Eytan Weber at Evan Joseph
Staging is an important part of the selling process for New Yorkers. Apartment buyers who are on the hunt are likely to visit both new condos and resales—and if you’re selling, you need to make sure your place is styled to compete with a brand-new apartment.
That’s especially true in today’s market, where first impressions are made online, and listing photos are crucial.
Brokers and stagers rely on professional photographers to capture all the right angles and use the right lighting to sell a resale. After all, they are up against condo developers who have the money to create pristine model apartments. “You cannot afford to let a resale apartment come across as a dud," says Michael J. Franco, a broker at Compass.
That’s why it’s important to present a property in a way that allows buyers to see its full potential. “I like to think of staging as makeup,” says Daniela Schneider, founder of the staging company Quadra. She says staging should enhance the natural beauty of the apartment and disguise the flaws.
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in September 2020. We are presenting it again with updated information for September 2021.]
Whether you hire a staging pro or decide to DIY it, you’ll want to avoid these common mistakes, most notably not painting the place, forgetting about curtains, or not paying attention to lighting.
1. Not painting the space
Not painting your apartment is one of the most common mistakes, Schneider says. The consensus is to stick with one of the countless shades of white. Clean, fresh, and bright are the universal tenets of staging. Remember: Buyers have been bombarded with images of pristine, unlived-in condos, so you’ll need to step up your game to match the fantasy in their heads—admittedly a tall order.
And as a seller, you’re also up against the “HGTV effect,” where buyers have been conditioned to expect move-in ready, picture-perfect apartments—with no work required at all.
Fortunately there are some shortcuts. Nothing does more to improve your home than a coat of paint. “You can even freshen up tired kitchen cabinetry with a coat of paint,” Franco says.
Of course repainting isn’t always possible and there’s a difference between staging a vacant apartment and one that is still being lived in. Dawn Trachtenberg, co-owner of the staging company Staged Ryte, says in situations where it’s impossible to paint and an owner has walls that are different colors or at least not a stager’s preferred neutral white, it’s more important than ever to simplify the space through other means, especially by decluttering.
“It really depends on the price point and the demographic but most often, less is more,” she says.
As an added incentive, some brokerages are offering no-fee renovation loans to make it easier for you to paint or make upgrades to your place with funds you don’t have to repay until you close.
2. Not installing curtains or installing them wrong
Forgoing curtains is a common mistake, according to Schneider. Curtains soften the space, she says. What happens, in her experience, is people who choose to save on curtains, then overcompensate and overcrowd the apartment with expensive pieces of furniture in an attempt to make the space feel less empty and cold. “Oftentimes you are hiding ugly window frames that impact the feeling of the room so much,” she says.
As for color, neutral and plain are always preferable. If the walls are white, you’d be advised to go with oatmeal or grayish curtains, or fabric with just a touch of color to create contrast. Most stagers will work with the curtains you have, but typically if you’ve got drapes in a bright colored floral print, that will be the only pattern the stager allows in the space.
There’s another curtain faux pas to avoid: Hanging curtains too low. If you hang curtains right above the windows (and don’t take the curtain rail all the way to the ceiling) you miss out on the illusion of height. “You want the curtains as high as possible to change the sense of height and space—especially if it is a small footprint,” Schneider says.
3. Poor light fixtures and lighting
Ignore the light fixtures at your peril. “Light fixtures are the jewelry of the space,” Schneider says. Along with the paint color and the curtains they create what she calls “the envelope” of the apartment and are the most important aspects of staging.
If you have a dark apartment, you’ll especially want to pull out every trick in the book to brighten things up. You can use lighting to create intimacy in a larger room and to spotlight artwork or some other focal point for that “wow” factor. Consider swapping out LEDs for warm incandescent light bulbs.
Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are another way of creating light. Sometimes Schneider says she can work with a seller’s light fixtures but more often than not she likes to install her own. “It really has to be the right fixture, because it brings so much personality—it informs the feeling of the space,” she says.
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4. Leaving out personal items
Any deal requires an emotional connection, and that won’t happen if a buyer sees too many of your personal items in the apartment.
