Everything I needed to know about house-staging I learned from writing

OK, not everything. But maybe the most important things?

Cane and I have spent the past few weeks staging his house before putting it on the market. He bought the house three years ago, and if the house had been a metaphor for a manuscript, it was one that would have never made it out of the slush pile. I didn’t see much potential in it, but he did and has slowly turned an unloved rental that had been stripped of any charm into a sweet little cabin/cottage that’s still kinda wonky, but now in a good way. Staging it to realize its full potential has been a labor of love, a project that flexes a different set of creative muscles for me. (It was also a crap-ton of work, as all serious creative endeavors are.) At some point I started thinking about overlaps between the staging process and the writing process, and I realized that things I’ve learned from writing were guiding my actions as a would-be home stager:

Read, study, imitate. I don’t know any good writers who aren’t also voracious readers, of all kinds of texts. And writers read not just for the experience or information of a text, but also to learn how to construct it. We look under the hood of them to see what makes them run, so we can better understand how to build our own vehicles. As a novice house-stager, I gave myself a how-to crash-course primarily by “reading” other staged homes. I stalked Redfin listings to study the photos and dissect the features of both those that appealed to me and those that didn’t. I followed house design hashtags on Instagram and did the same thing, noticing particularly those things that were different between staged houses and those designed for different purposes. Cane and I binge-watched Unsellable Houses, an HGTV show about Seattle-area sisters who transform houses that haven’t sold (even in the hot hot sellers’ market of the past few years). They smash some of the conventional staging wisdom I learned from more conventional sources, and it was instructive to think about how they break the rules and why.

Keep your purpose at the forefront. Even if I’m just writing for myself, I have a clear purpose, and that drives everything about what and how I write. When composing a house, the same principle applies. A house (or any space) is a text of sorts, and what we choose to put in or take out should be driven by what we’re trying to say and why. Cane’s house is a funky little old thing with some features that would be definite negatives for many buyers. It’s also a (now) charming piece of history. (It was originally built as temporary housing for shipyard workers during WWII.) We know that no one is going to buy this house entirely with their head; we need to appeal to emotions. “What’s the story we’re trying to tell?” is a question we asked ourselves repeatedly as we made decisions about what to put it and take out. Closely related principle:

Know your audience (and yourself). The importance of knowing both yourself as a writer and who you’re writing for can’t be overstated. I’ve never aimed to be a writer for the masses (clearly), and we haven’t staged this home to appeal to the masses. That’s partly because it’s just not in us. We don’t know how to do that well, and we wouldn’t really want to even if we did. (We think it would destroy the best parts of this house.) If we had different goals for this project, this aspect of ourselves could be a big liability, but we’ve told ourselves multiple times that we don’t need a lot of people to like the house; we just need a few who love it. We talked a lot about who these people might be, what they might care about, how they might live. Once I realized that I was never going to be a big best-selling writer (for a multitude of reasons), it gave me permission to be the writer I am. We staged this house to be the best version of both ourselves and it that we can create, rather than trying to make both of us be something we aren’t—and we think it’s turned out all the better for having made that choice. (For more on these ideas, check out the work of Seth Godin.)

Draw from a variety of sources. Also, everything is a source. When I’m writing here, I draw upon all kinds of material: memory, experience, other peoples’ stories, poetry, memes, photos, songs, video, etc. Even if I’m working on something that is composed only of words and is based primarily on my own life, I typically cast a wide net and catch everything I can in my first drafts. Some staged houses look as if everything in them came from the same place, but the houses I see that create longing (for me, anyway) have a different kind of look. They’re more layered. There’s a richness you can’t get from a single Ikea run. Much as I usually avoid such places as Target and HomeGoods, I did use those for staging materials. I also used thrift stores, vintage shops, and my own house. I used things in ways they weren’t originally intended to be used. (A shower curtain hides a hot water heater, and an espresso-machine pitcher is a toothbrush holder.) It’s not unlike using a line of someone else’s poetry as a kickstart to your own, or pulling a passage out of a failed draft of something you wrote a long time ago and using it in a whole new way in a new piece.

Edit ruthlessly (and start with more than you need). When I’m writing a first draft, I throw in everything that might work. I try to write without any internal editor whispering in my ear. The real writing—and joy of writing—comes in revising and editing. Although I really know nothing about sculpting, I imagine it to be somewhat like that: first drafts create a block of text, and I carve and shave away at it until its shape emerges. My process for creating a space works much the same way; I am not a person who can start with a finished vision and simply execute it. I have to see how things look before I know if they will work, and I have to try out lots of different things. I brought many things to the house knowing I might not use them. Some of them I really love, but if they don’t advance the purpose, they don’t make the final cut. Also: Less is often more. (Is this last sentence redundant? It might be. I have a problem with overstating points I want to be sure are clear.) I bought rice and beans and flour to fill the jars on the shelves in the kitchen, and then I realized I didn’t need to do that. The purpose of the jars was to help a buyer see how the shelves could work, and the jars alone did that. Adding contents to them would add visual clutter that wasn’t necessary and might detract from the purpose of staging by being too specific. (I’ll spare you a detailed description of my paralysis in the dry goods section of the grocery store, wondering if my choices were screaming “white people food.”)

