‘Staging’ your house

Highlight your home’s strengths, downplay its weaknesses and appeal to the greatest possible pool of prospective buyers — or simply your inner designer — with these suggestions by Christopher Breining, owner of HomeStagers, Inc. and Lisa LaPorta, designer on HGTV’s Designed to Sell.

Make an entrance: You know the saying: You never have a second chance to make a first impression. The outside of your home is the first thing guests see. Freshen up your front entrance by planting seasonal flowers. A trio of seasonal potted plants on the landing to dramatically brighten and refresh your home’s entry and make visitors feel welcome.

Clean and polish your existing door knocker, lockset, porch light and house numbers.  Purchase a new front door mat. This small investment pays personal dividends, too, giving you an emotional boost and a dose of house-pride with each homecoming.

Conquer clutter:
Admit it: You have too much stuff. "The most important thing people can do to improve their home is to clear out, clean up and get rid of clutter," says Lisa LaPorta, designer on HGTV’s Designed to Sell and owner of Lisa LaPorta Design in L.A.

Be ruthless as you go about purging your belongings. If you haven’t used it in three months, stagers say, box it up and store it away; if you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it. Make a house rule that for every new item that comes in, an old one has to leave. Any mixed feelings you have about tossing life’s accumulated belongings will quickly be replaced with a sense of relief and appreciation of your uncluttered surroundings.

Sound daunting? Take it one room at a time. If your bookshelves are bursting at the seams, for instance, "clear them off and start over," suggests Michelle Yackel, owner of Divine Redesigns in Atlanta. "It’s OK to have empty space around your books and knickknacks.”

Less is more: A cluttered home can also be caused by too much furniture. When professional stagers descend on a home being prepped for market, they often whisk away as much as half of the owner’s furnishings, and the house looks much bigger for it.

You don’t have to whittle that drastically, but take a hard look at what you have and ask yourself what you can live without.  You really only need two pieces of furniture per wall: a bed and a nightstand, or a dresser and a chair. While you’re doing this sometimes-painful pruning, remind yourself that every square foot you free up is prime real estate.

Float furniture: If your couches are clinging to your walls, you’re not alone — it’s a typical decorating mistake, stagers say.  There’s a common belief that rooms will feel larger and be easier to use if all the furniture is pushed up against the walls, but it’s simply not true.

Instead, furnish your space by floating furniture away from walls. Reposition sofas and chairs into cozy conversational groups, and place pieces so that the traffic flow in the room is obvious. In most cases, this means keeping the perimeters clear. "When you place furniture in a room, envision a figure-eight or the letter H in the middle, with clear pathways around it," LaPorta suggests. Not only will this make the space more user-friendly, it will open up the room and make it seem larger.

Repurpose unused rooms: "A big part of what stagers do is create fantasy spaces: an exercise room, a meditation space, an art studio, a family game room," says Linda Russell, owner of House Dressing in Montclair, N.J. and agent on HGTV’s Bought & Sold. "We take that unused space on the third floor or in the basement and turn it into something you’ve always dreamed about having."

If you have a room that currently serves only to gather junk, repurpose it into something that will add to the value — and enjoyment — of your home.  Move boxes to a rented storage space (or better yet, have a yard sale or donate their contents to charity) and get to work creating the space you yearn for.

Suggestions: The simple addition of a comfortable armchair, a small table and a lamp in a stairwell nook will transform it into a cozy reading spot, Russell suggests. Or drape fabric on the walls of your basement, lay inexpensive rubber padding or a carpet remnant on the floor and toss in a few cushy pillows. Voila! Your new meditation room or yoga studio.

Let in the light: Don’t forget to dress up windows for both form and function. "We almost always take off old, heavy drapery and put something light, airy and gauzy in its place," says Linda Russell, owner of HouseDressing in Montclair, N.J., and agent on HGTV’s Bought & Sold. This ushers in natural light and makes a previously closed-in space seem larger.

If privacy is paramount, top-down, bottom-up Roman shades will block the neighbors’ view of your bathtub but let you gaze at the sky while you soak. Lisa LaPorta favors bamboo or parchment shades and simple curtain panels made from fine cotton twill or translucent linen. These materials let light stream in during the day, provide privacy at night and add touchable texture to a room. Or consider investing in sheer fabric shades with built-in blinds (Hunter Douglas offers several options).  They look great and offer so much versatility.

Other window treatment tips:

  • If windows are narrow, extend curtain rods a foot or so on each side to suggest width.
  • If your ceilings are low, hang rods right at the ceiling line and consider window treatments with vertical stripes to create the illusion of height.

Light it up: One of the things that make staged homes look so warm and welcoming is great lighting. As it turns out, many of our own homes are improperly lit — either we have too few fixtures, or our lighting is too dim or too harsh (or all of the above).

To remedy the problem and make your home more inviting, increase the wattage in your lamps and fixtures. Aim for a total of 100 watts for every 50 square feet. Then install dimmers so you can vary light levels according to your mood and the time of day. This is a relatively simple project for a do-it-yourselfer, or you can hire an electrician for a couple of hours to do several at once. And while you’re at it, be sure to replace dingy, almond-colored light-switch covers with crisp white ones. New covers cost less than a buck apiece and are a quick, easy update.

