Staging Our Home for Sale

Moving to Philadelphia

After 18 years in our New Jersey house, my husband and I have moved to Philadelphia. We felt ready for a return to city life, and our love for Philly and close family ties there made it the perfect choice. (As with millions of others, the pandemic taught us that working fully remotely has little downside, however, I anticipate frequent visits to my office in Millburn.)

When it came time to put our house on the market, our realtor brought in a home stager for a consultation. They offered feedback on the current state of our home and offered a slew of ideas how to maximize its appeal for a broad range of potential buyers. We liked what we heard and decided to work with them and follow their guidance. In the end, their advice proved to be invaluable. Here are a few key takeaways from our experience.

Clean House — For any buyer, a new home is a fresh start. We hired a service to perform a deep clean of the entire place, including the light fixtures, appliances, and cabinets. Prospective buyers are likely to open closets and cabinets to see what kind of storage the home offers — nothing crammed, please — so we decluttered throughout the home. We were instructed that overflow from any rooms was not to be placed in the basement or anywhere that might suggest there wasn’t enough space upstairs where they belonged (where does one store a stand-mixer? The trunk of our car became a moving storage bin!)

All wood utensils only!

Spic and Span — Kitchens stand to be a major selling point for any home. Here we were given very specific pieces of advice. For instance, we typically keep all of our cooking utensils in a crock on the counter. The stagers advised us to get rid of all the metal tools, keeping only the wood. This reduced the number of items so significantly that I had to use a smaller crock for the right scale. Additionally, we were told to pare down our crowded knife rack, leaving only matching knives and attractive shears. Truth be told, these seemingly small changes did improve the overall look of space.

Neat and sharp.

A Brightly Lit Blank Canvas — In order to put each room in the best light possible, literally and figuratively, we furnished every fixture with the brightest bulbs we could find. Prospective buyers should be able to walk in and immediately imagine themselves living in the home. With that in mind, we removed all personal photos, many books and overly-busy decor arrangements. Bookshelves were thinned out and we used some of our existing décor to create artfully composed shelves. In the living room, the existing Tibetan rug was replaced with a monochromatic wheat-colored, natural fiber rug that really made the furniture pop.

Model Closet — In our master bedroom, we were told that the walk-in closet should be set up like a retail store. we bought white hangers for the shirts and used only wood hangers for the pants. All items were neatly spaced. Shoes were grouped by color, we cleared all items off of the floor and we also pared down the number of folded items on upper shelf.  The jackets on the coat rack at the front door were to be all one tone only — black or navy — out with the red and bright blue!

All lined up.

From the Ground Up 

Our house was a small two bedroom, and we knew that might be a stumbling block for most suburban home seekers. The basement had a full bath, but was otherwise only semi-finished. This is where our guests stayed over the years and despite how much they would rave about the space, we couldn’t really promote it as a legal bedroom. Our realtor helped us recognize the potential of this space to maximize every square foot in a small house, so we put in a new floor, changed some hardware, added moldings, and painted everything to brighten it up. The stagers then helped us make this bedroom space even cozier. Once the work was all done, predictably we said, “we should have done this ages ago!”

Potential buyers arrived to a house in perfect condition. With everything put away, newly neat and pristine, it felt like the house was no longer ours but a product for public consumption. Our evenings spent in this perfect house felt like living in a catalog.

Shortly after putting the house on the market, we accepted a bid from a buyer who wrote us a heartfelt letter about how much the house resonated for them; they commented on how they could ‘just bring their toothbrush’ and move right in. It was gratifying to feel that we had achieved our goal.

Looking back at the process, I recognize that what the stagers and our realtor did for us was not merely creating a sterilized version of our home, but rather bringing out its full charm and potential. And now we are using this playbook again as we put together our new place in Philadelphia.

I sometimes refer to split levels and ranches as “The Other Mid Century style”. They may not quite call to mind the classic mid century modern houses that have become so desirable, but with a little imagination, they do offer a great opportunity to create a modern home for this century.

I grew up in a 1958 split level house in suburban Philadelphia, and I remember even as a child recognizing the distinctively different feel from my friends’ traditional colonial houses. The more open plan, cathedral ceiling in the living room, and the 50’s decor seemed so cool by comparison. And the half flight up to the bedrooms and half flight down to the playroom seemed so easy compared to the conventional three level configuration.

