By Camilla McLaughlin
Today, ever cautious buyers searching for the ultimate deal and hundreds of homes competing for even a second glance make it seem that the wizardry of Harry Potter is required to sell a home. Magic wands might be in short supply, but the right price, excellent condition, a dash of sizzle, and a little out-of-the-box thinking can turn For Sale into Sold.
What is the secret of making a home saleable in this market? Buyers need to visualize themselves living in the home, and the property’s aesthetic appeal is instrumental to creating that vision for the buyer. Tools that tap into creating a home that stands out from the crowd will grab the attention of today’s buyer and help the home sell more quickly in this current buyer’s market.
“Moving furniture around and baking apples just doesn’t cut it anymore,” says Maureen Reddy, owner of DaVinci Designer Gallery in Winthrop, a professional home staging firm. “Buyers today expect a property to look like a designer show house.”
Increasingly savvy agents, even sellers, turn to professional stagers to make a listing shine. For agents such as Bill Skerry with RE/MAX First in Newton, who includes a consultation with a stager in every listing, says using a stager is a nobrainer. “If a buyer is looking at two properties and one is beautifully staged at the same price, obviously the staged property will out show the other one.”
Staging isn’t just for high-end homes, and it doesn’t have to be costly. “What I’ve found is that up to about $10,000 in staging costs, [sellers] generally make $3 for every dollar spent,” says Skerry. Industry statistics show that staged homes sell faster for a higher price. Another valued benefit is having a critique from a neutral third party rather than from the REALTOR®. “Many times REALTORS® feel like they are walking on eggshells. They are so happy to have the listing and they don’t want to upset the client. So, they are afraid to speak the truth,” says Mary Stewart, owner of Feng Shui Boston, a firm specializing in applying feng shui principles to furniture placement for creating harmony in an environment.
Sellers today are receptive to the art of feng shui, more open to creative suggestions, and, Stewart says, quite prepared to do what it takes to sell their home. “Usually, too,” she continues, “they are
happy that their real estate agent is doing something different.”
“Anything that would make a buyer feel uncomfortable has to be eliminated,” advises Thomas Holmes, owner of Staging Holmes in Westwood and founder of the regional chapter of the International
Association of Home Staging Professionals. Compared to even five years ago, he says, “It is much harder to get a house ready to sell. Curb to closet cleaning is huge,” as is overall presentation.
Staging involves more than simply repositioning furniture. Rather, good stagers keep the demographic of a potential buyer in mind, creating focal points in each room and arranging furniture to guide buyers through the property. Also important, says Holmes, is an awareness of the potential ethnicity of buyers, particularly in some towns. He keeps an eye out for anything that might offend and also tries to incorporate some element that will resonate with these buyers.
Trading on years of experience as traditional stagers, Krisztina and Jay Bell, co-owners of Virtually Staging Properties, spent most of 2008 building a digital library of furnishings that they use to virtually
furnish almost any empty space using photos provided by agents, owners, or builders. “Our objective is to make empty homes more appealing and to help buyers understand what the house would look like if it was lived in,” and to do so at a fraction of the cost of traditional staging using furniture, says Jay Bell. Furnishings, including accessories and artwork, are key to the price point of the property, the location, and potential buyer demographics. Clients also have the option of getting a photo of the staged space to be posted at the property.
No “Do Overs” for First Impressions
First impressions only happen once, and most experts urge agents to delay photos until staging is completed. “Staging isn’t just for people coming to open houses. Without staging you’re not going to get good pictures and the home will not appeal to people online,” observes Skerry. “Buyers are looking for homes to eliminate online. If you are getting a lot of clicks and not getting any calls, that should be a red flag,” advises Holmes. “You have to have good lights and you have to pick focal points of a room (Holmes suggests using a shop light).”
“If it’s a bad photograph, the home is likely to be ignored,” cautions Stan Barron, owner of Stan Barron Properties in Austin, Texas who frequently speaks on this topic and on marketing at conferences, including those at NAR. “Professional quality photographs are a must,” he says, urging agents to use professional photography or a high-quality camera with a wide angle lens, and to practice photo editing.
Pay special attention to small details such as dishes in the sink or a bedskirt stuck in a mattress, all of which stand out in photographs. Suzanne Koller with Suzanne & Company Keller Williams in Bedford cleans everything off of counters, setting up shots for the company that does both still and video for her listings, which she posts on Facebook, YouTube, and other sites.
Photography and Beyond
“Google just loves video,” Koller adds, noting the high ranking her videos typically garner. Recently, Koller added online advertising on sites such as Facebook targeting feeder towns for Bedford.
Steve Leavey creates an individual website for most of his listings and includes a floor plan for each. The floor plans feature dozens of camera icons which link to photographs of various focal points in each room, a tool he finds especially valuable for relo buyers. He uses Postlets to syndicate to all the major real estate sites and to Craigslist.
Getting a property before as many eyes as possible is critical. “Today it’s all about online exposure,” says Bill Gassett of RE/MAX Executive Realty in Hopkinton. Gassett blogs on four sites, including Active Rain, and uses RealEstateShows.com and RealBird.com to syndicate property videos to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Rather than actual videos or virtual tours—too slow to load, he says—Gassett creates a tour using still pictures sewn together. With each listing, he includes a link to a blog post describing the property. Sellers especially love RealBird he says.
Instead of a conventional format, Barron’s listings on his website are put in a conversational narrative speaking to the best features of the home, including intangibles, in a way that invites potential uyers to envision life there.
Getting the Word Out
Quite often and especially for unusual properties, Barron, the author of “How to Apply Madison Avenue Methods to Real Estate Advertising,” employs “the principle of sacrifice” in his marketing. “Consumers routinely pass over houses they would love because marketing is not decisive enough to flag the right audience,” he says. Rather than appealing to a broad audience he focuses on the few consumers who might actually be interested in the property.
Barron shares a story of a home in one of Austin’s best neighborhoods which had 300 showings and not a single offer. Onsite, Barron discovered that there was no backyard at all. “I looked at the marketing materials and realized the missed opportunity. The flyer was beautiful but it never mentioned the yard. I wondered why they had glossed over an objection the consumer would immediately
see.” Rather than hiding the lack of the yard, Barron made it the centerpiece of his ad, which trumpeted: “Tempting buy in Tarrytown if you like the idea of no yard maintenance.” The home sold almost immediately to a grandmother who didn’t want any yard work but who wanted to live near her grandchildren.
Not new but still innovative are Speaking Houses, which broadcast information via an onsite transmitter to a radio channel advertized on the sign. Since it can be heard in front of the house, it’s perfect for drive-bys. Perky and Jody Magee with Harborside Realty in Marblehead install one at every listing and have been doing so for 10 years. Jody Magee says they are very effective and appeal to anyone’s curiosity whether they are buying a house or not. Often the listener is not looking for a home but knows someone who is. Another plus for Speaking Houses is the added exposure “that no other REALTOR® in the area can say they have.”
Another great marketing tool, Magee says, is a pre-inspection. Some agents suggest them routinely; others hesitate to ask sellers to spend additional money up front. Magee finds them especially effective for properties he knows are going to have problems. “What happens is the home inspector is going to find those items anyway, but it is going to triple the cost in the buyer’s mind,” says Skerry. Even though there is no potion that guarantees a sale, the synergy of all these tools working together can sometimes seem a little magical. But the real magic in this formula is the dedication
and knowledge that you as REALTORS® bring to the transaction.
Camilla McLaughlin is a veteran journalist and former REALTOR® who writes frequently on real estate topics for leading industry publications.