Don’t depend on just one or two fixtures per room, either. It’s just as important to layer lighting as it is to have sufficient wattage, Christopher Breining, points out. Make sure you have three types of lighting: ambient (general or overhead), task (pendant, under cabinet or reading) and accent (table and wall) lighting. "A combination of overhead, floor, table and accent lighting creates great ambiance," Breining says. "Having lights on different planes provides good illumination and makes the room interesting." Ambient recessed lighting gives this bedroom designed by Baylor Anne Bone a subtle glow.

One thing that’s always in Breining’s bag of tricks: uplights. "You can buy one for as little as $5 at home improvement stores and hide it behind a potted plant. It creates incredible drama." Another hint: Place mirrors, silver or glass bowls or other reflective objects near lamps to bounce light around the room and make it glow even more.

Use color creatively:
Painting is the cheapest, easiest way to give your home a new look.  Even if you were weaned on off-white walls, take a chance and test out a quart of paint in a warm, neutral hue. You can always paint over it if you don’t like the effect. These days, the definition of "neutral" extends way beyond beige, from warm tans and honeys to soft blue-greens.

Even deeper shades are enjoying a renaissance. "Don’t shy away from dark colors in a powder room, dining room or bedroom," says Michael Friedes, Nest Home Design stager based in Oakland, Calif. "A deep tone on the walls can make the space more intimate, dramatic and cozy — and surprisingly, it can even make a small room seem bigger because there’s no delineation of the corners."

Start with a pillow, textile or piece of art you love, LaPorta suggests. "The background color is often great for walls, and you can pull out the other colors for accents around the room." You could also try painting an accent wall to draw attention to a dramatic fireplace or a lovely set of windows. Either paint the wall a contrasting — but still complementary — color or a more intense version of the paint used in the rest of the room. If you have built-in bookcases or niches, experiment with painting the insides a color that will make them pop — a soft sage green to set off the white pottery displayed within, perhaps.

If you’re too timid to whip out the paintbrushes, add punch with richly colored accessories, pillows and throws.  When seasons change, or you’re ready for something new, these couldn’t be simpler to switch out.

Paint it black: Using white-painted furniture is a tried-and-true tactic for freshening a room, but don’t forget its opposite: a coat of satiny black paint can revive tired furnishings and lend a chic, dramatic flair to just about any space. "Painting an old piece black immediately updates it," says Michael Friedes, Nest Home Design stager based in Oakland, Calif. "We use black in staging all the time. It has a graphic quality, provides contrast and makes a real impact."

Not only does black work with every other hue, it makes the colors surrounding it pop, and melds with most any decor, from vintage to ethnic to modern. The key, as always, is moderation: Use black as an accent in picture frames, lampshades, accessories and small pieces of furniture.

Rearrange your art: If your home is like most, art is hung in a high line encircling each room. Big mistake: Placing your pictures, paintings and prints in such stereotypical spots can render them almost invisible.  Art displayed creatively makes the art stand out more and shows off your space.  Break up that line and vary the patterning and grouping by hanging a row of art in several ways:

  • Diagonally, with each piece staggered a bit higher or lower than the next. This is great for directing the eye toward an architectural feature like a window or arched doorway.
  • Triangularly, with one picture above, one below and one beside — a nice accent for a table-and-chair vignette.
  • A vertical line, perfect for accentuating a high ceiling.  Hang pictures on different planes so that your eye goes up and down as it travels around the room. It creates interest on your walls. Try hanging things a bit lower than you’re used to, as well, so that wall art relates to furniture groupings rather than floating (and getting lost) in its own space.

Accessorize with threes: Mixing the right can make a room all the more inviting — for buyers or for guests. When it comes to eye-pleasing accessorizing, odd numbers are preferable, especially threes. Rather than setting your trio of accessories out in a row, imagine a triangle and place one object at each point. Scale is important, too, so in your group of three be sure to vary items by height and width, with the largest at the back and the smallest in front.

“On a side table, for instance, you might have a lamp, a plant or flower arrangement and a book or a small box," home stager Barb Schwarz explains. For maximum effect, group accessories by color, shape, texture or some other unifying element, stagers suggest. Another hint:  The eye naturally "reads" the room from left to right, so putting a striking object in the far right corner will automatically draw your gaze there and make the room seem bigger.

Bring in the outdoors: Staged homes are almost always graced with fresh flowers and pricey orchid arrangements, but you can get a similar effect simply by raiding your yard.  “Take clippings of branches or twigs and put them in a large vase in the corner of a room to add height. It’s a great structural piece that doesn’t cost anything," says Michelle Yackel, owner of Divine Redesigns in Atlanta.

It’s also an easy way to incorporate seasonal greenery. Budding magnolia clippings or unfurling fern fronds herald the arrival of spring; summer blooms add splashes of cheerful color; blazing fall foliage warms up your decor on chilly autumn days; holly branches heavy with berries look smashing in winter; and airy feather-grass plumes add elegance and texture any time of year.< Above all, "Get creative! Don't be scared to try something different," Yackel says. Just about every professional stager has tales of home sellers who, upon seeing their once-tired abodes transformed, were so blown away by the results that they decided to stay put. Who knows? You, too, may find you love your "new" home so much that you'll never want to give it up.