Sensational Living®

November 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Sensational Staging: More than Décor

On October 30, 2003, I presented a talk at the offices of Keller Williams Fox & Associates, for realtors and brokers to aid their clients with the concept of staging, which is what real estate professionals term preparing a home for sale. With the help of realtor/broker Bonnie Sweetman, we called the talk, “Setting the Scene: It’s All About Sensational Staging.”

I have rewritten the talk to gear it toward the home owner, to help them sell their home (hopefully with the assistance of a realtor), and for the home buyer, to empower them with the background they need to ask the right questions and thus streamline the buying process. In this particular economy, any extra help that is available should be accepted.

Part of what I consult on is home décor from a psychological perspective (see my Senses of Living® columns at http://www.god-dess.com/services3.html ). Primarily, I deal with homeowners (and renters) who want to enhance their living environments. But, sometimes I am able to use my knowledge to help home sellers make the changes they need to sell the house (staging), and to help home buyers to visualize the potential of a home (decorating).

Staging and home decorating are different. Although some professional designers would disagree, home décor is all about pleasing yourself and your family. It’s about cultivating relationships within your home among family members and guests (see my previous column about Focal Points at http://www.god-dess.com/services_sensesAugust03.html ). It is NOT about intentionally trying to impress others. If you have created a home environment that is pleasing, nurturing, relaxing and energizing for you and your family, then any visitors will feel the same way. And THAT will impress them.

Staging has a different goal. Staging is about convincing buyers that the environment is, or will be, pleasing, nurturing, relaxing and energizing. It’s about a variety of different things at different stages:

1. If you are a seller in residence, it’s about what you must do to make the house salable.

2. If your house is empty, it’s about demonstrating the potential of the property.

3. If you are a potential buyer, staging is about helping you to see the potential of a property in a logical, systematic way.

I would argue that the most logical, systematic, downright easy way to approach these different aspects of staging is via considering the different senses (sight, scent, sound, touch, taste), and appealing to each of them to encourage a satisfactory experience, not only for potential buyers considering a property, but also for the sellers/homeowners, who will be encouraged to live more purposefully in their future home. You’ll end up with a win-win situation! So, let’s look at each sense one-by-one.


Color and shape are the primary considerations related to sight. With interior design, one should select colors that mean something to oneself. However, with staging, you must do a fair assessment of whether an existing color scheme is a bit extreme, or too blah. If it is too extreme, some neutral paint is definitely called for, because psychologically, it is easier to add color and interest than to mentally subtract something. If a room is too neutral, or if the color scheme is just too haphazard, some brightening or unifying attempt must be made, perhaps with flowers, perhaps with fabric swatches or sari fabric draped over furniture, perhaps with some carefully selected dishes, bowls or other accoutrements. Every situation is unique, so it is your talent, or use of others’ talent, that can make the difference in creating a welcoming, but not overwhelming, environment.

Regarding shapes, the main issue is clutter. When a house is shown, you must remove all clutter. The house must be immaculate when it is shown to prospective buyers. If you need help managing your clutter, bring in someone to help. Make your beds. Wash and put away your dishes. Put toys in their proper places. Hide all bathroom hygiene and cosmetic products in cabinets. (This is also a good place to mention that valuables should be hidden or even locked away. No visiting buyers need to be impressed by the value of your “stuff,” so just make everything look nice, and remove the really good “stuff.”)

If you are selling, you are getting ready to move, so now is the ideal time to purge your possessions. Moving “stuff” is expensive, so why not hold a sale even before your house is listed? Alternatively, just go through every single storage area (pantries, closets, extra rooms, attics), remove everything you don’t need, and donate them to your favorite resale shop or charity (you’ll get a tax write-off). Be sure to organize and tidy up everything that remains.

Arrange your furniture for maximum impact. No one likes a crowded room. Think of your home as a fresh canvas, and the furniture and other décor items as the paint. Some rearrangement might be inconvenient for you in your current lifestyle, but realize that this is part of the process to achieve selling your home for the best price in the shortest amount of time. Some sacrifices may be necessary.