Split levels and ranches became popular during the post WWII suburban expansion and reflected a desire for a more modern style home. The splits worked well on sloped or smaller sites, offering an open layout, yet more compact than a spread out ranch. In some homes, the arrangement allowed for cathedral ceilings in the living room since there was not a second floor above.

Somewhere along the way, split levels became something of a pariah. These houses generally lack both the design sophistication of a classic mid-century modern house from the same period or the character and charm of a traditional Colonial or Tudor. When found in neighborhoods with high land values, they often become tear downs that make way for more conventional Colonial style mansions. But from my experience and what I hear from local realtors, there is a growing demand for more modern homes, and these splits and ranches may be the best bet short of building a new house from scratch.

The split level modernization projects I’ve done have mostly included additions and exterior “curb appeal” makeovers. A common addition is adding a level above the one story portion, usually for a master suite and other related spaces. Addition on the back can create a larger kitchen or family room space. One project completely re-conceived the idea of a split level, and resulted in a dramatic home with the different levels intertwining in unexpected ways.




Englewood Cliffs, NJ

This client had hired an architect who completed the plans for a second floor addition. However, the client wasn’t happy with how the outside was looking, and asked us to re-design the exterior without making any big changes to the plans. The biggest design change we made was to change the gabled roofs to hip roofs, which immediately created a better resolution between the two wings of the house, and established consistent horizontal lines to the wall surfaces. The entry was given a cantilevered canopy, the bay window squared off, and the break up of materials further accented the horizontal connection between the volumes.

Tenafly, NJ

In this project, the client wanted to add a larger kitchen and family room to the back of the house, along with a new deck. This freed up space for a powder room and large pantry area at the living level. At the upper level, the space was reconfigured to provide a more generous master suite, eliminating one bedroom. A new bedroom and bathroom was added to the lower level in the area that had good window exposure. The existing entry sequence from driveway to front door was unwelcoming and included an un-needed circular driveway that was too close to the front door. Our design included a re-working of the front landscape.

This house already had hipped roofs, and our window and material choices helped to further modernize the overall look of the house.

These elevations show a different approach to material choices that I had presented, but the client opted for the black and white approach. 

Summit, NJ

The owners of this house had outgrown the space and embarked on an ambitious plan to enlarge the home and create a more modern expression. The neighborhood was full of these same style homes, but one by one, they were being torn down and replaced by the traditional style homes that developers were putting up around the state. For this project, we kept the original foundation and basic premise of the split level, and proceeded to create a modern home more in keeping with the mid-century spirit of the original. We had to submit for a variance to move the garage entry to the front of the house, and among the comments from various township departments was this very gratifying observation.

“The Historic Preservation Commission commends the owner and Architect for their proposed transformative design of one of the tract mid-century split-level homes- typical of the neighborhood- into a modern home in keeping with it’s mid-century influence. As an expression of its own time, the diagnosis is properly scaled to the neighborhood, and successfully addresses the site conditions, and utilizes material appropriate to their proposed use. We also like that the proposed design resists the common ersatz new-traditional inclinations that are becoming common in this neighborhood. No objections.”

The stair down was reconfigured to make a better flow from the new mudroom off the garage as well as new basement space under the rear addition. Setting the master suite second floor addition back from the front allowed a high ceiling area in the living room.

Scotch Plains, NJ

These owners lived in the neighborhood and were looking for an opportunity to create a modern, larger home nearby. This property met their need in terms of the location and the property size and character, and included a forlorn split level house that could easily have been a candidate for a tear down. Instead, we decided to retain some of the basic structure and proceeded to make additions and reconfigure space to create a home that took advantage of the various levels in ways that added to the interest of the architecture- resulting in a design that couldn’t have been achieved if a new two level house had been built instead of retaining the split level structure.

The two patios at the back also reflect the split-level nature of the house. The connecting stair follow the interior stair form the kitchen to the lower level dining/ living/ guest room spaces.

The lower level now has two stairs down, one from the entry foyer, one directly from the kitchen. The balcony space above acts as a private congregating space for the family, with a piano tucked in.

See this full project here.