Remind me why I live here …? was the thought that kept flashing in my mind as our kids grew up and graduated from the local suburban school system, and I sat in our pin-drop-quiet house. The latest tax bill, coupled with the commute and my and my husband’s dwindling sense of community, nudged me into action. We could sell the house and return to the city, we said. No biggie. People do it every day, right? A lot of our peers were downsizing, retiring, moving on—and just plain moving.
We decided to join their ranks. After 15 years in the house that saw everything from my children learning to read to recuperating from having their wisdom teeth out, it was time to hit the road. And by putting our house on the market, I encountered the whole “stage your house” thing, which is basically code for “OMG, your furniture is old, and so are you.”
Maybe not explicitly, I’ll give you that. Luckily, when I decided to sell, I was connected with a top realtor in my area and her stager. Each of these women was lovely, professional, personable, and incredibly talented. I would highly recommend them to anyone else looking to exit their empty nest. But getting a family home ready for primetime is not a pretty process, especially for a hypersensitive soul like myself.
Home Sweet Home
Let me first tell you a little bit about the house in question. Set in a leafy NYC suburb, it’s almost 100 years old and emblematic of the Tudor Revival style that our area adopted in the 1920s. That means leaded glass windows, beautiful wood paneling, commanding fireplaces, and charming handmade tiles in the bathrooms. While our home is modest in size, it’s got a big architectural ego, with arched doorways, rope moldings, plaster medallions, and ornamental door knobs.
The house wowed me with its glamorous, grown-up vibe.
The first time I saw the house, it wowed me with its glamorous, grown-up vibe. Almost like something from an old black and white movie. The carved fireplace surround had me gobsmacked; the swan tiles in the kids’ bathroom transported me to a fairytale land; and the garden bursting with lilies of the valley didn’t hurt either. “Could I really get to live here?” The answer was yes.
But time flies. Tastes change. My realtor told me I’d probably be selling to a 30-something couple from Brooklyn (gah, not much older than my kids!). To appeal to their aesthetic, major revamping was required.
Staging a Home: Out with the Old, In with the New
In their efforts to encourage me to optimize our home for sale, the realtor and stager noted that, “Today’s young families don’t like dark wood” while ever so slightly wincing at the Restoration Hardware dining table that had been A Big Purchase almost 20 years ago, chosen for its clean lines and ability to evade the vagaries of design trends. Who knew its dark hue would give me away as a child of the 70s? I was told that today’s buyer—young parents and a little one or two (Wait, doesn’t that describe me? Oops, wrong decade)—would want light wood. Light rugs. Glass light fixtures with a mid-century vibe. Any dark woodwork, even the gorgeous rope molding, needed a whitewashing.
I found myself sheepishly trying to justify our home’s décor.
All the touches my husband and I had added to honor the house’s character had to go. The vintage-style lights from the fabulous Rejuvenation catalog, buh-bye. Our furniture, with an Arts and Crafts feel that matched the home’s heritage—it would feel like grandmother’s house to today’s home buyer. I found myself sheepishly trying to justify our home’s décor. I pointed out architectural features that the previous owner—who grew up in the house; his was the first family to live there—had lovingly highlighted as he walked us from room to room. Sharing those details felt vital to me, but I could tell that they’d become extraneous information. Talking about the plasterwork or the fancy doorknobs felt as if I were sidetracking the listing process, which, I learned, was all about price per square foot.
The next situation that concerned our stager was our family’s bibliophile tendencies. “Oh dear, all those books! No one wants that kind of clutter,” she said while staring at the shelves full of books that mark what feels like 101 Father’s Days, Mother’s Days, and anniversary gifts; volumes that commemorated places we’d traveled, museum exhibits we’d seen, and cookbooks that relatives had given us to nurture our nesting instincts. I’m sure the stager was right: the room, once emptied of its wall of books, would look bigger. A young family could imagine their own possessions in a clean, white envelope. Our library would go into storage. In this age of reading on your Kindle and streaming content, perhaps our books were akin to having a butter churn in the kitchen … a sign of ancient times.
Upstairs, our bedroom was equally unruly. The armoire that held our TV—vital for late-night Seinfeld rerun viewing—had to go. Too big, too chunky, too … dated. “Don’t worry,” the stager consoled me. “I have fake flat-screens I can easily hang from a wall.” I wanted to defend the armoire, to tell its story and how well it served us, but I bit my lip.
Little did the stager know, I thought, about the tower of cassette and VCR tapes in the attic. I wondered if any thrift shops would even accept them as a donation, or was that like turning up with a Victrola? Technology had outstripped us. I realized that all the media we used to struggle to store—tapes and disks (floppy or firm)—were now just floating in the cloud for the younger generation.
Going Full Millennial
No books allowed in my staged home. No dark wood. No dark anything. No big, heavy furniture and no armoires, for heaven’s sake! A new aesthetic had taken root … and a new era.
Somewhere over the last 15 years, without noticing, we’d evolved out of young family-hood. The nest we’d feathered was our constant as we went through the rites of parenting passage—Halloween-costume shopping, back-to-school nights, complex Spring Break planning. It stayed the same as our sons grew from size 6Xs to over six-footers, while around us, tastes were changing.
Our home stayed the same as our sons grew—but all around us, tastes were changing.
The stager reassured me that she’d make our home shine for our target buyer. And she did, with an influx of white and gray rented furniture with a mod, mid-century look; airy lighting fixtures; and pale rugs. All traces of our warm and wood-drenched home were gone.
A friend reached out when she saw the listing go live. “They’ve Millennial-ized you!” she said. “I’m sad to see it. You guys and your possessions gave that house such a warm mood that respected the heritage of the house. Ouch.”
Yes, ouch, but onward. As the home’s transformation was completed, I realized I was deep into another kind of transformation. Since we bought the house, I went from a young mom figuring out how to hook up a Slip ‘n Slide to that older woman on the street, out of step with the young mothers race-walking to Starbucks in their Lululemons and then picking their little ones up from school.
As my home was made over by the stager, I realized that I am at a staging moment, too. Figuring out my next move, my next place, where I don’t feel like a relic from another era. So bring on the Millennial buyers. It’s their turn to take that house and make it a home that reflects their taste and their era.
As for me, I will take my dark wood furniture, my books, and the rest of it, hold my head high, and see what’s around the next corner.
Janet Siroto has held the Editor-in-Chief position at Time Inc.’s Family Life magazine, as well as senior editorial positions at Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Her writing work has appeared in New York, The New York Times, Vogue and many others.