This can be complicated if you’re staying in your apartment until it sells. Schneider says you should still be willing to really try to “de-personalize” your apartment as much as possible. “You have to create the canvas for the next buyer. They have to be able to envision themselves in the space,” she says.
If you have a collection of items on display—such as figurines or blown glass—Trachtenberg says it’s time to pare them back. “Making it special and curated is really key. It’s ok to have that collection but maybe not all 50 pieces,” she says.
You have to walk a fine line between creating connection with a buyer and not being too specific so as not alienate anyone. After all, New York’s buyer pool is one of the most diverse in the world. Buyers won’t want to see evidence of your political or religious leanings—and that goes for your holiday decorations if you are selling in the winter months too. They should definitely be scaled back.
There are inevitably situations where it’s practical to leave some items in place. For example, large, heavy pieces of furniture that you might not be willing to put in storage. A designer might be able to work with your dining table, buffet, or credenza but be less happy about you keeping your novelty couch. “It distracts,” Schneider says.
5. Too many patterns and mismatched furniture
Totally mismatched furniture is a big mistake, Trachtenberg says. “Having too many sofas and too many patterns going on—it’s very confusing.” If you have to remove furniture, so be it. “Don’t have two different floral sofas or a striped sofa and a patterned chair,” she says.
One piece of furniture that must go is the recliner. “It might be comfortable but it’s not a good look,” she says.
Schneider points out colors should be added “very minimally.” She suggests greenery from indoor plants or maybe a yellow or green throw but nothing with a red or orange palette. Why? She says red gives off a nervous active energy and you want people to feel calm and encourage them to linger in the apartment.
Trachtenberg is less averse to colors but insists what might be right in one apartment is definitely wrong in another. She will incorporate color in pieces of furniture, or with throw pillows. “It might be a turquoise chair with a neutral sofa, or a neutral sofa with blue pillows on it and then picking up some blues in some of the accessories or books on the cocktail table so it doesn’t look bland and gray,” she says.
Even Schneider sometimes breaks her own rules on color: Quadra recently worked with the owner of an apartment at 254 Park Ave. who didn’t want to paint or install light fixtures. The apartment had very high ceilings and dark flooring.
“We did the whole apartment in black and white, and we put two beautiful red velvet, very modernist chairs there,” Schneider says.
6. Being too cookie-cutter
Buyers are scouring listings and the same staged aesthetic—the beige couch, the cream rug—can start to look very tired. How to make yours stand out from the crowd? Do your homework.
Find out what else is for sale in the same building or in the same neighborhood. You can partner with your broker, who will know the comps, and be strategic in your staging. This will in turn enable you to aim for the target demographic. For example, you wouldn’t stage a renovated loft in Tribeca the same as a prewar on the Upper East Side.
That’s where Trachtenberg says pops of color can help. “Our feeling is people need to be able to picture themselves in the apartment and not everyone lives in that sterile cookie-cutter fashion,” she says.
Don’t be afraid to take calculated design risks, like hanging eye-catching artwork and even mixing it up with canvas and photographs and other items. That might also include a chalkboard panel in a kid’s room or wallpaper in a living room.
In the end, it’s all about striking a balance and making your apartment more inviting and exciting than the others.
7. Clutter (enough said)
If ever there was a time to declutter, it is now. Once your property is on the market, you have to stop thinking of it as a home and more as a product. Granted the process is rife with emotion, and some purging is going to be required.
The goal is for the staging to be lifelike, albeit in an idealized state.
Storage, or the lack thereof, is a definite deal breaker. Overstuffed closets won’t help a sale. The advice is to leave closets at least 30 percent empty to let some air between items. Put all but in-season clothes and outerwear in a storage unit. Leave stuff off the floor.
Even if you don’t have California Closets you can make them feel that way with canvas and woven bins to hide your stuff to make them feel inviting.
The message is: If you lived here, “your life would be as organized as this closet,” organizers tell Brick Underground. Some even go as far as to treat the closet as if it were a little room, with wall paper and an attractive light fixture. (For more tips, read “Staging your closet when selling your NYC apartment.")
8. Leaving out the TV
Of course buyers want to see where their TV will go but leaving your 42-inch flat screen hanging on the living room wall is a mistake. Why? “It’s ugly, it’s cold, it tells buyers you are going to have to be watching TV where you also want to entertain,” Schneider says.
