Prompt, Accurate Over-The-Net Calgary Home & Property Evaluations
Part 1: How To Sell In The Winter
By Dana Dratch, Bankrate
Courtesy of AOL Money Canada

What makes selling a home more stressful? Selling it in the middle of winter.

The lawn is brown, the weather is usually bad and, unlike the longer days of summer, you have less time to show it off during daylight hours.

But not everyone has the luxury of waiting until the traditional spring or summer home buying season to plant that "for sale" sign, and while it's true that in most areas you'll probably have fewer buyers during the winter, you will have less competition from other sellers.

That makes staging -- the concept of showing your house at its best -- even more important.

Be prepared to put a little effort into it. "It's more difficult to make something look really appealing this time of year," says Ron Phipps, broker with Phipps Realty.

If you do it right, you can really make your house stand out.
When the snow is swirling and would-be buyers are scarce, you need to take those extra steps to get your home sold. So put another log on the fire and curl up with these suggestions on how to make your home more attractive for sale in the winter.

  • Keep snow and ice at bay. The top tip from Realtors: If the buyer can't get in easily, the house won't sell. That means keeping walkways and driveways free of the frozen stuff. Just like trimming the lawn in the summer, you want to make the home look like it's been maintained. If you're away frequently or live in an area that's subject to bad weather, it can pay to hire a service to regularly salts or shovels the driveway and sidewalks.

  • Warm it up. If you're showing during the winter, think "warm, cozy and homey," says Ken Libby, owner of Stowe Realty and a regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors.

Before a buyer comes through, adjust the thermostat to a warmer temperature to make it welcoming. "Sellers like to turn the temperature down because of heat costs," says David Ledebuhr. "But buyers who come in and aren't comfortable won't stay long."

If you have a gas fireplace, turning it on right before the tour can give the house "a little ambience," says Libby.

With a wood-burning fireplace, you've got to be a little more careful. If the house is vacant, don't chance it. If you're still living there and will be there during the tour, it can be a nice touch.

Many times, sellers leave right before the agent and prospective buyers arrive. In that case, adjust the heat to a comfortable temperature and have the hearth set for a fire. Buyers feel the warmth and see the potential, and you don't have to worry about safety concerns.

Take advantage of natural light. "Encourage showing during the high-daylight hours," says Ledebuhr. At this time of year, "if you show after work, you're totally in the dark."

Make the most of the light you do have. Have the curtains and blinds cleaned and open them as wide as possible during daytime showings. Clean all the lamps and built-in fixtures, and replace the bulbs with the highest wattage that they will safely accommodate. Before you show the house, turn on all the lights.

  • Get the windows washed. "Buyers act on the first impression," says Ledebuhr. Windows are one thing that many sellers don't even consider. In winter that strong southern light can reveal grime and make it look like the home hasn't been well-maintained.

  • Play music softly in the background. To create a little atmosphere, tune the radio to the local classical station. Turn it down so that you just hear it quietly in the background. "It's soothing," says Libby, who finds that soft classical music tends to have the most appeal to buyers. "I think people tend to stay around a little longer and look a little longer."

  • Make it comfortable and cozy. Set the scene and help the buyers see themselves living happily in this house. Consider things such as putting a warm throw on the sofa or folding back the thick comforter on the bed. Tap into "the simple things this time of year that make you feel like you're home," says Phipps.

  • Emphasize winter positives. Is your home on a bus route or some other vital service that means it's plowed or de-iced regularly in bad weather? Be sure to mention that to the buyers.

  • Set up timers. You want your home to look warm and welcoming whenever prospective buyers drive past. But you're not home all the time, so put indoor and outdoor lights on timers, says Phipps.

  • Look at the outside lighting around the door. Is there enough illumination to make it inviting? If not, either get the fixtures changed or have new ones added.

Make it festive. Even if you're not actually going to be present, greet your buyers as if they were going to be guests at a party, says Phipps.

  • Set up the dinner table with the good china and silver. Have a plate of cookies for your guests, some warm cider or even chilled bottles of water.

"First impressions are so powerful," says Phipps. "If it looks like you're expecting me and greeting me as company, that's a powerful impact."

Give the home a nice aroma. The No. 1 favorite? "Chocolate chip cookies," says Libby. "Just about everybody likes that smell." Other popular scents: cinnamon rolls, freshly baked bread, apple pie, apple cider or anything with vanilla, cinnamon or yeast.

