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Getting rid of clutter and making the room's colors more neutral can help sell a home.

The old adage about first
impressions being the most important is especially apt when it comes to buying and selling a home. For most people, a home purchase is much more than a simple transaction: it’s an emotional experience, and a buyer’s initial response can make or break a sale.

“I’ve seen some really nice properties go up for sale where the owner may be really intelligent, but—how can I put this delicately —they just don’t know how to prepare a house for the best sale,” says Trinity Realty owner and broker Vanessa Burst. Excessive clutter, bizarre color schemes, and battered or haphazardly arranged furniture can make a potential buyer uneasy. A completely bare house can be just as off-putting. The responses may not be rational, but they have an effect. “Sometimes you can’t see beyond it,” Burst says. “You really can’t picture yourself in the house, and it has nothing to do with the house.

“It goes back to making that emotional connection with a house, which is what homes are really based on.”



An old bed frame replaced by a more classic bed frame style, as well as making the bed, were two staging ideas in this house.

looking good

Residential real-estate agents and brokers are intimately familiar with the drama that buying and selling a home often entails. Now an appropriately theatrical term has entered the lexicon—home staging, the art of creating an environment where the main action takes place. It’s a trend that has caught on nationwide, propelled by television programs such as HGTV’s “Designed to Sell” and the need, especially in an inventory-saturated market like New Orleans, to make
a house stand out from the competition.

Staging, essentially, is Renovation Lite: adding a few minor touches here and there, freshening up or changing paint schemes, getting rid of clutter and bulk. It’s a job realtors often take on themselves. But there are times when it helps to bring in a professional designer, who can advise sellers on current trends and fashions.



Old, dark cabinets were replaced by white cabinets—giving the kitchen a broader appeal.

“It’s hard to tell people, ‘picture it without the furniture,’” says Charlotte Hailey-Dorion, a realtor with Prudential Gardner. “To make a house stand out, you have to stage it, even if it involves making just minor changes.”

Staging can be as simple as stocking a bathroom with fluffy new towels and fancy soaps, placing a few candles and tastefully framed pictures around a living area or scattering pillows and baskets in a family room. Just as often, it means reduction. “The hard part on our side is asking people, in a nice way, to get rid of a piece of furniture that they may love, to rearrange furniture or clear out clutter,” Hailey-Dorion says. “But it can make the difference between getting your asking price and having to take a deep discount.”

Vacant homes need not be fully furnished to create a stage, experts say. But a few well-chosen pieces of furniture and accessories can convey a sense of warmth that a completely bare house lacks.

There’s no hard formula for calculating the cost of home staging, but a fairly extensive facelift can run about one percent of the home’s market value. Not a bad deal, if it means not having to take the ten percent discount off the asking price that has become common in New Orleans’ current market.

The stage also extends to the lawn. “It starts at the mailbox,” says Baton Rouge home stager Kathy Meole Bernacchio of Stage to Sell “If you just add new mulch and
a bunch of color, that’s so inviting. It says home.”

The trend now, Bernacchio says, is kitchens with attractive countertops and dressed-up bathrooms. “I have a motto: staged bathrooms sell homes,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be real expensive. I tell clients, the cost of staging is always less than your first price reduction.”

It all goes back to that initial emotional response.

“That first impression is so important,” she says. “You’re not just selling a home; you’re selling a lifestyle, and that’s what you want to convey.”

Real-estate market trends 
As with all aspects of the city, the post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans area residential real-estate market is in a state of flux. Uncertainty about the city’s economic recovery, the state of flood protection and rising insurance costs have dealt a series of setbacks to what was once a booming trade in home sales. But there are positive signs among the uncertainties, says Latter & Blum Realtors president Arthur Sterbcow.

“Sales are holding very well, even considering that we don’t know what will happen with the levees, with the crime rate, and despite all the bad press we’ve received,” he says. “Anything under $175,000, there’s no trouble finding buyers.”

Pricey home? Could be a pricey problem
Pricier homes are another matter. Fueled by the exodus of many professionals, there are an unusually high number of houses in the $375,000-plus range on the market right now, Sterbcow says.

“There is a tremendous amount of inventory, but it hasn’t really pushed prices down yet,” he says.

There is also some softening in the luxury condo market, which had built to fever pitch before the storm. Some major projects, like the Tracage high-rise condominium tower in the Central Business District, are scheduled to come on the market soon. But the more expensive condos for sale are “slow to be absorbed,” Sterbcow says. “But by the time the new ones come on line, the world will look very different.”

Leveling the field
Katrina led to a spike in home sales in suburban parishes, but that has cooled down, he says. Sales in the River Parishes have stabilized at somewhere around their pre-Katrina levels, and St. Tammany is seeing some of the southshore’s “tightening” in the luxury home market.

Realtors have noticed many homeowners buying vacant properties in their own neighborhoods and converting them to rentals, both as an investment and as a way to encourage resettlement in heavily damaged parts of the city.

Despite signs of trouble in the national mortgage lending industry, attractive interest rates and high inventory are good news for local homebuyers.

“If you can’t find a home in New Orleans that you like right now, I don’t know that you ever will,” Sterbcow says.
DIY home staging tips
A professional home stager can really make a house shine. But there are some low-cost things sellers can do themselves to make a property more marketable.

•    Pay attention to lighting. Use lamps to brighten dark
    corners, and replace old bulbs.

•    Get rid of clutter. Fewer items in a room will make it
    appear larger. Consider renting a storage unit for excess
    furniture, books and knick-knacks.

•    Spruce your bathrooms. Dress this room up with new
    towels, candles and fancy soaps. The bathroom can
    make or break a sale.

•    The same goes for the kitchen, so make it sparkle.
    Arrange dishes neatly, and repair drawers and cabinet
    doors that do not close properly.

•    Remove anything too personal, like family photos
    or heirlooms. You want potential buyers to picture
    themselves in the house, don’t make them feel like
    they are intruding on your personal space.

•    Replace window treatments and light fixtures. If you
    intend to take window treatments or light fixtures with
    you, replace them before you show the house, because
    buyers can fixate on certain items, especially if they think
    they can’t have them.

•    Don’t forget about curb appeal. Trim shrubs, mow the
    lawn and plant colorful flowers.

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