Friday, May 7, 2010


Woe to the real estate agent who encounters me at a cocktail party. For years I've been decrying the now nearly universal practice of "staging" homes and condos for sale. My San Francisco neighborhood features dozens of open houses each weekend, many of which have been on the market for some time at strikingly marked-down prices. But when I walk into these houses -- some of them pretty spectacular on their own in terms of architectural detail and staggering views of the city and Bay -- I'm immediately distracted by the staging.

The Real Estate Staging Association (RESA) claims that staged homes spend 78% less time on the market. To me that speaks more to the paucity of imagination of most home buyers than the effectiveness of rented sofas and dining room place settings that stare up vacantly from elaborately decorated tables.

Few things are more aspirational than an empty house. You walk through the stillness of the rooms and think about the families that were raised there, the tragedies and triumphs witnessed by that indifferent wainscoting. And if you're really considering living there yourself, you picture your own furniture in front of that hearth, your artwork on the walls, the pieces that you'd pick up somewhere to fill the empty corners. You decide which room would be your bedroom and which alcove you'd use as an office. It's inconceivable to me that I could be moved by some settee foisted on me by a staging company, or the ugly pampas grass thrusting out of a hideous vase or the Laura Ashley fabrics draping the windows.

There's a scene at the end of the classic 1947 film Miracle On 34th Street when Maureen O'Hara, John Payne and Natalie Wood, knowing that circumstances have united them and they'll now be a complete family, look at an empty house in the suburbs. It was a reflection of what was going on at the time, when post-war prosperity and want of a better life drove millions of middle class families out of the inner cities. The characters examine the vacant rooms with hope and expectation, on the virge of a new life together. It's the emptiness of the dwelling itself that they're about to fill with their potential as a family, and I don't think a couple of couches or throw rugs would have done as well to bind them together.

People have come to expect home staging, I guess, but only because it's become the norm in urban centers. Give me a clean, empty house ringing with footsteps of potential buyers peering into closets and cupboards, all considering the better life that could be lived within those walls.

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