Buying a House? Don't Be Fooled By These Home Staging Tricks

There might be a reason for that awkwardly placed rug.

Waiting room interior in a luxurious clinic furnished with a velvet dark blue sofa, a rug and green plants.
Photo: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Getty Images

When you're on the hunt for a new home, there are a lot of factors to consider beyond just the appearance. However, sellers (and their realtors) know that the home-buying process is also based on emotional decisions, and the way a house looks can have a big impact on whether or not prospective homebuyers can envision themselves in it. That's why smart sellers make sure their homes are staged to perfection.

Good staging highlights a home's best features—but it can also hide potential problems. This doesn't necessarily mean that sellers are being deceptive. They're just trying to be sure that you don't focus on any imperfections in the home. These imperfections can be pretty minor and may not be deal breakers, but it's good to know exactly what you're getting into before you sign on the dotted line. Here are some common home staging tricks that you should be aware of.

Curtains

Realistically speaking, most homes will have curtains. But you may need to take a peek behind them. "One of the things I see home sellers doing is hanging curtains in a way that tries to hide issues with the wall behind it," says Jason Gelios, a realtor at Community Choice Realty in Detroit, Mich. Anytime he sees curtains that are not hung right, Gelios says it draws his eyes to that area and what those curtains might be hiding.

You may be wondering what could be hiding behind a curtain. "For example, if the curtain rod is just below the ceiling, it could be a staging trick designed to make the windows appear larger or make the walls appear taller," says Candice Williams, a realtor at Coldwell Banker in Houston, Tex. "Pull back those curtains to see the size of the window and if anything might be hiding behind the curtain, like a broken window, damage to the walls, or a poor paint job.

Rugs

A rug can break up a large room and add warmth to a space. But it can also serve another function when a house is on the market. "Probably the most obvious, common staging 'trick' is having a rug down that covers stained or damaged floors," says Bill Golden, realtor and associate broker at Keller Williams Realty Intown Atlanta. He says it doesn't necessarily mean that sellers are purposefully trying to cover something—but he recommends looking under area rugs to be on the safe side.

Williams agrees that you should lift up a rug, especially if it seems to be in an unexpected or random location on the floor. "I have seen rugs used to cover missing flooring such as tile, patched up flooring, or even a hole in the floor," she says.

Furniture size and placement

You're not usually buying the furniture in a home, but it's still worth paying attention to it. In particular, you're looking at the location and size of the furniture in each room. For example, notice oddly-placed furniture. "I was showing a home where they had moved a couple of sofa chairs in a spot that didn't make sense, and it turns out that they were covering a tear in the carpet underneath," says Gelios.

In addition, Golden says it's common practice to use undersized furniture in a very small room, which makes the room appear larger. And Marie Bromberg, a licensed real estate salesperson with Compass in NYC, tells us, "Recently, I staged one of my listings, and the furniture placement was bananas, but it effectively hid that the living room was a tad on the small side, which was the one feature the home's sellers complained about." As a result of the placement, she says not a single visitor noticed or pointed out that the living room was small.

Here's another example of why the choice of furniture size and placement can be important. "A bedroom that is furnished with only a bed—a wall-to-wall bed—might seem cozy, but you should check to be sure the closet doors can be opened without banging into the bed, and that there's adequate room for storage," advises broker Gerard C. Splendore of Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York.

Take note of extra bedrooms that are staged as home offices, too. While this may show you a comfortable WFH setup, it could distract you from noticing whether the space is big enough to fit a twin bed or crib if you're hoping to use it as another bedroom or a nursery.

That's why Williams recommends paying close attention to the furniture size and asking yourself important questions. In the living area, is that a love seat or a couch? In the bedroom, is that a queen-size bed or a king-size bed? Will the dining space only seat two to four people or will it accommodate six or more? She also recommends taking measurements to get a true picture of the space.

Mirrors and light fixtures

Even seemingly minor decor items can distract from the big picture. "Mirrors are another tool used to trick the mind and make a room appear larger than it is," Williams says. That's a relatively harmless staging trick, but it's really on you to pay attention to the size of the rooms. "Be aware of the careful placement of mirrors that can enlarge a space visually, but will darken and shrink a room when they are no longer present," Splendore says.

He also recommends checking for "overlighting," particularly during the day, and says this might be a tip-off that the room or rooms do not receive adequate sunlight. In fact, broker Confidence Stimpson of Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York City recommends turning off all of the lights so you can see how much natural light the home has.

Tate Kelly, a licensed associate real estate broker with Compass in NYC, tells us a few more tricks to recognize. "Stagers can disguise very low ceilings by using lower than normal furniture to make the ceilings seem higher than they actually are," he says. "They will also use ceiling light fixtures that are flush with the ceiling and don't hang, which can also make the ceiling height seem higher than it actually is."

Artwork and wall decor

However, Kelly also advises checking for some staging tricks that could lead to some more unpleasant surprises. "Examples include artwork or some hanging decor covering up water damage in the walls," he says. "Also look for planters, vases, decorative platters, etc., that are covering up damage to the stone countertops in the kitchen."

Air fresheners

It's obviously important for a home to smell nice when it's on the market and Williams says it's not uncommon to have an air freshener in the bathrooms or at the entrance to the home. "But when I smell it throughout the home, it usually is because the seller is trying unsuccessfully to cover up odors," she says. Some of these bad smells could include pet odors, cigarette or cigar smoke, or mildew, but she says it's an obvious sign that something is amiss when the air freshening efforts are overwhelmingly strong.

Paint

Painting your home tops the list of the projects to tackle before selling your home. However, Williams warns that it can also be used to cover up problems. "Water damage, mildew, and cracks in the walls can be disguised behind those layers of paint."

Gelios agrees, and says he's seen fresh paint applied in an effort to hide cracks and other blemishes. "While many experts say that fresh paint is a great thing when selling a home, I see a red flag when the whole house appears to have been painted in a rush," he says.

Background music

Here's something you might not think about: You need to hear what's going on in the house. "If there is music playing, or a white noise machine is on, ask to turn it off,"recommends Stimson. This could be a ploy to cover noise coming from the street (or the neighbors).

So, you notice some staging tricks—what's next?

As stated before, the majority of staging is relatively harmless and just designed to highlight the home's best features. While things like the size of the living room or ceiling height are up to personal preference, you may notice other hidden issues—like uneven flooring or cracks in the walls—that you want to address.

"Be open and honest with your agent about your concerns, and if the problems are not acceptable, make that clear so you can end the showing," Williams says. If the problems are acceptable but you're worried about whether you can trust the seller, she recommends asking your agent if the seller has provided documentation disclosing the known issues or defects. "If the seller has disclosed it, then it is unlikely he or she is trying to be deceptive," Williams says.

However, Gelios says he's often come across home sellers who didn't disclose an issue they were aware of. In those instances, he says his clients had to decide if they wanted to move forward—at a price that reflects what was found—or move on to another property.

For structural issues, like water damage hidden by fresh paint, this is where it's especially important to not only rely on your eyes, but also on a legit home inspection. "Many inspectors have tools to detect moisture behind the walls, so that can alert potential buyers to possible issues," Bromberg says.

And that's why Golden says the best thing a buyer can do is spend some time during the due diligence period ensuring there are no potential problems. "Once the due diligence period is over, any problems that arise can become difficult to solve, because the purpose of a due diligence period is for the buyer to do whatever inspections they deem necessary to uncover any issues," he explains. "The assumption is that beyond that, the property is deemed to be sold as-is."

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