NEW YORK — John and Molly Cesarz have three young sons and an insufficient number of bedrooms to go around. This past August, they decided it was time to put their Upper East Side co-op on the market.
Martin Eiden, an associate broker at Compass Real Estate, laid things out for his clients. To ready the apartment for its close-up, the two bedrooms as well as some cabinets would have to be painted, and all the family photographs on display tucked away.
The couple, who were preparing to close on a four-bedroom co-op nearby but would have to remain in their apartment for a few months, had fully expected such diktats and nodded agreeably.
But Eiden wasn’t finished.
He also wanted to rearrange furniture and temporarily replace several pieces with things he believed would make the space more pleasing to prospective buyers. The list included lamps, a sofa, an area rug, plants, and knickknacks.
“Our first reaction was ‘No way,’ ’’ recalled Molly Cesarz, a high school teacher. As for the couple’s second reaction, well, let’s just say a beloved Oriental rug that once covered the living room floor can now be found tied up in a closet.
These days, thanks to New York’s sluggish real estate market, all the world’s staged.
Inventory is high, buyers are eager to find fault with a property (get a load of that plaid sectional in the living room and the statue of a shepherdess in the foyer) and quick to find the exit. Understandably, sellers want to ensure that those prospects — any prospects! — stick around long enough to sniff the fresh-baked cookies. Thus, they are living, and not always happily, in the company of unfamiliar sofas, easy chairs, end tables, headboards, and tchotchkes, and relegating much of their own furniture to storage.
In some instances, the sellers haven’t yet closed on their new homes and would like to skip the bother and the added expense of a short-term rental. And, of course, many people simply can’t afford to carry two properties, so they’ve got no choice but to stay where they are until they’ve lassoed a buyer.
“Staging is the new norm at all price points,’’ said Stuart Moss, an associate broker at the Corcoran Group. “Back in the day, it was recommended only if the apartment had certain flaws, like a bad view, or relatively a lot of wear and tear or if the space required a better definition of space.’’
When the market was booming, even an estate sale might call for only minimal tweaking. “If an apartment was in nice condition with a view, you expected prospective buyers to come in and have their own imagination and know how a room could be laid out,’’ Moss continued. “Now every apartment has to be prepared for showing.’’
As Nicole Beauchamp, a sales agent at Engel & Volkers put it: “Five years ago, the discussion would have been, ‘Let’s declutter, let’s maybe touch up the paint and let’s do a professional cleaning.’ I would have brought up staging only if absolutely necessary. But these days the staging discussion happens at every listing appointment.’’
And sellers don’t need a lot of convincing.
“It used to be that the conversation around staging was, ‘Wait, you’re saying I need to fork over 10 or 20 grand up front, and it might help but it might not?’’’ said Ari Harkov, an associate broker at Halstead Property. “Now they’re not arguing. They get it.’’
Disheartening statistics help explain sellers’ willingness to get with the program.
In the third quarter of 2018, New York City home sales were down 8 percent from the same period last year, according to the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade association. Sales in Manhattan had the deepest plunge, 15 percent.
But the difficult market isn’t the only driver here. “Because of HGTV, we’ve become more visually and design-oriented as a society,’’ Harkov said. “Many of us are skimming through Pinterest or looking at photos on Facebook, so we expect to see things look a certain way.’’
Moss is representing the owners of a three-bedroom, 3.5-bath condo with water views. “My clients bought it new construction, and a few years ago I would never have bought a stager in,’’ he said.
In a nod to the current climate, a stager was engaged to do the living room and master bedroom to the tune of $3,000 a month.
Many stagers typically accept jobs only on properties that have been emptied of furniture — and occupants. They don’t want the wear and tear on their sofas and rugs; they certainly don’t need the aggravation. But some stagers, loath to miss out on a revenue stream, are taking all comers.
