Staging is an important part of the selling process for New Yorkers. Apartment buyers are likely to visit both new condos and resales—and if you’re selling, you need to make sure your place is styled to compete with a brand-new apartment.
That’s especially true in today’s market, where first impressions are made online and listing photos are crucial.
Brokers and stagers rely on professional photographers to capture all the right angles and use the right lighting to sell a resale. After all, they are up against New York City condo developers who have the money to create pristine model apartments. “You cannot afford to let a resale apartment come across as a dud,” says Michael J. Franco, a broker at Compass.
That’s why it’s important to present a property in a way that allows buyers to see its full potential. “I like to think of staging as makeup,” says Daniela Schneider, founder of the staging company Quadra, adding that staging should enhance the natural beauty of the apartment and disguise the flaws.
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in September 2022. We are presenting it again with updated information for September 2023.]
Whether you hire a staging pro or decide to DIY it, you’ll want to avoid the following common mistakes.
1. Not painting the space
This is one of the most common oversights, Schneider says. The consensus is to stick with one of the countless shades of white. “Clean, fresh, and bright” are the universal tenets of staging. Remember: Buyers have been bombarded with images of pristine, unlived-in condos, so you’ll need to step up your game to match the fantasy in their heads—admittedly a tall order.
And as a seller, you’re also up against the “HGTV effect,” where buyers have been conditioned to expect move-in ready, picture-perfect apartments—with no work required at all.
Fortunately, there are some shortcuts. A fresh coat of paint gives you a lot of bang for the buck. “You can even freshen up tired kitchen cabinetry with a coat of paint,” Franco says.
Of course, repainting isn’t always possible and there’s a difference between staging a vacant apartment and one that is still being lived in. Dawn Trachtenberg, owner of the staging company Staged Ryte, points to situations where it’s impossible to paint and the walls are different colors or at least not a stager’s preferred neutral white; it’s more important than ever to simplify the space through other means, especially by decluttering.
“It really depends on the price point and demographic, but most often, less is more,” she says.
As an added incentive, some brokerages are offering no-fee renovation loans to make it easier for you to paint or make upgrades to your place with funds you don’t have to repay until you close.
2. Installing curtains badly—or not at all
Forgoing window treatments is another common mistake, according to Schneider, who says curtains soften the space. In her experience, people who choose to save on curtains overcompensate and overcrowd the apartment with expensive pieces of furniture in an attempt to make the space feel less empty and cold. “Oftentimes, you are hiding ugly window frames that impact the feeling of the room so much.”
As for color, neutral and plain are always preferable. If the walls are white, you’d be advised to go with oatmeal or “greige” curtains or fabric with just a touch of color to create contrast. Most stagers will work with the curtains you have, but if your window treatments are in a bright-colored floral print, that will be the only pattern allowed.
Another curtain faux pas to avoid: Hanging curtains too low (right above the windows) rather than taking the curtain rail all the way to the ceiling, you miss out on the illusion of height. “You want the curtains as high as possible to change the sense of height and space—especially in a small footprint,” Schneider says.
3. Underestimating lighting fixtures
Ignore these at your peril. “Light fixtures are the jewelry of the space,” Schneider says. Along with the paint color and the curtains, lighting creates what she calls “the envelope” of the apartment and is the most important aspect of staging.
If you have a dark apartment, you’ll especially want to pull out every trick in the book to brighten things up, such as creating light with mirrors and other reflective surfaces.
You can also lighting strategically, such as to create intimacy in a larger room and to spotlight artwork or some other focal point for that “wow” factor. And consider swapping out harsh, cool-temperature LEDs for warm incandescent light bulbs (just for staging).
Sometimes Schneider says she can work with a seller’s light fixtures but more often than not she likes to install her own. “It really has to be the right fixture, because it brings so much personality—it informs the feeling of the space,” she says
If you’re unsure how your apartment will come across to prospective buyers, how much time and money you should invest in staging or renovating, or if you simply want to test the waters, consider “pre-marketing” your co-op, condo or brownstone before you publicly list it. The pre-marketing platform at New York City brokerage The Agency is a no-risk way to quietly test your asking price and marketing strategy among actual buyers shopping for a place like yours. There’s no charge to participate and no obligation to sell or enter a traditional listing agreement if you haven’t found a buyer by the end of the pre-marketing period. To learn more, click here. >>
4. Leaving personal items on display
Any home sale requires an emotional connection, and that won’t happen if a buyer sees too many of your personal items lying around.
