From Highland Park to Malibu, prospective LA homebuyers respond most enthusiastically to digs that are turnkey and expertly turned out. Enter home makeover maven Meridith Baer, CEO of Meridith Baer Home, a design firm whose 100 or so employees can polish even the most tarnished real estate gem. “It’s really about showing a lifestyle, painting an ideal picture of what it would be like to live in a space,” explains Baer of her company’s ability to enhance a home’s appearance.

Nowadays, if a seller is looking to get top dollar, staging has become a prerequisite for a deal. Staging begins when a homeowner (or flipper) clears out a property and a design firm comes in. Properties are then “art directed” to the max to appeal to the design sensibilities of potential buyers. Baer is the pioneer and market leader (her firm oversaw 672 installations in 2012 from SoCal to Manhattan). Others, like Steve Jones, owner of home renovation company BetterShelter, have perfected a signature style.

Jones’s approach is to appeal to the design-savvy through his original take on bohemian chic, which combines pedigreed elements with flea-market finds. He specializes in reviving older properties and rehabbing them completely with the modern buyer in mind. “The point of staging is to show how a space can be best maximized,” explains Courtney Poulos, owner/broker of Acme Real Estate, who represents BetterShelter properties. Staging helps buyers conceptualize and visualize while turning their attention away from any negatives a house might have, explains Poulos.

“When you’re buying a house, you want to picture yourself, not someone else, there,” Baer believes. To that end, she prefers that clients remove most, if not all, of their personal belongings. It’s a rare exception when Baer uses a seller’s own furniture or art—even high-profile clients like Harrison Ford, Amy Adams, and Bryce Dallas Howard, deliver their homes for sale as a clean slate. “I explain delicately that [a seller needs] to open the aperture of the number of people who can imagine themselves there,” suggests Baer, who believes a neutral, rather than specific, look goes over best.

She replaces a home’s contents with her carefully selected furnishings—the upholstered furniture (often made in-house), artwork, even the bric-a-brac and art books on the shelves come from Baer’s city-block-size warehouse in Downtown LA. She purposefully chooses only positive, life-affirming art—nothing dark or disturbing. “Our look tends to work in a lot of different spaces: What it comes down to is we want the house to be the star rather than the stuff,” says Baer who oversees purchasing and keeps ahead of trends. A team of 20 in-house designers trained by Baer stage properties, often reimagining spaces and creating new ones, such as an outdoor lounge. “There’s a freshness to our look, and we want the look to be that much better than anything the buyer has seen,” she explains. Styling for a 1916-built estate in the Hollywood Hills on Camino Palmero with a major Hollywood pedigree included contemporary furniture, a black grand piano, and white orchid displays.

Staged homes sell faster than those that have not been “done.” Baer estimates that 85 to 90 percent of homes staged by her firm sell within three months—a boon to real estate agents who rack up fewer marketing fees and to homeowners carrying the property costs. A homeowner pays the staging fee, which varies depending on the size, price, and location of the house. Per Brett Baer, Meridith’s nephew and president of the firm, pricing ranges from $7,500–$10,000 for entry level homes, $12,000–$29,000 for higher-end homes, and $30,000 and up for estates and large properties.

Although it’s not possible to put an overall figure on the exact return on investment that staging brings, consider that in today’s competitive market, it is one way a house can stand out to buyers looking at dozens of properties. Acme Real Estate’s Poulos says, “There’s no doubt that staging helps BetterShelter homes sell over asking [price] in multiple offers—sometimes over asking—before the first open house.”

“If you sell your car, you get it detailed: Why not do the same for your biggest asset?” asks Brett Baer. Some agents take the concept to the next level, not only styling the home but also advising and overseeing rehabilitations. For a modest post-war property in Mar Vista, Stacey Valnes, principal/broker with the Westside’s Valnes Bell Realtors, encouraged his client to open up walls, remove popcorn ceilings, and pull up dated carpets to expose handsome red oak floors. The house was then dressed to sell and received 12 offers. “Makeovers make sense because they make a property beautiful and add value,” says Valnes.

“When I started in 1998, I had to explain to people what I was doing. I had to talk them into the concept,” recalls Meridith Baer. “Everybody knows what it is now. You see a house staged and see one that is not and you get it.” Meridith Baer’s new reality show, Staged to Perfection, begins airing on HGTV in early summer.

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