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Suzanne Ewton, a home stager with Simply Staged, Mary Griffith, a home stager with Simply Staged, and Desiree Tombul, a managing broker with Real Estate Partners, visit a house they staged in Harrison, Tennessee.

By 2013, the housing market was beginning to recover from the 2008 economic downtown. The owner of a house on Signal Mountain wanted to sell, but after six months, 47 showings and no offers, he really needed to sell.

A change in real estate brokers led to the idea of staging the house and relisting it. The owner approached Realtor Desiree Tombul, who had met Mary Griffith earlier that year. Griffth and Suzanne Ewton were looking to use their talents at rehabbing furniture and decorating after closing an antiques store, and Tombul had used them to stage a couple of homes earlier that year.

But this house was a challenge.

Tombul invested $400 in her team, and Griffith provided the furniture and accessories. The house was cleaned and three rooms staged. Tombul raised the sales price by $10,000.

"We had one showing for four hours and got the higher price," recalls Tombul, a real estate agent for the past 16 years who also manages the Signal Mountain office for Real Estate Partners. "The $10,000 was huge for the seller. It doesn't make much difference in the commission, but I realized what I saved in advertising costs and time saved sitting on the house."

The sale convinced Tombul of the merits of staging a house for sale.

"The sale closed, the customer was very satisfied, and I saw how Mary was just a visionary doing this," Tombul recalls. "I didn't understand until then the extent that you could change a house. It was the house that sold me that I had to do it all the time."

Tombul incorporated Simply Staged in 2018 after seven years of watching the marketing strategy take hold in her practice. She offers her service to other Realtors in the Chattanooga region and is one of at least 10 staging firms operating in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia.

Julie Helton and Carol Ann Wolf operate what they believe is the oldest home staging firm in Chattanooga. The two friends did their first house together in 2009 at the request of a friend and began operating under a different company name in late 2010. They incorporated under the name Staged to Sell in 2013. Neither were Realtors.

"I had a job and Carol Ann was a stay-at-home mom, but we both liked to change houses and change them around a lot, really monthly," said Helton, who quit her job to start the business. "We talked and laughed about starting a business. It was so much fun we decided to give it a shot."

The concept of home staging began becoming popular in the early 1970s with Seattle Realtor Barb Schwartz, who slowly built a trade association and training component around her name and experience. By 1999, Schwartz had established the International Association of Home Staging Professionals and says today she has trained more than 1 million people on the art of home staging.

The Real Estate Staging Association was formed in April 2007, creating "the industry's first independent trade association" as compared to the organization built around Schwartz. Tombul, who belongs to neither association, said the idea of staging homes was still relatively rare a decade ago as the established practice in the past was for a new development to have a "model home" but not to put furniture and interior displays in existing homes or other houses in new developments.

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"Everyone is always looking for something to differentiate themselves in the market, and home staging is one way to do that," says Tombul. "I kind of fell into it after meeting Mary."

The National Association of Realtors (NAR), which conducts more than 150 research projects every year for its 1.3 million members, estimated in its 2019 Profile of Home Staging that 28% of Realtors stage all homes they list for sale. Additionally, the NAR research found:

* 53% of Realtors said home staging either greatly or slightly reduced the amount of a time a house is on the market.

* 22% of sellers' agents reported an increase of 1-5 percent in the dollar value of the home, 17 percent said the sales price increased between 6-10 percent and 5 percent saw home value increase 11-15 percent.

* 83% of buyers' agents said staging a home made it easier for a buyer to visualize the property as a future home.

* 26% of Realtors pay to stage their lists, 15 percent pay a staging service and 17 percent recommend a firm. Eighteen percent of sellers choose to pay for a staging service before listing the home.

The average cost of home staging nationally is a moving target within the industry, with prices for a basic three-room staging ranging anywhere from $400 to $6,000 per month. The national average is $984, according to homeadvisor.com, and the high end of the average is $1,618.

Staged to Sell charges by room and square footage with the main floor and master bedroom being the norm. The cost is $2,500 for a 30-day contract.

Helton said the company can stage up to 25 homes at one time. The company maintains $300,000 in inventory used in its staging projects.

"We were four months in business before we got our first call, and I think we did only about 10 houses in the first two years," recalls Helton, who previously ran a small business with her husband for 17 years. "As we have grown over the last five years, the inventory just becomes a vicious cycle. You think you bought enough a year ago, but then you always feel you have to keep up, purchase new, trendier things."

Simply Staged is smaller as a secondary business for Tombul. She charges $1,500 for three rooms on a 60-day contract and maintains a $50,000 inventory. Tombul said she started charging $1,200 when others asked about having her team stage a home and quickly found she was "in the hole on every house." She then raised her price to $1,500. She said staging leads to the required use of a professional photographer, which in turn enhances the product to potential buyers.

Both Tombul and Helton plan to increase their inventory and their price over the next few years as demand for their services grow.

"You can look at the math and see that no one is going to get rich doing this," says Tombul. "There's a lot of expense associated with doing this, especially moving and storing the furniture. A lot of young Realtors are entrepreneurial by nature and want to start their own staging business. When I show them a list of expenses, they tend to slow down a bit."

A study by the Real Estate Staging Association of 1,081 home sales where the house was staged found that the average home sold within 41 days of being staged. Local Realtor Diane Burke, who has started using home staging in her real estate practice, sees the trend of using home staging as part of real estate marketing growing in the years ahead.

"More people are going to start using staging because of the results," says Burke. "The difference in showing a vacant room and professional photographs of staged homes online or in-person is obvious. Staging started a little slow here, but it's starting to become the norm."

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