Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dress This House -5 All the World is Staged for TV

Once upon a time, a couple of weeks ago, in an upscale urban neighborhood, a truck pulled up in front of a house in the middle of the night. A curious woman rolled out of bed to peek out of her bedroom window to see what was going on across the street at such an hour. There seemed to be something mysterious going on at her neighbors’’ comparatively run-down house. During the night, other, smaller vans appeared, unloaded and disappeared. For several hours, a great deal of activity ensued, strange objects were moved in and out of the big truck by busy elves until, at dawn, they all drove off into the sunrise.

Suspicions were aroused. They were confirmed after a few more nocturnal visits, when a ‘For Sale’ sign went up on the lawn. When the house sold two days later after a frantic bidding war for a hundred thousand dollars over ‘asking’, her suspicions were totally confirmed.

“Staged!”, she reported to me, with complete confidence.

In the sprit of “The Show Must Go On”, many sellers have succumbed to the requirements of ‘House TV’ by re-decorating their homes just before they sell them so they’ll look good to the viewers (buyers). It seems it’s no longer enough to just make the beds and bake some cookies to sell your house.

What’s unfortunate, to me, is that we are being brainwashed into believing that we are not the only one(s) living in our homes anymore. We are being coached into thinking that every decision we make regarding home décor, renovation or repair must be carefully considered and designed not to please not just us, but the next buyer, as well.

Above all, everything must be as neutral as possible. In order to ‘bang’ our ‘bucks’ to the ‘max’, we must choose paint colours, tiles, flooring, window treatments and appliances that will have the widest appeal to the next owners, regardless of our own requirements or taste. It is no longer our nest, but a ‘stage’, properly set for a performance of life lived for others.

I know whereof I speak, having fallen for that ‘swing-in-a-tree’ lure in my last money pit. I have definitely learned the hard way that if you fall for the décor, you are in for a rude shock when it all gets carted away before you take possession.

As I said, I put this at the doorstep of what I call ‘House TV’ and all the decorators, agents and other 'stars' that serve up this conformity daily. Viewers are distracted from the important but less photogenic considerations, like operating costs, by trivialities, which are easily changed or adapted, just to serve the dramatic needs of the program.

That’s fine, for TV, but for life, it’s not as successful.

While it doesn’t take a genius to put a pot of posies on the coffee table, it does take someone with common sense to see past the fresh, damp paint and the new duvet in the master (largest) bedroom to the cracking foundation, the low-efficiency furnace, plastic plumbing, aluminum wiring, shabby shingles and fuzzy stuff on the basement walls to realize that there’s a lot more to worry about than the colour of the kitchen cabinets when buying a house. Figuring in the actual carrying costs, things like taxes, hydro, gas, water, cable are not seriously considered since they don’t make pretty pictures on TV.

I have actually seen people (they may not be real since they are on TV) reject lovely, affordable, well-built, excellently located homes because they didn’t like the dining room chandelier or the purple bedroom. Neither did I, but those could be easily changed. This does not occur to them.

Removing the effects of the owner and ‘neutralizing’ the space with a cursory coat of cream latex hides more than you think. Its natural state tells you a lot about how the property has been maintained and lets you see how people actually lived in it. If they cluttered (the new ‘C’-word) their coffee tabletops with books or, god-forbid, pictures of their grandchildren, they might also have been nesters who took considerable pride in their homes, keeping everything in good repair over the years. But if the house is 'staged', you'll never know.

For example, an agent recently told my friend that she would have to rent a locker, empty all her stuff out of her condo, crash with her friends for a few weeks and pay thousands of dollars to stage the rooms to make her place saleable. I took umbrage, and not just because I am the friend with whom she might crash. Really. This has gone too far.

I can’t help but think the real estate agents are in on all this. After all, it’s a lot better to list a house that quickly sells itself than one with idiosyncrasies. It doesn’t cut into their commission to convince the sellers to spend a fortune bringing their place up to snuff. It adds to it. But times change. After all, it was that same agent, ten years ago, who urged me to look past the hideous flocked wallpaper, cheap sconces dripping off every wall like the candelabras in Bunuel’s “Beauty and the Beast”, worn down linoleum flooring in the shabby dark kitchen with the Harvest Gold appliances, and miles of powder blue broadloom which stretched right up to the emerald green shag, orange Berber and stained beige pile in the bedrooms, to see the possibilities. I had never been surrounded by so much bad taste and ugliness in my life, and I travel occasionally on public transportation!

With her help, we were able to get the place for an amazing price. It definitely had what used to be prized as ‘potential’.
The house had huge picture windows shrouded by the heavy brocade drapes, which were easily removed, by me, the very first moment we took possession. The living room overlooked a large green park, not rows of cramped garages and laneways as is typical in this city. The house had been built over 30 years before by a reputable builder and had, what used to be called ‘good bones’, a terrific layout, double the square footage of newer models in the ‘hood’ with their 1” granite countertops and fake crown moldings. I wonder why agents have changed their tune about potential? Could they be on the take?

A few thousand dollars and a lot of peeling later and we had the décor we wanted. I doubt that it would pass muster with the design police, since we do have a lot of books and ‘art’, but we find it comfy and quite livable.

I guess I will have to empty it out, paint it beige and come live with you when I want to sell it!


  1. These articles are terrific Pidgy, I love reading them.

    We were happy just to afford to move in and pay down the mortgage for a while, and then to make the changes the way we wanted them.

    But even though I had a cranberry-painted family room on Brownstone, when we decided to sell that house, I painted the room beige. In fact I took down wallpaper and painted the whole main floor beige. So boring, and the couple who bought commented on our excellent taste in decor. So go figure.

    I intend to decorate this condo however we want, since it will be our children's to stage and sell, hopefully in the far-off future.