The Mystery Housebuyer

All the world’s a stage

If this is the inside of your home, you need a home stager photo: Irving Rusinow, Dept. of agriculture / wikimedia commons

On the HGTV series Buying and Selling, families simultaneously try to sell their homes and buy new ones. It’s a high-stress process, but they get help from the show’s hosts — Jonathan and Drew Scott, well known from their other show, Property Brothers — about how to find new homes and, more important, how to get their current homes ready for sale. In short, they get schooled on staging their homes to create the best impression for potential buyers.

Home staging is quite an industry. Just go to Google or Yelp and search for “home staging,” and you’ll find quite a lot of results (nearly 5.5 million in my search). It becomes big business when you draw in third-party companies specializing in rearranging and replacing furniture and bringing in tasteful decorations that help sell the home. The Academy of Home Staging even offers Home Stager Certification courses to professionals across the country.

One of the recurring messages the Scott brothers have for their sellers is that staging a home isn’t about the sellers and their tastes; it’s about the buyers and letting the buyers see themselves in the house. The sellers on Buying and Selling often get their noses out of joint when Drew and Scott tell them that potential buyers will be turned off by the three-foot wall-mounted crucifix their father handcrafted or by the Hello Kitty wallpaper edging in the family room. Those touches might have great personal meaning to the sellers, but it’s wildly unlikely that an open house will attract just the right buyer whose tastes match those of the sellers.

So home staging is a smart thing for sellers to do. Probably a majority of homes you will look at in the Bay Area are staged to one degree or another. As a house buyer, you can certainly see uses for rooms or get ideas for decorating the home from what the stagers have done.

But while appreciating what staging offers you as a buyer, you should also try to imagine how the place looks without the staging, because you also want to see how the place looks without being tarted up with makeup and a wig. You might see problems with the room dimensions, you could spot a hole in the carpet, or you might just have an easier time letting your own imagination run wild with a blank slate.

In our search for a new home, we saw homes that were empty, homes that were professionally (and often quite exquisitely) staged, and other homes that were still filled with the seller’s furniture but nicely cleaned up and made presentable (well, except for one home, but that’s a column all of its own).

The home we ended up with was completely empty when we saw it. Not a stick of furniture lay on its floors. No modern Chinese silk prints hung from the walls. Nor were there dining rooms with flower arrangements and heartwarmingly matching napkin rings on the table. What we saw were the bare walls, the flooring and the carpeting, the windows, the appliances — the raw home.

We liked what we saw, and we could imagine how our furniture could fit into the various rooms. So we soon knew we were interested in the home.

Then we found something interesting. We knew the sellers had tried to sell the place earlier in the year, but they had been unsuccessful and eventually switched brokers and put it back on the market at a reduced price. That was when we found it. But while searching for neighborhood comps and for additional information on the home’s address, we found the online property listings for the home from their earlier attempt to sell it. Lots of photos. That time, they had pretty clearly staged it.

So we got to see the place with and without the staging, with and without any furniture. We could see that that bedroom wall was indeed long enough for that piece of furniture we had considered putting there; and a good-sized dining table could indeed fit in the dining room with plenty of room to spare.

In our case, we liked it both ways. But it also highlighted how it could have been possible to not like it one of those ways — staged or not — had things been otherwise. If you can’t see actual photos of the place with and without staging, then at the very least take your mental pictures: Look at the staged room and try mentally to erase the furniture, ignore what’s there (and maybe even question if that outsized wall hanging is covering up something they don’t want buyers to see).

And if you really like the way it was staged, ask the sellers who the stagers were and if they’ll sell you some of the furniture.

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