A New Jersey couple put their home on the market in January, expecting a quick sale. They had followed traditional advice on preparing it for market. It was clean and completely clutter free. “They’re neat freaks,” says professional home stager Nicole Bouknight. “Their house is huge, and in perfect condition. It’s really nice.” A lovely home in a fine, family-oriented northern New Jersey suburb, it was somehow turning off buyers, so the owners’ real estate agent called Bouknight for help.
Bouknight had seen the problem before, and diagnosed it right away.
“There was no sign of kids,” she says, “and the house is right in the middle of a kid community.” People want to envision themselves living in the houses they see as they hunt for a new home. Apparently this well-kept, everything-in-its-place house did not lend itself to fantasies of family game night around the dining room table.
But there is hope for this house, and also for houses with a whole range of other issues — everything from culture clash to furniture overload. Bouknight, a trained dancer and a former fundraiser and college administrator, has made a business of turning that hope into quick sales and above-market prices. Her two-year-old company, Razzmatazz Home Staging (www.razzmatazzhomestaging.com), is based in Bloomfield and has just hired its third employee.
A native of South Orange, Bouknight spent her childhood going to open houses with the mother, a teacher and pianist, and poring over home design magazines. But she only began working as a home stager — a person who prepares a house to show to best advantage when it is being sold — after a friend sent her an article on the profession along with a note saying, “this would be perfect for you!”
A graduate of the University of Maryland, she studied consumer economics and worked for ADP before shifting to higher education and taking a job in admissions at Fairleigh Dickinson. While at that school, she began to wonder about the people whose names were on its buildings, and decided to focus on fundraising. After earning a graduate degree in higher education from the University of Miami in Ohio, she worked in development departments at Stevens Institute and at Columbia.
She is at a loss to explain why she left fundraising, a field she says that she thoroughly enjoyed. The impetus may have been simply the experience of fixing up her own Bloomfield home — combined with that newspaper article forwarded by a friend.
In researching the profession of home staging, Bouknight found out that it was begun by a California woman named Barb Schwarz (www.stagedhomes.com) in the early-1970s. There are thousands of certified home stagers, she says, but most of them are on the West Coast. Schwarz runs a school that holds certification courses leading to a designation as an Accredited Staging Professional all around the country.
Bouknight took Schwarz’s course, but says that a lot of what she does in persuading home sellers to make changes is very similar to what she did as a fundraiser. Both professions involve convincing people of the positives in spending money on things that do not provide the instant gratification that, say, a new boat or a piece of jewelry can offer.
Some home stagers are also real estate agents, but Bouknight is not. “If you’re going to be a home stager, you need a warehouse, and you need time,” she says. Pursuing listings and showing houses would cut into the time she needs, and besides, she says, if she were a real estate agent, others in the profession would be far less likely to steer business her way, fearing that she might go for the listings herself. And the lion’s share of her business comes from real estate agents, who often call when, despite their best marketing efforts, a house is simply not selling.
“This year, for the first time, I’ve started to get calls from the sellers themselves,” she says, “but most of my business comes from real estate agents.”
The uptick in direct calls might be a result of the popularity of HGTV’s “Designed to Sell” program. During each episode a staging expert evaluates a couple’s home, suggesting changes that will make it more appealing to buyers. The designer brought in to orchestrate the updates has a $2,000 budget and only a few days in which to work miracles.
The show has been both good and bad for her business, says Bouknight. “It has shown people that home staging works,” she says. At the end of each episode viewers can see what a huge difference moving furniture around, replacing worn out vinyl, and chopping down overgrown bushes can make. Also, the narrator always reports that the sellers received multiple offers right away and sold for tens of thousands of dollars over asking price.
All of this encourages home sellers to look into hiring a professional stager, but at the same time, it raises false expectations about the process. “There is no way that you can make those changes for $2,000,” says Bouknight. “And on the show all of the workers show up at the same time, and it’s always sunny. This is New Jersey. It’s not always sunny!”
The program enumerates its expenditures at the end of each make-over, and, if viewers are paying attention, they will notice that the $2,000 covers only materials. On a typical episode, numerous workmen are shown ripping out and replacing cabinets, walls, cracked sidewalks, and/or outdated lighting fixtures — work that can be pricey.
“I just got estimates for painting a kitchen — a new kitchen, no crown moulding, nothing difficult — and it’s going to cost $850,” she gives as an example. Bouknight, who likes to work with her clients’ contractors, but also has contacts of her own, typically charges between $5,000 to $19,000 for a home staging, which can include everything from yard work to new carpeting to art for under-dressed walls. She says that she is always willing to work with a seller’s budget, and if homeowners want to do some or all of the work themselves, but need guidance on priorities, she will do an extensive walk-through consultation for between $300 and $800.
