If you walk into most Bay Area homes for sale today, the scene is usually the same. A white linen sofa has two plump pillows at each end, with an intentional dent at each top. A thick, glossy book sits atop a sleek, minimal wood coffee table. On the other end of the room is a slim desk and a chair that looks plush and is most definitely not ergonomic. Neutral, abstract art hangs on the walls and there’s no TV to be found.
The anatomy of a staged home might be obvious, but it’s also expected in the Bay Area, a region where home stagers are an essential part of the selling process. While the rest of the country might make do with empty rooms or the owner’s furniture, staging a home before it goes on the market is more common than not.
“It’s more the expectation and the norm, rather than the exception,” said Danielle Cirelli, owner of Designed to Sell, a home staging company based in the East Bay. “Now everybody stages and now if they didn’t, they’re like, ‘what’s wrong with [the property]?’”
There are plenty of tricks stagers use to transform a home. Lighter and smaller furniture make a room look bigger. If the home looks out onto an unattractive neighboring house or something unattractive like electrical wires, they’ll put up sheer curtains. Curtains can also make a house feel more private, even if it’s against the house next door.
The biggest misconception is that staging is similar to interior design. “The way you live in a home and the way you stage a home is completely different,” Cirelli said. “It’s all about spatial awareness and making the rooms look big.”
That’s why it’s better to stage rather than show a home with the owner’s furniture. She said they also almost never include TVs when staging and they avoid using “statement furniture” because they don’t want it to be distracting. She mentioned that, for example, you’d never use a red couch because then a buyer might get hung up on the fact that they hate red couches, even though that has nothing to do with the home itself.
With online listings where you can add more than 40 photos, Natalie Lynch, owner of Casa di Vita Staging in Alameda, said it’s also easier than ever to show the potential of a space. “It doesn’t draw people in to look at a space if it’s empty, especially if it’s a small bedroom. But if you put a daybed and a desk and a little rug all of a sudden people are like, ‘This is a useful room,’” she said.
With the proliferation of remote work, office spaces have become essential. Lynch said that with a little staging, she’s turned detached garages, basements and even laundry rooms into “home offices.”
The key, no matter what, is never to get too flashy. “We’re trying to show off the house, not show off our stuff,” Lynch said. “We just want it to be livable and inviting. We want them to notice the house and not notice the defects. … You just want people to breeze through the house and have them say, ‘I could see myself living here.’”
Staging your home started to become popular in the early 2000s, stalled a bit during the Great Recession, but regained momentum and grew into what it is today, Lynch said.
But staging your home is actually the bare minimum these days, Cirelli said. As people spent more time in their homes during the pandemic, it became more important to stage every single room. Even small spaces they’d normally leave untouched, like a laundry room or a pantry, get the full treatment.
“Every nook and cranny is being dressed because it’s just seen as providing potential increased value and maximizing the appeal,” Cirelli said. “If you don’t have that flat grassy backyard or you don’t have much space, just enhance what you have to appeal to buyers.”
A new, more niche segment of house staging may even be popping up. As outdoor space became more and more crucial to buyers amid the pandemic, it was important for sellers to showcase that space any way they could, even if it was just a small balcony. Cirelli said it’s now a special service often called “curb appeal,” and companies will install new plants, lay sod, trim trees, bring in pots and more ahead of a listing.
They’ll even bring in a fire pit, stage a bocce ball game or put out kids’ toys to appeal to families.
“The primary focus always used to be the house. Now I’d say there’s just as much emphasis on the outdoor space and really maximizing that. … It’s an extension of the house,” Cirelli said.
Before you stage, though, and even if you choose not to stage at all, you should paint. “If you want to maximize your dollar, I always tell people paint is the most important,” Cirelli said. “There’s only so much lipstick you can put on a pig.”
Technological advancements over the years have made it easier to showcase a home, but Cirelli said to be wary of virtual staging. It can be a quick and easy way to “stage” a house, but she’s seen instances where a virtual stager removed an inconvenient column to make room for furniture, which can obviously be deceptive to buyers.
While there isn’t recent data tallying the number of homes staged in the Bay Area, according to a 2017 study from former brokerage Pacific Union International that analyzed Compass transactions, 53% of Bay Area homes from January 2016 to May 2017 were staged.
But Cirelli estimates that the percentage is much higher five years later. Even now, with the real estate market slowing due to rising interest rates, Cirelli said staging is still crucial. “In an up market, you need staging to differentiate yourself. … In a down market, if someone wants to get the most dollars they can, you don’t want to be in the 10% that don’t stage.”
A 2021 survey from the National Association of Realtors also found that home staging can increase the sales price. The practice raised the offered price between 1% and 5%, compared with similar homes on the market that weren’t staged. The Pacific Union study found that staged Bay Area houses sold for almost 45% more than houses that weren’t staged.
Elaine Lim of Fresh Home Staging in San Francisco said that while staging can seem like an unnecessary expense to some, buyers need to realize they’re making an investment. “If you’re a homeowner and you’re not staging, you’re leaving money on the table,” Lim said. “You’ll get that money back and more.”
It can also greatly decrease the time a home sits on the market — the Pacific Union study found that “staged homes sold in an average of 36 days, while those that were not staged sold in an average of 59 days.”
People don’t have much imagination when it comes to looking at empty rooms. But most of all, potential buyers want to feel an emotional connection to their future home. “It’s not just putting in furniture to fill the room,” Cirelli said. “It’s really to create a lifestyle people love and fall in love with.”