As any real estate professional will tell you, first impressions matter. And that’s why home “staging” has become so popular; in fact 83 percent of buyers’ agents said staging a home made it easier for a buyer to visualize the property as a future home, according to the National Association of Realtors 2019 Profile of Home Staging report.

The impact is so important that more than 25 percent of sellers’ agents say that they stage every single one of their clients’ homes before listing them.

Given that market growth, home staging organizations are becoming big business, and more consultants are seeing the opportunity in the market. After all, what could be more fun than swooping into a home and swapping out the seller’s tired home furnishings and accessories for a fresh new look, or helping a client uncover the potential with the items they do have?

But as fun and satisfying as it may be, it’s important to remember that it’s still a business. If you’re interested in starting a home staging business, here’s what you need to know.

What is Home Staging?

As mentioned, home staging involves using interior design best practices to make a home look its best both for in-person viewings and online photos. It might entail upgrading furnishings to give a luxury appeal or rearranging them to highlight a home’s best features.

For example, something as simple as adding a mirror to a front entry hall can make it look larger, and adding bright couches to a living room can make the whole place look sunnier.

The goal of staging is to play to a home’s strengths, while making it neutral enough that a potential buyer can picture themselves living there. And, stagers who do it right often find that buyers wish they could just have all the furnishings they’ve used! After all, who hasn’t dreamed of walking into a Pottery Barn catalog?

Some home stagers bring in a whole new group of furniture, while others help sellers work with what they already have—which typically entails editing pieces and taking much of the furniture out to a storage facility to make a room look more spacious. Then they might augment the existing look with some upscale accessories, like an attention-getting lamp or rugs that add a pop of color. As you can see, home staging can range from just a few tweaks to a complete home makeover.

Getting Started as a Home Stager—Your Business Essentials

Having an eye for detail and design is crucial as a home stager, but that’s just the beginning. Your first step is to treat your business as a “business,” not a hobby. That means obtaining a valid business license from your city, and potentially from neighboring cities where you are doing business. Always check with local municipalities to ensure you are following all applicable laws.

While no classes or licenses are technically needed, a home stager looking to differentiate themselves should consider joining the Real Estate Staging Association (RESA®).  As a member, you have access to the latest trends and networking strategies, and once you’ve been in business at least a year, you are eligible to earn the RESA-PRO® designation.

In addition to proving you’re a bona fide business, you must pass an ethics exam and then agree to follow the RESA® Code of Ethics. For example, RESA-PROs are not allowed to use stock photos on their website or marketing materials, which can help instill extra confidence in your services.

Deciding on your business structure—whether you want to be a sole proprietor or start an LLC or corporation—is a personal decision that involves factors such as tax implications and personal liability, points out Shell Brodnax, CEO of RESA®.

“We recommend our members consult with their legal counsel and CPA when choosing a business structure,” she says.

Real estate stagers should have general liability insurance, but you also should look into seeking a supplemental staging risk management policy that is available to cover the furniture that stagers use in listings.

“This will protect the furniture should a loss occur from theft or vandalism, or even situations like water damage,” Brodnax says.

And of course as a business, you must keep comprehensive records for tax purposes. Be sure to confirm with a tax professional, but items such as furniture, décor and even fresh flowers should be tax-deductible as a business expense. In addition, track your mileage for any on-the-job driving.

When clients pay you, you’ll need to claim all that as income so set up a system for tracking it carefully. Again, a tax professional is your best bet to make sure are following applicable laws, including paying quarterly estimated taxes as needed.

Building your Clientele

Your first and best bet for finding clients is reaching out to local real estate brokers, says Realtor Robyn Flint, who is a home insurance specialist at ExpertInsuranceReviews.com and founding owner of Property Wise, LLC, a real estate rehab company.

“Ask to sponsor a team sales meeting and provide snacks or lunch or breakfast to gain entry to talk about your new business,” she says.

Then offer a discount to their first client or two who uses your services, as a way to start building buzz and making real estate allies.

Brodnax recommends joining your local Association of Realtors to network with agents and becoming involved in the industry through leadership and association events. You can quickly become a local expert by doing as much public speaking as you can, she says. Another great option is to teach a course to real estate agents about the benefits of staging.

“RESA has a course for real estate agents and is approved in multiple states for credits for continuing education,” says Flint.

You also should create high-end marketing materials, like a brochure that outlines your services, along with before-and-after pictures to showcase your style to leave at local agents’ offices or at conferences and events. And of course, foster a polished online presence, with a website that’s locally optimized for keywords like “Your Town + Home Staging” and social media accounts where you post photos of your work.

