Hide the My Little Ponies and other tips: staging and photographing your home for sale

Hi, buy my house

We sold our first house seconds before the US real estate market crashed in 2007, and honestly? I credit the staging and photography of the house as the main thing that made it sell quickly.

The mortgage industry was crashing down around our ears (our buyers' mortgage company declared bankruptcy and collapsed half way through the sale process) but I worked my ass off to make our house shine. Realistically, much of what I did could have been outsourced to our Realtor, but I couldn't resist doing it myself. (Triple shot: I'm a marketer who does editorial work involving lots of photography. I was NOT going to outsource marketing and documenting my own house!)

There are a million tutorials out there about how to stage your home if you want some more general ideas, but here are the things that I did personally that I felt like really worked for us.

Empty your house

Everyone says this, and it's true. You have to basically move out of your home to stage it, or make your peace with living in a sparse, slightly twisted version of your home. You're allowed bland art (not too much!) and one tchotchke per room.

Here was how our living room looked before I staged it:
The new livingroom

Here's what it looked like after I took all our stuff out of it:

You are compelled

Still funky and colorful, but way less cluttered. No My Little Ponies or sagging spider plants to distract potential buyers.

Fresh flowers and plants

Don't pack your plants! Leave out every plant you own, and then get a couple bouquets of grocery store flowers. They make sparse feel welcoming, and keep the space from feeling like a ghost motel. People DO live here — tasteful, invisible people, who smell good.

This kitchen could be yours!
Our kitchen magically sprouted a fern, some sun-flowers, and a couple bowls of fruit. But not a dish to be seen. The invisible people only eat fruit.

Stage rooms by use, aka make a fake bedroom

The larger of our bedrooms was my home office, but I quickly emptied it of my office stuff and staged it as a bedroom. We'd painted it a very dramatic combo of red and deep orange (a combo we didn't end up liking), and I was too lazy to paint it bland, so I decided to make the best of the drama by emptying the room and making it a sparse, bedroom with a huge white bed to lighten up some of the dark red drama.

I also go great tip about how to create a fake staged bed — I packed all my home office stuff into four big plastic tubs. I then borrowed an inflatable mattress to put on top of the tubs. I purchased a $25 King-size white fleece blanket, which I then draped over the air mattress/tub "bed." A few decorative pillows scrounged up from the basement, made a nice little sign that said "Do not sit on bed," and VOILA: bedroom.

Don't sit on the bed, as it will collapse beneath you.

Photographing

Borrow or rent a wide-angle lens

If you have a DSLR, borrow or rent a lens like this. These lenses are expensive, but TRANSFORM the way you can photograph your house. Here's how much of my old kitchen I could capture with a point 'n' shoot, vs. here's how much I could capture with a wide angle. Tiny rooms look palatial — this is how manage to make Tavi's walk-in closet bedroom look big. If you don't have a DSLR, borrow one. They all come with point-and-shoot options and you don't need to know how to do anything to get better pictures than you'd get from a point 'n' shoot.

These wide-angle lenses are EXPENSIVE, but so powerful that you'd likely make the $800 back in the cost of selling your home. It's everything.

Process your pictures: brighten, sharpen, saturate

I am NOT a photo editor, but I used Picasa and Picnik (Google's two free photo apps) to fix up my pictures. We're not talking crazy photo nerdery: I clicked the "I feel lucky" button and bumped up the sharpening a tiny bit. See, when looking at real estate listings online, I noticed that a lot of real estate photos are just a TINY bit sharp. It makes everything look a little crisper and cleaner — ESPECIALLY when combined with a wide-angle lens.

Before: even with all the lights on, it was a cloudy day, and the house looked dark.
AFTER! Four button clicks in Picasa got me to a brighter, cleaner, richer-colored house.

I'm betting professional photographers and photo editors are wincing right now — I'm not a pro, and my point here isn't to show you that I am. Rather, I just want to show how much you can improve photos with a couple subtle clicks, even if you have no clue what you're doing. The key is SUBTLE shifts. You don't want your photos to look like a glowing, airbrushed Blingeed unicorn ranch where only twinkly, soft-focus woodland fairies would live. It's still your house, just a little crisper.


