10 apartment staging mistakes that can cost you a sale

A four-bedroom co-op with Central Park views, 6 West 77th St., 10CD, was staged by Anne Kenney to maximize the open layout.


Share this Article

Let’s face it: New York City’s slow sales market means if you’re selling now, you’re likely faced with lots of competition—including a glut of shiny new condos with fancy amenities. 

“Because developers are pumping so much money into these units, people cannot afford to let a resale apartment come across as a dud,” says Michael J. Franco, associate broker at Compass. He notes that sellers with social-media smarts have raised the bar by marketing on Pinterest and Instagram. 

That’s where apartment staging comes in.

In case you are unfamiliar with the concept, the goal of staging is to put the best possible face on your property in a way that allows buyers to see it’s full potential, without the usual distractions. The increased need for staging is a sign of where the market is at.

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in April 2017. We are presenting it again with updated information for September 2019.]

“We didn’t really do staging projects to speak of before the development boom, but lately we’ve done so many,” says Babak Hakakian, partner at contemporary luxury furniture design firm ddc NYC. One unit that he styled from top to bottom at 277 Fifth Ave. sold in a matter of weeks. “So staging does make a difference.”

And that’s why Joel Moss, associate broker with Warburg Realty, says, “Staging has become imperative in NYC. Even savvy buyers are swayed by having it all wrapped up in a pretty bow.” 

Whether you hire a staging pro or decide to DIY it, you’ll want to avoid the common missteps that can sabotage staging. Here are some expert pitfalls to keep in mind.

1) Being too cookie-cutter

Forget about any one-size-fits-all approach. The condo surplus means it’s possible for people to see the same staged aesthetic (e.g. beige couch, black and white art, and cream rug) time and time again. Buyer beware: style fatigue ahead. 

How to make yours stand out from the crowd? Do your homework.

“Learn what else is for sale in the same building or in the same neighborhood,” says certified staging expert Anne Kenney, founder of Anne Kenney Associates. Partner with your broker, who knows the comps, and be strategic in your staging. 

This will in turn enable you to aim for the target demographic. “I wouldn’t stage a renovated loft in Tribeca the same as I would a prewar on the Upper East Side,” says Taylor Spellman, CEO and creative director of Taylor Spellman New York, an interior design and staging firm.

Hakakian of ddc emphasizes giving each space a design sensibility to create an atmosphere (and experience) that appeals to the widest audience without being too generic. “The way we do that is by adding texture through fabrics and materials and accessories, which are so important.

Pro Tip:

Painting is the easiest and most affordable way to transform and upgrade your apartment's interior. Just repainting cabinets will give your kitchen a facelift for a fraction of the price of renovating!
Low cost = high impact. Click here for a competitive online all-inclusive quote from Paintzen in minutes >>

Kenney encourages taking calculated design risks, such as by hanging eye-catching artwork and even mixing it up with canvas and photographs and other items. That might also include a chalkboard panel in a kid’s room or wallpaper in a living room. “You cannot be afraid to be distinctive, so long as you are following the basic strategies of staging.” 

In the end, it’s all about striking a balance and making your apartment more inviting and exciting than others. 

2. Skipping the essentials

“Clean, fresh, and bright” is the universal tenet of staging, and is always in style. Remember: Buyers have been bombarded with pristine, unlived-in condos, so you’ll need to step up your game. 

There’s also what Spellman calls the “HGTV effect,” where buyers have been conditioned to expect picture-perfect apartments. “They’re already amassing this huge expense and they want to be able to move in without taking on sweat equity.” Meaning: They want an apartment that’s turn-key ready.

Painting is a must. Nothing does more to improve your home than this one step. (See #4 for more on painting.) “You can even freshen up tired kitchen cabinetry with a coat of paint,” says Franco. 

Then hit the floors, polishing or refinishing hardwoods and replacing wall-to-wall carpeting. (Per Franco, steam-cleaning may not be enough to revive it.)