In general, marketing your services to busy real estate agents is going to be far more successful than trying to reach home owners. The majority of your ongoing work is liable to come through them, and they are an easier target market to identify and reach than potential sellers. Even starting with just one agent can give you a foot in the door and allow you to prove your worth.

“Service each client like your life depended on it,” Brodnax says. “This means having high standards for your work product and customer service. Be impeccable with your process and word.”

Creating an Inventory Of Furniture and Decor

While you might do some of your work organically—decluttering and repurposing a client’s existing furniture—you’re also going to want to have an inventory of your own pieces to spruce up listings.

Of course, that can be tricky to amass enough product if you are leaving items in a home for a long time while it sells. That’s why some home stagers prefer to just merchandise the home for a photo shoot and then move it all out so they can repurpose it in a future listing. (That can save your client a bundle, too!)

Creating a backlog of inventory can be an expense, but it’s something you can build over time. To get started, Flint recommends haunting yard sales, auctions, clearance sales, consignment shops and moving sales—you’d be surprised what fashionable finds you can pick up affordably.

If you’re handy, you can salvage pieces in less-than-perfect condition with a coat of paint or a reupholstering. Just beware of buying other people’s junk, which will do nothing to brand your business if you bring in pieces that are out of style.

Another option she recommends is partnering with furniture or accessory stores and asking if you can feature their furnishings in local homes. That’s a win-win as it not only promotes their brand, but can help create potential sales when you give the new home owners an option to buy the pieces.

“This is a great strategy for local privately owned furniture and gift stores to help them get their name out,” she says.

You want to decide how fast you wish to scale your business and budget for expansion, says Brodnax. One option for quickly expanding is to talk with your local bank about a business loan, often available at attractive terms through SBA products. Create a solid business plan and discuss your revenue plans to increase your chances of securing the capital you need.

And she notes, RESA has a buying group that allows stagers to get “better-than-wholesale” pricing on furniture and décor; you’ll want to get a resale license/certificate from your state to avoid paying sales tax.

Storing Your Goods

So now you have the pieces…what to do with them until they are being used in a house?

A storage unit is the best way to start, since you can go up or down in size as needed, based on your collection. If you find pieces are in constant rotation, you might need less space, whereas if you happen upon an estate sale jackpot and make a big purchase, you need a place to stow it all. Look for a storage space that’s convenient for you to get to, in case you need to try out different pieces, and make sure it’s climate-controlled to keep the pieces safe.

Always keep a careful inventory of the pieces you have in storage—include measurements, color details and photos—so that you can keep track of what you have when you’re shopping and also to be confident that specific pieces will work in a given space before hauling them over.

Flint also recommends working with local businesses that sell or consign furnishings that might allow you to store them in their warehouse for a small fee.

“You can also keep it small and just use extra space in your home when you are just starting out to save money.”

Looking Ahead: Anything Can Happen

Being a home stager is a great business because it’s never the same thing twice. But for all the satisfaction involved in helping home sellers earn more by beautifying their space, there can be downsides, too. Here are four to consider:

Personality Conflicts

You’ll occasionally be dealing with quirky personalities and tastes.  A home seller might really love a crazy piece of art that you know might repel buyers, and you can do your best to talk them out of questionable choices, but sometimes, there’s no changing their minds. The ability to “roll with it” is essential.

Broken or Damaged Items

It comes with the territory, says Flint. In addition to having insurance coverage, you can also ask for a security deposit from the seller or the real estate agent to cover broken or stolen items, she notes.

“Then you can just refund it all if items are returned in good shape or sold to the new home buyers, but you’re covered if something happens,” Flint says.

Slow Seasons

This type of business comes in waves, like the real estate industry, so be prepared for slow times, Flint says. But make good use of lulls, they are the perfect opportunity to redouble your marketing efforts and review your inventory to sell off what you need and replenish for the next season.

Not charging enough

According to Brodnax, the biggest pitfall a stager can get themselves into and have a hard time getting out of is failing to charge what they are worth.

“The quickest way to go out of business is to underbid just to get a job,” she says, because then you get caught in an endless loop of not being able to get paid market prices.

“If you don’t get paid, you can’t grow. Stagers need to charge competitive rates and win jobs based on their talent, not because they are the low price leader.”

Take into account all your time that will be required for meeting with clients, discussing needs, finding the right pieces and then ultimately doing the job right.

Home stagers typically charge by the hour, starting as low as $25 an hour to more than $150.

Remember to point out the value in your service, which is designed to help them achieve higher sales price and move their house off the market faster. Because as noted earlier, a home staging business can be the perfect outlet for your flair and creativity, but at the end of the day, never forget that it’s a business.

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Cathie Ericson