10 Apartment Staging Mistakes That Can Cost You a Sale

You’re ready to put your apartment on the market. Now take a long, hard look. Is it ready to meet the public? Does it even know what it's trying to say to its audience of buyers?

Ideally, according to stager Cheryl Eisen of Interior Marketing Group, your apartment should say “a stylish person with impeccable taste lives here." Unfortunately, observes Eisen, most homes she sees "are not professionally staged and look like Pottery Barn meets grandma’s hand-me-downs." And that's a problem when you're trying to make a good first impression and, eventually, a sale.

Experts say it's important not to confuse interuor design with staging, which aren't the exact same thing, says Susan Goldstein, design director of Studio D. “Interior design is geared to the homeowners taste and personal desire," she explaines, while "staging is about putting enough furniture in a space so that buyers can envision themselves living in the home and how their own furniture will fit in."

[Note: This story was originally posted in February 2013 and updated in April 2017.]

Staging is a form of "visual merchandising,” says real estate broker Gordon Roberts of Sotheby's. “The object of staging is to flatter the apartment but not be too obvious about it, like being properly dressed without drawing attention to what you’re wearing."

Whether you hire a professional stager, have your broker manage the staging, or insist on a strictly do-it-yourself approach, here are 10 mistakes to avoid:

1. Personal items on view

If you think your personal tchotchkes add warmth, you're wrong. Hide or get rid of them.

Personal photos, in particular, are absolutely out. Interested buyers will spend too much time looking at photos trying to figure out who lives in the space, says Sid Pinkerton of Manhattan Staging. “With a typical apartment showing lasting 5 to 15 minutes, every second a buyer looks at your photos, they’re not looking at your apartment," he says.

2. Bad color choices

The general rule is to keep things neutral but not boring. "Whether it’s a red sofa or a blue accent wall or yellow drapes, it’s a staging sin to stray from neutrals,” says Eisen. “If you want to do an accent wall, do a deeper neutral behind a bed to add drama and depth.”

Pinkerton is even more specific about neutral colors: “Use a neutral color with a tiny bit of yellow in it if your room is light-challenged. Linen white is not a color I ever use because it looks dirty to me. Baseboards, doors and window trim should be painted a semi-gloss white.”

3. Ignoring scale

Pay attention to the architectural style of the space when staging, advises Goldstein. Furniture that’s too big will make a space look smaller. And don't be too sparse when staging a large loft-like apartment.

Some spaces work best with furniture of a particular shape: some need a circular table, others a rectangular one; some are grand enough for an oversized sectional, others require something smaller.

4. Poor lighting

Just how effective the vibe of the apartment will be depends on the light both from inside and out, says real estate broker Deanna Kory of Corcoran, who has been staging apartments for more than a decade. “You need to use incandescent light for a warmer, more inviting glow. Watch out for the cool light or ‘green cast’ in some of the newer energy efficient bulbs," she says.

"The ones to look for are the warm/soft white or daylight variety—but be warned that daylight doesn't work well everywhere. I've also seen six-light chandeliers with two or three different bulbs—that's a big no-no," says Kory.

“Light is one of the most important things that buyers are looking for,” agrees Pinkerton. “No matter how light and bright you think your apartment is already, up the wattage. If you only have a ceiling light in a room, buy an inexpensive floor or table lamp. Use three points of light per room. That can be two table lamps and a floor lamp, or three table lamps.”

5. Too much theatricality

Avoid any urge you have to add what you may mistakenly think are dramatic touches, warns Roberts. Often, they either fall flat or turn visitors off and read as trying too hard.

While it's okay to set the table with your everyday plates and settings, avoid "fully set tables that look as though a formal dinner party is about to begin, no ‘high end’ packaging such as Hermes boxes conspicuously displayed—keep it simple,” he says.

6. Penny wise and pound foolish

For those who think that hiring a professional stager is too expensive, Eisen suggests you do the math her way: “The cost of hiring a stager is on average 1 percent of the asking price. Alternatively, the average first price reduction is 7 percent of the asking price and 75 percent of the sellers who do one price reduction eventually do a second." (Note that most stagers say the cost ranges from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent of the asking price.)

"Statistics are great but realtors and sellers want concrete evidence that staging works," says Goldstein. "If you lean too heavily on statistics, then you risk setting up unrealistic expectations and the seller will hold you to it. I prefer to give examples of homes that sold quickly after I staged them, especially if they had been lagging on the market."

Even avowed do-it-yourselfers need to be willing to spend enough money to make the prospective buyer say yes to a sale; pleasant just isn’t good enough.

Kory gives an example: “I wanted to make the master bedroom in an apartment I was showing look rich and luxurious. It was the last room that the buyers would see and if it was disappointing, it could destroy the deal. I went to five different places until I got the right bedspread, which looked rich and luxurious, for $200 plus $100 for pillows. It made the room.”

7. Too trendy

Wallpaper is popular in model apartments but it’s too specific a taste. If you want to be sure your apartment has broad appeal, you may want to have it removed and the wall repainted when you're getting you're apartment ready to list, particularly if it involves "big stripes that look good in photos but are too overpowering in person,” warns Jason Saft of Compass.

8. Too masculine, too feminine

Gender neutralize any man caves, pink-and-frilly boudoirs, and the like. Otherewise, you risk turning off half of your buying pool. Once again, neutrality is key.

Even your closets and your medicine chests need staging attention. Eisen is convinced that when a potential buyer opens a closet and sees a “packed, chaotic mess, it screams ‘not enough closet space!’ It’s unnerving, too. Buyers want to feel as though their life in a new home will be calm and organized.”

To achieve this look, replace all mismatched hangers with wooden ones from Ikea (8 for $4.99) and organize your clothes by color. "You’ll like it so much you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner!" says Eisen.

10. Mismatched appliances

Is your dishwasher black? Your fridge stainless? Your stove white? Now’s the time to decide on one color for all and consider buying new ones so that they all match.


Compass is a licensed real estate broker (01991628) in the State of California and abides by Equal Housing Opportunity laws. All material presented herein is intended for informational purposes only. Information is compiled from sources deemed reliable but is subject to errors, omissions, changes in price, condition, sale, or withdraw without notice. No statement is made as to accuracy of any description. All measurements and square footages are approximate. Exact dimensions can be obtained by retaining the services of an architect or engineer. This is not intended to solicit property already listed.