Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 14, 2017

Setting the stage for a quicker sale

Proper staging helps buyers see home’s potential

Staged to Sell turns a vacant living and dining room into a place that feels like home. - Photograph provided

Carol Ann Wolf and Julie Helton understand that a home will either sell or remain on the market based on how it makes potential buyers feel.

A newly built house that’s flawless in every way but doesn’t stir a buyer’s emotions won’t sell. But even an older residence with cracked walls and loose floor tiles can attract a buyer when it feels like home.

As professional home stagers, Wolf and Helton furnish houses both old and new not just with furniture, wall decorations and knickknacks but with the feeling of being home.

“When buyers walk in, you want them to see themselves sitting on the couch, looking out the window and watching their children playing in the yard,” Helton says. “Buying a house is about how it makes you feel.”

Like painters, Wolf and Helton begin with a blank canvas and then create a work of art. An empty dining room becomes an inviting space in which family members come together at the end of the day to share a meal; a barren living room is transformed into an elegant setting for entertaining guests; and a vacant family room becomes a cozy nook for movie nights and lazy Sunday mornings.

Wolf and Helton have been staging homes together as Staged to Sell since 2012. During that time, they have learned a few things about how to present a house in a way they say will increase the odds of it attracting an offer.

Helton says the first rule of thumb is to appeal to the decision maker – the woman.

“When a man walks into a house, he begins to assess it rationally. He won’t buy it if there are cracks in the walls or it uses gas and he wants electricity,” Helton says. “When a woman walks into a house, she starts to think about whether or not it feels like home.”

“Can she see her kids growing up there? Can she see her husband treating her to a candlelight dinner?” Wolf adds.

For this reason, the home staging duo deliberately outfits rooms to appeal to women. They use Pottery Barn style furnishings and neutral colors, and aim for an overall feeling of warmth. They also put extra effort into dressing up the two spaces that are the most important to women: the kitchen and master bedroom.

“After a woman walks through the front door of a house, she goes straight to the kitchen. If she doesn’t like it, the tour is over,” Helton points out. “But if it’s staged well and she can see herself cooking there, it’ll feel like home and she’ll love it.”

In master bedrooms, Wolf and Helton like to add small details that highlight the livability of the space.

In a spacious Ooltewah home listed by Realtor Andy Hodes of Keller Williams, Wolf has set a bottle of wine and two glasses on a countertop near the bed, placed a selection of cosmetics on the vanity and spruced up one of the nightstands with a book and a pair of readers.

Each item is calculated to suggest one thing: home. In the same room, Wolf and Helton have bordered the bottom of the bed with stylish curtains panels, which Helton says looks better than bed skirts.

“Bed skirts are ugly,” Helton says. “Curtain panels look nicer and give us more color choices.”

Helton and Wolf say effective staging doesn’t just help a home sell, it helps a home sell faster – an average of 150 days faster.

“An un-staged house takes about 180 days to sell; a staged house takes around 30 days to sell,” Wolf claims.

Helton tells a story about a friend who asked her and Wolf to prepare her home for sale when the market was slow. Although nothing else in the neighborhood was selling, their friend’s house received multiple offers within two weeks.

That was in 2010, before Helton and Wolf launched Staged to Sell. Today, homes are flying off the market as fast as they can be listed on the MLS. But Helton and Wolf say professional home staging is still a valuable marketing tool.

Realtors appear to agree. The results of a national survey recently conducted by the National Association of Realtors show that 62 percent of sellers’ agents say staging a home decreases the amount of time it spends on the market.

Staged to Sell also has a local advocate in Linda Brock, a top-selling Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services in Chattanooga.

Brock uses Wolf and Helton as part of her marketing efforts for every vacant listing – and she swears by their work.

“Carol Ann’s vision for making a house a home is amazing. Her talent led to an immediate sale for my listing on Signal Mountain, with a 99 percent return on the price,” Brock explains.

“This listing previously experienced a 367-day marketing time compared to Carol Ann’s magic touch of only 38 days from list to close.”

“There’s no reason for Realtors to not recommend us to their sellers,” Wolf says. “What we do works.”

Born to stage

Although Wolf and Helton didn’t meet until well into adulthood, they shared a curious quirk as kids: they liked rearranging their friends’ rooms.

