Small Spaces: First Impressions
By Heidi Staseson
They say too much is never a good thing. Not in Kristy Morrison’s case. Just four years ago when the Ottawa-based vet technician was writhing in financial risk all things pointed to a bust.
The only bust she encountered was the head of Beethoven sitting atop a client’s baby grand.
Morrison, 29, is a certified home stager. Her company, Capital Home Staging and Design, goes into people’s homes to make them look better at resale.
Her technique and unique business sense involves amassing value through creativity, style and home décor, at a reasonable price.
Say a client’s verandah-and-swing-style country home contains flouncy hot-pink-and-leopard drapes in the parlour—Morrison will tactfully send those packing and replace them with a more neutral, natural and relaxed-looking fabric.
Add on a cranberry valance with tie backs and the place looks ready for Martha Stewart Living.
Home staging has been around for about 40 years, says Morrison, namely in the U.S. and in Canada’s larger city centres—a norm in the real estate industries of Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, with competition creating energy and awareness of the urban design profession.
It’s only been over the last decade or so that it’s started to niche its way across the rest of the country, with Ottawa being slower to the draw, Morrison notes.
When she arrived on the scene four years ago, the market was ready for her arrival but the handful of independent stagers working the trade weren’t as enthusiastic—greeting Morrison with not much more than a hiss and a diss.
Still, she remained plucky and green and raring to go even though the recent steps that brought her up to that point were rickety. They do, however, tell a solid story of how one young entrepreneur spruced up the pathway to her decorative calling.
Prior to switching professions, Morrison had owned two homes (the second one for job-proximity reasons) but then she got laid off and life looked grim.
“I had two homes, two [sets of] bills and two mortgages for a year-and-a-half,” she recounts.
Her first house in the picturesque countryside wouldn’t sell and she didn’t get why. “It was vacant with crazy colours in the middle of nowhere but I thought it was an oasis away from the city…but no one else saw that,” she says.
She looked into home staging as a possible new profession and quickly learned that vacant homes are typically slow to sell. But dress them up right and there’s a good chance you’ll close the deal sooner.
Eventually Morrison sold her empty house but she wishes she had the staging insight earlier. Still, she was intrigued by the technique of prepping a house for sale and she enrolled in a home-staging correspondence course.
Racking up straight As led her straight to her new profession and she designed her business model— with a competitive advantage: Instead of joining the ranks of the few “icier” independents in Ottawa, Morrison would create a business that would employ up-and-coming home staging professionals who weren’t necessarily suited to “going it alone” on the business side yet wanted to maintain their lead-role statuses when it came to the actual elements of staging.
“I thought why not start something that allows people to do what they love without having to do the [back-end] parts that they hate,” she says.
Certainly the overhead was low at start-up—“all you really need is transportation and a pen,” Morrison quips.
Further, she adds costs could be kept down since her business incorporates a lot of the homeowner’s belongings into the staging as opposed to spending extravagantly on furnishing inventory.
“We try and do simple tips and tricks that will show off the space so it looks larger and save the client money,” she explains. “The only time we would change things is if [something is] either too big for the home or too décor-specific.”
Whether a stager showcases what’s already there or goes to her tickle trunk, ultimately, Morrison says the results of staging are the same: it’s about connecting a potential buyer to the home being sold, so the property will sell faster, for more money.
How does a staging start? Three hundred and fifty dollars will get a home seller a consultation to assess items such as lighting—i.e. does the space need brightening up? Are the drapes too heavy—or could they just be tied open?
Says Morrison: “They earn thousands of dollars back on a sale because they’ve implemented how to rearrange their furniture; what they should be packing up; how to create a focal point.”
Morrison’s team stages 40 homes a month; between 350 to 450 stagings a year, she says.
A top player in Ottawa’s real estate market, she’s gone from solo to seven employees with some prime commercial space from which to work—allowing her the ability to focus on her core (and other businesses) while her stagers go to town on the homes.
“I focus on the business growth and development now; I don’t actually go and do physical appointments; I train all the staff—I had to step back last year so I can keep us going forward,” she says.
Part of that forward motion included being scouted by the Association of Property Scene Designers (APSD), a Colorado-based global organization that trains home stagers. Impressed with her “gumption and industry passion,” they asked Morrison to help them enter the Canadian marketplace, appointing her master trainer and chief operating officer.
So how did the not-yet-30-year-old grow her business from $24,000 in Year 1 to six-figures in four short years?
“It’s about building relationships and creating a dialogue with clients and being authentic. Make it a positive experience for them,” she affirms.
That means if an abode’s swimming in duck chotchkies, learn how to get clients to buy-in to your pare-down.
“I tell them, ‘I love your home; it’s absolutely beautiful! That’s an impressive duck collection!’” she explains.
Ever the smooth talker she adds: “…and for the principal of sale I feel this collection [might seem] even more impressive than your home that’s for sale.”
In other words: better pack up the flock—but keep a pair in the powder room for good measure.
Another trick to a successful start-up, Morrison says, is to know your client.
“Who is buying that home? Because that way you can stage it to your specific buyer and that will have your home selling a lot faster,” she notes.
Morrison’s goals for the future include continuing to double her business annually so that by the time she’s 40 she can model it into a North American-wide franchise. But first she plans on taking it to “a second stage within Ontario.”
As for her competitors—new stagers and the ones who initially tried to shoo her away?
“There are so many properties that are ready to be staged—we don’t have to view each other as competition,” she says. “We’re here to help the industry grow so why would we pit each other against each other?”
Morrison’s motto? Don’t be a hoarder. It’s one of the reasons she started the Ottawa chapter of the Real Estate Staging Association [RESA] that meets monthly at her office.
“I help other businesses grow now by sharing my knowledge of how I’m growing my business,” she explains, noting that as RESA president new stagers will seek her advice on things like registering a business name or rules around the Harmonized Sales Tax.
Says Morrison: “I get so many thank-you’s from local stagers. Self-containment does not benefit you or the industry. Share the love; it’s invaluable.”