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By Beth Bragg

RISMEDIA, July 26, 2008-(MCT)-Niel Thomas once tried to sell a house that looked like a taxidermy gallery, full of glassy-eyed dead animal heads hanging on walls. Prospective buyers couldn’t take their eyes off the bear-skin rug, he said. But once they left, they recalled little about the house itself.

“They remembered the animals all over the place and the hair everywhere,” said Thomas, a longtime Anchorage real estate agent. “It was a nice house, but it was off-putting. It was such a distraction. … They would say, ‘Was that the room with the bear or the fox?'”

The house, Thomas and a growing number of others in the real estate business would agree, was in desperate need of “staging”-the quick decluttering, de-personalizing and redecorating of a home so it appeals to a wide variety of house hunters.

Right now in Anchorage, it takes longer to sell a house than it has anytime in the last eight years, according to Multiple Listing Service statistics.

Through the first five months of the year, houses spent roughly 25 percent longer on the market than they did726staging.jpg during the first five months of last year. In May alone, the 217 houses sold spent an average of 73 days on the market; in May of last year, the 260 houses sold averaged 54 days on the market.

Staging a home so the house, not the seller’s life and tastes, is on display can be the difference between selling quickly or paying the mortgage for another month or two, Thomas and other real estate agents say.

The decision to stage a house often pays off, said Thomas and Clair Ramsey, a longtime Anchorage real estate agent. The house either sells more quickly or for a higher price.

Not counting what’s in their own homes, Marilyn Carpenter and Jan Pennington own 200 pillows, nine air beds and seven couches.

Right now the items are scattered all across Anchorage, temporarily occupying six homes the women, owners of Home Staging Alaska, have recently staged. When a home sells, the furnishings return to a barn at Carpenter’s home and wait for their next assignment.

“We have enough inventory now for about six houses,” Pennington said.

Pennington retired last year after working 26 years in the real estate business, where she learned firsthand that staging can bring quicker sales and higher prices.

“Marilyn and I started staging my listings, and they sold so fast,” she said. “When I decided to retire, we decided to go forward with it as a business.”

Carpenter and Pennington get much of their furniture at garage sales and thrift stores, and sometimes they raid their own homes.

The women quickly learned to use air beds instead of real beds. Real beds take too much time and muscle to move. They add a comforter to give the bouncy beds some bulk and put a bedspread and pillows on top of that. You’d never guess they aren’t real .

“People sit on them, and that has created some problems. We saw one woman sit on one and she got catapulted off,” Pennington said.

“That’s when we got insurance,” Carpenter said.

Home staging is about redecorating and rearranging, not remodeling.

“We don’t go in and knock down walls,” said Julia Martin of ReFeathering, the staging company she owns with Tracey Wood.

Usually stagers don’t even paint walls, although Pennington and Carpenter made an exception last week when they took on a home for a weekend open house.

Two walls of the master bedroom were purple-not lavender or lilac, but Crayola purple. Barney purple.

Carpenter covered the walls with two coats of white paint.

“You try to make it generic so it appeals to the largest number of people,” she said.

That applies to everything in a house, not just the paint on the walls. The seller may be a photographer who proudly displays nude photos, but it’s probably better to replace the photos with a simple print of a farmhouse or seascape.

Carpenter likes to leave an open book on a bed or stack a few on shelves or tables. “To me, books say the person who lives in this house has the time to read a good book,” the retired English professor said.

But even the books should be neutral. “No Bible,” she said.

The owners of ReFeathering are military wives with extensive experience moving in and out of homes. Martin and Wood have been in Anchorage the last few years and they see interest growing here in home staging.

In Anchorage, as in many other areas, it’s a buyer’s market right now. Housing prices have dropped only marginally, Thomas said, but there are plenty of houses for sale and it’s taking longer to sell them.

That means it’s a stager’s market too.

“With the market time somewhat longer, what you look at as a seller is how many houses of your type are getting bought per month,” Thomas said. “If there’s 10 houses I’m competing with and two a month are selling, then if I want a reasonable chance of being the next sale I have to be as good as the No. 1 and No. 2 houses.”

Staging’s not for everybody, Ramsey said. Some people can’t afford it. Others don’t need it.

“Some homes you go into and they look like a model home, they’re so beautiful,” he said.

Staging a house can cost a couple of hundred dollars for a list of recommended do-it-yourself changes, to a couple of thousand dollars for an actual home makeover.

Myrna Brown, owner of Transformed By Design, continues to work as a Realtor for Prudential Jack White Vista. Sometimes, she said, real estate agents pay for staging as part of their service. Other times, sellers spring for the service in order to get an edge on the competition.

Most staging businesses charge by the square foot or the hour. At Home Staging Alaska, it costs $1,050 to stage a 1,600-square-foot house and $1,850 to stage a 3,000-square-foot home.

Carpenter loves the work because it suits her nature: “I can’t go to sleep in a hotel room without rearranging the furniture mentally,” she said.

But no one’s getting rich, at least not yet.

“This is our second job,” Pennington said. “My first job is Social Security.”

The split-level house that Pennington and Carpenter staged recently was practically empty when the women showed up on a Monday morning.

The sellers had already left the state, leaving behind a giant entertainment center that doubled as a room divider in the master bedroom. In an adjoining sun room sat a hot tub with a drab cover that made it look like a big, dark cube.

The first order of business was to get rid of the purple in the master bedroom. They moved the entertainment center against a wall, which made the room look much more spacious.

A queen-sized air bed was next, fluffed up with an oversized comforter and covered with a bedspread made from a $6 pair of drapes Carpenter found at Burlington Coat Factory.

Items foraged from garage sales and Pennington’s private stash-an old hat that belonged to her grandmother, a pedestal-style face mirror, a comb and brush-were arranged artfully on a built-in desk. A few books, some baskets and vases on the entertainment center, a chair nearby with a small table next to it, and the scene was set.

Next door in the sun room, the pair brightened things simply by taking the dark cover off the hot tub. They hung towels on hooks and replaced a shelf of cleaning products with artificial flowers. They brought in a fake palm tree and put it behind a wicker chair decorated with pillows.

Other rooms got similar treatment. Furnishings and accessories were spare but strategically placed to provide hints of what the house could be. Pennington and Carpenter paid special attention to a small landing atop the stairs leading to the living room. “Most people decided within five to 15 seconds if they’re going to walk through a house,” Carpenter said. Because of that, entryways need special attention.

The women will spend 18 to 20 hours on the project-one or two hours bringing things over, then eight hours one day and six the next decorating the house. Ninety days later, or after the house sells, it will take two or three hours to remove their props.

“It’s backbreaking work, but I love it,” Carpenter said. “It’s like playing house.”

Staging 101

Trying to sell a house? Try some of these tips from Anchorage home-staging experts and real estate agents:

–“Clean, clean, clean-windows, baseboards, bathtub and tile,” says Myrna Brown of Transformed By Design. Ditto, says Julia Martin of ReFeathering: “Make it Q-Tip clean, because if people see or smell something, they’ll start being more critical from the get-go.”

– Don’t let the back of your couch be the first thing people see when they enter either the house or the living room.

– Remove magnets, photos, notes and other things from the front of the refrigerator. Remove most items from kitchen and bathroom countertops.

– Hide the collection of E.T. memorabilia, stash the softball trophies, take down the family photos. You want people to look at the house, not your personal stuff. (Real estate agent Clair Ramsey, however, doesn’t always agree with the rule regarding family photos: “It’s in the Real Estate 101 manual, but I personally don’t subscribe to it. Some people might see them and think, ‘Cute kids. I feel good about this home.'”)

Things go better in threes: Group three candles on a mantle, arrange three baskets on a shelf, place three pillows on the couch.

When showing the house, keep curtains and shades open. The more light, the better.

Get rid of clutter everywhere. Minimize furniture; don’t let it dominate a room. Take leaves out of the dining-room table. “The strategy in staging is not to show off your furnishings but to show off the house,” real estate agent Niel Thomas said.

Don’t forget the outside. Mow the lawn, trim the bushes, maybe put in some flowers. Some people dismiss houses without ever leaving the car.

© 2008, Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.