The perfect home dressed to sell

Professional home staging service helps real estate agents with hard-to-sell houses
Sunday, November 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:13 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The back of the house at 1009 Dunbar Drive is a wall of windows, overlooking a large lake where geese sometimes gather. The deck outside the vaulted hearth room is shaded by trees.

The interior of the 3,812-square-foot house has hardwood floors, cherry cabinets and a brick fireplace with custom-built shelves. Downstairs is a “party-size” family/recreation room with its own wet bar.

Every one of the four bedrooms has its own walk-in closet, and there are four and half bathrooms.

The house was listed at $425,000 and then lowered to $389,900 when it didn’t sell. Still, it sat on the market and didn’t draw a single offer for over a year.

Enter Tracy Wear.

She is a full-time professional home stager, a person who prepares a house to be seen — and smelled — to maximum advantage by prospective buyers. It entails cleaning, repairing, decorating and reorganizing a house down to the finest details. If she were a painter, houses would be her canvas.

“Everyone says, ‘Oh, you have such a fun job!’ ” Wear said. “But it’s also a really hard job.”

Wear’s company, First Impression Home Staging Service, is the only business of its kind in Columbia. She got started in the business after working with her sister, Brenda Russell, who cleaned and organized large homes for a living.

“I’ve always been an organized person,” Wear said. “I always had a flair for doing things (like) interior design, making my own floral arrangements … which has always been kind of a passion for me.”

She first heard about home staging when her sister rented a staged home in St. Louis about four years ago from a company that leases them to people who will keep them in show-quality condition at all times.

“I thought, this is perfect, this is exactly what I do — keep people organized, interior design,” Wear said.

Back home in Columbia, she looked for a home staging company she hoped would hire her.

“There was no one. It was just amazing to me,” she said, especially in light of the fact that Columbia has over 400 real estate agents.

Wear decided to start her own company. She began by preparing a presentation of her services for “every single realty company that would have me.”

She waived her fee to get her business off the ground, staging a house for Tracy Arey of Gaslight Properties.

“I was probably 99 percent finished, and a person came by, saw (the house), loved it, and bought it,” Wear said.

She now works regularly with about 20 real estate agents. Some, such as Audrey Spieler of House of Brokers Realty, routinely pay Wear’s $99 consulting fee to have her come in and assess the size and cost of the job. Spieler recommends her to almost all of her clients.

“Generally I explain to people that this is a way to maximize their profitability,” Spieler said.

The price depends on what is done to the house, never exceeding 1.5 percent of the house’s sale price. Landscapers, painters, plumbers and carpet cleaners are routinely summoned. Objects sometimes have to be moved out, like the gigantic, tea-stained, Oriental-inspired painting she tactfully suggested removing from the premises of one house. If necessary, she also brings in her own furniture and accessories, including plants, candles, towels and welcome mats.

But she is emphatic on this point: It’s not interior design.

“Interior designers either have their own preferences, or they go with the homeowner’s preferences,” she said. “Home staging is trying to have balance in what every single solitary potential buyer wants to see.”

That’s why she uses neutral colors like creams and beiges in the homes she stages. The goal is to accent the house rather than the things in it.

“When you use key pieces in a home with not a lot of color, you have people visualize their couch and loveseat or their tables and lamps,” Wear said. “I just make sure that the home, the structure of the home, the beautiful carpet and the trim and the windows — that’s what I want my main attraction to be.”

After all, she said, buying a house is often a more of an emotional decision than a purely business transaction.

“It is, ‘How do I feel here? Do I feel comfortable? Could I raise my kids here?’ ” Wear said. “Really, the home sells itself once I do just some key things.”

One of those key things is scent. Wear buys a chemical from a professional cleaning company in town that she claims “destroys” odors in carpets and walls.

“If we have the home in good condition, it looks good, it smells good and it’s a good price, it will sell,” she said.

Some times of year are more challenging than others, however. Typically, the time from April to about mid-July is the best time to sell a house, but that means more houses on the market and stiffer competition. “So in August to March, you really want the homes to stand out,” Wear said. “That’s where I come in.”

As for the home of Douglas and Helen Anthony on Dunbar Drive, a contract was signed Monday morning, 15 days after it was staged.

Helen Anthony said her broker, Brent Jones, recommended Wear’s service when the house continued to sit on the market with no offers.

“What made us decide (to use Tracy) was that at our price, we were competing against new construction,” Anthony said. “If (a buyer) spends $400,000 on a home, they can buy a new home … we needed to freshen it up and make it look new.”

The house, according to both Wear and Anthony, looked outdated.

“We needed to upgrade the furniture in the house — we had comments about it not having enough color,” Anthony said.

Wear called in a landscaper, a carpet cleaner, a painter, an electrician and a plumber. She rearranged furniture, brought in some of her own, and even placed books on the bookshelves in the hearth room. The work took 10 days and cost $1,000.

It looked so good, Helen Anthony said with a laugh, that she and her husband thought about moving back in.

With the job done, Wear was ready to move her furniture and accessories out of the house and go on to the next staging. For now, she does everything herself, from moving furniture in her van to maintaining the appearance of every house she stages. But that could change soon. A potential investor has come calling and has Wear thinking bigger.

“Instead of having 10 rooms of furniture, they want me to have 50 rooms,” Wear said. “My company wouldn’t be just a one-woman show. It’s very exciting to think about.”

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