Make all repairs! Even though it is unrealistic, buyers want perfection. You can try to approach perfection via illusion, but obvious repairs must be completed. Then, you may have the individual who just cannot be satisfied. I cannot over-stress the need to repair EVERYTHING!

Cleanliness comes in here as well. The house must be spotless when it is shown. Mildew in the kitchen, bathrooms, basement, or elsewhere is unforgivable. Pet owners must rid their place of fur bunnies. Dust is a no-no. So are cobwebs. You must eliminate unwashed dishes, scattered clothes, food, unfinished projects, trash and other debris. If the place is really a mess, you have to clean it, or hire a cleaning service. You may just lack the skills to clean some of the baked on, dried, accumulated grime, but potential buyers will zoom right in on any imperfection, so get help. Hardwood floors must gleam. Carpeting must be cleaned (preferably professionally). Professional cleaners also have a fresh perspective that can help you end up with a more thorough job.

Lighting is important! Brightness sells! No buyer wants a home that is gloomy. Replace burned-out bulbs, as well as bulbs that have been removed to save energy. Turn on all of the lights during a showing. Invest in some new lamps if the home is particularly dark. Open all drapes, shutters and blinds. Be aware of how the sun moves in and out of your home throughout the day, as light impacts our mood more than any other feature. Plants in the windows or nearby help accentuate this feature, and also work to cleanse the air of scent and toxins, as well as making a more homey feeling.


A clean house has a clean scent. That is always valuable and welcoming. But sometimes a little extra is needed. Cinnamon, vanilla, florals and similar scents can create a homey environment. Many people like the aromas of fresh baked goods. Fresh baked bread is always inviting; you can recreate the aroma by microwaving some bread just prior to a buyer’s visit. Or, bake some cookies. I’m fond of homemade cookies, but a really quick thing to do is to buy some refrigerator case rolls of cookie dough, slice them up and bake them, and the home will be incredibly inviting. Still easier is purchasing some premium cookies from a bakery, and microwaving them before a buyer’s visit.

On the other hand, meat and vegetable smells are not so inviting. They tend to have a stale effect. Our beloved animal companions can also add their own aroma that must be minimized or masked. If you can open windows to clear out stale smells, great! If it’s the middle of winter, you’ve got to cover up the smells of cooking and pets (and anything else that a client might not like, like tobacco smoke, stale winter air, etc.). Incense works, but the smoke from the incense might not be popular. Essential oils are another option. Diffuser rings can be used with varying degrees of success. These ceramic or brass rings cost a few dollars, and fit over light bulbs. One drops or squirts essential oils into the rings, places the rings over light bulbs, turns on the light, and aroma fills the room. Or, just bypass the diffuser, and put the essential oil (or even vanilla or almond extract) directly on a light bulb. However, with either diffuser or bare bulb, one must be sure to add the oil BEFORE turning on the light, because you won’t be able to handle the bulb or diffuser ring otherwise! No one wants burnt fingers!

Some flowers are quite aromatic, but use them cautiously, as sometimes they can just be overwhelming. Stargazer lilies come to mind. These are a kind of oriental lily that are truly dramatic, and in small doses, smell wonderful. But, in larger doses, or in a confined space, they can make you gag. With aroma, just a hint or a waft is all that you want. Men and women who douse themselves in perfume or cologne make my point for me. How many times have these people, thinking they are making themselves more attractive or enticing, actually make everyone around them wretch? It’s sad, isn’t it?

If you have radiator heat in your home, as I do, the air tends to dry out, so I keep decorative bowls of water on most of the radiators both to provide humidity (which has influence on the sense of TOUCH), but also to draw one’s attention away from the ugly radiators (the sense of SIGHT … some people build cases around and over radiators, and that is an option, if you have the time and resources). But, I mention radiators here because these bowls of water are an excellent opportunity to add aroma to your home. Add several drops of essential oil to the bowls. Add some cinnamon sticks or allspice berries or bay leaves or slices of nutmeg. If you’re feeling rich, add a vanilla bean, or just some vanilla or almond extract (you can use the cheaper artificial vanilla for this use, just don’t bake with it). You can use potpourri (as long as the scent is fresh; if not, add some essential oils). Or, you can add potpourri, essential oils or spices to boiling water on the stove; this will send delightful scents throughout the home if done far enough in advance.


