How staging became an essential part of the home sales process

Realtor Nina Hatvany can remember when staging was first starting to catch on in San Francisco. It was about twenty years ago, she recalled, and at the time she had a garage full of accessories and small furniture, and an assistant who would help her “dress” people’s homes for sale as a part of her listing services. But soon, sellers’ staging needs outgrew her little garage and she sold her inventory to her assistant, who then began her own staging company.  “Since those days, it has burgeoned into a big industry,” she says.

So big that now 95 percent of Hatvany’s listings are staged. She believes that a big reason behind this astronomical growth is the increased popularity in researching real estate online. “[Buyers] want to view the properties online before going to see them,” she said. “Since furniture looms large in the pictures, one wants the furniture to be stylish and in good repair, and to set off the spaces in the home so that they look as big as possible.”

Not that staging is as simple as switching out furniture. Stagers regularly consult with clients on everything from paint colors to light fixtures to floor refinishing. Lorraine Alwaise of Design Milagros says that her company even brings in live plants, trees and orchids, and includes weekly plant maintenance by her “plant guru” in their contracts. These contracts can run anywhere from her corporate minimum of $6,250 for a two-month rental period to $15,000 and up for a home with about 5,000 square feet and outdoor space.

Alwaise says that staging can often begin as a hard sell and that about 80 percent of her clients are initially resistant to both the need for change and the expense. She tries to remedy that by explaining the reasoning behind a new paint color or updated fixture, with statistics to back it up. (Hatvany estimates that a staged listing will sell for 10 to 15 percent more than an unstaged listing.) Most clients ultimately come around.

If finances are an issue, Alwaise will accept a 50 percent deposit up front and the rest when the home is in escrow. “We knowif they follow the outline, the home will sell and sell well,” she explains. “So we are in essence saying we believe in what we are doing, and we are willing to finance that for no fee, no interest. That goes a long way with most of the clients.”

It certainly worked out for the owners of 1941 O’Farrell St. The Anza Vista Victorian condo, staged by Alwaise and featured in the gallery above, came to market at $1,195,000 and was in contract 10 days later.

Of course, what works in a turn-of-the-century home in Anza Vista may not be the right look for a more modern Mission residence. “Each neighborhood has a different buying market so we adjust our look for different properties,” says Carole Soffer of Carole Soffer Design. And even within neighborhoods, the type of home can also influence the staging. “Lofts or single-family homes call on different buying markets,” Soffer explains.

But, in general, the style that sells in San Francisco is “trendy and high-end but elegant at the same time,” says Soffer, who has been a stager for 25 years and charges about $7,800 to stage a two-bedroom home. She adds that the look is always changing and she is continually buying new furniture and accessories to stay up to date.

“We are constantly changing and updating our inventory to keep abreast of the ever-changing times,” agreed Alwaise. “Five years ago a soft transitional was welcomed; now it is contemporary to modern in the condos and homes. Two years ago a bit glitzy with lots of bling was in, now we are moving into the more natural look.”
Making sure that buyers get the up-to-date style they want to see is one of the main benefits of staging. Hatvany said that many times buyers “can’t imagine their way past a seller’s personal choices.” She added that she has also seen countless times where staging caused buyers to overlook some minor drawbacks in the property. “Sometimes great staging just conveys a sense of harmony, style and spaciousness and then when the owners actually walk into their newly empty home they notice all the dings, nicks and awkwardnesses in the property,” she said.