Handle all the numerous repairs. Fix the leaky faucet, grout the bathroom, refinish the counters, replace a broken doorknob. “Buyers start chipping away at the price as soon as they see these kinds of things,” says Moss. It usually ends up costing much less than you think, especially if your broker has a go-to handyperson. 

Finally, clean every last inch, including the windows. “Odors in particular are the kiss of death,” says Kenney, who points to wet dogs, kitty litter, cigarette smoke, and mildew in the bathroom as common culprits. Nip these in the bud. (As Moss was taught, “if you can smell it, you can’t sell it.”)

Don’t forget any outdoor spaces. “Many times I’ve swept the stoop and sidewalk at townhouses for better curb appeal,” says Moss.

Pro Tip:

If you're unsure how your apartment will come across to prospective buyers, how much time and money you should invest in staging or renovating, or if you simply want to test the waters, consider "pre-marketing" your co-op, condo or brownstone before you publicly list it. The pre-marketing platform at New York City brokerage Triplemint is a no-risk way to quietly test your asking price and marketing strategy among actual  buyers shopping for a place like yours.  There's no charge to participate and no obligation to sell or enter a traditional listing agreement if you haven't found a buyer by the end of the pre-marketing period. To learn more, click here. >>

3) Personal effects

Staging 101: Any sale begins with an emotional connection, and that won’t happen if buyers see too much evidence of you rather than being able to project their own hopes and dreams onto the space.

“People who decide to buy a place have to imagine how amazing living there will be, and they don’t want to live with other people’s family,” says Hakakian. (Or as Spellman puts it, no one wants to see the giant photo of your family wearing matching button-down shirts on the beach.)

Kenney says it’s fine to leave an artistic shot of your baby that communicates “this home is ideal for a family,” but otherwise put all those photos and tchotchkes away (and it doesn’t matter how cute they, or you, are).

The same goes for anything that’s potentially off-putting, such as religious or political paraphernalia—and anything that could be construed as off-limits to all ages. “We are in the most diverse market in the world, and you don’t want to be dismissive of anyone,” says Kenney.

4) Color misconceptions

No matter how immaculate your Farrow & Ball Nimes living room may be, the consensus is to stick with one of the countless shades of white when it comes to attracting buyers. (Spellman says a super-light tan or gray can be more conducive to bringing out the floor or moldings.) “Darker colors are simply too polarizing,” says Hakakian. 

To keep all that white from coming off as too stark or sterile, do as designers do and incorporate pops of color to draw the eye around a room or even down a long hallway. 

Hakakian prefers what he calls Tuscan or earthy colors, nothing neon (too flamboyant) or even pastels (too feminine). 

Kenney likes to pick colors based on the emotions they convey—red is stimulating and can be used to inject energy, blue is calming and ideal for a bedroom.

Whichever accent color(s) you choose, use it (and any patterns) selectively and sparingly with throw pillows, artwork, and rugs. 

5) Inadequate lighting 

Hakakian finds that more people forget about lighting than any other element of staging, yet “it makes the biggest impact in bringing a space to life.” You can use lighting to create intimacy in a larger room and to spotlight artwork or some other focal point, for that “wow” factor. 

If you have a dark apartment, you’ll especially want to pull out every trick in the book to brighten things up. Moss swaps out LED for warm (incandescent) light bulbs. “It sounds like a little thing but it makes a huge difference.” 

Kenney incorporates mirrors and other reflective surfaces, and also takes down window treatments to maximize exposure. (Exception: If you are staring at a brick wall, Moss recommends getting sheer blinds or shades that allow the light to filter through while softening the view.)

6. Clutter (enough said)

If ever there was a time to declutter, it is now. Once your property is on the market, you have to stop thinking of it as a home and more as a product.

Granted the process is rife with emotion, which is why Spellman sees herself as part therapist, part designer. 

On a practical level, Gross tells her clients to “pre-pack” their belongings, since they are going to have to do it anyway. (Purging is also in order.)

The key is not to go overboard. “There is a continuum between having too much clutter and not enough,” Kenney says, who finds all those empty surfaces come off as too cold. Rather the goal is for the staging to be lifelike, albeit in an idealized state.