“I’ve had to come around and loosen my strings on what we will do,’’ said Cathy Lorenz, owner of Cathy Lorenz Designs. Two years ago, 90 percent of Lorenz’s business was staging vacant properties. Now it’s a 75/25 split.
Staging for a studio runs about $5,000, including the consultation and installation fees and the cost of renting the furniture for three months (although most staging contracts are for six months). “Everything we bring in has a price tag,’’ Lorenz said.
Stagers face a particular set of challenges when working on an owner-occupied apartment. “You can’t do all the things you’d be able to do with an empty apartment, when you have total control of the design and can choose a style and a color palette and make sure everything is the right scale,’’ said Sid Pinkerton, owner of Manhattan Staging.
When the seller hasn’t moved out, “you’re working with what’s in the apartment,’’ he said. “The people may have a navy easy chair and a maroon sofa, and I think: Hmmm, now what am I going to do? Maybe I’ll bring in white pillows or a white rug to make the room feel lighter and brighter.’’
In some instances, stagers working on an owner-occupied apartment will charge an additional fee to cover wear and tear on the furniture and accessories. Lorenz has just instituted a 10 percent security deposit on every item from her own inventory. She and several fellow stagers have also established some new terms of engagement. Lorenz, for instance, will not stage an owner-occupied apartment that has pets. And if she puts a bunch of wineglasses on the bar for show, she said, “we don’t want clients to use the glasses.’’
For her part, Anne Kenney, the owner of a staging company called Anne Kenney Associates, does not invite client participation in the process.
“I have to tell people all the time that they don’t get a vote about the kind of couch or end table I’m going to use, and I have to be very firm on that point,’’ she said. “I explain to them the difference between interior design, which is for a specific taste, and staging, which has to have broad appeal. That’s our expertise.’’
In some cases, real estate agents themselves will take on the role of ad hoc stager, in the interest of saving a client both the cost of furniture rental and the staging fees charged by the professionals.
Beauchamp, of Engel & Volkers, has a cache of chairs, lamps, glassware, vases, and multiple sets of bed linens that she keeps in her own apartment and deploys gratis to dress up residences that she finds wanting. “It tells clients ‘I’m in this with you,’ ’’ she said.
Eiden, of Compass, rents a few storage spaces to hold a collection of furniture and accessories (much of it from Wayfair) sufficient to outfit four two- or three-bedroom apartments. “I don’t charge my sellers anything,’’ he said. “It’s all-inclusive of my commission. That’s how important it is to me.’’
These part-time stagers may lack a certain je ne sais quoi. “You start to see some of the same accessories at showings,’’ said Lisa Larson, an associate broker at Warburg Realty, enumerating items like white nailhead love seats, cowhide rugs, and small abstract sculptures, including various versions of metal orbs. Lorenz said she has had many sightings of a certain lightly textured cream-colored rug and a glass-topped coffee table with a gold base.
Sellers accept the invasion of the end tables and accent chairs with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “Initially, people are a little bit worried to sit on the sofa that isn’t theirs. They’re a little intimidated by the whole setup,’’ Kenney said. “But several of our sellers have thrown parties because the place looks so darn good they want people to come and see it.’’
Molly Cesarz, Eiden’s client, described her staged apartment as “feeling institutional.’’ She isn’t wild about all the throw pillows on the bed, and she doesn’t care a whit for the blue-and-white area rug that has taken the place of her Oriental. “But it probably photographs well,’’ she said.
But with staging, as with weight-loss products, results may vary.
“I don’t think, in this market, we can guarantee that if you stage you will get X amount more dollars or a bidding war or even the asking price,’’ said Larson, of Warburg. “It’s just that this is a buyer’s market with a lot of competition, and we need to check every box we can.’’
Still, staging does have one invaluable benefit: Like packing up the pots and pans and books and linens, it’s another, well, stage in the moving process.
“I really think staging in an owner-occupied apartment helps people detach from the property,’’ said Beauchamp, of Engel & Volkers. “Then it becomes a commodity that we’re trying to sell for the best price possible.’’