Three is a magic number. Or, repetition is a friend. And, the magic is in the small things. Lots of people have the same big ideas, and we can all pour out words that express them. What elevates a piece of writing for me, though, is how they are expressed. For me, good writing is like poetry or song; it uses balance, repetition, refrain, and rhythm to create something that is more than the denotative sum of its words. These principals helped me in understanding why something was or wasn’t working visually, and gave me ideas for fixing something that felt off. In writing I pay attention to sound, words, sentence lengths and structures, and metaphor, and in staging the elements were color, size, shape, and texture. As with a verbal text, I had to be careful about how I applied these principals; too much repetition of obvious sounds is sing-songy, and some extended metaphors can become tortured. I had to think about how to avoid that in the visual text of the house’s rooms.

Consider both the whole and the parts. Cane and I generally agree when it comes to design decisions, but we never did agree on a curtain that hides the hot water heater in the kitchen. When he lived in the house, the curtain (sewn by me as a birthday gift) was a gingham-checked number in a bright red, white, and blue. It was totally him, and it fit the kitchen—but I didn’t like it for our new purpose. I thought the red wasn’t the right shade considering the palette that was emerging in the other rooms of the house, and that it created a different feel that (to me) was a little discordant from some of the things we want to say about and through the house. It also didn’t work with some other details in the kitchen. He thought I was over-thinking it. Maybe so, but I think it was my writer-brain taking over. I remembered the writing instructor I had my freshman year of college who helped me understand that each sentence has to lead to the one that follows it, and each paragraph has to do the same. I began to see the house as a novel or essay collection or epic poem, and each room as a chapter or essay or stanza. The details in the rooms were like sentences or paragraphs or lines, and I wanted each part to work not only on its own, but also as parts of a cohesive whole. For me, the original curtain brought to mind the advice that writers have to be willing to kill their darlings.

Collaboration improves the work. And, know your strengths and weaknesses. In my first post-college job I was an editorial assistant, where I learned that nothing we published was ever edited by only one person. “No one can ever catch everything,” my boss taught me. That, along with a writing group I was once lucky to be part of, helped me understand that although the things I write are of me, they are not me. They are a thing in their own right, and their meaning comes from an interplay between my mind and that of readers. To really know if a piece is working or not, we need readers! While there’s definitely a stage in composing where I need to work alone, a finished piece requires feedback from a good reader and further refinement. The same was true in staging this house. Cane is my trusted reader and co-writer, and everything we design is better when we both contribute to it. (It’s also more fun.) We aren’t doing this alone, though. We began with a consultation with our realtor, who knows far more than we do about staging houses to sell, and we’ll be working with a photographer who can do a much better job of creating the images that convey the story of the house than we can. (Sorry I don’t have any of those photos yet to illustrate this post!)

You need a good hook. Many readers—especially now, with our reading habits shaped by online texts—aren’t going to stick around if we don’t grab them in the first few lines. Same with a house. We spent as much time and money on the front yard as we did on the inside of the house. We wanted the story we are telling (cozy, comfortable, down-to-earth, clean cottage/cabin) to be clear (and compelling) from the very first view. We painted the exterior, added a window box, painted the Adirondack chairs, added a trellis, moved/removed/trimmed plants, and added flowers. A lot of flowers, in the same palette we used in the interior.

It will be another week or so before the house goes on the market, so it could well turn out that all this wisdom of mine is bunch of romantic rubbish, but our realtor was fairly wowed when we asked her to give us some feedback this week. It was satisfying work, in a way that I haven’t felt for a long time. It’s worn us out and we’re glad to be finished with it, but it feels like a good kind of tired—which is a welcome change. I’ll let you know how it goes. (And if you know anyone in Portland in the market for a funky little cottage, point them our way. Listing should be live in a little more than a week.)

16 thoughts on “Everything I needed to know about house-staging I learned from writing

  1. Ally Bean says:

    This is a brilliant post. I love it both as a blogger and as someone who [long ago] had to sell a few of our houses that were less than desirable. I’ve not heard of Unsellable Houses but I do like the premise. The photos of the house you’re selling make it look gorgeous. I’d buy it, if’n I was there and in need of a house.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you! I really liked the first season of the show, but the second veered too much into the personal lives of the stars (for me and my purposes in watching). The houses and budgets also seemed to get bigger, and I really like seeing what can be done with those that are more modest. That’s probably because small is our jam. The house we’re selling is 678 sq. ft., and the one we’re living is in just over 1,100. Most people wouldn’t like his cozy little cottage, but we hope someone will!

