The Staged Life

My wife and I are in the process of selling our house. Our kids are off to school and we thought it might be interesting to go live in a high-rise instead of a large, rambling, house. We’re moving from this to this.

These days, if you want to sell a house, especially a somewhat expensive one, you stage it. “Staging” here has its root in the theatrical stage; it’s the process of furnishing  (or, in many cases, de-furnishing) a house and decorating it to best show off its assets. In addition to the actual staging, it’s important to keep the house in shape should anyone call wanting to see it in short notice. In a sense, you not only need to have a staged house, you also need to lead a staged life avoiding your usual behavior to prevent the typical entropy that would mess up the house.

Leading a staged life sounds like a terrible thing; it’s certainly not my natural state of being. There is some comfort, however, in following rigid rituals with an easily understood objective. Don’t leave your wet towels in the bathroom; put them in the dryer after bathing. Don’t have knives visible in the kitchen; it’s bad feng shui.  Remove all personal knick-knacks from view; buyers want to see themselves in your house, not you.

It occurred to me that several key staging principles might be good living principles. Here are some to consider (taken from this excellent reference):

Remove all clutter – “Take a good look at what you have and ask what you can do without.”

What marvelous advice! Even before contemplating a 60% reduction in square footage, I was already aghast at the amount of stuff we had collected over the years. As we prepared to stage the house we went through all of our rooms and selected items to toss, to donate and to keep. It took two trips to Goodwill with a 17′ U-Haul truck to remove our in-good-shape-but-don’t-need-them-anymore belongings. It took another truck ride to take our discards (over 1,000 pounds) to the dump.

Removing clutter from a house makes it look larger, more sophisticated, and inviting. Removing clutter from your life makes you feel 20 pounds lighter (alas, I have another 20 to go).

Make your house serene and inviting – “Create a relaxing…setting with luxurious linens and soft colors that will make a potential home buyer want to hang out”

Who wants to hang out with people who are all conflict and drama? Don’t you want your friends to be people with whom you can relax and enjoy life? How do you achieve serenity? To paraphrase Billy Crystal  (pretending to be Ricardo Montalban), “If you look marvelous, you will feel marvelous.” Buy yourself a luxurious linen suit/dress in soft colors.

I mean this seriously. I believe that you can achieve serenity, happiness and even love by willing yourself to do it. Certainly, the opposite is clear: you will never achieve serenity, you will never achieve happiness and you will never love if you lead a life full of conflict, woe and hate. Be deliberate in your choice to be happy and your chance of achieving it will inevitably improve.

First impressions count – “Open stairways and foyers need to draw people up and in.”

In addition to wearing your soft pastel linens, your personality should also be open and inviting.  To be open to friendship, to draw people “up and in”, you need to be interesting and appealing. It is my experience that the best way to achieve this is to talk little about yourself and to be utterly fascinated with what others have to say. The best conversationalists tend to be the ones who say the least. Strive for two questions for every answer. Follow up. Ask details and nuance. Be interested not just in the “what” but the “why” and “how”, too. Ask about motivations, fears, and goals. If you must talk about yourself, do it only in response to a question. Answer with the minimum amount of detail that provokes interest but avoids all self-aggrandizement. When asked where I went to college, I generally answer “New Jersey.”

Accentuate the positive – “Clients usually know what they like best about their home. It’s usually what they saw that made them want to buy.”

I know many people who are more defined by the things that make them unhappy than by the things that bring them pleasure. Conversations with them are always about the things that have gone wrong in their lives. Now, I admit to occasionally reveling in schadenfreude but only in limited doses. I firmly believe that negative people attract negative experiences and vice-versa. Optimistic people get upgraded to first class; pessimistic people end up on the Carnival Triumph. Optimists on the Triumph value the great story they will be able to tell; pessimists will never cruise again.

For your sake and those of your prospective friends and lovers, concentrate on the aspects of yourself and your life that bring you the most joy.

There are some staging principles that apply better to real estate than to personal behavior. I would never recommend that anyone remove all personal references. While buyers want to visualize themselves in your house, prospective friends want to visualize you in theirs. Similarly I would not suggest that anyone put on a new face (“If you can’t get new cabinets, just get new doors and drawer fronts.”). In general, I don’t like plastic surgery.

Staging theory isn’t a perfect guideline for living but, nevertheless, I am always fascinated when principles of one domain seem to apply well to another. I loved Being There, especially Peter Sellers’s misappropriated quotes. As with gardening and economics, I think there are parallels between staging real estate and staged living.