Setting the Stage for a Sale 

Michael Friedes is the artist. His props are the medium. Your house is the canvas.

Every day, Michael Friedes takes his furniture to a different person's home and rearranges it.

Friedes is a home stager -- a professional makeover-artist-slash-decorator who fixes up your house just before you sell it. Stagers don't work with your furniture, though. They bring their own. After you've moved out, but before potential buyers come to visit, stagers slip in with their own stock of chairs, curtains, coffee tables, and coffee-table books -- "props," as they're sometimes called -- to give your home that Better Homes and Gardens look it needs to command top dollar in a market where the right living-room look can fetch an extra $25,000.

Meticulously coifed flower arrangements and fancy fruit baskets have long been standard fare for sprucing up brand-new model homes, but stagers apply the idea to previously owned houses. Competition in the Bay Area real-estate market has become so fierce that sellers have invented new ways to showcase their homes. In the last two years, Realtors say, staging has become common practice in California and even shows signs of catching on across the country. Friedes recalled one home that, unstaged, languished on the market for months at $925,000, but that, once staged, quickly sold for $950,000. With the cost of staging ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 per house, it's an investment that often makes sense financially.

Still, according to Realtor Anne Feste of the Grubb Co., the value of staging is more in the speed of sale than in the price. "You can never prove that a house's sale price has anything to do with staging, but you can see the value in the enthusiastic response," she says.

Feste finds that selling unstaged houses has become a bigger challenge. In trying to sell one empty house, she has had to bring a potential buyer back again and again. "She can't get an idea of what it's like to live there," she says. "She's always asking, 'Can I get this or that to fit in here?' We're literally going in with tape measures to check. If a room is staged, you know as soon as you look at it that it can fit a bed."

"The stakes are higher in the bay, because people are just so used to seeing staged houses," says Friedes, who worked as an interior designer before founding his own staging company, Nest Home Design. "People don't respond well to an empty house, but they feel at home in one that's been well staged."

When Friedes first came to the Bay Area from New York two years ago, he noticed something strange about all the for-sale houses he visited. They seemed too perfect. "I was like, 'What's going on here?'" he says. "I know this isn't what they really look like. And the broker just said, 'Oh, they've been staged.' I'd never heard of that before."

Unlike traditional interior designing, which has to consider function as well as beauty, staging is concerned only with making a house look its best. Good stagers combine the talents of interior designers and movie prop technicians.

Friedes' warehouse is cluttered with all sorts of "props" -- couches and sofas, wicker chairs and wooden rockers crammed in the rafters, shelves full of lamps, black trash bags full of pillows, Tupperware jars full of plastic shower rings, and inexplicable basketball-sized globes of twigs and dried vines. There's a separate room for bedding and another for "accessories" -- clocks and vases and knickknacks. Framed French sonnets hang on the wall next to paintings of flowers, pears, and friendly choo-choo trains.

Between rows of potted palms, Nate Duffy, one of Friedes' employees, paints two bright-white frames for a pair of wooden Indonesian dragons. By the end of the day, the dragons will be hanging over the fireplace in a two-bedroom bungalow in Rockridge.

"This house is kind of small, so that makes it hard to disguise problems," Friedes says. "You walk in the house and you're right in the living room. That will be a challenge. We're doing it sort of young, sort of hip. It's a cool little neighborhood; a professional couple buying their first house might go for it."

Today is the big day, when he'll know if it all works. "You plan things out in advance," Friedes says, "but you never really know how things will look until you get them in the house."

Across town, Kim Pierce of Pierce Design and Staging works from a one-room warehouse in Oakland -- nestled between painters' studios and glass blowers' workshops -- that used to be a woodworker's shop. Now it's loaded with wooden headboards, battered rocking chairs, and mustard-colored sewing machines.

Like Friedes, Pierce fell into the business by accident. Before going into staging, she worked as head of design for a high-end catering firm, creating elegant environments for fancy parties.

"When I bought my house in the East Bay, my real-estate agent suggested I try staging," she says. "She gave me a house to stage, and I absolutely loved the process. I never planned to become a stager, but when something fits, you just do it."

Stagers pick up interesting props wherever they can -- from antique stores, consignment shops, flea markets, even off Craig's List. Pierce does whatever she needs to find the perfect piece to complement a home, even if it means giving up her own furniture.

"My sofa's in a house over in Piedmont," she says, "and the rubber thing that I keep my dog Jack's tennis balls in is now holding magazines in another house. I'll use my grandmother's bowl and pitcher in a house if I need to."

Pierce hails from Franklin, Virginia, where her friends and family are baffled by her new profession. "I don't think they fully understand what it is I do," she says. "They think, oh, I must work on model homes." Pierce thought staging was primarily a California idea, but had heard rumors of stagers setting up shop in New York and Atlanta.

In Rockridge, Friedes has selected his couch for the day: a golden tan two-seater that matches the yellow walls of the living room. "Let's try the couch at an angle," he says, chewing his thumb thoughtfully. Movers Nate Duffy and Jeff Yee grab opposite ends of the sofa and begin to rotate it. The effect strikes Friedes immediately.

"Oh, yeah," he says suddenly. "That's good. Now the rug."

"With this angle, we keep the flow," he explains as the movers adjust the carpet. "When people come to the open house, we want them to have a clear path to the windows and French doors. People want to check those out. Lots of things to consider."

