Martha’s Vineyard experts consider staging homes for selling

Homeowners Debbie Grant and Michael Cassidy chose to stage their home for sale with Lisa Benson Interior Design. — Photo by Debbie Grant

While there are modest signs of new life in the spring housing market, real-estate brokers are quick to point out that the Island is not yet rebounding convincingly from the economic recession. With so many houses on the market and even more waiting to be listed once volume picks up, it’s more crucial than ever that homes for sale stand out among their competition.

That’s where home staging can make a real difference. Whether at the hands of a professional stager, an interior designer, a savvy real-estate agent, or even an objective and resourceful do-it-yourself homeowner, the way a house is prepared for the market can make the difference in how quickly it sells and how much you take away in your pocket.

While professional home staging has been extremely popular on the West Coast for well over a decade, it is still finding its niche in other parts of the country. Real-estate agents, whether they work with professional stagers or not, agree that properly preparing a home for sale involves far more than simply discarding unnecessary items and a thorough cleaning.

To stage, or not to stage

Staging, according to interior designer and professional stager Lisa Benson of Chilmark, seeks to accentuate the positive and more universal appeal of a home while de-emphasizing the negative features. And, while some real-estate agents and homeowners themselves may be able to minimize a house’s glaring problems, it can take a trained eye to repackage the house as a neutral finished product that will attract the majority of possible buyers.

According to a recent national survey of 1,000 real-estate professionals conducted by the real estate search engine, 82 percent of respondents recommend home staging as the sellers’ second most valuable home improvement tool, topped only by cleaning and de-cluttering. And, according to the Real Estate Staging Association’s recent study of nearly 300 occupied and vacant homes, those that were staged took 78 percent less time to sell than their competition.

Yet staging is far from accepted practice on the Vineyard. Some real estate professionals perceive it as an appropriate selling tactic for unfurnished homes only. “I think it can be very useful,” says Art Smadbeck, principal broker at Edgartown’s Priestley, Smadbeck & Mone. “But many homes here are second homes and are usually furnished. It’s rare to have vacant homes.” His thoughts are echoed by both owner/broker Sean Federowicz of Coldwell Banker Landmarks in Vineyard Haven and Lisa Stewart, owner/broker at Oak Bluffs’ Lighthouse Properties.

In contrast, West Tisbury real-estate professional Meg Bodnar of Tea Lane Associates often suggests staging to the homeowners she represents. “Not every home needs staging,” she explains. “But it’s helpful to stage an older house or one that’s tired or very sparsely furnished. We’ve staged houses after the seller gets feedback on showings. If buyers aren’t connecting to the property it can make a big difference.”

While experts concur that the first step toward preparing a home for the market is a ruthless decluttering and scouring, Ms. Benson, owner of Lisa Benson Interior Design, points out that staging goes far beyond. “A house won’t sell itself. Staging transforms your home into an attractively packaged product that appeals to the largest number of buyers,” she says. “When a home is properly staged, the outcome is reduced time on the market, regardless of [asking] price or location.”

How to stage

Ms. Benson, like interior designer Mary Rentschler of Vineyard Haven and other stagers on the Island, works with both real-estate professionals and homeowners directly. While sensitive to the personal nature of addressing a home’s strengths and weaknesses, Ms. Benson is fluent in the new vocabulary that’s sprung up around staging: decluttering, cleaning, repairing, neutralizing, repurposing. “I want to walk in and make the house a place I would like to live in,” she explains. That typically entails encouraging owners to eliminate most personal belongings like family photographs, collectibles, and any religious items, and to minimize the amount of furniture in each room.

Rather than loading a basement with overflow items and furnishings, Ms. Benson recommends renting a self-storage unit. “Even basements and closets should be free from clutter,” she advises. Because so many owners live in a primary residence off-Island, Ms. Benson relies on digital images and Skype (an internet resource that allows users to talk and view one another online) to share her results. She works on an hourly fee basis, from as little as a few hours, she says, up to several weeks of consulting. “I have clients with homes in all price ranges. You can always put some effort into staging,” she says.

Exterior first

Ms. Benson’s work starts as soon as she pulls up to the property. “Outdoors is the new indoors,” she says, explaining that home sellers have to view all outdoor areas with a critical eye. Vineyard Gardens’ spokesperson Peter Costas also emphasizes that landscaping is key to establishing a home’s curb appeal.

“A home’s exterior creates a buyer’s immediate impression,” he says. “Have the basics down: get rid of any debris; keep your lawn healthy with regular maintenance; clean and mulch any beds and prune shrubs to keep them from growing leggy.”

Mr. Costas also suggests hiring a horticulturist like Vineyard Gardens’ co-owners Chuck or Chris Wiley for a consultation. “For less than $100 they can come to your home and offer personalized advice on how you can spruce up your property for sale, no matter what the budget.”

Good feedback

Inside the home, stagers like Ms. Benson work from room to room, adding light, “repurposing” furniture and accessories from one space to another, and neutralizing the environment to allow potential buyers to easily visualize their new life.

Debbie Grant, owner of a colonial for sale on eight acres in Edgartown, recently enlisted Ms. Benson’s services. Ms. Grant’s husband, painting contractor Michael Cassidy, came up with the idea to stage their home prior to listing it last July. “He read about it online and we thought it might make a difference,” Ms. Grant says. “Our real-estate agent had also suggested it but we were afraid it might cost too much money.” After talking to Ms. Benson about her services and finding that the price wasn’t prohibitive after all, Ms. Grant signed on.

Ms. Benson suggested purchasing several new pieces of reasonably priced furniture and decorative accessories, then went to work. Months later, the house has not yet sold but the owners are optimistic. “Winter was slow because of the weather,” Ms. Grant says. “We’ve gotten great feedback from the people who have seen the house. We love the simplicity of it now — the feeling as well as the look.”

Even before staging begins, Mr. Smadbeck, Ms. Stewart, and Mr. Federowicz recommend hiring a maintenance expert to conduct a thorough review of a home’s issues. “Hire a home inspector to identify any potential issues to a seller,” Mr. Federowicz says. “It’s money well spent.”

Ms. Stewart adds: “Second-home buyers want to just move in. A long list of items not taken care of by a seller is an annoyance factor and just gives a buyer reasons to negotiate.”

Finally, Ms. Bodnar offers a tip that won’t cost a cent: “Have a friend with an objective, critical eye come over. He or she can offer advice on what you can do to freshen up your house before you list it.”

Karla Araujo, who divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Washington D.C., is a frequent contributor to The Times.