In closing, I will say this: I think the wide-angle lens and the post processing are what sold our house. It sold to a European couple, I think in part because we made a bland home in a working class neighborhood look crisp and cool. The photos made it stand out among the listings in our price range and neighborhood. It was a solid little starter home and a Realtor did good work too, but staging and photography make a HUGE difference.

  1. "tasteful, invisible people, who smell good." HA! I love it. It's pretty much the polar opposite of what my house is.

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  2. I learned this trick from a fabulous gay couple who used to flip houses for fun: remove photographs of yourselves.
    For the purpose of walkthroughs, replace photos with framed mirrors. That way, people in the walkthrus LITERALLY see themselves in your home. MINDHACKS, YO.
    People who do this professionally will tell you that every room must be painted a pleasing eggshell. I say, just be sure that only one or two of your rooms is crazy-colored. I remembered houses I looked at online by their distinctive features. I tended to forget houses that were all white. For instance, one house had a great room that was mustard yellow and a red deck, and another house had cobalt blue trim and checkerboard floors–those stuck MUCH more in my mind than their white suburban sisters.
    I'd also caution against sticking too closely to the purposes that YOU'VE made for spaces. The office vs bedroom is a great example. Just because the only use you could find for an inset nook was sorting recycling doesn't mean you should leave it like that for staging. Look into ways other people might use it. Breakfast nook? Reading corner?

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  3. Wow Ariel, THANKS for this. I look at real estate just to get my feet wet for when I'm ready to purchase a house and I can't tell you how many times I see people shooting themselves in the foot by not AT LEAST tidying up for the photos. I watch as, what could be great buys, sit on the market for almost a year before they're finally just taken off. Such a simple EASY way to (almost) guarantee a sale!

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    • This is a great point, and as a buyer it's important to be able to look past those things in order to get a good deal.

      Our house was a real mess when we saw it – the front fence was falling over, the garden was overgrown in the front and nothing but sand and a few trees in the back (ok, it's still like that now… it's on the to-do list!)

      Inside it was messy and crammed with way too much furniture. We ended up getting it for a bargain because so many other buyers were put off by things that could so easily be changed.

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  4. I would definitely recommend cleaning up the yard too, if your home has a yard.

    We took forever to look at the house that we eventually ended up buying because every time we drove by or looked at the listing online the unkept yard, ugly chain link fence and huge carport overwhelmed the decent parts of the yard and porch.

    Once we moved in, we took out the front section of the chain link fence, put a ton of potted plants on the porch and keep the grass and bushes trimmed – makes such a difference! I still don't like the carport but I like so many other things about our lot and our home that I tolerate it.

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  5. Heck yeah on the wide angle lens! I do a lot of (amateur, around my own house) interior photography and I'm saving up my pennies for one. I think you can rent them from online sites (if you do a Google search) for less than $50 for just under a week. Totally worth it! Oh, and Tokina makes 3rd party versions of the wide angle lenses that are AMAZING for around $500 – still a good chunk of change, but leaves you a good $300 for plants. ;)

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  6. Love this post! Long time reader, first time commenter… From work even! Thats how much I love this!

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  7. Agreed 100% with this! As someone who is looking at property, you are really HELPING the buyer by doing this – not deceiving them per se. If the house is too cluttered, I can't picture our own stuff in it. I do want to be able to say "oh yeah, good idea, we could use this as a breakfast nook like they've done." And agreed, collections on display are *really* distracting unless I collect that exact same thing, which is (generally) unlikely. Think of it like your house is one of those displays at IKEA (ha). Great tips! :-)

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    • I absolutely agree! I can't stand it when folks don't help themselves and other by showing them what the space can be at its best. I get grossed out looking at photos of messy bedrooms and unclean kitchens, to the point where I'm less likely to look at a house because it turned me off. It's not a lie – it's an imagination boost!

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  8. I should give a copy of this to my ex-landlords estate agent. I think they broke every single one of your rules.

    I did my part – hiding our junk – because even though I had nothing to gain but speeding up the loss of our home (the landlord was selling, not us) I somehow felt obligated to make the place look good. And then he took 1 shot of each room with a tiny cheap digital camera and they were terrible.

    You couldn't get a decent sense of the size of any of the rooms, the flash showed up every paint chip in the bathroom and all he got of the spare room was the (neatly piled) junk in the corner.

