All the World’s a Stage, and Your Home is the Star

Sarah Gordon. Photo by Hubert Bonnet

Sarah Gordon. Photo by Hubert Bonnet

All of the steps have been completed: the real estate agent listed the property, the house has been cleaned, the lawn has been mowed, and numerous families have come through to tour the nest. Why, then, isn’t the home selling? What is missing?

Enter Sarah Gordon, a professional organizer and home stager, who says that for most homes, hiring a stager is key. Everyone has their own designs and idealities of what they believe looks good or goes together. However, every once in a while (or more), there is a need for someone who can be a constructive critic when friends and family cannot. That’s where a home stager comes into place. She says, “It’s not only in my experience, but also my theory can be proven just by doing a search on real estate photos gone bad—just Google it.”

Trying to do staging without the help of a professional can be difficult, but that does not mean that all situations and homes are the same and in need of major help or staging. Hiring a stager does not necessarily mean excessive costs or doing a slight remodel that consists of taking on a second mortgage. In fact, with Gordon’s staging services, she tries to use what exists in the home if possible and add warm touches here and there. Some rooms may only need having another eye look at the space to give it a little “finesse” and to arrange it so it’s most spacious and inviting.

Step one in any staging project is, naturally, “Declutter, declutter, declutter.” Gordon says, “That is first and foremost and typically all homes are in need of this regardless of if you’re looking to sell or not.” Decluttering a space is the easiest and most simplistic way to stage and organize the home. A space can look drastically different just by taking out personal belongings, furniture, and knick-knacks. Then comes the next stages: redesigning, moving furniture, updating paint and lighting, and adding general aesthetics. Gordon recommends reading Staged to Sell by Jean Nayer; even though it was published in 2009, Gordon stands by many of the tips and ideas as still holding true as a great starting point for anyone looking to cut costs and DIY.

The tips presented in the book, as well as the help of a professional stager can help homeowners notice the little things that buyers will look at. Like the saying goes, “you can’t see the forest for the trees.” Paying attention to the small things are very important, and sometimes it takes an outside eye. Gordon says, “Surprisingly enough, just because you’re okay with a little smudge here or there, dirty dishes in the sink, or dog hair on the floor, does not mean the prospective buyer is.” Getting the house in sparkling condition and keeping it clean are huge factors that can make or break the deal. The key is to move on and to make your house as wonderful and welcoming as possible so that it sells.

One acronym that Gordon swears by is called the STACKS method by Marla Dee (Sort, Toss, Assign, Contain, Keep it Up, Simplify). “I practice this and I preach it to all my clients when starting any organizing or decorating project,” she says. “This holds true for preparing a home for sale and getting it staged. Once this is determined, you must then follow with See It, Map It, Do It. We have a tendency to want to jump into things without following the necessary steps from point A to B, but rather skip to Z.  Without seeing what our goal is and writing down the steps to achieve, we are not able to do it. Therefore, if you practice those three tips, the end result will be success.”

Gordon’s advice is to keep the song “Feel’s Like the First Time” by Foreigner in the back of the mind to get the mindset to welcome those prospective buyers into making this the most incredible first-time experience. Also, another piece of advice from Gordon to help “See It, Map It, and Do It” are check-off lists. These are great at helping get ready to sell with little tips and ideas to make sure nothing is forgotten. Smead.com has great checklists along with many cleaning company websites…or if the Jaguar of lists seems most appealing, check out Martha Stewart.  She has a tremendous amount of lists for cleaning and keeping up or superseding the “Joneses.” Gordon jokes that by following her tried-and-true methods, buyers will squeak their way through the house and right into a purchase and you too will be saying “this is a good thing” just like Martha.

As a rule of thumb, Gordon always believes the rooms used most should be the most appealing to buyers, and are a good place to start when staging a home. These rooms are typically the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms which are rated highest priority for the buyers. However, that doesn’t mean that the other rooms should be second best (such as offices, laundry, entryways, and closets). “Staging is an art form and just like with any piece of art, the way it is presented can make all the difference in the world whether or not it attracts a buyer,” Gordon says. “I say, give it your all, right from the start, because the longer the home sits on the market, just like with relationships, you start to question: ‘What’s wrong with it?’ Because the internet is the place where most of our first impressions are met, staging the home and making the photographs look amazing are just as equally important.”

