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10 apartment staging mistakes that can cost you a sale

A four-bedroom co-op with Central Park views, 6 West 77th St., 10CD, was staged by Anne Kenney to maximize the open layout.

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Let’s face it: New York City’s slow sales market means if you’re selling now, you have some stiff competition because of a glut of new luxury condos with fancy amenities. 

“Because developers are pumping so much money into the show rooms for their developments, people cannot afford to let a resale apartment come across as a dud," says Michael J. Franco, an associate broker at Compass. These pristine versions are what buyers of new condos usually see, Franco says, instead of the units themselves, especially when they are in the early- to mid-stages of construction.

That's why many NYC sellers try to level the playing field by staging their apartments, which means presenting a property in a way that allows buyers to see its full potential. This can mean new furnishings, paint, and lighting—as well as other upgrades.

The increased need for staging is a sign of where the market is at during the pandemic, where first impressions routinely happen online.

“A primary consideration when staging during Covid is to look at the space not only in its entirety, but also from the viewpoint of a lens,” says Babak Hakakian, partner at contemporary luxury furniture design firm ddc Group.

“With so much of what we all do taking place in a virtual landscape, it's important to be thoughtful about how each area will appear in a virtual walk-through, or photograph. It’s a subtle, yet important distinction. While there is no substitution for seeing the full project in person, reviewing the spaces from this perspective helps create a more successful result,” he says.


[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in September 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for September 2020.]


One unit that Hakakian styled from top to bottom at 277 Fifth Ave. sold in a matter of weeks. “So staging does make a difference.”

Whether you hire a staging pro or decide to DIY it, you’ll want to avoid the common missteps that can sabotage staging. Here are some expert pitfalls to keep in mind.

1) Being too cookie-cutter

Forget about a one-size-fits-all approach. The condo surplus means it’s possible for people to see the same staged aesthetic (e.g. beige couch, black and white art—like this nod to abstract expressionist Franz Kline—and cream rug) time and time again. Buyer beware: style fatigue ahead. 

How to make yours stand out from the crowd? Do your homework.

“Learn what else is for sale in the same building or in the same neighborhood,” says certified staging expert Anne Kenney, founder of Anne Kenney Associates. Partner with your broker, who knows the comps, and be strategic in your staging. 

This will in turn enable you to aim for the target demographic. For example, you wouldn’t stage a renovated loft in Tribeca the same as a prewar on the Upper East Side.

Hakakian emphasizes giving each space a design sensibility to create an atmosphere (and experience) that appeals to the widest audience without being too generic. “The way we do that is by adding texture through fabrics and materials and accessories, which are so important,” he says.

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Kenney encourages taking calculated design risks, such as by hanging eye-catching artwork and even mixing it up with canvas and photographs and other items. That might also include a chalkboard panel in a kid’s room or wallpaper in a living room.

“You cannot be afraid to be distinctive, so long as you are following the basic strategies of staging,” she says. 

In the end, it’s all about striking a balance and making your apartment more inviting and exciting than others. 

2. Skipping the essentials

Clean, fresh, and bright is the universal tenet of staging, and is always in style. Remember: Buyers have been bombarded with pristine, unlived-in condos, so you’ll need to step up your game. 

As a seller, you’re also up against the “HGTV effect,” where buyers have been conditioned to expect move-in ready, picture-perfect apartments—with no work required at all.

Painting is a must. Nothing does more to improve your home than this one step. (See #4 for more on painting.) “You can even freshen up tired kitchen cabinetry with a coat of paint,” Franco says. 

Then hit the floors, polishing or refinishing hardwoods and replacing wall-to-wall carpeting. (Per Franco, steam-cleaning may not be enough to revive it.)

Handle all the numerous repairs. Fix the leaky faucet, grout the bathroom, refinish the counters, replace a broken doorknob. Buyers will start mentally deducting from the price when they see needed repairs like these, brokers say. Fixing them usually ends up costing much less than you think, especially if your broker has a go-to handyperson. 

Finally, clean every last inch, including the windows. “Odors in particular are the kiss of death,” Kenney says, who points to wet dogs, kitty litter, cigarette smoke, and mildew in the bathroom as common culprits. Nip these in the bud.

Don’t forget any outdoor spaces—go the extra step and pick up trash and sweep the sidewalk out front to make the property look well maintained.

Pro Tip:

If you're unsure how your apartment will come across to prospective buyers, how much time and money you should invest in staging or renovating, or if you simply want to test the waters, consider "pre-marketing" your co-op, condo or brownstone before you publicly list it. The pre-marketing platform at New York City brokerage Triplemint is a no-risk way to quietly test your asking price and marketing strategy among actual  buyers shopping for a place like yours. There's no charge to participate and no obligation to sell or enter a traditional listing agreement if you haven't found a buyer by the end of the pre-marketing period. To learn more, click here. >>

3) Personal effects

Any deal requires an emotional connection, and that won’t happen if buyers see too much evidence of you rather than being able to project their own hopes and dreams onto the space.

“People who decide to buy a place have to imagine how amazing living there will be, and they don’t want to live with other people’s family,” Hakakian says. No one wants to see the giant photo of your family wearing matching button-down shirts on the beach.

Kenney says it’s fine to leave an artistic shot of your baby that communicates “this home is ideal for a family,” but otherwise put all those photos and tchotchkes away—no matter how cute.

The same goes for anything that’s potentially off-putting, such as religious or political paraphernalia—and anything that could be construed as appealing to specific age groups. “We are in the most diverse market in the world, and you don’t want to be dismissive of anyone,” Kenney says.

4) Color misconceptions

No matter how immaculate your Farrow & Ball De Nimes living room may be, the consensus is to stick with one of the countless shades of white when it comes to attracting buyers.