No one wants to be hit with loud, pounding music when they are visiting a home. Nor do they really want a radio broadcaster or TV announcer interfering with their thoughts. Silence is better than any of these. However, we can take a hint from the well-documented Mozart Effect, which states that young people’s minds expand when exposed to certain classical music. Use CD players set on repeat throughout your home, or just in the main area, employing some New Age or light jazz or gentle classical music, to lend a backdrop that won’t impose, but will subconsciously enhance the visiting buyers’ experience.

Fountains, or gurgling aquaria, or other water features, tend to create calmness in our metabolisms. This is fine for residents. But you want buyers to maintain a level of excitement (in a positive way, of course). Don’t go out of your way to add water features, though you can share the knowledge of the calming effects of water with the buyers, as a hint of how they can make this property their own.


Because most buyers (fortunately) don’t spend a lot of time touching things, and most texture is determined by furniture and floor covering, touch is not “SO” important in staging. However, here is a hint. If you have woodwork, particularly a stair rail, MAKE SURE IT IS CLEAN! There isn’t much as disgusting as grabbing hold of a stair rail as you head up or down the stairs, and having your hand come away sticky or grimy. UGH. And it’s more common than you might like to think. The same goes for light switch faceplates, and other high traffic areas, where dirt accumulates almost magically (without our noticing it!). And … don’t let anything EVER crunch under your feet.


Free food is always a draw at an open house or house showing, and if you have baked cookies for the aroma, or maybe baked bread … just put a plate out for the potential buyers. Biting into a warm, fresh out-of-the-oven cookie will put a smile on the face of almost every buyer. But, you do NOT want food to be the focus of a potential buyer’s visit. You don’t want them being distracted from their visioning of what the house or property could become in THEIR hands. But, crap food, or inconvenient food, or anything stale or otherwise distasteful will hurt more than it will help. If you are going to do something, do it right!

In staging the interior environment, subtlety is the key. We don’t want to overwhelm ANY of the senses. We want merely to touch them, to awaken them, to hint at the potential of the property that the buyers are visiting.

Now, I want to address something of paramount performance, that actually precedes interior staging, but which I am presenting almost last so that you have it fresh on your mind. And THAT is exterior staging.

Some call it “curb appeal.” It is SO important. It is that first impression, and you only have one opportunity to make a first impression. If potential buyers don’t like the curb appeal of the home, you won’t even be able to get them inside! They’ll just keep driving by, because an unsightly exterior is usually indicative of an unsightly interior. So, using our five senses, let’s visit some highlights of what YOU should be mindful of.


Is the yard (if present) well groomed? Have you picked up litter in the yard or on the street? Grass mowed? Weeds pulled? Bushes, shrubs and trees well maintained? Have you added flowerbeds or other decorative materials as highlights? During the winter, have you placed evergreen boughs or wood chips or other disguises to obscure barren flowerbeds?

Is the house freshly painted? Does the door stand out, via fresh paint and/or some sort of decoration, saying, “Come in”? Are the windows washed (inside and out)? Is the mailbox fresh-looking? Are the house numbers easily visible from the street?

As with interior features, anything broken must be fixed. An imperfection becomes magnified to a buyer. This is non-negotiable. You must do it, or hire someone to do it.


Is there any stinky trash or rubbish around? Have dogs left their mark in any form on the property? Are pigeons or starlings or sparrows nesting in the eaves? All of these generate aromas that are undesirable, and must NOT be present when buyers come to the property. Trash cans should have their own storage area, and that area should be concealed, ideally. Puddles or other low areas can hold water that becomes stale and generates aromas, so fill in these areas with dirt and/or sod.

