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Staging a house may shorten its time on the market

| Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008

Potential home buyers in California often won't bother looking at a house unless it's been "staged" -- with updated colors and fixtures and minimal clutter.

This is much less of an issue in Pittsburgh and most other eastern regions, though home staging is catching on as concerns rise about how quickly properties will sell in a sluggish market.

"A lot of people mistake staging with interior decorating," said Michele Bamburak, an accredited staging professional. "An interior decorator goes in when someone buys or revamps a home.

"A stager really goes in to help someone declutter, and help them show off the architecture of a home so that a person walking in gets a sense of home and isn't distracted by things."

Those things can range from a tabletop full of framed family pictures, to a doll collection in a corner cabinet and even to a room filled with furniture. Visitors' eyes should be directed instead to the stone fireplace, arched doorways and hardwood floors.

Professionally staged homes sold after an average 31.8 days on the market, compared to 160 days for other homes, of Concord, Calif., said, based on its survey covering more than 400 homes in the United States and Canada that were sold from June to November. Investments in staging vary, but owners typically recoup costs by avoiding markdowns for peeling paint or dirty, worn carpet.

Home staging started on the West Coast about 30 years ago. The concept still is in its infancy in Western Pennsylvania, but has become more familiar through features on the Home & Garden TV network and in publications.

"There is definitely a lot more interest in it," said Jim Bindschadler, executive vice president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

Realtors are taking home staging lessons, sponsored by the association, he said. While real estate professionals for years have taught owners how to prepare their houses for sale with thorough cleaning and decluttering and fresh paint, staging often goes further -- adding decorative touches, new lighting fixtures and removing up to half the furniture.

"You live a certain way. You sell your house a little differently," he said.

The general rule: The more neutral the decor, the larger the crowd that won't be offended, though "It only takes one buyer and somebody may absolutely love your red shag carpet," Bindschadler said.

The Realtors association advises consumers to check certifications or references before hiring a home stager, but he said the trend ultimately will help buyers as well as sellers.

"You are not trying to hide something," he said. "You are preparing a house to show it to its best advantage and there is nothing wrong with that."

Realtors are starting to call in home stagers, said Bamburak, who has been in business for about a year and is accredited with, as is her partner Madeline Brown (their shared initials inspired the business name, MB Squared Staged Designs LLC).

Prices average about 10 cents per square foot nationwide for a professional staging consultation, said Nanette Catarinella, a Realtor and broker appraiser who teaches home staging and authored the book "Stage It: How to Sell Your Home Fast for More Money."

Owners can do much of the work the stager suggests themselves, putting in a few days or a few weekends, she said.

If the professional does the work, it can cost $300 to $1,200 or more depending on the size of the house, Catarinella said, but the price is always less than what the first price cut on the house would be. And because it's an investment in selling the property, it may qualify as a tax deduction.

"I have staged $65,000 homes, and $650,000 homes," said Catarinella, whose business is Room Styles Interiors in Wilkins. "It is important in every price range."

Rebekah Fuller is selling a home for her uncle, and is confident Bamburak's work to tone down the 1980s-era decor and add rented furniture, table settings and other decorative touches to the once-empty four-bedroom house in Franklin Park will help to attract a buyer.

Fuller estimated she's invested about $5,000 in all for Bamburak's services over several weekends and the furniture rental, plus painting and some new carpeting. Mike Mihalich, a design and restoration consultant who works with Bamburak on some homes, rebuilt the garage door and made other repairs.

The house has been on the market since September, and has dropped in price to $308,000 from the original $329,000.

"I don't think its the house. It's the market," Fuller said, adding the expense has been worthwhile. A buyer would have to make the changes and repairs anyway -- and likely would push for a further discount, she said.

Setting the stage

Here are some basics of staging, or preparing a home for sale.

1. Enhance curb appeal by tidying up landscaping, retouching peeled paint and replacing worn lighting and other fixtures.

2. Inside, clean thoroughly and make sure no pet, smoke or cooking odors linger. Upholstery and ductwork may have to be cleaned; don't "mask" odors with potpourri.

3. Declutter, meaning pack away photos and other personal items (which will have to be moved anyway).

4. Repaint or remove wallpaper, especially if colors are intense. Keep colors neutral.

6. Replace broken cabinet handles and doorknobs, or long-outdated lighting fixtures.

7. Remove some furniture for an open look, while adding or keeping some decorative touches.

Source: Tribune-Review research.

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