To keep all that white from coming off as too stark or sterile, do as designers do and incorporate pops of color to draw the eye around a room or even down a long hallway. 

Hakakian prefers what he calls Tuscan or earthy colors, nothing neon (too flamboyant) or even pastels (too feminine). 

Kenney likes to pick colors based on the emotions they convey—red is stimulating and can be used to inject energy, blue is calming and ideal for a bedroom.

Whichever accent color(s) you choose, use it (and any patterns) selectively and sparingly by limiting it to throw pillows, artwork, and rugs. 

5) Inadequate lighting 

Hakakian finds that people forget about lighting more than any other element of staging, yet “it makes the biggest impact in bringing a space to life.” You can use lighting to create intimacy in a larger room and to spotlight artwork or some other focal point for that “wow” factor. 

If you have a dark apartment, you’ll especially want to pull out every trick in the book to brighten things up. Consider swapping out LEDs for warm (incandescent) light bulbs.

Kenney incorporates mirrors and other reflective surfaces, and also takes down window treatments to maximize exposure. (Exception: If you are staring at a brick wall, you might want to get sheer blinds or shades that allow the light to filter through while softening the view.)

6. Clutter (enough said)

If ever there was a time to declutter, it is now. Once your property is on the market, you have to stop thinking of it as a home and more as a product. Granted the process is rife with emotion, and some purging is going to be required. 

The key is not to go overboard. “There is a continuum between having too much clutter and not enough,” Kenney says, who finds all those empty surfaces come off as too cold. Rather the goal is for the staging to be lifelike, albeit in an idealized state.

Storage, or the lack thereof, is a definite deal breaker. “Leave closets at least 30 percent empty to let some air between items,” she says. Put all but in-season clothes and outerwear in a storage unit. Leave stuff off the floor.

Even if you don’t have California Closets you can make them feel that way with canvas and woven bins to hide your stuff to make them feel inviting. Kenney will even shop at Ikea for matching wooden hangers.

The goal is to say if you lived here, “your life would be as organized as this closet,” organizers tell Brick Underground. Some even go as far as to treat the closet as if it were a little room, with wall paper and an attractive light fixture. (For more tips, read “Staging your closet when selling your NYC apartment.")

7) Poor use of space

Many New York City apartments have open floor plans, where your kitchen, living, and dining areas all flow into each other. But that can make it hard for a buyer to visualize how much space there is and whether it meets their needs.

Essentially, buyers have a mental checklist: Entryway? Check. Kitchen? Check. Eating nook? Check. You’ll want to use furniture and focal points to delineate areas and control the flow. (Rugs are great for this.)

That said, avoid overdoing it with the furniture groupings—you don’t need to create barriers. Odds are you have a fairly informal existence (like most New Yorkers). Buyers want to see how it’s possible to live with your open plan, so don’t crowd the layout with lots of heavy pieces or block the sight lines from one room to the next. In other words, avoid making it seem like your formerly laid-back den is now a (stuffy) dining room that seats 10. 

On a related note, Kenney votes for putting a bed in every bedroom, even if it’s a daybed. “People can always envision a home office, but they need convincing that it can really suffice as a bedroom,” she says.

8) No sense of scale

If you’re try to convince a buyer your apartment has a lot of space, and you fill it with over-size furniture that eats up all that space—your message will not succeed.

Large pieces also highlight awkward layouts (long and narrow living areas, for instance) that are commonplace in NYC dwellings. Opt instead for smaller, sleeker pieces, even in prewar apartments. Franco says buyers don’t want to see traditional furnishings these days.

Too-dark furniture is another no-no. “There can be a grand sofa that just needs new upholstery,” Hakakian says, who encourages people to pay attention to quality above all else. 

However, a rug that’s too small will instantly shrink a room. Ideally you want it to fit underneath your furniture, and not stop short of your couch edge, for example, for the best effect.

9) Overlooking creature comforts

“A few fur throws and pillows in the right place can be very luxurious,” says Kenney, who is not above putting two (not one!) terry robes and pairs of slippers in a closet. 

“As long as they’re not contrived, these small touches can elicit the visceral reaction you want.” 

Ditto crisp white bedding and fresh flowers in the bedroom, plush towels and spa treatments in the bathroom. 

10) Foregoing staging entirely

Staging appeals to a lot of sellers, but not if they have to pay for it.

If that sounds like you, there are affordable ways to work with a staging expert. Namely, “designate your priorities from the get-go,” Kenney says. Perhaps you just need a professional eye to come and help rearrange and edit what you already have, or give just one or two rooms a thorough redo. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she says. 

Brokers are also there to help, especially if you are on a tight budget. Moss will bring in pieces from her own collection; Franco has a specialist do the heavy lifting of decluttering.

And make no mistake: Empty apartments don’t sell. They seem too small and lack personality. “Staging takes away the guesswork for buyers and lets them envision how their life will be,” Moss says. 

Case in point: When it came down to choosing between two apartments in the same building, one of Franco’s clients went with the staged one, despite having a less desirable northern exposure than the empty one facing south. (Everyone interviewed had tales like this one, so there’s ample anecdotal evidence to support the strength of staging.)

Honorary mention: Poor photography

Franco notes that sellers with social-media smarts have raised the bar by marketing on Pinterest and Instagram. 

That’s why brokers and stagers rely on a professional photographer, who can capture all the right angles and use the right lighting. (No more bedside tables with different light bulbs.)

As Kenney points out, the faster you can sell, the better off you’ll be. “Just think of all those extra months of carrying costs you’ll save,” she says.

Previous versions of this post contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen.