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Unreal Estate: The Art of Scrubbing All Identity From a Home

In a slow market, anxious sellers may hire a home stager to draw attention to their property, ultimately adding to the surging cost of real estate.
(Illustration: Magoz)

(Illustration: Magoz)

When Maria Caldwell, a home stager in Silicon Valley, arrived at the job site, she found mismatched art on the walls, dirty laundry on the floor, and an ultra-modern chandelier hanging where, there was no doubt in her mind, a more classic one belonged. “Empty is better than it is now,” she said, after surveying the place. “It looks like someone lives here.”

It was spring, the best season to sell real estate, and Caldwell had been turning down 12 staging opportunities a month. Her current project was a four-bedroom home in Burlingame, California, a pricey suburb where families move to escape San Francisco’s fog and lousy schools, while remaining just 20 miles from the city. That day, Caldwell wore a black T-shirt, blue jeans, and boots with four-inch heels. “I normally wear Uggs and workout pants, but I threw these on since I knew you were coming,” she said to me. As a stager, Caldwell is in the business of keeping up appearances.

The homeowners—a husband and wife, with a son—had not yet finished packing. Caldwell instructed her moving crew to clear out the family’s larger possessions, including their furniture. She then pulled the husband aside in the dining room to remind him to clean out a hutch. “We need to empty the whole thing?” he asked, pointing to a shelf full of dishware. “Or does it just make sense to put something in there that covers it up?” Caldwell compromised and suggested he “edit.”

Despite the fact that the homeowners were not white, almost all of the subjects in her replacement photos were.

In a slow real estate market, anxious sellers may hire a home stager to draw attention to their property; staged houses, if you believe industry statistics, sell several weeks faster and fetch prices 17 percent higher than non-staged houses. But with a housing crunch in the Bay Area, staging just adds to the surging cost of real estate. As of 2014, 86 percent of San Francisco households cannot afford the median-priced home.

In the kitchen, Caldwell replaced the family’s old Soup of the Day cookbook, on a plastic stand, with the French Laundry Cookbook—that totem of high cuisine—on a nicer, wooden stand. She eyed a thin layer of grease on the stove, and rubbed her palm over the book’s clean white cover. “I don’t want this to get all dirty,” she said. “I’m gonna have to talk to them about that.”

She also disapproved of the orchid in the kitchen window. “Every realtor wants to put orchids in their house,” Caldwell said. “I just think that looks generic.” In its place, she set two lollipop-shaped topiaries, one on either side of the faucet.

I asked Caldwell why orchids were generic and topiaries weren’t.

“Generic means it’s everywhere,” she said. The topiaries, as she explained, were just “depersonalized,” or “not so unusual that buyers can’t relate to it.”

The basics of depersonalizing a home—packing up family photos and religious iconography—have long been important in preparing a house for market. Some experienced home sellers even know to remove furniture and accessories that appear loud, mismatched, or outdated. But professional stagers approach depersonalization with a far higher level of scrutiny.

With the family’s snapshots packed, Caldwell set up her own collection of framed pictures throughout the house. Despite the fact that the homeowners were not white, almost all of the subjects in her replacement photos were. Caldwell also never includes trash cans in staged homes. To avoid clutter, she accents shelves with just a few hardback books, and usually hides the covers behind decorative paper. Her bedsheets are always wrinkle-free and her dining room tables are always set. The clean-pressed, garbage-free, perfectly arranged fantasy makes her business thrive.

In San Mateo County, where Burlingame is located, the median home price exceeds $1 million. In 2012, Caldwell staged a house that Mark Zuckerberg bought in Palo Alto—less than two miles from where she lived during high school. Now, priced out of her old neighborhood, Caldwell commutes four to six hours a day to and from her home in Murphys to stage real estate in the area.

By dinnertime, Caldwell had erased almost every sign of the family from their home. As she crouched by the front door, rummaging through one of her plastic bins of accessories, she heard a loud crash. A moment later, the husband walked over. “We need to put a sign to be careful with this furniture,” he said. “That chair I was sitting on just collapsed.” Caldwell followed him back to the kitchen, where his wife was propping up a staged chair on three legs with one hand, holding the fourth leg in the other.

When the house sold two weeks later, the new owners asked to buy the kitchen chairs. The broken one had since been repaired, but Caldwell declined the offer. “No one wants to pay for marked-up, used furniture,” she said. But the new owners had already, in some sense, paid for them. Their winning bid for the house was $105,000 over asking price.

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