RESA 2016 Top 10 Home Staging Team of the Year

Running on empty, Vacant homes can sell if they're in top condition, but you may want to stage them to look homier

'When you find the right one, you know," Frank Virga, 25, says. This mortgage broker from Smithtown found true love in a three- bedroom ranch after a yearlong search in which a determined real estate agent took him to almost 60 homes. Yes, 60.

Surprisingly, he had seen the Smithtown house once before and rejected it. The house was vacant, with empty rooms that made a bad first impression. The owners were showing the house empty after gutting and rebuilding it as an investment property. "It was very hard for me to get an idea of what my life would be like in this house," Virga says. "It's hard to picture it when there's nothing there."

A month later, his agent encouraged Virga to go back, saying things were different. The owners had "staged" the home with tasteful, yet impersonal, furnishings to make it more appealing to potential buyers. On Virga's second visit, the home was both furnished and accessorized - a bottle of wine and wine glasses on the dining room table, candles in the bathroom, a bowl of fruit on a countertop, even window treatments.

"I had a completely different outlook on the house when I saw it the second time. I was able to sit down on the couch and imagine myself living there," he recalls.

He made an offer and moved in last month.

Vacant, but why?

There are a number of reasons that some homes on the market are empty: an owner may relocate suddenly for a new job, taking all the furnishings; others move to a retirement development or assisted- living facility without waiting to sell; or maybe the house is an estate, vacant since the owner died.

Steve Young Lee, a real estate agent with Golden Bridge Realty in Great Neck, tells of a client who fell in love with a home that was on the market. She made an offer, contingent on the sale of her home. But the other homeowners refused - they were soon to move out of state. "She didn't have a choice," Lee says. "It was a dream home for the buyer, so she bought it." Now, Lee and his client face the challenge of showing her previous house while it's vacant.

Vacant houses aren't impossible to sell, of course. Some customers actually prefer seeing a house that's empty, says Julie Carnevale, an agent with North Landing Realty in Huntington. But the place has to be left in tip-top condition.

"Buyers will take a whole new look when it's clean and crisp, whether it's vacant or furnished," she says. Even if it's empty, they can use their dreams to fill it in a way they like. A buyer will walk in and feel like this is a home they can move right into. It's like looking into an empty jewelry box. They're excited to start filling it."

In real estate for 32 years, Carnevale points out the advantages of an empty nest. Some real estate agents "may disagree," she says, "but if a vacant home is clean and crisp, I find it easier to sell [than one that's furnished].. I can help a buyer use their imagination to fill it. If you go into a home where a seller has been there for 30 or 40 years, sometimes a buyer can't look beyond the furnishings."

She says agents listing vacant homes should have floor plans available, with measurements of every room. "Buyers can now take this floor plan home, place their furniture and decorate and design the home the way they want it," she says.

Home 'theater'

But floor plans aren't enough for some buyers. They need help visualizing rooms with furniture in them.

"When you put a house up for sale ... you want people to make an emotional connection with that house. With a vacant house, there's no emotional connection. It's like an empty box," says Val Allocco, whose Northport-based company, Staged 2 Sell NY, can furnish empty homes that are on the market. If a home is empty, Allocco says, "potential buyers walking through will focus on all the flaws instead of seeing the whole picture - the positive aspects of the house."

Allocco charges $75 an hour, with a three-hour minimum, to assess and stage a home for sale. In houses that are still occupied, staging experts will work with the homeowners to declutter and best display existing furniture. For empty homes, they rent furniture and accessories to make the home seem lived in.

Furniture rental prices vary widely, depending on the number of rooms and quality of the furnishings, but Allocco says the cost to furnish a typical three-bedroom, two-bath home can range from $1,100 to $1,500 a month.

That may seem high, but the cost can be worth it, says Kathy Stokes, an interior designer and staging consultant based on Staten Island who once staged a home for a Long Island couple.

"People will always say, 'I don't want to put any money into this.' But they've already come down $20,000 and $30,000. I tell them they didn't have to do that. For less money, we could have made it look good to sell" at the original price, Stokes says.

To save money, homeowners who feel comfortable decorating can stage their own home using excess, borrowed or rented furnishings.

Danielle Marks, a rental consultant for Cort Furniture in Farmingdale, says she has worked with homeowners who have an empty house on the market. "They actually come into the showroom and sit on the furniture, see the floor rugs, select accent pieces," Marks says. For added convenience, a design consultant can come out to the house, create a floor plan and suggest furnishings for rental. "We can have almost any home furnished within 48 hours."

Marks estimates the cost of furnishing an average three-bedroom home at $600 to $1,500 a month, but she also has seen a three- bedroom home staged for $2,500 a month. It all depends on the quantity and quality of the furniture selected.

Get a life (or two)

Sometimes the best way to ensure that a house looks "lived in" is to get someone to live in the house. Carnevale, the agent in Huntington, has found people with short-term housing needs to occupy otherwise vacant homes. This arrangement provides a home to someone who is having a new house built, for example, while at the same time giving potential buyers a chance to see the for-sale house furnished and occupied.

Homeowners considering this option should consider liability and other legal issues beforehand.

In other parts of the country, companies specialize in finding short-term occupants, called "resident managers," to furnish and live in houses that are on the market. One such company, Creative Showhomes (creativeshow homes.com) based in Atlanta, offers a low-cost option for home sellers. A resident manager will pay the company to live in the house, while paying for utilities, yard upkeep and basic maintenance that the homeowners would otherwise have to shoulder.

Carnevale and other real estate experts interviewed for this story were not aware of such companies on Long Island, but said they're always looking for ways to make a home attractive to potential buyers.

They agree that the most important thing in nailing down a sale is ensuring that the house looks nice - whether it's empty or full.

"When a home is vacant, the first thing a buyer thinks of is that the seller is very motivated. So they're going to come in with a lower offer," Carnevale says. "So I make sure the home is left in as tip-top shape as possible."

HOMEOWNERS WHO MOVE OUT before the home is sold should ask their real estate agent or a neighbor to regularly check in on the property. Keep the utilities on so it will show well to prospective buyers, and be sure to winterize the house to avert broken pipes or electrical fires. Check the page for other tips from interior designer and accredited staging professional Kathy Stokes.

Make an enterance impact (polish the doorknobs)

Care for the yard (cut the grass, remove the snow)

Put the lights on (use maximum wattace bulbs)

Make it inviting (put out fresh flowers and open curtains to make the house seem lit and airy)

Keep it clean (call in the pros if you need to)