Let's say a couple of house hunters enter a solid Queen Anne with the right number of bedrooms and a desirable floor plan. When they step into the foyer, however, they're greeted by a flickering, tarnished chandelier and a dizzying gold wallpaper patternâ€"the kind well-meaning folks slapped all over their formal living spaces in the '70s. And maybe in the living room, dark muslin curtains cover every window, eclectic antique furniture crowds the floor and an extensive hotel ashtray collection sprawls over every available surface area.
It might not be their style, but surely these bright young people can see past the current owners' decorating choices and envision themselves in this otherwise perfect house. They're not going to let a little clutter and a lot of shag cloud their judgment, are they?
The answerâ€"according to Realtors and a couple of Oak Park women who've positioned themselves inside a fast-growing interior design nicheâ€"is maybe.
"People have a natural variation in ability to visualize the possibilities in these situations," says Sheila Smith, who's been experiencing great success with a home re-staging spin-off of Domestique, the Oak Park-based interior design company she and partner Jeanne Jackson launched two years ago. "There are people who can get past funky art deco sconces in a classic home and people who can't."
Smith, who brings a background in both residential interior design and film/video set design to the business, and Jackson, who offers expertise in order, harmony and clutter control, introduced the Dressed to Sell component of their business after tracking the concept in industry publications and seeing its success in markets elsewhere.
The service, which can include anything from drafting a simple punch list to re-staging an entire house with prop furniture and accessories, is "not about attacking a homeowner's taste," promises Smith. "It's about revealing the bones of the home and presenting it in the best possible light."
"Generally, buyers need to see beyond the current owners' belongings," says F.C. Pilgrim Realtor Melissa Kowalski. And sometimes it's hard for sellers to look objectively at their own style and possessions.
Kowalski employed Smith and Jackson to help generate interest in an Oak Park home that had been sitting on the market for a while. The process began with Kowalski, her clients (a family of four with a house slightly congested by the stuff of life) and the Dressed to Sell team sitting down to talk budget and assess problem areas in "a very down to earth yet professional way," she says. Smith and Jackson then drafted a report with recommendations for optimizing the home's resale appeal.
In the end, the team brought in some furniture and accessories, which the sellers rented from Dressed to Sell's personal storage facility (currently Smith's garage), and moved a few things out of the house. A table, a rug, a picture and a vase with fresh flowers were used to re-stage the foyer because, as Smith says, the first 30 seconds of a showing are typically the most critical.
The redesign "really opened things up," says Kowalski. "The house seemed larger and not as cluttered" and potential buyers responded more positively. Kowalski says her clients liked the team's approach, which included using a lot of what the owners already had to re-think and re-stage the impact spaces. And within a couple of weeks, the home had a buyer.
"I'm not the stereotypical anal retentive organizer," says Jackson, who handles the possessions management side of both Domestique and Dressed to Sell. "I try to help people feel harmony and order, but I do it with an artful eye."
Jackson, who will go room by room with a client to help decide "in a sensitive way" what should be displayed, packed or disposed of, says her skills are most frequently employed in playrooms, libraries, kitchens and "the dreaded basement."
She'll begin by categorizing, sorting and coming up with storage solutions that will enable buyers to feel serenity and neutrality when entering a particular room.
"It's also somewhat uncomfortable for sellers to have their lives examined by everyone who traipses through the house," Jackson adds. Putting some things away reduces a little of that vulnerability.
According to Jackson, toys and books are common problems for people. "These are things people hang on to but don't really need. In the process of going through them and purging [in an environmentally responsible way, which is one of the company's priorities], people start to let go and find themselves feeling amazingly light."
As an added bonus, Jackson says her services will ultimately make moving easier, more organized and less stressful. She aims to give her clients a storage and maintenance system that's easy to follow while their house is on the market, yet can also be applied to their new house.
When River Forest resident Gregg Ragalie put his upper brackets home on the market earlier this spring, he and agent Wendy Cibula of Remax in the Village decided it was best to come on with a bang.
"First impressions on a high end house are pretty significant," says Ragalie. "There are a smaller number of potential buyers in that range."
Jackson and Smith were called in to give their thoughts on how the home should be presented and make recommendations for some of its key spaces. Focusing on what Smith calls "luxury features," like the great room, library and master bedroom, the duo encouraged some painting and floor work as well as some furniture rearrangement and rug removal. They also brought in room brightening accents like vases, end tables, throw pillows, hand towels and duvet covers.
"Our clients will often pick and choose what they want to do from our initial report," says Smith. They might want to do the work themselves or hire a specific contractor. Or they might want Dressed to Sell to handle everything. Smith says she and Jackson are willing to work at either extreme or anywhere in between.
Ragalie was pleased with the redesign and "hopeful" after Cibula declared the broker's tour a big success. Within a week he received an acceptable offer on the house and was ready to move onâ€"something for which he was now more prepared, from a packing and organization standpoint.
The cost for Dressed to Sell's services, which includes an initial consultation charge, rental fees if necessary and a per-hour rate for their time, can be handled any number of ways, according to Smith. Typically the Realtor rolls the fees into the asking price.
"Our goal is for the house to be on the market for a shorter time and sell at a higher price," she says. "Everything we do is recovered by the home's sale."
Kowalski, who used Dressed to Sell on recommendation from another agent in her office, believes the company's fees are reasonable and "worth it."
Now that they've begun to reap rewards for their efforts in Oak Park and River Forest, are there expansion plans in the works for Dressed to Sell, which currently accounts for about 50 percent of Domestique's business?
"Not right now," Smith answers. Future goals include building the company's stockpile of props and strengthening its reputation in the community, but she and Jackson have no loftier designs at this point.
"Staying local enables us to do what we love and what we're good at and still be here for our kids," says Smith. "That's the beauty of it."