  2. TD says:

    I certainly think that it will sell! There are more single people in today’s society than couples. And most single mature adults do not want to have the burdens of housemates or in a multi-unit with shared walls plus HOA rules plus monthly forever fee. 700 sq ft is a nice size, easy to clean and maintain! I’d call it a cottage for the single woman or a cabin for a single man. My apartment in CO was 700 sq ft and was very comfortable size (even with a boyfriend). Could have been cozy for a young couple in love. I would have loved to have found that size as a single family house to make a home!

    My cottage that I bought during the pandemic is 1,100 sq ft (which I think I read that is the size of your house now that you are creating for two in-love newlyweds!
    I think it’s a nice size and I could see my cottage work well for an in-love couple without baby or small children. I definitely don’t want a house mate… but one never knows when Cupid is up to that arrow piercing two hearts together. Future is always unpredictable and known.

    Best wishes on the sell and the final home nesting in the small beautiful house and home that you are creating together! This feels so good and makes my heart lift a bit with a smile.

    • Rita says:

      Hi TD–I agree that it’s a perfect size for a single person or a couple. We’ve staged the second bedroom as an office/project room because we think that would be the best use of it for a couple or single person. If I were still living alone, I would love his place (now). Smaller=fewer resources to maintain. I could also see a single parent with one child liking this house (how Cane lived in it), or a couple with a young child. Your comment about cottage/cabin made me smile. The house is clearly a cottage-style in the exterior (scalloped trim), but Cane has always referred to what he was doing as “cabin” style. I never thought of those as gendered terms, but maybe they are?

      Hope you are feeling good and “at home” in your new place. We are still in the process of making what was mine into ours. We’ll have a bit more time for that now that we’re done with this project.

  3. TD says:

    How do I unsubscribe as my email is no longer accessible for me.
    Ii was still able to write a comment for today,.
    Although I need to create a new e-mail address account compatible for my new phone. Life is a constant challenge trying to keep up with all the nonsense. One day at a time, sigh. I believe I will be able to read your reply from your website. Comment section. Who knows? Sigh..

    • Rita says:

      At the top of your email message with the latest post, there should be an Unsubscribe link. Just click on that, and that email address should unsubscribe. Hope that works!

      • TD says:

        Yes, I’m still able to read your replies and posts when I check into your website. But I no longer am able to access my old email account to try your recommendation. I wonder what happens to all those abandoned e-mail address floating around in no where internet space!

        E-mail is one more less thing for me to maintain as I learn to live “simply”. Yes, I am enjoying my homestead on a very low income. All my projects are complete and I may allow myself to just be. You, too (two), will soon be able to just be! Well wishes!!

  4. Bethany Reid says:

    I’m loving this new chapter of your life. (Congratulations on all of it!) Your meditation on home-staging/writing inspired me in both areas. Why am I suddenly craving a writing cottage in Portland?

    • Rita says:

      A writing cottage sounds pretty lovely–but I can’t think of a nicer place to live than where you do. I’m happy to finally have my “room of one’s own,” though, and more time to spend in it. But now I’m thinking about transforming our garage…

    • Rita says:

      I love that kitchen cabinet color, too. It might find its way into the kitchen we’re now sharing. Our cabinets need some new paint, and we’re talking about color for the lowers. That’s a next summer project, though.

      I am planning to write more, for sure, but I don’t have a book that’s itching to be written. Maybe that will come? Or maybe not. Either way will be OK with me. 🙂 Thank you for the kind words, though. Always appreciate those!

  5. Kate says:

    I always appreciate the writing in your posts, but I especially like your pictures this week. They are so homey. Comfortable. Cozy. I hope it sells quickly. It sure is cute.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks! Comfortable, cozy, and homey are the main words in our (mental) creative brief for this project. Our realtor predicts that it will sell quickly, even as our market is cooling slightly. Which means it’s still really hot, just not in an unreal stratosphere of hot. I wish I could take better photos. I’m only using my phone for that these days. It takes some kinds of pictures really well, but others not so much. I wish photography was a thing I could get more into, but it’s really technical and that’s not my strong suit.

  6. Sarah @townhomehygge says:

    Late to this discussion, but wanted to let you know how much I loved this post . “A house (or any space) is a text of sorts” — YES YES YES. I mean, of course this is where my head is these days but it is so very true. Love the way that you develop this metaphor throughout your post. Would love to hear more about if/how you are applying these ideas to your own space in addition to staging real estate.

    (Interestingly, during our own recent home selling experience my husband and I had a similar moment — we weren’t happy with the exterior photos of our place so he went over and took some more, and then we had to decide which ones to use and how to order them. It was clear to me right away that the order of photos was basically a narrative.)

    Anyway, thanks for writing this piece — I keep returning to it to soak up its wisdom once more.

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