Nearby alleys, factories, and other neighborhood sources of bad aromas beyond the your control may be a potential problem, so your job (or the agent’s job) is to market the situation … but only if the buyers mention a problem (you see, everyone’s sense of smell is different, and what you find unpleasant, others may not! Don’t create a problem that doesn’t exist!). “Oh, yes, the wind will sometimes blow from that direction.” “The already low price has taken that into consideration. Otherwise, this house would have been priced at 25% more than it already is!” It’s all marketing!


There is a big difference between a dog barking a greeting to arriving buyers, and a dog (or dogs) barking incessantly as a warning against intruding on their territory. If the latter is/are present, the sellers must be told to keep their pets out of the way during a buyer visit. Plus, be aware that some people are terrified of (or allergic to) dogs (and cats), so keeping pets secured is usually a good idea.

Birds chirping can lend a feel of home, and if you, the seller, are willing, you can encourage birds with a feeding station. At the same time, some people are afraid of birds, so just be aware of that possibility.

Leaves rustling in the wind are a nice effect, so call the buyers’ attention to the wind in the trees (if there are any trees, that is). Wind chimes can be a nice addition, if they are gentle and subtle. Some people love them, while others write letters of complaint to their alderman or to Dear Abby to try to get their neighbors to remove them.


To get a feel of the impact of texture, or touch (or, potentially, pain), imagine yourself as a fresh buyer approaching the home. Horror of horrors, is there litter in the yard? Trash, dirty dishes, ashtrays, old newspapers on the porch or patio should all be removed. Are paths in good condition? Are concrete and asphalt features uncracked? Are children’s toys out of the way? Or, are you tripping and stumbling your way toward the home. Keep it smooooooth. Gentle. Unencumbered. Glide your way into the home.

Aside from that, make sure the grass is recently mowed, leaves are raked, the landscaping is neatly tended, and tree branches are clipped out of the pathways (no one likes to be hit in the face by a branch, but it HAS happened!).


Buyers aren’t going to taste anything outdoors, unless it is imagined as they see trees with fruit hanging from the branches, or a potted lemon tree with a lemon on it, or some multi-colored Indian corn forming a door decoration, or (this time of year), displays of pumpkins and squash adorning the entry way. Taste can be perceived, and that doesn’t hurt.

Before closing, let’s address some financial issues. First, as a seller, you must realize that, if you don’t enhance the appearance of the property, inside and out, it just won’t sell. Secondly, if there are REAL problems, you will end up paying for them eventually when counteroffers are made, so why not just take care of the problems initially, perhaps at a lower cost.

Finally, you might choose to stage your property with some accoutrements, especially if you have planned an open house: Buy fresh flowers. Purchase potted plants. Invest in some swathes of fabric. Bake some cookie dough. Acquire some potpourri and essential oils. Remember: your time has value too! Too many people don’t realize this, but investing some money upfront can reduce your later investment in time.

But don’t go overboard. Try to limit your investment to what you can buy and then take with you (or give to friends). If you make changes that make your property stand out in the neighborhood, it could negatively impact the value. Do your research, or work with a real estate professional, to determine the market value of certain “enhancements.”

Finally, if you feel décor-challenged, you can always invest in a staging professional such as myself to come in.

Some take home messages about property and home staging:

1. Organize your selling efforts around the five senses.

.2 Be subtle in your approach.

3. Consider both the interior and the exterior of your property.

4. You may have to spend a little money to make a lot of money.

5. Once you have experienced the value of using all of your senses in your home environment, perhaps you’ll use some of these tips in your own new home.

In conclusion, most staging is common sense. There are no absolute rules, because everyone’s biology is unique. If you are selling, put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. If you are a buyer, feel empowered to examine a property in detail. Regardless of your role, freshen your own perspective by thinking intentionally about what your five senses are telling you about a property. Have the self-confidence to change what needs to be changed so that you can move on to the next stage of your life … via staging!