"But don't overdo it, either," says Ledebuhr. Scented candles in every room or those plug-in air fresheners can trigger an asthma attack (approximately 13% of Albertans have asthma) or can leave buyers wondering what you're trying to mask.

Watch the bad smells, too. Pet smells, smoke and musty odors can cling to curtains and carpets. Ask your real estate agent or a friend to give it a sniff test. Then clean the house, air it out and replace drapes, carpets or rugs before you show it.

Protect your investment. Some sellers (or their agents) will ask buyers to either remove shoes or slip on paper "booties" over their footwear before touring the house. Many buyers like that, says Phipps. It indicates a "pride of ownership and meticulousness that resonates with buyers," he says.

Use the season to your advantage. While the holidays are over (and the Christmas and Hanukkah stuff should come down), you can still use winter wreaths and dried arrangements around the door to give interest. "Anything seasonally appropriate is fun," says Phipps.



The house was a nondescript three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath split level. It had tiny bedrooms and a one-car garage. Even its owner admitted that no buyer was going to find it too exciting.

That is, until a stager got involved.

How Staging Makes a Difference:

Adding furniture, draperies, and accessories to this empty spec house gave it a lived-in look and drew buyers’ attention to its attractive architecture. The result—a $750,000 sale in three weeks for the seller.

Bartell, who has been a stager for 12 years, is a real estate broker with a background in retail design. In just a few days, she and Duncan cleaned the house, boxed up items to remove clutter and relocated furniture to better balance the rooms and improve traffic flow. They also added silk plants and flowers, pictures, lamps, and other decorative accents to warm up the home.

"They made it look like a model home, so people could visualize themselves living here," said Nell Fleming, the home's owner.

The strategy worked. The house sold in three weeks for just $1,600 less than the listing price—in a market where listings in its price range were taking 79 days on average to sell.

Just What is Staging?

Whether it encompasses little more than adding fresh flowers and reducing clutter or involves hauling away and replacing major pieces of furniture, the goal of staging is to put a house's best foot forward and give it the gloss of a marketable commodity. "The home becomes a house, then the house becomes a saleable product. Every home should be staged, whether it's a $300,000 house or a $4 million one. Homes that are staged sell faster in slow markets and at higher prices in stronger markets."

But staging is about making a house look terrific, but it's important not to confuse it with interior design. Both involve furniture placement, adding color, and carefully placing just the right accessories, but that's where the similarities end.

The goal of interior design is to create an environment that perfectly reflects the style and taste of the home's owner; the focus of staging is to make the house more marketable by creating the most appealing home to the greatest number of prospective buyers. Far from reflecting a unique style, a staged home should be just impersonal enough to not infringe on a buyer's own sense of style.

Home stylists, as stagers are sometimes called, compare the process to the design of a model home; they furnish and accessorize it in order to call attention to the home’s best features—the features that will most attract the interest of a potential buyer. At the same time, they avoid any decor that's too distinctive--such as a bright painting or a busily patterned couch—that will pull the prospect's eye away from the home and toward its furnishings.

But Does it Work?

Real estate professionals who use staging swear by it, no matter what part of the country they work in or the price range they serve.

Valerie Torelli has been staging homes since 1991. "I have five seconds to sell a home—five seconds to make an impact on the buyers when they first walk in the door," said Torelli. "Staging ensures that that impact is a good and lasting one."

One house Torelli listed was decked out in colors from the 1970s, with avocado green and heavy gold decor and a seller who didn't want to put much money into the house. The house had already languished on the market for three months, but when Torelli came in, she had it removed from the market for a week and got to work. She took out the old-looking lamps and furnishings and stowed them in the garage. Then she added subtle earth tone accessories in order to play down the heavy greens and golds in the house. She removed the homeowner's artwork from the walls, replaced his outdated accessories with candleholders and plants, covered his shabby bedspread with one of her own and added mounds of pillows to create a cozy look. She even had her own gardener plant flowers for added curb appeal. When the house sold, she dug them up and used them for her next staging.

Torelli spent less than $1,000 of her client's money to get the house in shape. The payoff? The house sold within a month—at just $5,000 below its listing price in the high $400,000s.

Professional Realtors have recommended professional stagers for years. "We believe that our homes sell quicker and for more money as a result of staging," says Jason Bell of MaxWell Canyon Creek.