Storage, or the lack thereof, is a definite dealbreaker. “Leave closets at least 30 percent empty to let some air between items,” she says. Put all but in-season clothes and outerwear in a storage unit. Leave stuff off the floor.

Even if you don’t have California Closets you can make them feel that way with canvas and woven bins to hide your stuff to make them inviting. Kenney will even shop at Ikea for matching wooden hangers.

“People want to see how organized their life will be in their future home,” says Moss. Strive to be aspirational.

7) Poor use of space

“The mistake is not having a delineation of space, especially in an open floor plan, where everything can bleed into each other,” says Spellman. Basically buyers have a mental checklist: Entryway? Check. Kitchen? Check. Eating nook? Check. Use furniture and focal points to control the flow.

That said, avoid the urge to put a bunch of chairs in a massive living area to create different seating areas to indicate, for example, that’s where I have tea, that’s where I have wine with friends, that’s where I watch TV. 

“Really all people want to do is sit and enjoy the space,” Spellman says.

And unless you are very fancy, odds are you have a fairly informal existence (like most New Yorkers). In other words, avoid making it seem like your formerly laid-back den is now a (stuffy) dining room that seats 20—an inexplicable staging phenomenon according to Spellman. 

On a related note, Kenney votes for putting a bed in every bedroom, even if it’s a daybed. “People can always envision a home office but they need convincing that it can really suffice as a bedroom.”

8) No sense of scale

“You are effectively selling the idea of space, and too-big furniture will cut against that,” says Moss. It will also highlight the awkward layouts (long and narrow living areas, for instance) that are commonplace in NYC dwellings. Opt instead for smaller, sleeker pieces, even in prewar apartments. (Franco: Traditional looks are too passe.)

Too-dark furniture is another no-no. “There can be a grand sofa that just needs new upholstery,” says Hakakian, who encourages people to pay attention to quality above all else. 

Likewise a too-tiny rug will instantly shrink a room, something Spellman encounters all the time. “I’m constantly having to convince people that a quadruply larger one will significantly expand the footprint.”

9) Overlooking creature comforts

“A few fur throws and pillows in the right place can be very luxurious,” says Kenney, who is not above putting two (not one!) terry robes and pairs of slippers in a closet. 

“As long as they’re not contrived, these small touches can elicit the visceral reaction you want.” 

Ditto crisp white bedding and fresh flowers in the bedroom, plush towels and spa treatments in the bathroom. 

10) Foregoing staging entirely

“Most sellers see the value of staging but many still don’t want to pay for it,” says Moss.

If that sounds like you, there are affordable ways to work with a staging expert. Namely, “designate your priorities from the get-go,” says Kenney. Perhaps you just need a professional eye to come and help rearrange and edit what you already have, or give just one or two rooms a thorough redo. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.” 

Brokers are also there to help, especially if you are on a tight budget. Moss will bring in pieces from her own collection; Franco has a specialist do the heavy lifting of decluttering.

And make no mistake: Empty apartments don’t sell. They seem too small and lack personality. “Staging takes away the guesswork for buyers and lets them envision how their life will be,” says Moss. 

Case in point: When it came down to choosing between two apartments in the same building, one of Franco’s clients went with the staged one, despite having a less desirable northern exposure than the empty one facing south. (Everyone interviewed had tales like this one, so there’s ample anecdotal evidence to support the strength of staging.)

Ultimately, however, “all the staging in the world won’t help you sell an overpriced property, so listen to your broker,” says Kenney. Everything is transparent these days; buyers are more knowledgeable than ever.

Honorary mention: Poor photography

According to Spellman, an estimated 90 percent of buyers find their future home online, making it all the more important to nail that money shot.

That’s why brokers and stagers rely on a professional photographer, who can capture all the right angles and use the right lighting. (No more bedside tables with different light bulbs.)

As Kenney points out, the faster you can sell, the better off you’ll be. “Just think of all those extra months of carrying costs you’ll save.” 

Previous versions of this post contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen.