Getting prospective buyers in the door when selling a home can be a hit or miss proposition, especially when it’s vacant. Kera Cherrey of California, Md., works to change that on behalf of clients with her Chesapeake Staging & Design business.

“Staging is interior design and decorating to maximize or emphasize the features of a home,” Cherrey said, standing outside a new, vacant 5,200-square-foot, four-story house she was “staging” in the Park Pines subdivision in St. Mary’s County on Feb. 21. “It’s so necessary nowadays because buyers cannot see the spaces for what they could be — or what they should be, or what they are — in a lot of cases.”

Cherrey brings in furniture and decor to give the house a lived-in feel, and sometimes has walls painted and flooring redone, or at least cleaned, to freshen up the rooms.

Larry Miller, who has worked as a developer/builder since 1997 in the county and throughout Southern Maryland, said he had never used a stager before but decided to give it a try with the house in Park Pines, which has stood vacant for a while for lack of a serious sales effort. It was originally built for someone whose financing didn’t work out.

“I’ve sold a lot of homes and it gives a hell of a change in the feel, I can tell you that,” Miller said about the staging. “You’ve been in a finished model home: The difference is night and day.”

Echoing what Cherrey said about showing potential buyers what a room could be, Miller said the visual presentation beats descriptions hands down.

“You don’t have to work with the word picture, you’ve got the actual picture,” he said.

Miller’s real estate agent on the project, Melanie Montague of the Prince Frederick office of Keller Williams Select Realtors, said she and her colleagues have been staging rooms and whole houses for a while now, especially in vacant homes.

“I used to not believe in it, then we did it and it made a difference on house sales,” she said. “We rehab houses, so we stage our houses. You need a visual.

“People like a house within the first 30 seconds of walking in the front door. If you walk in and it’s a vacant space, and it doesn’t feel like home, you’re not selling the home feeling,” Montague said.

Getting the buyers to the house comes first, and Cherrey said getting things right for photographs plays a big role in getting them to the front door.

“People buy homes from home,” she said. “That is why it’s so important for your pictures to look good, whether or not you’re living in the house.”

To help people end up with better pictures for the real estate websites, she’s begun promoting consultations — in lieu of full stagings — with homeowners and real estate agents alike. She said she was spurred on when she did some research for an upcoming presentation to a group of Realtors.

“To prepare for it, I went online and looked at houses out there on the market and the pictures are horrific,” Cherrey said. “A consultation with a professional can minimize all the things that you’re leaving in or doing wrong in the pictures that the potential buyers are seeing.”

Cherrey started her business two years ago out of her California, Md., home and uses a couple of rental storage units to keep the home furnishings she’s accumulating — when not in use — as the business grows. She has enough for 10 homes currently and plans to have enough for 15 by late spring.

“If all of my furniture came back at the same time I would not have storage for it,” Cherrey said with a laugh. “Staging has really taken off. I’m a baby in the industry, but my two years have been amazing growth. For the entire month of February, I’ve staged one to two houses a week.”

Though a “baby,” Cherrey has already been named to the top 10 nationwide in the Real Estate Staging Association Rising Star Home Stager of the Year competition.

She spends a lot of time staging houses in the Chesapeake Ranch Estates in Lusby, which has a high concentration of single-family homes, as well as in the Waldorf market. But her big projects are typically in St. Mary’s.

“I probably do the least in St. Mary’s County, but my biggest projects are in St. Mary’s County because the homes are bigger,” she noted.

Cherrey said staging homes for sale is common — almost a must — in other parts of the country to maintain an advantage in the housing market, but professional staging is somewhat new to the Southern Maryland market.

“I don’t know that I pioneered staging down here — I’m sure people came before me and they’ll come after me — but in other areas [of the country], staging is the rule,” Cherrey said. “In this area, it’s sort of the exception. My business has just been booming, and [staging] is growing.”

Vacant homes and new builds make up the bulk of her business, though she’s open to more requests from homeowners, whether a consultation or full-blown staging, who plan to live in their home while it’s on the market. She said that’s the bulk of the sales market.

“I do vacant home staging, mostly,” she said. “Either it’s a flip for a real estate investor, or it’s a new build like this house, or it’s somebody who has relocated with the military and they’re gone. That’s the bulk of my business. That’s what I’m known for and what I love because of the design aspect of it — being able to put together the whole picture.”

She said the cost of staging a home is typically anywhere from 0.75 to 1 percent of the listing price of the home, and consultations start at $150 for a smaller, lower priced home and go up from there. She provides a written report on ideas and to-do lists for the consultation fee.

“Maybe you don’t need to hire me to come back, but maybe you need to hire a carpenter, a cleaner,” she said.

With most homes, usually not all of the rooms are staged. Things like kitchens, family rooms and master bedrooms — and “secret” rooms like one in the Park Pines home — are typically on the staging list.

“It depends on the size of the house, the budget of the owner, and also there are some rooms that definitely need it,” Cherrey said. “Really small bedrooms need staging because often people will go, ‘Gosh, I wonder if anything will fit in there.’ The right size furniture will.

“I do a lot of basements. That’s an add-on cost, but sometimes it’s necessary, especially when you have those ‘bowling alley’ basements.”

Even investors who flip homes will likely benefit from paying a professional stager, Cherrey said.

“If you’re an investor, you’re not the only one investing [in the area]: There might be four or five other homes in the same area,” she said. “If they’re vacant, completely vacant, and you hired the stager, you’ll get the showings and the foot traffic.”

Miller is hoping the staging Cherrey is doing for him will make the difference in attracting a buyer for the large, well equipped home in Park Pines, which he said will be a bargain for somebody at around $450,000. Another of his homes built in the subdivision sold for $650,000 in the “heyday,” he said, and it was smaller and less equipped.

“Instead of staging the whole house, we’re going to stage certain areas. It makes it an affordable option,” Miller said. “Particularly because, as Melanie says, the first impression is everything.

“Somebody’s going to buy this house awful cheap.”

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