Feb. 9 There are times
confronting a sherbet green entryway in a house: for sale or a globe light
fixture from the "Brady Bunch" era when Ken Fulk thinks of himself as a
pair of glasses, correcting people's vision.
"You don't want to walk into a house and say, "Oh my God, the carpet, "
said Mr. Fulk, 34, one of a growing band of decorators specializing in the
fine art of staging or "propping" houses for sale, a phenomenon that has
reached epic proportions. "My job is to help create a frenzy."
Here in the nations most expensive real estate market, where it is not
uncommon to have 15 buyers in a bidding war, staging also called house
dressing or "fluffing" is rapidly becoming the norm. Eager to get top
dollar, homeowners are paying $2,000 to $10,000 to have humdrum rooms
transformed into scrumptious interiors. To professional stagers like Mr.
Fulk, who has a retinue of haulers, painters; floor and tile refinishers
and carpet layers at the ready, falls the task of eliminating the orange
shag, smoked mirrors, 1960's bathroom tile and dead plants (dead is a
major turnoff that can stall a sale.
Like human eyeliner, stagers are brought in, usually at the urging of a
real estate agent, to "bring out the good features of a home,"
particularly in aging homes, in the words of Marlene Wharmby, an Oakland
stager, who propped nearly 200 houses last year and whose signature is the
telltale Tiffany box she leaves on the night stand. (Arthur McLaughlin, a
San Francisco stager, leaves chocolate kisses.)
"We live in a house one way, we sell it another," said Malin Giddings,
a broker at TRI/Coldwell Banker, who often summons Mr. McLaughlin to stage
million dollar listings with props plucked from an inventory of some
20,000 items: linens, towels, plates, wingback chairs and lampshades. (Mr.
McLaughlin buys 350 lampshades at a time.) "He does in four days what a
housewife does in nine
months," Ms, Giddings said. "I mean, it's a miracle."
Objects that do not fit in are out. Mr. McLaughlin once asked a client
with an original Georgia O'Keeffe to put it under the bed. "It didn't fit
in with the overall decor he explained. (He prefers to have his own
artist, Janet Bogardus, copy any painting, Monet to OKeeffe, and alter it
to his own specifications it might need a smidgen more peach, say.)
Such Staging tricks can also warm up a newly minted house, said B. J.
Droubi, a San Francisco real estate agent, who estimates that staging adds
$30,000 to $60,000, often more, to the final price of a home,
With a profusion of I.P.O. flush clients, the Bay Area has become the
epicenter of staging, home to some 70 professionals with. names like.
Stage Hands, Center Stage, Stage Right and House Dressing. Then there is
Stage interiors, a 10,000 square foot warehouse
filled with rental furniture and accessories. In this town, it sometimes
seems that all the world's a stager.
"Staging was supposed to be about creating a facade," said D. J. Grubb
Jr., president of the Grubb Company, an Oakland real estate agency, Who
dates the craze to the period just after 1991, when developers were trying
to lure buyers to houses they had built to replace thousands destroyed by
wildfire in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills. Now, Mr. Grubb said, "it has
become an icon, the branding of a house."
Although still largely a West Coast phenomenon the 1920's hacienda
outside Los Angeles owned by William Boyd, a k a Hopalong Cassidy, was
staged recently the trend has caught on in cities like Minneapolis, as a
strong economy and expectations among time pinched buyers seeking
perfection grow, said Martha Webb, an author of "Dress Your House for
Success: Five Fast, Easy Steps to Selling Your House, Apartment or Condo
for the Highest Possible Price" (Three Rivers Press, 1997). "It's harder
to took at a house that's well staged," she said, "because you lose your
Ms. Droubi tries to steer buyers to houses that aren't staged, so they
won't get into bidding wars on overpriced properties. "A staged house
evokes an emotional response people will pay whatever it takes to get it,"
she said. "I tell them to try to see past the dirty orange shag
Her sellers, however, are another story. "We tell them to paint the
living room pale yellow," she said. "All of a sudden, it's a darling
Mr. Falk has a personality as buoyant as the sofa pillows he keeps,
along with several hundred antiques, in his barn in Napa. "I see so many
houses filled with bad carpets and wrong decisions," he said.
