She was a successful boutique owner of 31 who yearned to leave her solid-yet-not-spectacular house in a middle-income neighborhood for a larger, flashier place in a prestigious suburb. But six months after making her dream move, her first house languished unsold without a nibble.
Desperate to sell, she hired a different real estate agent, who determined that although the property was correctly priced, it was poorly presented. The new agent recommended she hire Michelle Minch, a home stager, to help the place capture buyers' interest in an improving real estate market.
Following Minch's advice, the owner arranged to repaint the interior and replace worn carpet. After that, the stager and her team brought in two truckloads of attractive furniture and accessories - including sofas, lamps, chairs and artwork - and arranged all the items to make the house seem spacious yet comfortable. The project took a full, intense day of work.
Once the makeover was done and the home relisted, it garnered three offers and sold within a week. This seemingly miraculous outcome allowed the owner to quickly liquidate her equity and move on with her life.
"She was totally thrilled with the staging and wondered why she didn't do it sooner," Minch said.
As the owner of a staging firm, Moving Mountains Design (movingmountainsdesign.com), Minch is accustomed to compliments from her clients. But many stagers lack a track record and disappoint their clients, said Barb Schwarz, founder of The International Association of Home Staging Professionals (iahsp.com).
Schwarz said the easy-to-enter home-staging field is attracting thousands of newcomers each year. Some are fans of TV shows on home renovation and decorating. Others come from interior design backgrounds, yet often lack an in-depth grasp of home-selling psychology.
"There's a big difference between staging and interior design. Staging involves depersonalizing a home to appeal to the largest number of buyers. Decorating is about personalizing a property to the taste of its owners," Schwarz said.
Consider more than one stager before picking one.
"Lots of people think they can go directly into home staging because their neighbors and friends tell them they have a good eye for decorating. But there's a lot more to staging than they realize. A good stager has gone through a lengthy training process," said Minch, who entered the field after a previous career preparing sets for TV commercials and movies.
She advises those planning to hire a stager to interview at least two or three candidates before selecting one.
"Be sure to see the stager's portfolio of work. Also ask for the names and phone numbers of past clients," said Minch, who publishes her own home-staging blog.
"Remember that you're hiring a stager to help market the largest single asset your family owns. What's crucial is that the stager knows how to appeal to a big audience," Minch said.
Make sure you understand how a staging firm prices its services.
Schwarz, the author of "Staging to Sell" and other books on the topic, said serious home-staging firms operate in a businesslike manner. One sign is that they can accept payments either by credit card or check. Another indication is that they carry business insurance and are willing to show you written proof of that.
After visiting your place, a serious stager should give you a firm quote on the full cost of staging it. This is helpful, as Schwarz said, because by bidding on the whole job, you're protected from the risk of facing higher-than-expected hourly fees if the job takes longer than anticipated.
Limit your costs by doing part of the work yourself.
Hiring a professional stager can be expensive, especially if your place is large or vacant. Staging fees, which range from $500 to $5,000, can come as a shock to those who have little or no equity in their property but still need to sell it.
As Schwarz said, you can reduce the cost of a stager's services by doing some of the labor yourself. Rather than asking for the stager to do the full project, request a consultation. This should cost far less but should yield a written report itemizing the specific steps you'll need to take to prepare your property for showtime.
"The report should tell you the paint colors to use, the type of carpet to install and which furniture to remove. It should also tell you how to reposition the remaining furniture and accessories," said Schwarz, who has staged homes since the early 1970s.
Alternatively, you might decide to limit your staging expenses by sharing the workload with the professional you hire.
Make sure the staging work is complete before going onto the market.
Although homes in many neighborhoods are now selling more quickly than in recent years, real estate specialists say it's as important as ever to stage your home well. One factor is that homebuyers are becoming more educated visually because many are watching more TV programming focused on interior design and renovation.
Minch said those who make sure their home is in excellent condition before it hits the market stand the best chance of receiving strong offers without a lengthy wait.
"Remember that selling a home is like entering a beauty contest. The most attractive contestants win," she said.
Ellen James Martin, a former real estate editor at The Baltimore Sun, gives advice for anyone buying, selling or financing a home.