Staging as a Seller’s Investment
By Gretchen A. Peck
This week, Welcome Home spoke with Laura Mahon, principal at Laura Mahon Design & Home Staging in Tolland, Conn., just as the spring real estate market is shifting into high gear. It’s an especially busy time for real estate agents and for home staging pros.
Mahon worked in a number of fields before founding her home-flipping and staging business with her husband, Dana Robinson. She lived in Europe and worked in the fashion industry early in her career. She worked for a New York City wedding planner, before moving to Connecticut and opening her own restaurant marketing company. All along, image and brand were threads running through her career path.
It was when her parents passed away that life led her in a new professional direction. She was charged with selling her parents’ home, which she recalled being “dated.” Having always been fascinated with real estate and a frequent HGTV viewer, Mahon said she knew she had to improve the home’s image in order to maximize the sale price. The couple renovated the house and subsequently founded their own house-flipping business.
“We started out with a tiny little house that cost us $52,000. You know, those days are gone,” Mahon said. Today, the couple looks for homes with potential and character. “I’ve always been attracted to little cottages. We don’t do the typical gray-and-white flips that everybody seems to do today. I try to find the house’s personality, and use inspiration from something simple, like a wallpaper pattern or a piece of furniture that will inform the design for the whole house—sort of a jumping-off point.”
They’ve transformed everything from tiny cottages to larger four-bedroom single-family homes. “For a while, we worked on a run of lakeside cottages of less than 1,000 square feet. We were able to concentrate on some really special finishes because the spaces weren’t that big. And we created these absolute ‘jewel boxes.’ The last two homes we did were much larger family-home projects,” she said.
Mahon’s staging business came next.
According to the National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) data, 47% of buyers’ agents said that home staging had an effect on most buyers’ view of the home; 82% of buyers’ agents said that staging a home makes it easier for their buying clients to visualize the property as a future home. NAR also found that the three most important rooms to stage are the living room, kitchen and primary bedroom.
“Staging was a natural progression from house flipping,” Mahon explained. She’d design the interiors of the homes they flipped, and over time amassed a collection of furnishings and decorative items.
“I had a staging website, and a real estate agent in Old Lyme reached out and hired me for my first staging job about five years ago,” Mahon said. “Then, the business took off.”
Most of her clients comes by way of local Realtors who are the listing agents for the property. From time to time, homeowners will reach out and hire her directly. She shared the story of a homeowner who came to her after having a house sit on the market for some time, pre-COVID. “We staged it and pushed up the price by another $10,000, and it went under contract immediately,” she said.
Despite the challenges the COVID pandemic raised for every business, Mahon said her staging business was “busier than ever” during its height.
The local residential market, of course, changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic, shifting favor to home sellers. For a time, sellers in southeast Connecticut felt the market so favorable, in fact, that there was not the typical need to make repairs, to renovate or to stage a home before listing it for sale. “But it’s not the COVID market anymore,” Mahon noted. Despite the enduring low-inventory stats, buyers have become more cautious and strategic, making it important for sellers to think of their homes as a product that needs to stand out in a competitive marketplace.
One thing that home sellers should consider is how their property will present both online and in person. More than 97% of home buyers begin their search online, according to the National Association of Realtors, so having professional-quality photography and interiors spaces that show well and are memorable to the buyer is essential today.
While tactile staging is Mahon’s business, she said that she’s impressed with how good virtual staging technology has become. Virtual staging uses graphic design to insert furnishings and decorative items into a photo of an otherwise empty interior space. When images have been virtually enhanced, Realtors must disclose that to the public. But it can still be disappointing for prospective buyers to then come and see an empty home in person, Mahon said.
“I think it’s better to have the home actually staged, because what they see in the photos is what they’ll experience when get there,” she added.
A recent “hack” she’s discovered is peel-and-stick wallpaper, which allows her to set a mood in a room that’s easily changed if the buyer doesn’t care for it.
“My goal is for the homeowner to make more when they sell the home,” she said. “In terms of the return on investment, the difference between what you spend staging your home and your return is huge.” It may mean the difference between selling your home for $10,000, $20,000 or upwards of $40,000 more than what it might fetch in the market otherwise, Mahon explained.
“When I see a home with a price reduction, I can almost guarantee that’s for one of two reasons,” Mahon said. “It either was overpriced to begin with, or it was poorly presented.”
Staging a home is a consultative process. Mahon explained how she works with clients, advising them on a design vision they can execute together. “They can hit Home Goods, or I can send them links to inexpensive items and accessories—maybe it’s an area rug—that they can buy themselves. And we talk about how we’re going to spend $1,000 on furnishings and accessories, but that their home will likely be worth $10,000 more to a buyer,” she said.
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