One afternoon recently he paid a visit to Charlotte Albright, 42, a
confectioner who is selling the three bedroom Victorian house she shares
with her schnauzer Rocket. "Pretty ... I would lose it," he said of the
yolk colored sponge paint in the living room. "Lees minimize the track
lights to focus on the beautiful woodwork." He then tamed to the delicate
matter of scent. "Anything that evokes Rocket we need to eliminate," he
said sweetly but sternly.
Staging takes diplomacy. "'You really have to be polite," Mr.
McLaughlin said. "People's sofas are very emotional to them."
Stagers "depersonalize" a space, removing family photographs and other
cherished possessions. "You don't want buyers thinking about who lives
there," Mr. Falk said. "You want them to think about themselves living
Ifs not uncommon for a houseful of lovingly accumulated objects to be
banished to a garage or basement, which is what happened recently to
Antoinette Broussard, an interior designer and writer in San Francisco.
She is staying at her mother in law's house while Mr. Fulk stages her
house of 22 years. "It's difficult," she said, her voice tinged with
sadness. "But if you want to get the best price, you have to take your ego
out of it, put your personal feelings aside." Ms. Albright will spend
$20,000 on staging. "It is a little invasive," she said, noting that she
was feeling "a
little protective" of the smashed Fiestaware tiles around the
fireplace, which Mr., Fulk deemed "too kooky."
Staging requires a different knack from regular decorating. Gray, for
instance, is not a good resale color, "because it doesn't make a space
look happy," Mr. McLaughlin said. Turquoise is a turnoff, reminding people
of 1he. 'Miami Vice' era." Mr. McLaughlin, who has been staging for 18
years, possibly a national record, recalled a client in the Pacific
Heights neighborhood with baby~blue halls and stair runners. Baby blue is
not a resale color, especially in a multimillion dollar mansion," he said.
Maximum wattage is another staging must. "You want dramatic shadows,"
he said, "as opposed to dark, depressing shadows." Among the telltale
signs of staging are unopened bottles of olive oil on the kitchen
counters, a dining room table set.'for dinner (minus the silverware, an
antitheft touch) and cozy looking double duvets and mattresses piled a la
"Princess and the Pea."
Away with the baby blue paint, the pets, the sellees ego.
"Television sets "too harsh a reality," in the words of Ms. Whamiby,
the Oakland stager are usually absent.
Staging is a little bit like romance, Mr. McLaughlin said: "You never
get a second chance. First impressions thats it!"
For buyers, staging can present pitfalls causing them to swoon over day
lilies art fully placed in a kitchen comer where the reftigerator should
be. "If at first glance a place looks like a perfect person lives there,
then like nobody lives there, it's probably been staged," said Bob Powers,
founder of Stage Hands.
Ralph Holman, a lawyer for the Nafional Association of Realtors in
Chicago, said sellers must disclose "material defects in a property of
which they are aware," like a crack in a foundation. But strategically
placing a Venetian glass vase at a window to block an unappealing view or
making a bedroom look bigger by installing a narrow antique bed is not
against the law, "Most buyers are unaware of staging," Ms. Droubi said.
"But there's a fine line. You don't want people to feel manipulated."
Peter Sargent, a science professor at the University of California at
San Francisco recently bought an. 1883 house in the Noe Valley area that
had been staged by Mr. Fulk. A pewter tray on the coffee table had green
apples lined up in a grid, three on a side. "You look at it and say: Tylat
is this? Pottery Bam? " he said. But what appealed to Professor Sargent
was not the thm9s that had been staged it was the old stove and the view
of a steeple between poplar trees. Staging, he said, "reveals the
pathology of the real estate industry and how calculated it has become."
On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, it was difficult not to be smitten
by a litunble three bedroom bungalow on the market for $519,000 in
Piedmont, an affluent community adjoining Oakland. No detail had been left
unstaged. Lamps glowed invitingly in the front window, and an antique
cookbook lay evocatively on the breakfast table. The house's defects tiny,
undistinguished rooms seemed like
assets, the narrow antique beds and floral comforters evoking a
thatched roof bed and breakfast in Dorset. Striving to instill as many
feelings of home as possible, Ms. Wharmby placed a battle of Champagne
with four antique glasses on the dining room table. She even brought a
touch of class to the "Motel 6 bathroom," as she called it, taking
attention away from dated, beat up decor with cut glass bottles of
designer perfume. "If you have drugstore perfume," she explained, summing
up the stager's art, Ifs never going to have the impact of a few bottles
of Chanel No. 5,"