Personality Crisis

Home stagers can make your house more saleable by removing you and your memories from the premises.

Rhonda Wilson is coming over to your house, but she’d better not see your toaster. Or your collage of treasured family photos. Oh, she doesn’t want to smell what you had for supper, either.

It’s not personal. Or maybe it is.

“Depersonalizing” is one of the buzzwords of Wilson’s trade – home staging – which involves having a professional arrange your house in a way that will make it more saleable, before it’s put on the market.

A staged home is what many buyers have come to expect. In the era of 24/7 HGTV, real-estate consumers are bombarded with images of immaculate show homes that present neutral canvasses. “They want to be able to look at it and say, ‘I can just move right in and my stuff will effortlessly look great,'” says Wilson, who’s owned her firm, Revealing Assets, since June 2009.

The first steps in staging a home might seem obvious: clear out clutter and excess furniture to make the house seem more spacious, fix leaky faucets, scrub the kitchen and bathrooms – even paint over that funky purple accent wall with neutral shades like sand or taupe.

Depersonalizing, however, is more complicated. It goes far beyond the typical once-over you’d give your place before hosting a dinner party.

Most items that say anything about you as a human being – family photos, kids’ artwork, religious symbols, prescription drugs, toothbrushes, anything with your name on it – must be completely hidden from sight. Of course, house-hunters are aware someone else lives in the house they’re walking through, but stagers and real estate agents say letting potential buyers see too much about the current occupants could ruin the sale.

Mark Walker, a real estate agent with Re/Max Excellence in Edmonton,  tries having most of the occupied homes he sells staged.

“If I show a home and the homeowner is there, there’s a good chance they’re not going to buy the house. It’s uncomfortable,” says Walker. “[Buyers] don’t want to feel like they’re snooping. … They know they’re not the only people who have ever lived there, but they don’t want it tainted by other people’s memories. They want new memories.”

Jill Gargus-Chouinard, owner of Edmonton staging company Simply Irresistible Interiors, says buyers can be sidetracked by other people’s things. “We don’t want [buyers] to feel like they’re invading someone’s personal space, because we want to make them feel like it’s their house, to create that connection with it in their hearts,” she says.

To that end, Wilson aims to make a home as neutral as possible while subtly conveying to the buyer that it can be a happy place for a family to live, even if the current family isn’t so happy.

“A lot of people have excess family pictures on the walls. Those kinds of things do need to come down,” she explains. “When a buyer comes in, they’re going to be tempted to check out who lives there. [They might say], ‘Oh, it looks like they’re a happy married couple in this picture, but hubby is nowhere to be found in this picture. Maybe I can lowball on this house because maybe it’s a distress sale.'”

Founded or not, similar rationale could occur if buyers are allowed to eye the current owner’s drug prescriptions, she says. “People are nosy. All of a sudden they’re looking for whatever ailment the person has.”

Buyers are observant.

“If the husband and wife sleep in different rooms, believe me, the women pick up on it,” says Walker. “They’re not even trying to look for a deal, but that psychology might play into it when they’re writing the deal.”

So when staging a single detached home, Wilson might leave out a few children’s toys to give the feeling that it’s a happy place to play. But her strategy changes if it’s a more humble dwelling: “If it’s a small condo and you see children’s toys, then they go, ‘Well obviously they’ve outgrown the space.’ Their minds go a million miles an hour.”

Little things in the house could trigger a negative reaction in potential buyers, enough to turn them off the house completely. For example, mounted deer heads or fish are no-nos for homes that Wilson stages. “So many people are against hunting or they’re vegan or whatever,” she explains.

Monica Lambert, who last year had Wilson stage her North Glenora house before selling it through ComFree, said her kitchen knife block was one of the first things that had to come down. “Because it’s sort of like having weapons around,” said Lambert. “I had gotten so used to it.”

House-hunters don’t just shop with their eyes; their noses are also in overdrive.

Scent is a powerful cue for emotion, and odours you might find innocuous, even pleasant, could perplex or even disgust a potential buyer.

“Some people’s houses smell terrible,” says Gargus, who was a real estate agent before launching her staging business seven years ago. “We’ve had some properties that smell like body odour very badly. Curry is difficult to stage with and sell with,” she says.

Sometimes a sick person has lived in a house for a long time, leading to that peculiar cooped-up smell. Animals can also create unpleasant odours. Gargus recalls a client who bred basset hounds in the house, allowing dogs to give birth in the kitchen.

Cleaning and painting can help get rid of odours that have permeated the walls. Wilson even tells clients to refrain from cooking strong-smelling foods while their house is on the market. “The best scent in a house is no scent at all – fresh air,” she says.

As these examples suggest, buying a house is as much a sensory experience as it is a financial one.

In the grand scheme of selling your house, staging is surprisingly affordable. Prices range from Wilson’s basic guidance session, where she’ll give you a to-do list for $225, to Gargus’s one-to-three-day staging blitz, where she’ll bring in a team of workers to banish clutter, clean and stage the home. That service ranges from $1,500 to $4,000 depending on the needs of the client.

Home stagers say their service provides a massive return on investment, and statistics back up their claims.

A 2009 survey of nearly 1,000 U.S. real estate agents by the real-estate blog,, found home staging, with an average cost of $300 to $400, resulted in a $1,500 to $2,000 increase in the price of the home. The survey found that real estate agents overwhelmingly recommend using staging as a cost-effective way to maximize the sale price of your home, even over renovating the kitchen and bathroom.

Walker says staged homes, provided they’re priced fairly, show better and sell faster than non-staged properties. “Of course they would sell for more money, because they look better,” he says.

Many Edmonton real estate agents are embracing the services home stagers provide.

It’s becoming more important now that people can scroll through interior photos of homes on MLS Online before deciding which ones to tour in person.

Sara MacLennan, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Johnston in Edmonton, says hiring a stager frees up the real estate agent to deal with the business of selling the home, without running the risk of offending clients by, for instance, telling them to get rid of their grandmother’s doilies.

“Sometimes if you hurt someone’s feelings, they’re going to associate that with you for the rest of your relationship with them,” MacLennan explains. “If there is a problem with the house that could be emotional – if the house really smells or something is really distasteful – you don’t have to be the one to say it.”

Depersonalizing your home could well be a minefield of emotions. The stuff inside your house is just that – stuff – but it’s your stuff. It brings you comfort and it’s attached to your memories. It might hurt to have someone tell you that you’ll have to take the photo of your late grandfather off the shelf and stick it in a drawer. Or to paint over your daughter’s growth chart on the wall. Or to have someone tell you your house stinks.

Depersonalizing is undoubtedly personal.

But it’s an exercise you’ll have to undertake on an even larger scale once you do sell your house and prepare to leave it behind. So whether you decide to hire a stager or go it alone, think of it as part of moving on.

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