others use faux beds in place of hauling in and setting up regular mattresses and box springs. A good staging company can also handle various styles or levels of furniture depending on the type of home and its projected position in the market (entry-level versus luxury). In warmer climes, exterior staging may also be included.

Whatever the staging level, the goal is always the same — provide heartwarming, inviting pictures that will propel potential buyers off their couch and get them out visiting your listings. We have discovered that the better the staging, the better the photos and the higher the likelihood of success.

Carl Medford is the CEO of The Medford Team.

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