An often overlooked aspect of staging a home is the lighting. One of Gordon’s favorite quotes, and one which she believes people should hold true to their heart in all possible ways, was by Saul Bass, a graphic designer and Academy Award Winning Filmmaker who said, “I want to make things beautiful, even if no one cares.” Gordon says, “I wholeheartedly agree and think we need more of this in design and our lives and I feel this very statement should be applied with lighting.” According to Gordon, lighting can make or break the space. It can give you that “wow” or “get out now” factor. For example, think about a space that felt dingy and dirty, then ask yourself what type of lighting did it have? If you can’t recall and it made you want to leave right away, chances are it didn’t provide adequate lighting or not the right kind of lighting.

“Homebuyers may not be able to pinpoint exactly what makes them not like the space, but can tell you the feeling it gave them; when a home doesn’t have proper lighting that can in turn make the prospective buyer feel claustrophobic and uninterested,” Gordon says. “Another hype within the last few years has been the LED light bulbs that last supposedly ten years. In my experience, that has not been the case and these lights create a ‘deer in the headlight’ effect in our living spaces. We want to invite people in, not make them feel like they’re our next target. Therefore, I always recommend updating lighting by adding soft lighting as opposed to LED or fluorescent, adding recessed or can lights to the space with a dimmer, and always try to add table or floor lamps to add softness and comfort at eye level.”

The reality is, buyers are looking for sudden impact…that’s what they want. Buying a home is an emotional purchase, with the highest demographic being first-time homebuyers. This will be one of the largest purchases they will make in their lifetime and their expectations and sights are set high. When buyers are searching for their home, they are looking for that “ohh-la-la”  feeling: that moment when they just know that house is the right one for them. “All the senses must come alive for that potential buyer and that’s exactly what staging done right can do,” Gordon says. “From a psychological standpoint, I always try to engage all the senses that we use daily to help make the decision to purchase that particular home.”

According to the American Psychological Association, our brain’s emotional response is most engaged by sense of smell. That’s why so many TV shows and articles address the importance of the smell of the home. The way a home smells can trigger both positive and negative responses and can turn off a buyer just based on if it smells like smoke, cat pee, or burnt popcorn. In Gordon’s experience, if anything can be a deal breaker, smells are the biggest one, next to a cracking foundation.

The best tip Gordon can offer is to contact the professionals: a stager, realtor, appraiser, furniture consultant, feng shui expert, or (if all else fails) TIVO HGTV’s Lisa LaPorter for hours and hours of Designed to Sell. She says, “In all seriousness, hiring an individual experienced in their field can help you take care of the necessary things while transitioning to the next purchase.”

If organizing services seem appealing to help prepare for the move, a great website is NAPO.net (National Association of Professional Organizers). They not only give great tips, but can also help locate a professional organizer (such as Sarah Gordon) but also a relocation assistant, someone who specializes in hoarding or specific rooms such as garages. Gordon also recommends classes that teach the best methods, trends, and designs for staging to sell your home. A number of cities like Maple Grove and Spring Lake Park offer community education classes for the “DIYs” looking to improve their space, but also cut their costs in hiring a stager. Another great resource is the Internet and the invention of Pinterest. For any homeowner who is a visual learner and great emulator, this is a fantastic site as it gives endless photos and ideas.

The main standard that Gordon suggests following is a quote by Gabriel “Coco” Chanel: “Keep your head, heels, and standards high.” She says, “There is truth to this, but in all seriousness, when it comes to homes, check it out in the day and evening, talk to the neighbors, and drive by the house on your free time to get a feel for your environment.” Doing your due diligence is key because this is not just another pair of heels that can be discarded after the trend fades. This is a major purchase and major life decision, so it must be the right one.

“My beloved and cherished Aunt who often quoted ‘it’s a bargain if you never used it’ and to many they can relate, this does not make a house worth purchasing because of a low price,” Gordon says. “Purchasing something of this magnitude should be thought through and carefully planned.  Again, hiring a professional to give you the pros and cons of your purchase is essential. Secondly, hiring a professional photographer or stager knowledgeable in shooting the home’s best angles is also crucial for your online presence. Remember, before you ever get the opportunity for a prospective buyer to walk in the door, the first impression is already set online. Therefore, make your online photos epic so that you get that buyer in the door.”

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