If you’ve been prepping your home for sale, you’ve probably been getting a bunch of outdated information from well-meaning real estate agents. Paint all the walls white! Hide every last family photo in a drawer or closet! Potential buyers want to imagine themselves in the home, so wipe out all traces of anyone living here!
The truth is, home buyers are much savvier than they used to be, and no one wants to live in an art gallery. To put these and other hoary old tropes of home buying and selling to rest for good, we reached out to Mary Jane White, owner of Cohen + White, a boutique real estate agency in Lenox, Massachusetts. With 30-plus years in the business and an impressive track record as one of the top producers in the Berkshires, Mary Jane has a whole lot to say about the do’s and don’ts of styling your home for real estate showings.
Fresh American: One of the most common tips we hear in decorating a home for sale is that you should paint all of your walls neutral. Is this really true?
Mary Jane White: Absolutely not. What matters is good design. On a lot of home shows, they’ll tell you to depersonalize the entire house, but buyers respond to houses that don’t look vanilla, that have a personality.
FA: What are the most important decorating or styling points to hit when you’re selling your home?
MJW: It’s more about the time you put into the prep than about spending a lot of money. The number one thing is that the house needs to be spotless. The windows should be sparkling, the floors gleaming, the countertops decluttered. You should set out fresh towels in the kitchen and the bath especially. Accessories should be clean and new. Also, make sure all lamps and lightbulbs are working.
I tell people to start by throwing out the mess from attic to basement. Messiness gives the impression to the buyer that this is how the house has been maintained. Buyers will look beyond furnishings, even if they’re not the most upscale, but they will not look beyond the disorganized, the cluttered, or the dirty. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $100,000 house or a $5 million house;,it’s about the pride with which a seller represents their home to the public.
FA: So once you’ve cleaned from top to bottom, what’s the next step?
MJW: Closets are the first thing sellers go through, so hang things neatly. If you need to, buy shelving, garment bags, or storage bins. Piles of clothes are not okay!
Next, get those stains out of the carpeting. Buff those hardwood floors and get rid of scratches. Touch up scratches or dings on baseboards, doors, and walls. Paint is cheap, so don’t overlook this! Then repair any torn screens and cracked windows.
FA: Walk us through what we should do in each of the major rooms, and the exterior. Let’s start with a general overview.
MJW: Placing fresh flowers throughout the house is a good idea, but make sure they’re not strong-smelling ones. Lilies, in particular, have a strong scent and are often associated with funerals, so don’t use them.
If you have a cat, clean the litter box as close to the showing as you can, and then figure out the best location for it, so that any smells won’t be offensive. The laundry room or basement are good.
Take another look around. Can you declutter even more? There should be no piles of mail, papers, newspapers, or magazines, not even in the office. Less is more.
Now, that said, I do believe that personalities of the sellers should shine through. Despite what the TV shows say, buyers do like to see one or two photos with people in them—not an entire wall of them, but a few beautifully displayed pictures. If you’re a traveler, you should display—sparsely—some of your artwork from around the world. Or say you collect vintage dolls. You don’t want to display 50, but you can edit your collection, maybe display one in a beautiful antique rocker on a shelf. I advise all of this because buyers will inevitably ask two questions—Who lives here now? And why are they selling?—and some personal touches help to tell the story. For example, if you have a smiling photo of your grandchild in California, I can mention that you’re planning to move closer to him or her.
FA: How should you style the master bedroom?
MJW: The placement of the bed needs to make sense. It’s okay to place a king-size bed equally distant between two windows, but it shouldn’t be partially covering one. If you can place the bed so it has a view out the window, even better. Next, make your bed so your mother would be proud. The coordinates should be matching and not look worn. If the sheets show, they should be pressed. Cover sheets and pillowcases that are wrinkled with throw pillows or shams.
If the master bedroom is big enough, it’s always nice to have a spot for a reading nook. It’s not only welcoming, but it makes a room appear more spacious. If you have an old carpet, you can put an area rug over it for showings, but be aware that the condition of the carpet will come up during the inspection.
FA: And the kids’ bedroom?
MJW: In the kids’ bedroom, think bins, containers, and storage. Put a bin in the closet and have your kids drop their toys in there the night before a showing so you don’t have to scramble to do it the day of. As long as the wall color is tasteful, you don’t have to worry about trying to make it look more adult, but do touch up any scratches or dings.
FA: What tips do you have for styling the bathroom?
MJW: The bathroom should be spalike and inviting. Everything should be new, clean, and coordinated—the towels, the pumps for hand soap and lotion, and any other accessories. Don’t use bar soap; if it gets even the slightest bit wet, it will make a mess. And make sure to clean the mirrors. I can’t tell you how many houses I go into, and there’s toothpaste splatter on the mirror! Other big mistakes are mismatched, worn towels and leaving personal items on the counter. Buy some fresh towels you use just for showings, and put away hair dryers, shaving accessories, makeup, and hairbrushes. Lay out a brand-new rug.
FA: And the home office?
MJW: Get rid of piles of paper or files. There are so many great desk accessories to choose from to keep everything neat and organized, so this is easy. The home office is where it’s nice to see a few personal photos on the desk—this could be a family portrait, you out kayaking, your dog. Choose simple, attractive frames.
FA: What should we keep in mind for styling the kitchen and dining room?
MJW: Decluttering the countertops is a must. It’s acceptable to keep out a few daily-use appliances, like a coffeemaker or a toaster, but make sure they are sparkling clean. A bowl of fresh fruit, some flowers, or a bottle of wine on the counter is nice, too. If you have glass-front cabinets or a breakfront, everything behind the glass needs to be symmetrical, organized, and color-coordinated. Finally, take the mess off the fridge! One adorable picture of your child, your cat or dog, your friend’s wedding is great, but 27 photos pinned up with mismatched magnets is not a good look. Buyers understand that real people live in these houses, but they don’t want to see a big jumble.
In the dining room, a lovely centerpiece on the table or a couple of candles in beautiful candleholders is enough. Whatever you do, don’t stage the table with a table setting. It shouldn’t look like a dinner party is about to happen.
FA: How about the living room?
MJW: Be mindful of the furniture placement. If there’s a fireplace, arrange some furniture and pillows around it in a conversation area. Likewise if you have a nice view, place some furniture there to take it in. Make sure there is plenty of walking space around the room; take out some pieces if you have to, to facilitate the flow of the space.
Also be aware of the scale of the furniture and the size of the room. If you have a small living room, an overstuffed couch or big recliner will make the room appear smaller. And watch out for the cords on lamps, TVs, and anything else with plugs. You don’t want a potential buyer tripping over them.
FA: How should we tackle the exterior?
MJW: Cleanliness is key here, just as on the inside. If you have a flagstone walkway, check it for any uneven stones. Otherwise, sweep the walkway of any debris, and store trash bins—covered only; never open!—out of sight inside the garage or shed. Mow the lawn, and make sure any flower beds or gardens have been weeded. If you have pets, clean up after them. The buyer shouldn’t have to worry where she steps on the lawn.
In the workshop or garage, put away all tools—wall hooks, lockers, and pegboards are all perfect for this. Buy containers for storage smaller items—you can use them again and again, so they’re worth the investment. Bring in extra lighting, if necessary; a dark garage is uninviting. And if you have a concrete floor, give it a fresh coat of paint. You’ll be amazed at what a fresh coat can do, even for an older house or room.