Using her fundraiser’s skills, she explains that the staging is an investment in what is, in most cases, the seller’s most valuable asset. She says that figures vary, but that a staging should raise a home’s selling price by at least 3 percent, and should get it off the market fast. A staged house will stand out, she guarantees. “Listen,” she says, “in New Jersey our housing stock is old. Ancient. A house that looks clean and well cared-for stands apart.”
When Bouknight takes on a job, she walks all around the exterior of the house and then tours each room inside. Common problems outside are overgrown tree limbs, dirty walls, a lack of mulch around trees and flower beds, and mold. “If it’s green and it’s growing, it needs to be powerwashed,” she says.
Inside the number one issue is “clutter, clutter, clutter.” She almost always finds multiple photos of multiple children accepting awards from first grade through high school. They have to go.
Getting the kids’ photos off the walls, so that buyers can picture their own children living in the house, can be a sensitive matter. But it gets worse. Bouknight often has to tell sellers that “the crosses have to come off the walls. Buddha has to go into the closet.” She explains that, while it is not right, there are buyers who could be offended by the icons. And again, even if every buyer embraces the beauty of every religion, each is trying to envision himself in the house. Groupings of statues or life-sized portraits of saints could make this difficult for some people.
“Just this week I was in a home which happened to be owned by a Korean family,” says Bouknight. “They don’t wear shoes in the house. There were 30 pairs of shoes right next to the front door. I nearly tripped.” If the house is to appeal to all buyers, the shoes need to be stowed.
Most buyers go along with her suggestions on toning down religious and cultural symbols, but “I know I can only go so far,” she says. If the family insists that the mezuzah or the cross stays, it does.
She is less flexible on the “dated” furnishings that she finds in so many houses. “There’s antique,” she says, “and then there’s old.” Any furniture in the latter category should be removed. “It just makes the house look older,” she says. Besides, in her view, “we have too much furniture anyway.” If a chair or couch cannot be removed, it should be slipcovered.
“The way we live, and the way we prepare for a sale are different,” she says. Day-to-day, a family might wants lots of extra chairs and side tables to accommodate vistors, neighborhood meetings, or parties, but these should be pared down when it is time for the house to be shown. What remains should then be arranged in interesting ways. “We tend to want our furniture to hug the walls so that we have more space,” says Bouknight. That look is rarely the most sophisticated — or the most appealing to buyers.
While furniture is being pared down, most bedrooms need to be toned up. Bouknight finds that, no matter what the income bracket, bedrooms tend to be mismatched. This is expecially true in children’s rooms, where “there will be a Mickey Mouse comforter, no dust ruffle, 80 stuffed animals on the bed, and no window treatments.” Bedrooms are important to buyers, and beds, as the largest objects in them, need to look appealing. At a minimum, they should sport good quality matching linens.
While clutter is the number one staging issue, a number of homes have a variant of the opposite problem — they don’t have enough stuff, or at least, not enough attractive stuff in the right places. Some walls and surfaces need to be toned up. “They look bare,” says Bouknight, who often suggests that art be added to walls or flower arrangements to tables. She supplies these objects to sellers and also supplies linens — many of which she makes herself. In fact, she is prepared to furnish entire homes — and often does so, generally by working out rental agreements with furniture stores.
She does not think that houses should be shown vacant. “If there’s nothing in the house,” she says, “buyers will just look around wondering where they could put a couch. They want to be shown how the rooms can be used.”
That brings us back to the empty-nester couple with the perfect house — but no buyers. “You can tell right away when empty-nesters are living in a house,” says Bouknight. For one thing, “they have five guest rooms.” With the kids long gone, the older couple tends to put a few filing cabinets in one room, and maybe a treadmill in the next, and boxes of stored photos in another. The result, she declares, “is a hodge podge.” One of her solutions, especially if the neighborhood is full of kids, is to turn two of the bedrooms into children’s rooms. She likes to do this by putting a kids’ comforter on the bed, adding a teddy bear, and hanging children’s artwork on the walls.
Whether empty nester, single professional, or parent of three pre-schoolers, everyone selling a house needs to follow Bouknight’s final piece of advice: Look up. After visiting scores of New Jersey homes, she concludes that “we don’t have time to clean anymore.” While the surfaces may be in good shape, “if you look up, there’s dirt hanging from the chandeliers, the fans, the ceiling.” There’s everyday clean and there’s guests-are-coming clean, but neither comes close to trying-to-sell clean. The house must be immaculate right down to the baseboards — and right up to the cathedral ceiling.
In-between there should just the right amount of artfully arranged belongings and the feel of a home that is lived in — but not too lived in. There should not be too much evidence of kids, but, as the empty-nester couple discovered, not too little either.