Home shoppers walking through the $1.495 million, seven-bedroom Colonial in Milton this summer could be forgiven for thinking that children lived there. There was the playroom off the master bedroom — with a tent perfect for a play date — and the bedroom down the hall with twin beds and a cute toy sailboat.
But the actual occupants? That would be two empty nesters, who decided, after their house sat on the market, to not only lower the price, but to go for the staging encouraged by their real estate agent.
A house like theirs, with a pool and a big yard, needed to be styled to appeal to the most likely buyers — families with young children, the sellers were told.
“It needed to look fresh and happy,” said the stager, H. Jessica Gosman of the Prop Shop in Newton.
Out went the aging stationary bike and file cabinets from the room off the master bedroom. Up to the third floor went the home office. In went the children’s decor.
There’s one real estate cliche everyone knows: Location, location, location.
But there’s a second cliche, famed among real estate agents but a secret to us shmoes: Buyers have no imagination. As in: They can’t figure out what to use a room for unless you show them.
That truth — if it is one — has led in part to a staging frenzy, and not just for million-dollar properties, either. With the nation hooked on HGTV shows like “Staged to Perfection” and “Property Brothers,” and trained by Instagram to expect picture-perfect settings, staging has been turbocharged. It’s grown beyond mere decluttering and entered a new, psychological realm.
Call it extreme lifestyle signaling.
When Stephanie Ford, a broker with the Beacon Group and a professional stager, was hired to prepare a condo in a 55-plus community in Wellesley for sale, she used bicycles and golf clubs as props, and set the dining room table for a family dinner.
The goal was to dispel the concern that buyers would be sitting “cooped up” alone in their units, along with other “old people” cooped up in their units, she said.
When Ford knows her buyers are likely to be sophisticated, the message is upscale, but with a social conscience. “If you are going to put a Fendi bag in the closet,” she said, “you also have a tote bag from the local farmers market.”
Never mind that few people who buy a staged home manage to achieve the staged lifestyle that sucked them into the property in the first place. With agents and stagers brandishing sales figures showing faster sales and bigger profits for staged homes, the charade must go on.
Jennie Norris, chairwoman of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals, estimates that in the Boston area about 30 percent of homes are staged today, compared with less than 5 percent about a decade ago.
Sellers can spend as much as 1 to 3 percent of a home’s list price on staging, according to Maureen Poole, northeast regional director for the International Association of Home Staging Professionals.
On a million-dollar home, for example, staging could cost between $10,000 and $30,000, money that might pay for: removing and storing the owners’ (unacceptable) furniture and decor; renting new couches, tables, and artwork; pulling up wall-to-wall carpets and refinishing the wood floors beneath; buying new — white — towels for all the bathrooms.
When millennial buyers are the target, Deb Ellis, a Westwood-based designer and home stager, might pull out kitchen cabinets — considered old-fashioned now, FYI — and install on-trend open shelving.
“It’s more of a Bohemian look, but upscale,” she said.
It can all get rather pricey, but a home staged before going on the market sells 86 percent faster, at least according to an estimate by the Real Estate Staging Association.
In a 2019 survey of real estate agents, 39 percent of agents said a staged home attracts offers that are between 1 and 10 percent higher than a nonstaged home, according to the National Association of Realtors.
The exact value of staging can be hard to tease out, since sometimes it happens at the same time as a price drop. But at least one real estate firm, Compass, is such a believer that in 2018 it began a service, Compass Concierge, to front qualified sellers their staging and home-improvement costs. The company’s website says there are no hidden costs or interest fees — “just repay the money spent upon closing.”
“Whatever the buyer demographic is, we stage for it,” said Compass’s Loren Larsen, the agent selling the seven-bedroom house in Milton.
In Newton, Adriana Dukakis watched her Victorian be transformed for sale from a home where kids ages 9 to 18 lived, to one ideal for toddlers, complete with a child’s playroom with a little table and adorable dress-up clothes.
“At the beginning I was very apprehensive,” she said. “I don’t live that lifestyle anymore — with tutus.”
But the change to the playroom and other rooms, she said, made so much sense. “I wondered why we hadn’t done it that way to begin with.”
With the growing importance of a home’s online presentation, there are now services that will virtually stage homes, digitally adding furniture and decor to photos of barren rooms. If done poorly, the furniture can seem to float above the floors — but that can be the least of it, as the Wall Street Journal reported in March, in a story warning buyers who purchase a home without seeing it in person.
“Computer-generated imagery of the sort Hollywood uses has now become so cheap and prolific that home sellers are taking out walls, removing ugly paneling, and even adding digital swimming pools,” the Journal said.
Meanwhile, back in real life, spending time in all these staged homes can become a professional hazard for real estate agents.
In Waban, Debby Belt, an agent with Hammond Residential Real Estate, began to see her own bedroom — with a sleigh bed that took up too much space, among other issues — as a “before” photo.
“I’m hyper critical of my own house and that drives my husband crazy,” she said. “But that’s another story.”