This situation can be complicated when you’re staying in your apartment until it sells. Still, Schneider says you should be willing to “de-personalize” your apartment as much as possible. “You have to create the canvas for the next buyer. They have to be able to envision themselves in the space.”
If you have a collection of items on display—whether figurines or blown-glass objects—Trachtenberg says it’s time to pare them back. “Making it special and curated is really key. It’s ok to have that collection but maybe not all 50 pieces,” she says.
Ultimately, you have to walk a fine line between creating a connection and alienating people with anything too specific. New York’s buyer pool is one of the most diverse in the world. People won’t want to see evidence of your political or religious leanings—and that goes for your holiday decorations if you are selling in the winter months. Those should definitely be scaled back.
There are inevitable situations where it’s practical to leave some items in place. For example, large furniture pieces that you might not be willing to put in storage. A designer might be able to work with your dining table, buffet, or credenza but be less happy about you keeping your novelty couch. “It’s a distraction,” Schneider says.
5. Going too wild with patterns
Totally mismatched furniture is a big mistake, Trachtenberg says. “Having too many sofas and too many patterns going on—it’s very confusing.” If you have to remove furniture, so be it. “Don’t have two different floral sofas or a striped sofa and a patterned chair.”
One piece of furniture that must go is the recliner. “It might be comfortable, but it’s not a good look,” she says.
Schneider recommends adding colors “very minimally”—use greenery from indoor plants or maybe a yellow or blue throw but nothing with a red or orange palette. Why? She says those shades give off a nervous active energy, and you want people to feel calm and encourage them to linger in the apartment.
Trachtenberg is less averse to colors but insists what might be right in one apartment is definitely wrong in another. She will incorporate color in pieces of furniture or with throw pillows. “It might be a turquoise chair with a neutral sofa, or a neutral sofa with blue pillows on it, and then picking up some blues in some of the accessories or books on the cocktail table so it doesn’t look bland and gray,” she says.
Even Schneider sometimes breaks her own rules on color: Quadra worked with the owner of an apartment at 254 Park Ave. who didn’t want to paint or install light fixtures. The apartment had very high ceilings and dark flooring.
“We did the whole apartment in black and white and then put two very modernist, beautiful red velvet chairs there,” Schneider says.
6. Being boring and cookie-cutter
Buyers are scouring listings, and the same staged aesthetic—the beige couch, the cream rug—can start to look very tired. How to make yours stand out from the crowd? Do your homework.
Find out what else is for sale in the same building or in the same neighborhood. You can partner with your broker, who will know the comps and be strategic in your staging. This will, in turn, enable you to aim for the target demographic. For example, you wouldn’t stage a renovated loft in Tribeca the same as a prewar on the Upper East Side.
That’s where Trachtenberg says pops of color can help. “Our feeling is people need to be able to picture themselves in the apartment, and not everyone lives in that sterile cookie-cutter fashion.”
Don’t be afraid to take calculated design risks, like hanging eye-catching artwork and even mixing it up with canvas, photographs, and other items. That might also include a chalkboard panel in a kid’s room or wallpaper in a living room. Just beware of potentially off-putting artwork. Not everyone may appreciate that graphic nude or explicit graffiti (and kids are likely to come across it, too).
In the end, it’s all about striking a balance and making your apartment more inviting and exciting than the others.
7. Ignoring clutter
If ever there was a time to declutter, it is when selling. Once your property is on the market, you have to stop thinking of it as a home and more as a product. Granted, the process is rife with emotion, and some purging is going to be required.
The goal is for the staging to be lifelike, albeit in an idealized state.
Storage, or the lack thereof, is a definite deal breaker. Overstuffed closets won’t help a sale. The advice is to leave closets at least 30 percent empty to let some air between items. Put all but in-season clothes and outerwear in a storage unit. Don’t leave stuff on the floor.
Even if you don’t have a custom California Closet, you can make it feel that way with canvas and woven bins to hide your belongings.
The message is: If you lived here, “your life would be as organized as this closet,” organizers tell Brick Underground. Some even go as far as to treat the closet as if it were a little room, with wallpaper and an attractive light fixture. (For more tips, read “Staging your closet when selling your NYC apartment.”)
