10 apartment staging mistakes that can cost you a sale

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You’re ready to put your apartment on the market. Now take a long, hard look. Is it ready to meet the public? Does it even know what to say to the public?

Ideally, according to stager Cheryl Eisen of Interior Marketing Group, your apartment should say “a stylish person with impeccable taste lives here."   Unfortunately, observes Eisen, "most homes I see that are not professionally staged look like Pottery Barn meets grandma’s hand-me-downs."

Note that staging is not the same thing as interior design, says Susan Goldstein, design director of Studio D.

“Interior design is geared to the homeowners taste and personal desire," says Goldstein, while "staging is about putting enough furniture in a space so that buyers can envision themselves living in the home and how their own furniture will fit in."

Staging is a form of "visual merchandising,” says real estate broker Gordon Roberts of Warburg Realty. “The object of staging is to flatter the apartment but not be too obvious about it, like being properly dressed without drawing attention to what you’re wearing."

Whether you hire a professional stager, have your broker manage the staging or insist on a strictly do-it-yourself approach, here are 10 mistakes you’d better not make:

1. Personal items on view

If you think your personal tchotchkes add warmth, you're wrong. Hide or get rid of them.

Personal photos, in particular, are absolutely out. Interested buyers will spend too much time looking at photos trying to figure out who lives in the space, says Sid Pinkerton of From Drab to Fab.

“With a typical apartment showing lasting 5-15 minutes, every second a buyer looks at your photos, they’re not looking at your apartment," he says.

2. Bad color choices

The general rule is to keep things neutral but not boring.

"Whether it’s a red sofa or a blue accent wall or yellow drapes, it’s a staging sin to stray from neutrals,” says Eisen. “If you want to do an accent wall, do a deeper neutral behind a bed to add drama and depth.”

Pinkerton is even more specific about neutral colors: “Use a neutral color with a tiny bit of yellow in it if your room is light-challenged. Linen white is not a color I ever use because it looks dirty to me. Baseboards, doors and window trim should be painted a semi-gloss white.”

3. Ignoring scale

Pay attention to the architectural style of the space when staging, advises Goldstein.  Furniture that’s too big will make a space look smaller. And don't be too sparse when staging a large loft-like apartment. 

Some spaces work best with furniture of a particular shape: some need a circular table, others a rectangular one; some are grand enough for an oversized sectional, others require something smaller.

4. Poor lighting

Just how effective the coloring of the apartment will be depends on the light both from inside and out, says real estate broker Deanna Kory of Corcoran, who has been staging apartments for more than a decade.

“You need to use incandescent light for a warmer, more inviting glow. Watch out for the cool light or ‘green cast’ in some of the newer energy efficient bulbs," she says.

"The ones to look for are the warm/soft white or daylight variety--but be warned that daylight doesn't work well everywhere. I've also seen 6 light chandeliers with 2 or 3 different bulbs--that's a big no-no," says Kory.

“Light is one of the most important things that buyers are looking for,” says Pinkerton. “No matter how light and bright you think your apartment is already, up the wattage...If you only have a ceiling light in a room, buy an inexpensive floor or table lamp. Use three points of light per room. That can be two table lamps and a floor lamp or three table lamps.” 

5. Too theatrical

Avoid any urge you have to add what you may mistakenly think are dramatic touches, warns Roberts. 

While it's okay to set the table with your everyday plates and settings,  avoid "fully set tables that look as though a formal dinner party is about to begin, no ‘high end’ packaging such as Hermes boxes conspicuously displayed--keep it simple,” he says.

6. Penny wise and pound foolish

For those who think that hiring a professional stager is too expensive, Eisen suggests you do the math her way: “The cost of hiring a stager is on average 1 percent of the asking price. Alternatively the average first price reduction is 7 percent of the asking price and 75 percent of the sellers who do one price reduction eventually do a second."

(Note that most stagers say the cost ranges from .5 percent-1.5 percent of the asking price.)

"Statistics are great but realtors and sellers want concrete evidence that staging works," says Goldstein. "If you lean too heavily on statistics, then you risk setting up unrealistic expectations and the seller will...hold you to it. I prefer to give examples of homes that sold quickly after I staged them, especially if they had been lagging on the market."

Even avowed do-it-yourselfers need to be willing to spend enough money to make the prospective buyer say ‘Wow, I like this’; pleasant just isn’t good enough.

Kory gives an example:  “I wanted to make the master bedroom in an apartment I was showing look rich and luxurious. It was the last room that the buyers would see and if it was disappointing, it could destroy the deal. I went to five different places until I got the right bedspread, which looked rich and luxurious, for $200 plus $100 for pillows. It made the room.”

7. Too trendy

Wallpaper is popular now in model apartments but it’s too specific a taste. If you want to be sure your apartment has broad appeal, you may want to have it removed and the wall repainted when you're getting you're apartment ready to list, particularly if it involves "big stripes that look good in photos but are too overpowering in person,” warns Jason Saft of Citi Habitats.

8. Too masculine, too feminine

Gender neutralize any mancaves, pink-and-frilly boudoirs, and the like.  Otherewise, you risk turning off half of your buying pool. 

Once again, neutrality is key. 

9. Chaotic closets

Even your closets and your medicine chests need staging attention. Eisen is convinced that when a potential buyer opens a closet and sees a “packed, chaotic mess, it screams ‘not enough closet space!’ It’s unnerving, too. Buyers want to feel as though their life in a new home will be calm and organized.”

To achieve this look, replace all mismatched hangers with wooden ones from Ikea (8 for $4.99) and organize your clothes by color-- "you’ll like it so much you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner!" says Eisen.

10. Mismatched appliances

Is your dishwasher black? Your fridge stainless? Your stove white? Now’s the time to decide on one color for all and consider buying some new ones so that they all match. 


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