How to Sell a House: Scenes from a Staging
“I don’t like the word ‘staging’,” says James Male, one of two Columbia County agents with Mark Phillips Realty, a boutique agency headquartered across the river in Durham, NY (Greene County). “It implies fakery; I prefer to say ‘editing.’ ”
Call it what you will, Male has made a name for himself as a go-to guy for sellers looking for an agent with a hands-on approach. “A good house will sell itself,” he says, “if you allow its virtues to shine through.”
It’s that process of “allowing” (more like “making” or “helping”) a house look it’s best that Male is known for. A couple of years ago, days after he had thoroughly “edited” a house in Hudson that had been listed for a year with another broker, it sold. “The owner had gotten a lot of advice—fix the cracks, paint everything white, freshen it up,” says Male. “My advice was, don’t paint anything white, or it will make everything else look dirty.” Instead, Male moved out most of the owners’ possessions, moved in a few pieces of his own, just to suggest what the house would look like furnished. Then he restained the ebony floors himself, and put on a coat of wax. “Suddenly all the other distressed surfaces looked wonderful.” Then Male gave one of the Hudson Opera House’s Moveable Feasts there, a sit-down dinner for 24 in the ballroom. “It had been such an incredible evening. The space really came to life,” he recalls. “Afterward, it was hard to put away all the Georgian silver, the stemware, the napkin rings, so, I just washed them and stacked them there on the table. I think they brought out the romanticism of a large space that might have otherwise baffled a buyer.” Apparently so. The house sold within days.
Male’s latest challenge is a house that was built in 1760 by a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Originally sited on Main Street in Claverack, where at some point, the downstairs rooms served as a tavern, the owner, in 1987, moved it out of town to a rise in a field (actually a 90-acre parcel of prime Livingston farmland) with a stunning Catskill view. He then proceeded to thoroughly renovate the place—new foundation, new wiring and plumbing. Later, the owner sold it to a family who, after years of living there and loving it, put it on the market. That was over a year ago. When Male recently assumed the listing, it was with the understanding that he be permitted to make what he viewed as necessary adjustments to the way the house presents. The budget: $250 for materials such as paint and labor for such things as window washing. Male throws in gratis his own contributions, which apart from good taste, include applying said paint (that’s him in the photo above).
The house is painted “historic colors”—light-gray with darker gray trim.
Male said, “I’d like to warm it up.” Instead of recommending an expensive paint job, Male tweaked the facade, removing a new lourvred door that had obscured the original antique front door, and painting the fabulous Dutch double-door a brilliant persimmon (Benjamin Moore’s “Warm Comfort” in semi-gloss). He then tore out a couple of unmatched plants that had been cringing against the foundation (see photo above) and replaced them with a matching pair of clipped boxwoods, positioned to frame the front steps. “It needed a little something to anchor the house to the ground,” he says.
Living Room Before
The paneling in the living room is new. Installed after the building was moved in 1987, it is an exquisitely rendered, line-for-line reproduction of the original, antique paneling in the bedroom above it. Because the fireplace is centered, the current owners followed convention and also centered their sofa, facing the fire. Alas, the entrance to the room is also on axis with the fireplace, so, instead of the paneling and the wideboard floors—two of the house’s greatest assets— the first thing a visitor standing in the entry hall saw was the back of the sofa sitting on an oriental rug.
Living Room After
Male rolled up the rug. Nicole Vidor, his colleague at Mark Phillips, waxed the floor to give it a soft, low-luster sheen. Male then rearranged the furniture, removing several pieces, so that the paneling and floors stood out. “When people buy a house, they are not buying a rug or a sofa, they are buying a floor and paneling,” Male says.
Dining Room Before
The present owner had covered the dining room windows with sheers.
Dining Room After
With the curtains down, the beautiful, freshly-washed antique 12-over-12 windows and the view of rolling farmland immediately brought the room to life. Male banished all extraneous furniture and accessories, but he set the table, which, along with flowers, gives the room an obvious sense of purpose without distracting from its other virtues. “I’m a proponent of undressed windows, whenever possible,” he says. “My whole approach is, show the house; not the stuff that’s in it.”
Family Room Before
The family room, a modern addition put on after the house had been moved, has a practical propane stove against one wall, that, out of season, looks forlorn.
Family Room After
Using the stove as a table top, Male set a dollhouse, a replica of the house that he found in the cellar, on top. Before putting it in place, he first took a moment to paint the front door persimmon and then stapled fabric to the base so it would conceal the now out-of-season stove. “It is so charming; it’s the house! It reenforces the charm and homeyness of the room.”
Mark Phillips Realty
Durham, New York