Regardless of your homes value, it is recommeded to stage even moderately priced listings. For example, a condominium was listed at $284,900. The unit was vacant, and we knew that vacant homes are difficult to sell because buyers have trouble visualizing what they’ll look like furnished. So we ssuggested that the seller's hire a stager (they paid a little over $1,500 to furnish the bedroom, the baths, and the dining room, using props from her own inventory). The result? The seller received multiple offers on the unit, and it sold within a week—for more than the listing price.

In the U.S., Renee Gallagher's clients in swank Greenwich, Conn. usually have impeccably decorated homes that need little styling. But when she lists a spec home, she relies on staging to give it lived-in appeal.

Gallagher, president of Round Hill Partners, recently hired Show to Sell, a professional staging company, to fill a 7,000-square-foot spec house with furniture, draperies, and accessories. Although Gallagher had not used the firm before, she was impressed that the company was able to stage the house within a week. Gallagher paid between $15,000 and $20,000 to stage the house, absorbing the expense herself and treating it as part of her marketing plan.

The payoff? The house, originally listed at $3.995 million and on the market for six months, sold within three weeks, for $3.75 million. "That house actually had very lovely architectural features," she said. "But it was empty, and a lot of times buyers just don't have any vision. Once it's staged with furniture, however, they can see themselves sitting by the fire."

Making Clients Understand Staging

Although the subliminal effects of staging can't be ignored, that doesn't mean that all clients will be sold on the idea—especially when they realize that the stager is planning to hide their favorite plaid recliner in the basement or stow all of the adorable family portraits in a drawer. It takes finesse to avoid insulting or offending a seller.

Sellers should understand that their homes can sell faster or for more money if they make a few changes.

The best way to make staging acceptable is to get homeowners to separate their emotions from the sales process, to convert the image of "This is my family's home" into "This is a house, a commodity that I need to sell."

Using as much of the seller's own furnishings as possible and just rearranging and eliminating one or two pieces is a good way both hold down costs and make the process less threatening to sellers. For example, if you were taking their car to trade in, you'd get all the junk out of the back seat and get it washed and waxed, maybe even detailed. All you're really doing with staging is detailing the house.

What Does it Cost?

Fortunately, staging a home doesn't have to be expensive to be effective. A basic staging consultation, in which a home stylist evaluates the home and submits a report of what needs to be done, usually costs between $150 and $300, depending on the market. Schwarz advises the students who take her two-day staging course that the seller should pay for staging. "The salesperson doesn't pay for the home inspector to inspect the house or the roofer to put on a roof," she says. "So why expect the salesperson to pay for staging? It's the owner's home."

The second phase of staging, when the actual cleaning, packing away, and primping are done, can get expensive. Costs for hiring a professional to actually carry out staging recommendations can range from $500 to $15,000 depending on the extent of the work to be done. Homeowners who are willing can usually do some of the staging themselves, making the option more viable for mid-range sellers. Another way to make home styling less costly is to suggest that homeowners purchase items to stage the old home that can be reused in the new one. That way, they get the desired temporary effect without wasting money.

Professional stagers will always attempt to stay within a seller's budget, says Bartell. She charges about $350 for staging an average three-bedroom, two-bath house and is able to keep her fee low because of her creative uses of the seller's own furnishings. She has even created window treatments from towels.

Finding a Qualified Stager

It's critical that the home stylists avoid interfering with the work the salesperson is trying to do. "A stager needs to walk the line between what helps the agent and what the client wants," Schwarz says. "The stager's advice is very important, but the agent knows the market and should help determine how much staging needs to be done."

A stager should also know how to get the job done effectively—where to find the best buys on decorating items and good values on cleaning and other services that sellers may want to use. And, as in the case with any vendor, it is important that the stager complete the work in a timely fashion and keep the sales associate apprised of deadlines and possible delays.

Getting references for stagers—and checking those references—is also essential. Edelstein advises other salespeople to interview staging candidates and to visit homes that they staged. "See if you like what you see," he suggests.

Stager Lynelle Hartman feels that a real estate background is more critical for a successful stager than one in design. "Look for someone who really understands the real estate market and the stress of what it's like to be a seller," she suggests. "A designer may understand design, but stagers who understand sellers and the needs of the market can act a lot quicker and cater to those needs."