Staging Backlash: When It’s Too Much

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For a while now, I’ve been expecting a “staging” backlash. I just didn’t expect it to take this form.

For anybody who hasn’t had the distinct pleasure of trying to sell a home lately, staging is the practice of stripping down — then gussying up — a residence to make it look its most appealing to the broadest range of buyers.

It has created a real estate sub-profession that didn’t exist a few years ago, and now legions of agents, interior designers, artists and just plain folks who apparently enjoy shoving furniture around have jumped into field. Several cable TV “realty reality” shows demonstrate the tricks of the staging trade, each week imbuing real people’s homes with the perfection of a home builder’s models — or so the theory goes.

The baseline goal — making the house clean and uncluttered — hardly can be argued with. And replacing sagging, worn furnishings temporarily with shinier ones is akin to buying a new suit for a job interview, I’d say.

But having seen numerous staged properties, I’ve started to weary of the way some in the field embrace their craft with an almost cult-like zeal — stripping out every trace of the homeowner’s daily life so it looks as if androids lived there. The marketing goal is “neutrality” and becoming “decoratively correct” by leaving behind no object that might somehow offend a buyer. In the hands some stagers, the “Banished!” list includes every family photo, every religious object, every toy. I saw one stager cart out a White Sox poster for fear of offend-ing a Cubs-fan home buyer, for crying out loud.

Most homeowners could probably live within such artificial perfection for a short period. But with the in-creasingly longer market time for houses, I presume more homeowners might look askance at living in ster-ile, staged quarters for many months. I would expect that more of them would just say no to their well-intentioned stager: Slow down, we live here and no one is going to remove little Brittany’s graduation photo from the mantle. Or: Having a Christmas tree in my house in December is not a crime, and it’s staying!

That resistance, indeed, may be occurring. But I wasn’t expecting a recent report from a real estate in-dustry group: “Home Buyer Beware — Staging on the Rise.”

The report, from the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents, is based on a survey of its real es-tate agent membership and says that “buyers are routinely misled by staged homes” and suggests that some common staging practices “might influence a buyer to purchase the wrong home or a home that might be hiding serious defects.”

It takes particular offense at what it calls “emotional staging,” the practice of inducing buyers to envision themselves living in a home “emotionally” by creating scenarios or events in their minds. Watch out, the re-port says, for pillows and wine glasses set before the fireplace so the home shopper might entertain notions of a romantic evening at home. Ditto to elaborately laid-out dining room tables whose upscale place settings conjure Norman Rockwell-ish visions of happy family Thanksgivings.

The report also accuses stagers of rearranging furniture and rugs and artwork to disguise structural flaws in the home.

And furthermore, the report says, if stagers claim that staging will net a home seller thousands of extra dollars at the closing table, isn’t it fair to flip that card and suggest that means that the buyers have overpaid?

On that last item — well, maybe there’s fruit for discussion. The cost of staging for a homeowner can range from zero (if the services are provided by the listing agent) to many thousands of dollars, and certainly that would have a bottom-line effect for the seller, just as much as getting the house repainted or replacing decrepit appliances before signing a listing agreement.

And maybe — just maybe — staging will get somebody so infatuated with the place that they’ll up their of-fer a bit just to acquire it.

But c’mon: Most home buyers aren’t helpless mopes who get all weak-kneed because somebody has placed a tray with a champagne bottle and two Baccarat crystal classes on the bed in the master suite. And home sellers have been nervously hanging paintings over cracks in the walls for as long as there have been walls that crack.

People buy homes every single day because they found a place that hit just the right emotional chord, and that’s been going on since long before some stager swept in and replaced the curtains with “window treatments.” I’m sure that staging is a godsend to some home sellers who haven’t a clue that their decor and clutter send some buyers screaming for the exit. But some of it is just — well, dumb.

Even some professional stagers say there’s room for criticism in their business because their ranks have swollen with wannabe’s who have gotten their credentials from a workshop or mailing away for a “certification.”

“I don’t think [the study] was all wrong, but I don’t think it was all right, either,” said Craig Shiller, an inte-rior designer who owns Real Estaging in Park Ridge. “The home staging industry has created a bit of this mess for itself because it’s not regulated.”

Aside from the whole argument over the merits of regulation, Shiller says that professional design advice can be a useful tool for sellers.

“You want the house to be the star, and you want the good points of the house to show up,” he said. “It’s not different than what a used-car dealer does — they detail it, they wax it, steam clean the carpet, those kinds of things.”

However, he says, “the idea is to sell it, not to bamboozle the buyer.”

But Shiller says it’s not unusual for stagers to get carried away, and every distraction cuts the likelihood of a buyer deciding to buy. “If you’ve ever seen somebody walk through a house, you’ve only got 20 minutes with them, and that’s not a lot of time.”

The stagers’ trays of plastic sushi on the granite countertops and the over-the-top table settings in the dining room cause people to look at the sushi and the china, not at the rooms, Shiller said.

And yes, he agrees that the opposite extreme — neutral decor for the sake of neutrality — is a negative, for the owners and buyers.

“You don’t want to strip it down until there’s no personality,” he said. “You can go too far.”

Hear, hear. Let’s take up a collection and get that family its White Sox poster back.

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