To sell a house, 'neutralize' it

2013-01-04T01:45:00Z 2013-01-31T16:48:00Z To sell a house, 'neutralize' itJim Gallagher jgallagher@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8390 stltoday.com

Homeowners don’t like to hear what Gay Gordon and Angela Kittner have to say sometimes.

“You’ve got to paint this! You’ve got to get rid of all this stuff,” Gordon will say as she walks through a customer’s home. “Too much clutter and too much color!”

Gordon and Kittner are real estate agents. Their job is to get a house spiffed up for sale. Often, that means telling a homeowner that their taste will cost them money, so they’d better get out the paint brushes.

They start by throwing stuff out.

“Less is more. That’s the theme. There’s so much garbage in people’s houses,” said Kittner, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Sunset Hills. “When it’s cluttered, it feels small. It feels kind of dingy.”

Gordon, an agent for Coldwell Banker Gundaker in Town and Country, sold a house for a woman who worked for Estee Lauder.

“It was completely packed with these little samples of Estee Lauder items — 500 lipsticks all lined up perfectly. Nobody could put a towel any place in the bathroom,” she recalled.

Out went the lipstick.

Many times, down come the family pictures, too. They get buyers thinking about the family rather than the house. ‘Oh! Look at that cute baby,’ they say.

“Those are distractions,” Kittner said.

In come the paint cans filled with neutral colors. There’s lots of white and beige. Agents call it “neutralizing” a home.

“When you do something appealing to the masses, you increase the possibility of selling your house,” Gordon said.

All this is called “staging” in the real estate trade.

“It’s so important to selling a home in this market. It’s as important as pricing it right,” said Kittner.

Gordon recalled a house painted nearly entirely in teal — a blueish-green. It had attracted low-ball offers. She painted it beige, and it sold two weeks later.

All this can be hard on the homeowner’s ego. “You mentally have to move out,” says Gordon.

Kittner used to deliver such advice herself, but sellers would sometimes get angry. So now, she calls in Terrie Stiles as a consultant to give the uncomfortable news.

Stiles runs Hometenders of Chesterfield. Advising on decluttering is just her side business. Her main job is to furnish empty houses that are up for sale.

Agents say houses sell faster furnished. Buyers need to imagine the house as a home, and they can’t do that staring at bare walls and empty floor.

“It’s like a woman putting makeup on. She can look good without makeup, but she looks much better with makeup on,” Gordon said.

That’s where Stiles comes in.

“Furniture, rugs, trees, lights, artwork,” said Stiles, describing the contents of her warehouse near Spirit of St. Louis Airport. “We don’t do Queen Anns, recliners or futons.”

She matches the decorating style to the home — light and modern for a home she thinks will sell to young couples, traditional and darker for older customers.

She’ll set the tables, put fake fruit in bowls in the kitchen, fake flowers on the coffee tables and potted trees in the corners.

Stiles recently was standing in a newly renovated 125-year-old townhouse in Lafayette Square.

“This will appeal to people who are hip,” Stiles said, noting the exposed brick walls. “I’m thinking young couples.”

So she chose a modern theme: a white shag carpet, gray couch, black-and-white striped chairs and modern art for the walls.

A small round table, set for dinner, sits in the center of the dining room. The table is small in order to make the room look bigger.

Stiles got into the house-furnishing business by happenstance. In 1996, she was recently divorced and looking for somewhere to live. She saw an add for a $600,000 home renting for $600 a month — a steal.

The catch: The home was for sale, and she’d have to keep it neat and ready to show, then move out when it sold. She moved in, and soon she was recruiting other people to house-sit in exchange for cheap rent. Then she was running her own house-sitting company with a partner.

It was a “property management nightmare,” she said, mainly because the tenants wouldn’t keep the houses ready for show. “The blinds had to be open, the toilet seats down.”

But soon she found that sellers could do without the tenants, as long as the home was furnished. So she started furnishing empty houses.

She charges about 1 to 3 percent of the sale price, with the higher percentage on the cheaper homes.

Sellers make the money back through quicker sales and higher prices, she says, but she understands how some may have doubts.

“If I didn’t run this company, I don’t think I’d believe it,” Stiles said.

Jim Gallagher is a reporter at the Post-Dispatch

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