Later, Wolf consistently was told she had the best looking dorm room at the College of Charleston, where she earned a business degree. However, she didn’t realize she had an affinity for room design until she redid a friend’s space in Detroit, and word about her skills began to spread.

Encouraged by positive feedback, Wolf eventually started a room design business in Detroit called “Carol Ann’s Designs.” She also worked as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines.

Life eventually took Wolf and her family to Germany for three years.

Upon returning, the harsh northern winters prompted her to ask her husband to find a more temperate climate for them to call home. He did: Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, Helton was in Chattanooga handling the administrative side of her husband’s industrial equipment business and teaching pre-school on the side.

She also was still rearranging rooms – although only her own.

“My husband would come home from work after I’d rearranged the living room for the millionth time and start bumping into chairs that weren’t there before,” she admits, laughing.

Wolf and Helton met and became friends at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Soddy Daisy. When their friend’s house sold after they helped to stage it, Wolf and Helton realized they were on to something. “It was shocking because nothing else in that area was selling,” Wolf explains.

Although the ladies discussed the possibility of starting a home-staging business, they didn’t pull the trigger until March 2012, when they simply looked at the each other and said, “Let’s do it.”

The first year was tough. Wolf and Helton did a few freebies to begin developing a portfolio of before and after pictures but paid work was scarce. When they finally received the call for their first paid job, they were so excited, they forgot to hang up the phone before screaming in excitement.

Despite the dearth of business, Wolf and Helton pressed on, putting every dollar they made into building their home staging inventory and doing everything they could to drum up customers. Their efforts produced very little fruit.

“We didn’t know how to market ourselves,” Wolf says.

The ice began to crack in 2014, when Wolf built a website for Staged to Sell and then figured out how to manipulate Google into displaying the company first when people searched for “home staging.”

Wolf and Helton also began to give home staging presentations at local real estate firms to encourage Realtors to recommend them to their sellers.

“Realtors were the hardest nuts to crack,” Helton adds. “We weren’t a known factor, so they were apprehensive about telling their clients about us. If we didn’t do a good job, it would have made them look bad.”

The ice began to melt after Wolf launched the website, with homeowners seeking to use Staged to Sell after finding the company on the web. Since then, the freeze has all but dissipated, with Wolf and Helton currently staging several homes a month.

One of the signs of the health of their business is the growth of their storage space. In the beginning, Wolf and Helton stored their inventory in the basement of a friend. When the space was no longer adequate, they moved into Helton’s mother’s basement and several far-flung storage facilities. (Both describe this arrangement as a logistical nightmare.)

After outgrowing this setup, Staged to Sell landed at a warehouse off Shallowford Road with 2,000 square feet of floor space and tall industrial shelves filled with their goods.

There, in a small corner barely cooled by a non-oscillating fan, they plan their designs, put together their staging packages and fulfill their respective roles in the business.

Wolf handles most of the design work while Helton manages the logistics of the business. They reached this arrangement after a great deal of trial and error.

“Julie handles the communication side of the business very well. I wasn’t good at that,” Wolf says. “There are all kinds of details to iron out – the location of the key, the alarm code, when we’re going to be there – and she lets everyone know what’s going on.

“That’s a big part of why we’re successful. We do what we say we’re going to do when we say we’re going to do it, and we’re done when we say we’re going to be done,” Wolf continues.

Helton is just as complimentary of her friend and business partner.

“At the same time, Carol Ann knows I can’t stage a house alone,” she says. “I love doing it but I don’t want to be in charge of it.”

Wolf and Helton are proud of what they’ve built and have plans to grow from here.

“We love that we started Staged to Sell in our late forties and built it with our own money,” Helton adds. “We have no debt and the business is completely ours. At some point, we want to have our own trucks and hire a moving crew.”

The dynamic twosome has also retained the passion that first inspired their business idea, even though long days are becoming more common.

“We still get an adrenaline rush when we hear that a house we staged has sold,” Wolf adds. “We feel like we make a difference for people.”

“We’re a good marketing tool,” Helton points out. “We just need everyone to believe in the concept as much as we do. We need to be in every Realtor’s listings.”

Above all, Wolf and Helton still enjoy working together, even when the warehouse heats up and there are multiple homes to stage within a short time frame.

“We couldn’t do this without each other – and we wouldn’t even if we could,” Helton says. “That wouldn’t be any fun.”