the real estate

The Desperate Life and Times of Home Stagers

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Jason Saft, a real-estate agent for Compass who also runs a staging firm, always borrowed a little bit from his own home — occasionally grabbing a knickknack or a throw pillow to add a last-minute flourish to a client’s home. But during the pandemic, when supply-chain issues made it hard to get anything at a moment’s or even six months’ notice, Saft really started raiding the place, pulling artwork off the walls, moving out chairs and ottomans, even taking his 5-year-old daughter’s toys. “I had to get creative. A lot of basic things we were waiting on or running around to stores trying to find. There was so much uncertainty,” said Saft, who, in addition to pilfering items from his own home, used Facebook marketplace, secondhand websites like Kaiyo, vintage furniture stores, online auctions, and places like the Restoration Hardware warehouse, where items can be purchased directly off the floor. Also, he stockpiled. “There was this fear-buying mentality. Everyone else was buying paper towels and toilet paper, and stagers were stockpiling duvets and pillow inserts.”

Over the last two years, the supply-chain crisis has made it difficult to buy everything from a car to the color blue. New couches come with shipping delays of at least six months, and the competition on Craigslist can be fierce, even for secondhand Ikea basics, whose appeal, heretofore, was mostly that it was furniture that didn’t require much effort. In this atmosphere, staging, which relies on large quantities of readily available items — everything from lamps and throw pillows to sectionals and statement light fixtures — has become something of a nightmare. A lot of people are selling, stagers are booked up months in advance, and everything is more expensive, brokers say. That, and a number of apartments on the market are either empty, their owners having taken all their belongings with them when they left, or worse, furnished with the castoffs that they decided weren’t worth taking.

Jason Saft waited eight months for back-ordered ivory boucle chairs from CB2 to arrive. And then he only got half the order. When he finally received all eight chairs, he used them to stage the penthouse at 500 West 22nd Street. Photo: Hayley Ellen Day/DDReps, Listing Agent: The Leonard Steinberg Team/Compass

“I feel like I’ve never dealt with more staging contracts and staging woes than I am right now,” said Kirsten Jordan, an associate broker with Douglas Elliman. “First of all, sellers want to push pricing, and if you want to push pricing, you have to stage. Then we’re dealing with more listings coming in. And because staging is more expensive, sellers want several estimates. It feels like all we do is spend our time on the phone with stagers.”

Scott Harris, an associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens, said that he just got an estate-sale listing that needs to be staged. But the stager who came by to look at the place told him it would be a six-week wait. “That almost kills the spring market,” Harris said. He added that staging is a lot more expensive than it used to be. The minimum is $10,000 to $12,000 for a one-bedroom with a rough rule of $10,000 more per bedroom, and costs balloon from there for higher-end revamps. Stagers who used to be willing to come in and supplement a lackluster listing’s décor are now insisting on empty apartments. This means paying not only for a full staging but also the cost of putting all the owner’s possessions into storage. “It’s an emotionally charged time in the market, and staging elicits an emotional reaction,” he said. “But it’s hard for sellers to swallow the cost.”

For clients who don’t have the budget for a full redecoration, Harris and his team do lighter makeovers themselves, although like everyone else, they’ve had to work with limited resources. He’s learned how to vet fixtures on Amazon: “If you’re trying to buy something with a lot of detail, it can sink you. You don’t want it to look cheap,” he said. “If it has clean lines or is something more contemporary, you can often get away with it.”

The pandemic has pressed even brokers who regularly rely on staging professionals to try their hands at DIY fixes. Tom Postilio and Mickey Conlon, associate brokers at Douglas Elliman, got accustomed to laughing with buyers over missing washers and dryers during the past year, but other supply-chain absences struck them as more problematic. At one new development, all the chandeliers were back-ordered, so there was nothing but wires protruding from the ceiling. Hoping to improve the situation, they put in a basic light fixture the builder had on hand. “We thought maybe it looked kind of minimalist,” said Postilio. “But whenever anyone walked in, they looked up and said, ‘Is there a chandelier coming?’” When buyers are impressed with the staging, it presents another problem. “People are asking if they can buy places furnished,” said Conlon.

Throughout the pandemic, brokers who offer full staging services have spent huge swaths of time hunting and refinishing secondhand finds — the only thing that’s reliably available. Christophe Tedjasukmana, an associate broker with Corcoran, used to source furniture from places like CB2 and West Elm. “I tried to get stuff that had one uniform look, a feel or a mood,” he said. One-stop shopping was convenient, and he could often recoup a lot of the costs by reselling items afterward. But when that kind of shopping became impossible, with shipping delays exceeding the length of listing contracts, he started buying secondhand pieces available locally. “If it’s within 50 miles of Manhattan, I’m considering it,” Tedjasukmana said. He visits local Greenpoint stores like Copper+Plaid and Nice Vintage Things, uses Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, and shops the Housing Works window auctions. He also supplements the purchases with his own possessions, like a pair of vintage pigeon illustrations he found on a road trip. The downside to using items you love, however, is that buyers often love them too. While many stagers are happy to part with a Wayfair rug or a knockoff Saarinen table, when the buyers asked to keep the pigeon prints, Tedjasukmana balked and offered them a headboard they liked instead.

Though buying things secondhand is more time-consuming — Tedjasukmana has had to carry a bedframe down from a sixth-floor walk-up and steam clean a sectional he found on Craigslist that smelled like the previous owner’s dog — overall he’s enjoyed the challenge and thinks that it leads to more enticing, interesting spaces. “It gives the impression that someone lives there,” he said.

Cem Evirgen and Aurelio Licon staged a listing for broker Kirsten Johnson at 56 Marlborough Road, which sold a short time later. The pandemic made it easier for newer firms like theirs to break in. Photo: Evan Joseph Photography

Before the pandemic, staging was moving away from bland, austere design to more personal, eclectic styles, according to Saft, and the lack of bland inventory seems to have accelerated that shift. “There’s a whole different approach to it,” he said. “People don’t want something to look like real life with kid stuff everywhere and beat-up furniture, but they do want spaces that are contextual and authentic.” Not everything can be a beautiful antique or charmingly vintage, however. Staging requires a large volume of stuff, everything from hand soap to lightbulbs, and stagers admit they’ve bought “filler furniture” they wouldn’t have gone for before the pandemic — All Modern sofas from Wayfair, club chairs from Target — because they were available for delivery in a pinch.

Even designers accustomed to working with vintage have suffered pandemic-induced headaches. Cem Evirgen and Aurelio Licon of Monomid Design Studio said that, by and large, the last few years have been great for up-and-coming firms like theirs. “The pandemic was kind of a silver lining,” said Licon. “In the past, a lot of real-estate groups wouldn’t work with new talent, but we’re not crazily expensive like some companies. We also bring a fresher design aesthetic.” But it can be hard to get furniture refinished quickly these days — when some chairs needed to be refurbished, they realized that it would take three to four weeks to send them out, so they spent a whole day doing it themselves. And competition at auction houses close to New York City has become intense, so they started bidding on items further away. Collecting a sofa in Pennsylvania took half a day; after an hour-long drive to another auction house, they realized the Brutalist console they’d bought wouldn’t fit into their car. And then there were the beautiful mid-century chairs — a steal at $80 each — that were too far away to pick up but they figured would still be a good deal after shipping. Then they got a quote. It was for $800.

The Supply-Chain Shortage Hits Home Stagers