In staging, every detail has to be perfect. Nest co-director Susan Goldstein sprays the plants with leafshine -- the technical term for stuff that gives leaves a just-watered look. In a corner of the dining room, Friedes spreads an array of accessories across the floor, searching for just the right pieces among the lanterns, candles, twine balls, and ceramic Chinese soldiers.

"We call this layering," he says. "It's like a woman getting ready for a big date -- first she puts on her gown, then she fixes her hair, then makeup, then jewels. First, we have furniture, then carpets, plants and artwork, and accessories. It really starts to become personal as you add more."

In front of the couch, two fuzzy green globes the size of softballs sit in a dish on the glass coffee table. "They're decorative moss balls," Friedes says, eyeing them critically. "Too big," he mumbles. He whisks them away, replacing them with three smaller ones.

"See, it's all about scale," he says. "Even in the accessories. You don't want people to walk in and just say: 'What are those things?'" With the right-size accessories, even a small house can show its possibilities.

"Staging a house gives a buyer a starting point," says real-estate agent Feste. "So that they can know how a house could be decorated or how they would live in it." Staging has become standard practice in the Bay Area whenever a homeowner can afford it, Feste says, although there are certain times that stagers aren't brought in. "Some people actually live a staged lifestyle," she says. "Their own decorating looks so good we just use that. And other times a house is in such disrepair that a staging wouldn't help at all."

In the master bedroom, Friedes drops three postcards on the bedside table -- he picked them up from an art gallery opening. The bed's headboard is actually nailed higher on the wall than it would be if it touched the floor. It's a little stager's trick to make it more conspicuous.

Friedes compares staging to set design more than to interior design. "In interior design, you work with a small number of people for long periods of time," he said. "You end up knowing more about them than you want to. You have to worry about daily life -- where's the TV going to go, and all the electronics? Staging is a suspension of reality. I just have to make it look like a magazine."

In Kensington, Pierce has staged an old Victorian house up in the hills, where the biggest challenge was keeping the deer from eating her carefully arranged flowers.

Logs are piled in the cozy little fireplace. But they aren't real wood; they're just hollow tubes of bark. "Now these actually are props," she laughs.

In staging, it isn't cheating to make things look better than life. Pierce hung a vintage poster guide to mushrooms in the dining room. The legend reads "Champignons Qui Tuent."

"I had never translated the text," she says, "but at one open house, someone walked in who spoke French and said, 'Ah, mushrooms that will kill you. '"

Despite the poster's ominous title, Pierce still likes to use it. As in most things about staging, its look is more important than its meaning. No one expects staging to look real, but stagers still like little touches of reality that make a home look homey. Friedes always uses real plants, and Pierce can't stand seeing fake fruit.

"I can't do fake fruits," she says. "I have to use real ones. Sometimes people actually eat them." There's a bowl of nuts in the kitchen and some empty shells on the countertop. "See, this isn't my doing. Someone ate the nuts I left here."

Pierce often returns to the houses she stages after she's done to check on them, replace old fruit, water the plants, and make sure everything's in order. Like a seasoned tracker, she combs over the house for clues of activity. The seat cushions on the couch have been smushed; someone has been sitting there. The deck chairs are scattered; someone moved them to watch the sunset. The magazines in the basket are out of order, a carefully folded newspaper rumpled.

"Somebody was in here, reading," she says, thrilled. "If people feel comfortable, they'll stay longer. In a way, they move in, mentally and emotionally."

Behind the kitchen, Pierce has turned a storage room into an office. A little cardboard pseudoplant with barbed balls like petrified dandelions -- "I made it myself," she says -- sits on the shelf. Far Side collections and John Lennon biographies are stacked on the desk.

"If possible, I choose books that have something to do with the house," she says. "If there's something special like tiered gardens, I'll try to find a book on gardening. If there's a restaurant nearby, I'll pick a cookbook from that restaurant and use it in the house. I do think houses have feelings and histories, that the people who live in them have left their mark."

A stager works hard to mask a home's little imperfections -- Pierce fixes a miniature magnetic chalkboard over some scuffs on the refrigerator -- but that's not her main priority.

"You shouldn't walk into a house and be suspicious, like, 'What are these people trying to hide?'" she says. "A good staging seeks out a house's most special features and showcases them."

Pierce recalls one house owned by an artist up in the Berkeley Hills. The artist's father had painted a mural in the bathroom, a serpentine dragon that curled around the walls and over the door. "It was playful and dramatic," she says. "And the whole house was bohemian and woodsy, so I let that dictate what I did with the house."

Today was a short day for Friedes in Rockridge. The couch is angled just right, the moss balls sized correctly, and the dragons hung by the fireplace with care. At 6 p.m., after only five hours, the house is finished and the exhausted crew is ready for the weekend. On some days, the Nest crew will work until 2 a.m., experimenting, moving things around, searching for the right look.

For Friedes, it's all worth it to see the final product.

"Homeowners are so amazed when they see how their homes look that they don't want to move," he says. "Nosy neighbors will wander by the open house sessions and say, 'Oh my God, I have the same living room.' That's the good thing about this business. It gives people ideas about what they can do with their homes."

"You have to see the potential," says mover Jeff Yee. "We help people to see that. You might even say we're really in the potential business."n

Kim Pierce
Pierce Design and Staging, Oakland

Michael Friedes
Nest Home Design, Oakland

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