8. Letting the TV dominate the room
Of course, buyers want to see where their TV will go—but leaving your 52-inch flat screen hanging on the living room wall is a mistake. “It’s ugly, it’s cold, it tells buyers you are going to have to be watching TV where you also want to entertain,” Schneider says.
Even worse is when the TV is old and clunky and (per Trachtenberg) “says you haven’t changed things out in way too long” and can make the entire place feel dated.
Instead, you want the living room to be as pretty, inviting, warm, and beautiful as possible—and Schneider says a TV has none of those qualities. It also doesn’t photograph well, so take the TV down before snapping listing images.
What if you don’t want to remove your TV (and give up streaming your fave shows)? One hack is to incorporate it into the staging. “Surround the TV with black-and-white framed prints, so it becomes one of the prints or part of a gallery wall,” Schneider says. (A possible explanation for why you see so much black-and-white wall art in listing photos).
Another workaround: When the TV must stay, Schneider will ask the broker to play a vintage (more black and white!) movie during an open house. “Something that won’t offend anyone and won’t interfere with the colors of the space.”
And if you simply must keep the TV on the wall, “at least pare down whatever else is around it to keep the space from looking too cluttered,” Trachtenberg says.
9. Not adding a home office
If you don’t have a dedicated room to identify as a home office, you’ll still want to show where a buyer could put a desk—especially now that working from home is the norm. Being able to show potential buyers where that workspace can exist is crucial, Schneider says.
Her suggestion? The primary bedroom can be an option in an apartment without a nook or dedicated workspace. “You can put a desk by the window facing out with a beautiful chair and the best lamp—it’s going to actually look pretty and functional.”
Other options might include under a staircase, inside a closet, or in the foyer or hallway (say, by parking a slim-profile console there).
Essentially, buyers have a mental checklist: Entryway? Check. Kitchen? Check. Bathroom? Check. Workspace? Check.
10. Blocking your sightlines
Many NYC apartments have open floor plans, where your kitchen, living, and dining areas all flow into each other. But that can make it hard for a buyer to visualize how much space there is and whether it meets their needs, especially with the increased need for multi-functional spaces.
You can often use furniture to delineate areas and control the flow. (Rugs are great for this.) However, you want to avoid overdoing it with the furniture groupings, which can create barriers. So don’t crowd the layout with lots of heavy pieces or block the sightlines from one room to the next. In other words, avoid making it seem like your formerly laid-back den is now a (stuffy) dining room that seats 10.
On a related note, the advice is to put a bed in every bedroom, even if it’s a daybed. People can always envision a home office, but they might need convincing that it can really work as a bedroom.
11. Crowding your space with furniture
If you’re trying to convince a buyer your apartment is bright and airy, but you fill the place with oversized furniture that eats up all the space—your message won’t get through.
Large pieces often highlight awkward layouts—long and narrow living areas, for instance—that are commonplace in NYC apartments. Opt instead for smaller, sleeker pieces, even in prewar apartments. Franco says buyers don’t typically want to see traditional furnishings these days.
Dark wood furniture is another no-no. And a rug that’s too small will instantly shrink a room. Trachtenberg says even stagers are guilty of sometimes putting in rugs that are way too small for a room; a larger rug that goes all the way under the couch is much more luxurious and space-expanding.
“You really want the furniture to be on the rug and not have the rug stop in front of the sofa or only have it under the coffee table,” she says.
12. Making your place too austere
A few fur throws and pillows in the right place can be sumptuous. You might even put cushy terry robes and some slippers in a closet. Ditto crisp white bedding and fresh flowers in the bedroom, plush towels, and fresh soap in the bathroom. But don’t make it too contrived. Less is always more.
13. Foregoing staging entirely
Staging appeals to a lot of sellers, but often they balk at having to pay for it.
If that sounds like you, there are affordable ways to work with a staging expert. Perhaps you just need a professional eye to come and help rearrange and edit what you already have, or give just one or two rooms a thorough redo. Lots of stagers offer a range of packages to accommodate most budgets.
Brokers are also there to help, especially if you are on a tight budget; Franco has a specialist do the heavy lifting of decluttering.
And make no mistake: Empty apartments don’t sell. They seem too small and lack personality. Case in point: When it came down to choosing between two apartments in the same building, one of Franco’s clients went with the staged one, despite having a less desirable northern exposure than the empty one facing south. Brokers and stagers have plenty of tales like this.
Previous versions of this post contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen and Evelyn Battaglia.