• Eva Marie Coates



Lights! Camera! Action! Staging homes fattens sale prices

By Richard Scheinin

Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group Robert Graves, a stager from Napoleon at Home, prepares a $4 million home in Menlo Park for the sales market April 20, 2015, as listing agent Bill McNair, center back, takes a phone call.

MENLO PARK — Priced at just under $4 million, the English manor-style house with its exemplary country gardens on a wooded half-acre will undoubtedly sell itself in the runaway real estate market here.

“But just how much can it bring?” asked Robert Graves, the interior designer called in to stage the sale. “Just how much excitement can we bring to it?”

Twenty years ago, in the Pleistocene Era, sellers would pop breads in the oven to create that homey touch for prospective buyers attending an open house. How quaint.

To help speed deals along and incite the inevitable Bay Area bidding wars, today’s sales are staged by designers like Graves, who calls his company Napoleon at Home and serves up dreams to the house-buying gentry of Silicon Valley.

He does it three times a week, filling empty or nearly empty houses with sofas and throw pillows, with flowers, mirrors and area rugs, with sleek deck furniture and tall lemonade glasses, set just so on the outdoor patio. He watches for spatial flow. He introduces “pops” of color, as he puts it, to catch a buyer’s eye amid the chic taupes, creams and grays that dominate his schemes — the “neutralist” colors of the current market.

“We want people to come in and feel like they should stay awhile,” Graves said, while positioning a large tiered mirror in the manor’s living room so that it would catch the reflection of the garden scene just outside the window. “It’s a mood that we’re creating.”

Lights! Camera! Action!

Staging has “exploded over the last 10 years,” said Billy McNair, the 4,000-square-foot property’s listing agent with Coldwell Banker. McNair tapped Graves for the job and draws on an array of stagers, matching their aesthetics to the architectural styles of houses. “Staging’s not cheap. But would you rather invest $5,000 in staging and sell the house for $30,000 more? I think it’s a good return on investment.”

Mainstream media have helped establish staging in the popular vocabulary. The HGTV series “Flip It to Win It” last year featured East Bay stager Cathy Lee Cibelli, the California president of the Real Estate Staging Association, a national trade organization with more than 2,000 members. She said a deft staging brings a touch that “stirs the imagination” of buyers.

“What sells a house is an emotional response: ‘I want to live here,’ ” said Menlo Park interior designer Jo Ann James, who stages high-end homes, mostly in Silicon Valley and often for techies. “The buying public right now is extremely young. And frequently these people have not owned a home and have no furniture. They’ve made millions very young, but without much life experience.”

Via the staging, James gives them a sense of scale and perspective, she said, so the client can gauge whether a sofa will fit here or a queen bed there. James added that “young people today really like contemporary furniture. And they like clean looks. They don’t want a lot of accessories. It should be comfortable, for active lifestyles.”

Generally priced between $3,000 and $20,000 — though the cost can go much higher for estates, say, in Atherton or Woodside — staging is now part of an essential marketing package that includes online video tours covering every inch of a property. “The better it’s exposed,” McNair explained, “the sooner the property should sell.”

“If you’re not staged, you’re losing 4 to 5 percent on the selling price, which is a huge difference around here,” said Peninsula-based agent Ken DeLeon. “It just keeps on getting more: Furniture isn’t enough. Now you bring in original artworks from local galleries. It’s gotten to the point where some people want to buy the staging. They say, ‘Everything looks perfect. How do I buy the home as is? Maybe give you an extra $70,000?’ “

Whereas most sellers pay for staging, veteran East Bay agent Bebe McRae, who sells high-end properties for the Grubb Co., pays for it out of her own budget: She is confident of the payback and doesn’t want sellers “to worry about how much it’s going to cost.” Yet there are occasions when a staging strikes too perfect a chord: “I had one seller, who said to me, ‘This is terrible! The staging is just terrible! Now my wife is never going to want to move.’ I was a little panicked.”

The sale went through.

A 2013 study by academics at the College of William & Mary, Johns Hopkins University and Old Dominion University found that good staging may influence buyers’ overall impressions of a property, but that staging alone doesn’t convince them to pay more. But a Coldwell Banker survey shows that staged properties sell twice as quickly as unstaged properties. A 2015 survey by the National Association of Realtors reported that buyers often offer a 1 to 5 percent increase on the value of a staged home, with some agents putting the increase as high as 10 percent.

Most agents seem convinced.

“Imagine if you were to try to sell your car without having it detailed and washed,” said Casey Sternsmith, a Coldwell Banker agent on the Peninsula. “You’re going to do everything you can so it presents well and so people will want to pay top dollar for that commodity. That’s exactly what we’re doing with staging.”

She recently sold a 2,400-square-foot house in Hillsborough where Maria Burrington and her late husband, David Burrington, a longtime NBC News foreign correspondent, lived for 30 years and raised their children.

The house — which listed for $2.4 million and is in escrow, having drawn an over-asking price bid — first had to be decluttered: “Opium pipes from David’s travels, a camel saddle, a few rugs from Beirut, even a hand grenade that we think the Viet Cong made,” said Maria Burrington. “I did call the bomb squad.”

David Burrington loved exposed wood, but the stagers went for the neutral look, painting ceiling beams white, and doing the same to the kitchen cabinets. And most of the book collection had to go as well.

“And do you know what?” Maria Burrington asked. “It looks better. It made me see my house as much more marketable, frankly. It brought out the spirit of the home, but without our individual taste of decorating.

“Trying to detach and let go from the house — the staging let me do that more easily in some respect. I’ll still miss the garden.”

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews and follow him

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