Some of you know we are selling the Victorian we have owned for more than 30 years and entering the uncharted waters of San Francisco’s insane real estate market. As I’ve noted, things are much different than when we were buying back in the mid-Eighties. For one thing, back then, everyone wanted Victorians. And those who got them scoured estate sales, salvage yards and antique stores to bring them back to absolute period correctness. Which is what we did. Only to find in 2014 that fashions have changed and people are gutting Victorians and making them glass and steel modern. So the challenge has been to show the house in a way that appeals to people other than those who absolutely love Victoriana and have a houseful of horsehair couches, ornately carved sideboards and antique terrier prints to prove it. In fact, I’m told that the latter kind of people will be extinct in San Francisco once Andy and I leave the City. Hence the recommendations, even demand, by all of the real estate agencies I interviewed — for professional staging.
Interviewing stagers was a little traumatic. We know our taste isn’t everyone’s. But even our friends who are confirmed aficionados of Mid-Century Modern and other later styles like our house. Or at least say it is unique, eccentric and very us. Or else they are just being very nice and tactful. So I wasn’t quite prepared for the look of absolute horror on the faces of the stagers who came to be interviewed. What seemed to really cause vomit to rise in their throats were my carefully curated collection of 100 to 120 year old chandeliers that we had placed in nearly every room. I realize Victorian isn’t most professional interior designers’ favored style, but we aren’t exactly the Clampetts. I didn’t think our decorating was such a violation of the code of aesthetics that anyone would have to avert his eyes in horror.
Thank goodness for one stager, a lovely Thai man who took me by the hand immediately and said: “My dear, you have a lovely home and you’ve done it beautifully. But this process is not about taste. It’s about overcoming buyer objections before they can arise. What we are working against are some smaller rooms, some of which are a little dark. But the greatest challenge will be someone’s fear that their furniture won’t look right in here because it isn’t Victorian. So I would go very modern just to counter that fear.” For the record, I wanted to hire that man. But staging isn’t just about being simpatico. Especially if you are moving as fast as we were to market, you need a large enough company that they have a warehouse full of furniture ready to be brought in, enough workers to get the thing done in the time needed and a long track record in staging houses that went crazily over asking. So I reluctantly ignored my personal preference and went with the company every agent I interviewed recommended from personal experience.
So let the staging begin. It was madness, mostly because of the truncated time frame which had painters, handymen, movers, cleaners and stagers all running in and out of rooms one after the other like something out of a French farce. Everyone took it in stride, except for the stager, a man with a highly developed sense of aesthetics who was much in need of his space to “visualize”. The painters were marching out with their drop cloths and brushes as he was trying to get furniture in. My Guatemalan cleaning professional was making snarky comments about him in Spanish to his Hispanic workers. And the damn owner was underfoot putting her sticky hands on every perfectly fluffed pillow. I considered a few times how amusing it would be if I’d brought the terriers up instead of putting them in Dr. Dave’s Doggie Daycare. But I didn’t want to drive the man to impale himself on one of his long necked display vases. This is why many stagers have it written into their contracts that the owners MUST NOT BE ON THE PREMISES WHEN THE ARTISTES ARE AT WORK. I’m sure I only got a pass because of the crazy timeline. Besides being underfoot, owners might live blog the staging experience with snarky Facebook posts. But then again, I don’t know ANYONE who would do that. Although, with the exception of one hissy fit when he discovered that the dining room was still a sage green, one 120 year old chandelier was still up and there were actual curtains in that room, Snippy McStagerton survived the process relatively intact. Of course, he doesn’t yet know that I got stuck in San Francisco when my car wouldn’t start and had to sleep on his carefully staged bed which I’d watched three workers iron in place so there was nary a wrinkle and the pillows were dented just so. I expect there will be fireworks later today, but I escaped to San Jose and won’t be there to witness them. That’s what real estate agents are for.
But people have been messaging me and contacting me throughout the snarky Facebook live-blogging (WHICH I WOULD NEVER DO) and asking if I would recommend staging and is it worth it. As much of an expert as this one experience makes me, here is my advice:
1. What is happening in your market with homes in your price range? In San Francisco, everyone trying to get over a million stages. People have come to expect that monochromatic, neutral palette catalog-y look of staging. So if you don’t stage, your house looks odd by comparison.
2. If staging isn’t the norm in your area, there is plenty of advice on the web about doing your own staging. Most designers recommend removing about a third of your furniture and belongings, painting and fixing up anything that needs it, and ruthlessly culling anything personal like high school graduation pictures, Little League trophies and diplomas. Also get rid of anything pet related as many people don’t want to consider a house that has been filled with animal hair. However, I’m not sure I know any of those people.
3. Invite over a few people who might not have seen your house to tell you what they think of it in terms of whether they think they could live in it. What really drove home that we needed to stage was when an acquaintance who was considering renting our place came over to view it for the first time. I know where this guy lives and I know the amount of furniture he has. It’s nowhere near the volume of our stuff and his place is nowhere the size of our house. Yet he walked in and said, “Oh, I can’t rent this place. None of my stuff will fit.” So obviously, regardless of the reality of square footage, this guy saw our place as small and cramped. Which probably had much to do with all that Victorian furniture, the baby grand piano, the wainscotting to ceiling antique prints, and the built in bookshelves crammed with books and objets.
4. If you decide to stage, interview several stagers. Find out what their track record is in being involved with record-breaking or over-asking sales. Get testimonials from former clients and real estate agents as to their experiences with the stager in terms of staging a wide variety of properties and their track record in doing their set-up quickly and efficiently.
5. Then don’t take it seriously and do some snarky live-blogging on Facebook during the process. That is if you are allowed to watch. Which you won’t be.
So do we think it was worth it hiring a stager? Absolutely. Even after loving and living in this house and restoring it over 30 years, we could never imagine the house would be this versatile in accommodating such a wildly different style of decorating. Having a Victorian doesn’t mean you have to slavishly adhere to Victorian style — although we wouldn’t have it any other way. But at least now the house appeals to someone other than the three couples left in San Francisco with as much Victorian stuff as we have.
So we have to hand it over to the real star of the show: my little 1892 Queen Anne Victorian. She’s the Helen Mirren of houses. She’s done a lot of living and some of it shows in wrinkles and things that sag just a little bit. But she’s got great bones, more class than ladies a quarter of her age, and a lot of attitude. This staging is just a new dress for her and she’s rocking it — as she has through the decades. Vale, little Noe Victorian. I hope whoever buys you loves you and cares for you as much as we did. But you went through some horrendous re-muddles in the 70s and you survived that to be brought back to your former beauty. You’ve been through two of the most devastating earthquakes in U.S. history and you are still standing. You’ve seen fashions change and come around and you are still stylish.
Cue the Gloria Gaynor. You will survive.
Note: Frequent readers will recognize Ranch Manager Louis. I had to call to Sonoma for reinforcements to take down about a 100 lbs. of Victorian style drapery.