Faces of Home
Home Solutions of WNY’s Jamie Shaner
Photo by kc kratt
Home staging is a nearly forty-year-old industry that has taken off since the turn of the century and has now worked its way to Buffalo, where it’s changing the sellers’ market. Stagedhomes.com reports that ninety-five percent of homes staged by Accredited Staging Professionals sell in eleven days or fewer, and for seventeen percent more than they would have without staging. Staging is an important component of modern real estate, and yet Jamie Shaner—WNY native, former accountant, and owner of Home Solutions of WNY, Inc.—had never heard of it until her neighbor took a class.
“I’m a very observant person,” says Shaner. “I’d see a house for sale and say, ‘They should trim those bushes,’ or ‘that shutter is hanging off, and they have it for sale,’ or ‘they really should tend to that because people are going to come and look at their house.’ I did it all the time; I just didn’t know it was a thing!”
Once her neighbor broached the idea of a business, the two incorporated Home Solutions of WNY in 2005; Shaner quit her accounting job in 2007 and became sole owner when her partner retired in 2012. She’s never looked back.
What was it that intrigued you about this business idea, when you had a secure job?
The idea of something creative; there’s no wiggle room for creativity in accounting unless you’re not an ethical accountant. I loved my job, I loved where I worked, but it’s a pretty dry career. I was ready for something different; this is the thing that presented itself. And having an accounting background has been a great asset in running the business.
How did you get started?
We took the first year to get everything established, built a website, designed letterhead and logo. We were invited to speak on the mainstage at the Buffalo Home and Garden Show in 2007, and that was our official announcement—“we’re here; we exist”—and we presented seminars. We got media coverage, we got clients, and it’s never slowed down since. Word of mouth is big, and, in the meantime, Facebook came along.
Was it what you expected?
We thought the focus would be staging, but the greater need that became our hallmark was organizing and decluttering, which are key factors in staging. People don’t realize that they can’t hide everything; the places they shove stuff is where home buyers look. People will open every cupboard and closet.
What are the basic concepts of staging?
Staging creates an illusion—without being deceptive—that a home has been well cared for by tending to dripping faucets, trimming shrubbery, having gardens edged, or gluing down peeling wallpaper. A clean house presents the image of a well-cared for home. In a linen closet, there’s nothing we’re going to do to make it bigger, but if we eliminate half the contents, the towels are standard fold, and we label the shelves, it makes a great impression. In the clothes closet, take out contents and switch to all matching hangers. Same in the cupboards; every kitchen we go into has too many coffee cups, too many travel mugs, too many cleaning supplies under the sink. When it looks spacious and organized, people think, “My stuff can fit here.”
In rooms, it’s the same thing. A couch and two recliners might work day-do-day, but maybe we need to move a chair out to leave walk space. The standard phrase we say so people don’t feel judged is, “The way you live in a home and the way you market a home for sale are different things. We’re not saying the way you lived here is inappropriate, but we need to make changes to show the house in its best light for those coming to look.”
What did you learn that you didn’t expect?
How important behind-the-scenes areas are. One of the first staging jobs we did, we went to open the front hall closet, and the gentleman said, “This door doesn’t work, so we just won’t open it.” That’s not an option; we have to fix the door because people will want to open it. It’s just as important to tend to those little things as it is to make sure the furniture is placed well.
Another thing we hadn’t really thought about is that we give realtors permission to make us the bad guys. They get the listing and then they say, “I don’t know what to do. This house is going to list for close to a million dollars and their closets are a mess.” The other thing is odors; it’s hard for a realtor to say, “Yikes, it smells like cat in here.” So we use sensitive language to convey the appropriate need.
How do you use sensitive language to say “Your house smells like cat”?
“People coming to the house who aren’t pet owners might not be familiar with some of the issues that come with owning a pet, so why don’t we move the litter box to the basement for now?” or “Why don’t we put away the dog dishes during the open house?” Then we bring in odor absorbers or sprays and do what we can to the best of our ability. Realtors are more savvy to that now, but, in the beginning, it was a new concept.
Do realtors tend to do more of it themselves now?
When we started approaching them in 2007, they were hesitant; “we know how to do that.” What we found is that a realtor might tell a client, “You need to declutter, you need to organize,” but the client doesn’t know what that means, or they may not have the time or wherewithal or desire to do it themselves, or they’ll ask, “What’s wrong with my closet?” We’ll have times when a realtor will pay for hours of our time to enhance the listing, because it’s worth it.
The other thing we often do is prepack. It’s still part of staging, but it’s moving them closer to the end result. I’ll say, “Let’s prepack all the family photos,” because in staging, you’re supposed to remove as much of your personal history as you can. If you have a collection of dolls, let’s prepack them. You want [potential buyers] to notice the size of the room, the wall space, not be enamored with your teacup collection. Somebody might be a hunter and have antlers and deer heads, and that’s well and good for how they live in their home, but a lot might be put off by that, so we take it down and prepack. Then we choose an area to put all the prepacked boxes—uniform in size and labeled—that won’t disrupt the flow of the house.
Bringing in a third party can open your eyes to little details you had no reason to notice. When you walk in your front door, there are things that are a part of how it’s always been, so you don’t see them. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that you don’t look at your house objectively beyond the things you tend to on a daily basis.
How long does it take to fully stage a house?
It’s never too soon to start. When you’re not backed up against a deadline, it’s so much easier to make decisions, because you don’t feel as much pressure; the sooner you make them, the less chance there is for regret. We’ve had situations where we had three weeks to move mom and dad, and, for the family, it’s a lot more traumatic.
How much does it cost?
There are a couple of ways to approach staging, and it varies depending on the cost of the house. If you’re listing a $120,000 house, chances are you’re not going to rip out carpeting and install hardwood; you’re going to do what you can do to make it look like it’s worth that $120,000. That’s more topical staging: make sure it’s clean, decluttered, depersonalized. We might clean carpets, but not replace them. If someone is very religious, and their house is filled with religious articles, we will encourage them to take those down, because not everyone coming through is going to be a) religious or b) the same religion.
Then a house that goes for $500,000 and up, you may encourage things based on the value of the house and that will give the house a better chance of selling at that price. It may need to be painted, they may need to rip out carpeting. If we meet somebody who says, “I’m not going to do all these things the realtor said to do,” then we figure out the best way to show the house to make a good first impression. We can do a walk-through and say here are general guidelines, here are some specific things we could do or we could do for you.
Is there an unstageable house?
Not so much unstageable, but if there’s going to be an estate sale—which is common here because homes typically have attics, basements, and two-car garages filled with stuff—and I am working with a good estate sale company, the house gets sold during the sale. The carpets are old, the wallpaper is old, it looks sort of battered, but when it’s set up for the estate sale, and it’s priced appropriately, you have hundreds coming through, it looks nice, and it often gets sold.
Can you point to a cost-benefit value for staging?
A realtor would be more inclined to be the person who would say, “If we do nothing, I can list it for X, but if you make these improvements, then I could list it for this amount.” That’s more in the realtor’s wheelhouse, because we don’t do any kind of estimating. They do say that the cost of staging is less than the cost of reducing the price of your house after it sat on the market for a month. People have already come through and made up their minds, whereas, if you stage it first to present the house in its best light, chances are better you won’t have to reduce the price.
What do you like about the job?
I love the fact that every day is different. I love that the fact that we truly can make a difference in the lives of the people we’re working with, helping them move forward or helping family deal with a loss. I love the emotional aspect of people who feel overwhelmed and we say, “It's OK. We can help you.”
Donna Hoke is the editor of Spree Home.