I had never heard of a home stager until I prepared to sell my house in suburban Maryland in 2007. This was the first house I had ever owned, and therefore the first house I had to get ready to put on the market. The realtor urged me to use a stager who would give the place a lift, as well as depersonalize the space so that others could envision themselves living there. She had worked with this woman before, she said. It would be quick and easy and would enable a more lucrative sale.
Ominous headlines about the collapsing housing market were beginning to appear in the newspapers, so even though I was skeptical, not to mention reluctant to split the $4,000 fee with the realtor, I did as she suggested.
Although it was a lovely home that had served our family well, within walking distance to good public schools and with warm neighbors, I had never felt particularly attached to the place. It was cookie cutter suburban, and I was eager to get back to an edgier, more urban existence—or so I thought. Once I stopped resisting the Stager’s suggestions and let her do her job, the house looked so beautiful I was no longer sure I wanted to leave.
Statistics on the benefits of home staging are plentiful, and they typically end with exclamation points. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), for example, the average staging investment is between 1 and 3 percent of the home’s asking price, which generates a return of 8 to 10 percent!” Or “in a 2009 Home Gain Survey of over 2000 Realtors, it was discovered that home staging typically provides a 586 percent return on investment!”
This exuberance seemed a bit much, but as it happened, making the house exclamation point-worthy was exactly what The Stager did, beginning with the front door, which she transformed to a cheery shade of red. Presumably this was intended to simply brighten things up, but it also turns out that a red door is rife with significance: in some cultures it means the mortgage has been paid off. In Feng Shui, the door is the mouth of the house and a bright color indicates positive energy. A red door might have identified a safe house back in the days of the underground railroad. Some say it simply indicates that the owners are cheerful, vibrant people.
Whatever the meaning, the door that had been a subdued shade of green for more than a decade was suddenly a startling, delightful red, and that was only one of the many changes to come over the course of a week.
Some of her fixes were easy, such as moving furniture, or rethinking the placement of rugs and the pictures hanging on the walls. Some of it, while expensive, made complete sense: I couldn’t argue with her suggestion to replace the wall-to-wall carpet in the room where the kids watched TV and spilled soda and dropped pizza, and which was the dog’s preferred room for vomiting. But some of her suggestions I resisted. She instructed me to hire a window washer, to find someone to scrape a thick layer of moss off the roof of the gazebo in the backyard, and move all of the firewood off the front porch.
I had stared out that window for twelve years without noticing the grime that had accumulated, and had been completely oblivious to the existence of moss. And why move the firewood off the front porch? Wasn’t it suggestive of home and hearth? I also liked that picture hanging on the wall, and thought the sofa looked pretty good where it was! I was part lazy, part cheap, and part emotional. Who was this stranger ordering me around my own house and encouraging me to write large checks to a variety of people, all to fix up a home I was planning to unload? Even if this made sense financially, it felt emotionally counter-intuitive.
After one change too many, I found myself in tears. The realtor assured me my reaction was not unusual. It turns out that even if you think you are not particularly attached to your home, it’s not easy to have a stranger come in and tell you how you might have done a better job of living in it… And what was worse, she was right pretty much all of the time.
In the end the house was not just transformed, it was beautiful! Why had I not thought to create a more intimate seating area in the living room? Why hadn’t I washed the windows when we’d first moved in? The view to the backyard was stunning now that the windows sparkled and she’d repositioned the furniture to draw the eye toward the garden and the just power-washed gazebo! I was now not only using a lot of exclamation points, myself, but was having second thoughts about selling the house. Why hadn’t I spent the money to fix up that house until it was time to leave?
Meanwhile, another, more delicious question was slowly taking shape, inspired by the realization that I had given a complete stranger the metaphorical keys to my interior life. The stager had just spent a week rummaging in my attic and rearranging the pictures on my walls, and this seemed a rich setup: What if this woman had known me in some meaningful context, had known secrets about my family, or had held some sort of grudge? And what if I had been unaware that she was even in my house? My mind began to churn with possibilities.
Although it didn’t happen overnight, that house did sell, and so did the novel the experience inadvertently inspired.
SUSAN COLL is the Events and Programs Director at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the novels Beach Week, Acceptance, Rockville Pike, and karlmarx.com. Acceptance was made into a television movie starring Joan Cusack in 2009. She lives in Washington, D.C.