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Nobody’s home (staging) in Greater Boston

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted a key component of the region’s lucrative housing market—and no one knows when things will settle down

Two place arrangements on a kitchen counter, with wine glasses and fake grape bunches at each. Shutterstock

Home stager Julie Chrissis has a client from overseas who was moving to the Boston area and planned to buy the furniture she saw in the staging of her future home. Now, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s unclear if the client’s company is going to move her.

Bianca Baader, another Boston-area home stager, found herself scrambling to wrap a couple of jobs the week before Gov. Charlie Baker ordered what he deemed all nonessential Massachusetts businesses closed due to the virus.

In one of her last stagings before Baker’s order, and as schools and businesses shuttered, Santina Giannino of Braintree’s Stage It for Success arrived to find the client and his family in the home—with their real estate broker. She was surprised and concerned. “I didn’t want anyone to be here except for me,” she reminded them—a precaution against potentially spreading the coronavirus. “They said, ‘Where could we go? There’s no place to go.’

“That was two weeks ago,” Giannino added. “Now things are much worse.”

Stagers have been lighting up a listserv they share with questions, comments, and concerns about the disruption the pandemic has brought to their niche of the Boston-area housing market. Some argue they should lobby to be deemed an essential business. Some advocate ceasing all business for at least a few weeks. And others see a third way via other services beyond conventional stagings of vacant places.

“It’s certainly a confusing time to be in this line of work,” said Heidi Wells, who started the listserv. She’s the owner of Newton-based Silk Purse Design Group, and said over email that she put her projects on hold two weeks ago. “It’s not been easy, but I am committed to being part of the solution.”

Everyone, on her listserv and in interviews with Curbed Boston, agrees that business has dropped off dramatically for the companies that provide and arrange furniture and accessories in houses and condos on the sales market. The number of such firms, and their business, had grown over the past decade behind the Boston region’s development boom. Thousands of new luxury condos in particular fueled the demand for staging, as did the promise of ever-higher returns for sellers as prices pushed higher.

Some stagers are one-person operations, some have several employees, and all have tentacular business connections with movers, warehousers, photographers, and brokers. Many see stagers as an important part of the homeselling process: A National Association of Realtors survey released in 2019 found that 25 percent of buyers agents said that stagings increased offers by up to 5 percent and a further 12 percent said they increased offers up to 10 percent. Similar shares of sellers agents said the same thing.

This belief and the sheer pace of Boston-area homebuying, with its perennially high demand and relatively low supply as well as its bidding wars and generally affluent buying and selling pool, made home staging a robust part of the market. Now not so much.

“All of a sudden, in a week, life is different,” Chrissis said. “And so the name of the game has to change because some people are buying without even seeing.”

Some staging companies, such as Chrissis’s Chrissis & Company Interiors, which services the Boston area and parts of New Hampshire, have embraced virtual home staging in different forms. Others have continued to do conventional home stagings—often under what they describe as pressure from real estate brokers—and still others have ceased operations entirely.

More than anything, home stagers report confusion and uncertainty about their business amid the coronavirus pandemic. The list of essential businesses under Baker’s March 24 order does not include home stagers. It does include moving companies and storage operators, however, which home stagers work with to get the furniture and accessories they use for stagings in and out of homes.

What’s more, photographers are not deemed essential either, which means stagers still working do not have ready access to the professional photography that can make the stagings pop on a sales listing.

Then there’s the reality of de-stagings—taking everything apart and away. Those are still going on at a much more normal pace than stagings. De-stagings create their own sets of challenges amid the coronavirus as stagers maneuver with movers, clients, and others, a sometimes delicate and awkward pirouette.

“You open the door and you think it’s okay, and then there’s someone on the stairs, and the stairs are narrow,” Baader of Cambridge-based Haus Pixie said of a de-staging right before Baker’s order. Two weeks—and an eternity ago—she would’ve been more polite in maneuvering the situation. “Now,” she said with a laugh, “it’s ‘No, thank you, stay away from me.’”

As for stagings, like with so much else having to do with house and home amid the coronavirus, virtual now plays a greater role. Chrissis said that furnishing vacant homes was perhaps 85 percent of her business pre-virus. Virtual home evaluations via Zoom and virtual stagings via special software have replaced much of that.

In the former, a stager walks through a home alone on Zoom, suggesting what should go where in different rooms and providing clients the avenues for procuring material they need for certain interior looks. In the former, it’s almost like some kind of staging SimCity, where a stager fills in an online photograph of an empty space. (See the before-and-after example below that Chrissis provided.)

An empty room.
That same room now with furniture.

“For a situation like this,” Chrissis said, “where people are buying more homes virtually, it’s a good option for them because seeing a home that’s vacant, there’s no point of reference.”

Other than virtual stagings and consultations, de-stagings, and the odd staging, much of the home-staging business in the Boston area has stopped. Or, to be more precise, it’s on hold, awaiting the return of normalcy in the region’s real estate market.

“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know if things are ever going to return to normal,” Chrissis said. “After this, I don’t know if I will do as many in-person walkthroughs as I was doing before because the feedback I’m getting from people is that [virtual’s] easier for people’s schedules.

“I do think we’ll go back to seeing on-site staging,” she added, “because what we were seeing in the industry prior to this is that people were staging more and more and more.”

That’s once things come back, though.

“What’s scary is you don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Baader of Haus Pixie said. “And, once we are allowed to start opening up, is it going to be incremental? Is everyone going to rush out and it’s going to be crazy? Or is nobody going to want to sell anything?”