You want the living room to be as pretty, inviting, warm, and as beautiful as possible and Schneider says a TV has none of those qualities. And remember, taking down the TV is as much for the listing photos as for the open house.
In a situation where you don’t want to remove your TV, one hack is to incorporate it into the staging. “Surround the TV with black and white framed prints, so it becomes one of the prints or part of a gallery wall,” Schneider says. (A possible explanation for why you see so much of that black and white wall art in listing photos).
During an open house, Schneider will ask the broker to play a vintage movie if there’s a TV that hasn’t been removed during the staging. “Something black and white, that won’t offend anyone and won’t interfere with the colors of the space,” she says.
Trachtenberg always advises sellers to get rid of their TV, especially if it’s old and clunky. “It really says you haven’t changed things out in way too long,” she says and it can make a place feel dated. If it’s attached to the wall she says it needs to look like it belongs and isn’t cluttering the living room. ”If you have to have the TV, at least pare down whatever else is around it,” she says.
9. Poor use of space
Many New York City apartments have open floor plans, where your kitchen, living, and dining areas all flow into each other. But that can make it hard for a buyer to visualize how much space there is and whether it meets their needs.
Over the past year there’s also an increased need for multi-functional spaces. Schneider says if you don’t have a dedicated room to identify as a home office you’ll still have to show where a buyer could put a desk. In the bedroom is an option in an apartment without a nook or dedicated work space. “By the window facing out—you can put a desk there with a beautiful chair and the best lamp—it’s going to actually look pretty while looking functional.”
Essentially, buyers have a mental checklist: Entryway? Check. Kitchen? Check. Work space? Check. You’ll want to use furniture to delineate areas and control the flow. (Rugs are great for this.)
That said, avoid overdoing it with the furniture groupings—you don’t need to create barriers. Odds are you have a fairly informal existence like most New Yorkers. Buyers want to see how it’s possible to live with your open plan, so don’t crowd the layout with lots of heavy pieces or block the sight lines from one room to the next. In other words, avoid making it seem like your formerly laid-back den is now a (stuffy) dining room that seats 10.
On a related note, the advice is to put a bed in every bedroom, even if it’s a daybed. People can always envision a home office, but they might need convincing that it can really work as a bedroom.
10. No sense of scale
If you’re trying to convince a buyer your apartment is bright and airy, but you fill the place with oversized furniture that eats up all the space—your message won’t get through.
Large pieces often highlight awkward layouts—long and narrow living areas, for instance—that are commonplace in NYC apartments. Opt instead for smaller, sleeker pieces, even in prewar apartments. Franco says buyers don’t typically want to see traditional furnishings these days.
Furniture that is very dark is another no-no. And a rug that’s too small will instantly shrink a room. Trachtenberg says even stagers are guilty of sometimes putting in rugs that are way too small for a room and a larger rug that goes all the way under the couch is much more luxurious.
“You really want the furniture to be on the rug and not have the rug stop in front of the sofa or only have it under the coffee table,” she says.
11. Overlooking creature comforts
A few fur throws and pillows in the right place can be very luxurious. You might even put terry robes and some slippers in a closet. Ditto crisp white bedding and fresh flowers in the bedroom, plush towels, and fresh soap in the bathroom. But don’t make it too contrived. Less is always more.
12. Foregoing staging entirely
Staging appeals to a lot of sellers, but often they balk at having to pay for it.
If that sounds like you, there are affordable ways to work with a staging expert. Perhaps you just need a professional eye to come and help rearrange and edit what you already have, or give just one or two rooms a thorough redo. Lots of stagers offer a range of packages to accommodate most budgets.
Brokers are also there to help, especially if you are on a tight budget; Franco has a specialist do the heavy lifting of decluttering.
And make no mistake: Empty apartments don’t sell. They seem too small and lack personality. Case in point: When it came down to choosing between two apartments in the same building, one of Franco’s clients went with the staged one, despite having a less desirable northern exposure than the empty one facing south. Brokers and stagers have plenty of tales like this.
Previous versions of this post contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen and Evelyn Battaglia.
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