    Unsurpsingly 2 months on the landlord is bemoaning a lack of decent offers on the place.

    Of course the flip side to this is to remember as a buyer not to overlook the cluttered, poorly photographed houses. They might not be photogenic but the clutter goes with the previous owner and you can repaint. You might even get a bargin due to a lack of compertition. (And if the property is part of an apartment building, housing estate or something similar look for other units on the market. Chances are the actual structure is the same and they might have better photos that can give you an idea what you're actually getting.)

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  9. We *just* sold our condo in Austin, TX, and also staged it. Our realtor used a company called Shutterbug to take the photos and set up a virtual tour. That way, only serious buyers would actually bother to come and see it in person. You can see our tour here for an example: http://www.hydeparkcondoforsale.info

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  10. I'm currently shopping for a house and all of this is SO TRUE!!!! I have seen MLS listings where there are dishes with half-eaten food in the pictures, one of EIGHT CATS in the bedroom, one with so many knick knacks I'm pretty sure it was an antique store for sale not a house. And you know what? I don't go look at those houses! Because if the people selling the place don't even care enough to clean up before taking pictures of the place, it makes me wonder what the hell else is wrong with the house that I can't see in the pictures.

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    • OMG with the messy crap in photos. We saw a ton of weird stuff when we were looking at listings, and we nixed several places because of it. One house we chose to look at even though it was a bit older than our ideal build year looked good in the photos. When we got there though, we were greeted at the door by a huge dog (a sweet dog, but a surprise no less), there were clothes folded and piled on the dining room table, there were dirty dishes in the sink floating in gray dishwater, the TV was on (which creeped me out), and there was a broken bed in one of the bedrooms. When we walked back out to the living room, we saw a shirtless guy dart around the corner to hide. When we left, he went to his truck and drove away. Super creepy and immediately off the list! So yes, stage your home for photos, but remember to leave it staged when showings are scheduled!

      2 agree
  11. What a world of difference! We moved house several months ago and looking at hundreds of badly lit, badly shot pictures it's hard to get a feel of the place. The houses we viewed were definitely the ones which had the best photographs.

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  12. "tasteful, invisible people, who smell good"… I am one of these people. I am sure of it.

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  13. My fiance and I are saving up to make the move from CT to IL in two years. For the past 6 months or so we have been reviewing the properties for sale to get a feel of what we want. We want to buy something cheap (like under $50,000 cheap) so we can put money into fixing it up and making it more "us". Some of the houses are amazing, and have great potential, but have wall paper and shag carpeting from the 70's, and wood paneling everywhere including the ceiling! While I know we can paint, and trust me, I'm more than willing to sprinkle my colorful magic anywhere I live, it's daunting to find a place in our price range and then look at the photos and see fake plants EVERYWHERE. Like seriously, around every door frame and on every wall.

    I'm all for staging because honestly it makes everything look so much better…but even if you can't stage your property for whatever reason, at least try to clean it up and take decent pictures! There's nothing worse than being excited because there's 15 photos of a property, only to go through and find out that 10 of them are half cut off and only show you a corner of each room, or even worse, the same room over and over.

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  14. I had always wondered how other people managed to get pictures that showed so much of a room. Thanks for answering that one for me!

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  15. The last showing we went to, we tried SOOO hard to be objective, but we couldn't see past the poop stained thongs on the floor and cluttered everything everywhere. Clean your houses people. :/

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  16. This is something my husband and I can't get over. When we moved back to Kansas City and were looking for a place, we were shocked at how badly people presented their houses.

    In Sydney, Australia (where we moved from), real estate is one of the national pastimes, in part because it is so f-ing expensive. Every place has an open house, and most places are sold at auction, so it is a very public affair. Check out http://www.domain.com.au, especially places in Sydney. Professional photos, wide angle lenses, videos. It's big business.

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  17. Very true, staging and photography are HUGE players when selling a home! For those that aren't in a marketing field and don't want to do it themselves, hire a Realtor that markets homes properly. An outstanding Realtor has your best interests in mind and they will hire (AND PAY FOR) a professional home stager and professional real estate photographer. They need to earn their commissions – hold them accountable!

    0 agree

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