Taking Center Stage

It started out as a favor.

Four years ago, Carol Ann Wolf, a professional decorator who became a stay-at-home mom, was asked by a friend to help spruce up her home’s interior to make it easier to sell.

“At the time, the market was not doing well,” Wolf says. “Because I had a background in decorating, I agreed to do it.”

Wolf enlisted the help of friend Julie Helton and, two days later, the house had a brand-new look, Wolf says. The home sold within two weeks at full price.

“It was fun. We thought we were onto something,” Helton says.

The challenge turned into a business — Staged To Sell, a company that makes a home appealing before it goes on the market. The business has staged about 10 houses, including a $1.35 million Lookout Mountain residence once owned by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Travis Close, president of the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors, agrees that staging is important.

“I have had listings (where the sellers) have taken the furniture when they moved and the house was very difficult to sell,” he says. “Once we went in and staged the most important rooms, it was easier to sell.”

While staging is a growing trend nationwide, it’s a relatively new profession in Chattanooga, he adds.

“Staging of homes in the Chattanooga area has been going on for a while, but in the past it was typically builders staging model homes,” Close says. “In the last eight years or so, we have seen a significant increase in residential resale homes being staged to help sell them.”

Dave Johnson, a Realtor with Keller Williams, says staging offers “an inviting and warm home presentation to the prospective buyer.”

“It provides a sense of perspective and visualizes a potential layout. Staging companies have a very keen eye to match the home style with the appropriate furnishings,” he says.

Audra Slinkey, creator of homestagingresource.com, an online company that started a decade ago in response to the growing need for “formally trained” home stagers, says business has grown by “leaps and bounds.” Her company trains people to become professional stagers through online videos, focusing on such elements as window coverings, feng shui, color and working with real estate agents, “so people can learn from the comfort of their home and stay up to date on trends and changes in the real estate and design industries,” she says.

In general, staging homes is more popular in cities where there are more expensive homes and in cities with savvy Realtors, she says.

“When agents are in tune to their market and using the latest resources to market their listings — like insisting on professional staging and a professional photographer — those homes sell for the best price,” she says. “These days it’s not about a quick sale (like it was two years ago), but about getting the best price for the seller.”

For Wolf and Helton, it took about year after staging the home of Wolf’s friend that they actually started their own staging business.

“We did the research on home staging and learned that you didn’t have to go to school to be a ‘stager,’ and you didn’t need a special ‘staging’ license,” Wolf says. “But what you did need was accreditation, and, basically to get accreditation, you have to pay an annual fee of $200.”

Helton says that, even after getting accredited, obtaining a business license and contacting local Realtors, work was slow at first.

“Admittedly, the first year we got very few jobs,” Helton says. “We begged people and even did several houses for nearly free just to show people what we do. But once we got together a portfolio and got professional photographs of our work on our website, things really started looking up.”

Realtors especially took notice, Wolf says. And that’s how they got the job of staging the home formerly owned by Corker and represented by Johnson at Keller Williams.

The Lookout Mountain home had been completely empty, Wolf says. “But when we walked in it for the first time, we were amazed by its beauty. It’s got great character, and the view, on the brow of Lookout Mountain, is amazing.”

After more than a year on the market, the home hadn’t sold, and that’s why Johnson enlisted the help of Staged To Sell.

“With any prospective seller, it is very important to make that first impression last,” says Johnson. “It’s kind of like speed dating — you want the house to have staying power for the buyer. Curb appeal is the first checkpoint, clean up the yard and repaint the front door if needed. Then the focus turns to the inside, and it should be neat and decluttered.

“If the seller moves out of the house before it sells, calling a staging company is a great way to keep the house fresh and inviting,” Johnson says. “Even if you have not moved, staging companies are a wonderful option to provide different perspectives on how the house can possibly appear more inviting to the future buyer.”

Staging the 8,000-square-foot house was a huge job, Wolf says, because she and Helton wanted to match the furnishings with the home’s history. It was originally built in 1947 by Rody Davenport Jr., one of the founders of Krystal. The Corkers bought it several years ago, but never lived in it, then sold it to current owners, Jay and Margaret Ahstrom from Wilton, Conn.

Johnson says that, because the unfurnished spacious home was somewhat overwhelming to potential buyers, they tended to pay more attention to the incredible view than the house itself.

“With the staging, it now gives each room a definition, pulls the house together, brings the buyers’ attention back inside the house and gives the house the warmth it deserves,” Johnson says.

In the home, books are scattered on end tables along with reading glasses throughout the house. A pair of women’s slippers tucked under a shelf in the den. Towels and toiletries are in the bathroom, cookbooks and bowls of fruit are in the kitchen, and framed photos of families are on night stands and dressers.

“We’re constantly looking for small items that makes a house a home,” Helton says. “We go everywhere and try to get inexpensive things at garage and estate sales, things people have in their homes.”

Like the Lookout Mountain home, Wolf and Helton typically stage homes that are completely empty.

“We have furniture and accessories in storage, and we also use vendors, who offer us a corporate rate since we use their furnishings over and over. It’s also convenient because they deliver and place the furniture where we want it,” Wolf says.

“We use furniture and accessories based on the style of the house, but a lot of the furnishings we own are neutral and will work well in most every home,” Helton says.

It’s to Staged To Sell’s advantage that the houses sell quickly because another house usually awaits staging, Helton says.

“As soon as a house sells, we whip all the stuff up and move it to another house the same day or the next,” she says. “We just sold a house in Cleveland and moved our furnishings to a house in the Southside (in Chattanooga) the same day.”

June 15th, 2015by Karen Nazor Hill

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