10 Ugly Truths to Know Before Becoming a Home Stager
Having been in the real estate business since 2004, I get asked a lot about home staging as a career path. I also get a lot of emails about becoming a freelance home staging assistant at our company. Here is my unsolicited advice based on my experience:
1. Passion is sometimes not enough.
I’ve been in real estate for over 10 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of turnovers in this industry. Having been through both strong seller’s markets and economic downturns (can you imagine losing half of your clients overnight because of the economy? I can - hello, 2009!), I see a lot of stagers come and go.
The truth is that it’s incredibly easy to become a home stager. Sometimes simply being creative or passionate about this business is not enough. A business is easy to start, but if you don’t have clear direction, sustaining a viable and profitable business can be tough. There are a lot of factors that can contribute the success and failure of a business, and as a business owner, that is all on you.
What people don’t realize most of the time, just having passion is not enough. In fact, turning a hobby or interest into a business can kill your love for it altogether.
2. There may be lack of friendship or mentorship in your area.
From my experience, it is tough to find mentorship in this business, especially from your own geographical areas. Some don’t reach out because of the competitive nature of the business, and some truly are too busy to carve out the time to do so.
It it much easier now, however, than when I first started. Now we actually have an association and there are numerous Facebook groups that let you vent privately within the group and ask for advice.
3. When you are starting out, it feels like you are driving in the fog on a road filled with potholes.
When I first started out, I spent the majority of my days working on logistics and running the business and very little time spent on job sites doing styling. My days could be very long. During peak season, I could work about 10-14 hours per day. It can also be mentally and physically exhausting when you are working back-to-back jobs.
There are a lot of moving parts to what we do as well, and a lot of coordination with different people (sellers, real estate agents, freelancers, movers, furniture dealers, etc.). We may have booked the job one to two weeks in advance, but I will still need time to plan out all the inventory needed for each project, schedule movers and freelancers for jobs, and coordinate furniture orders or driving around to buy more inventory for projects.
The most disheartening part can be that your client doesn’t realize how hard you work to make their listings look amazing. They won’t care if you are sick, tired, or your child is waiting for you to come home. They want their listings staged today and on market tomorrow.
The road of building your business can be long, confusing, and frustrating. Having a great support group and persistence will help you tremendously.
4. There is always work to do.
During down season, there is still a lot to do because you want to make sure that you are ready for the busy seasons in a few months. During this time, you are doing a marketing push, continuing your blogging and social media efforts, and at the same time organizing the warehouse and working on refreshing the inventory.
Also, entrepreneurs may tell you that you will work long hours when you own your business. But you would have NO idea how many until you start one yourself. The pressure of breaking even every month or meeting payroll (if you have employees) may be tremendous.
Even though I have been in business for more than 10 years, I still constantly work on perfecting our systems, working on our website, branding, etc.
On the back end there is, invoicing, marketing, blogging, updating your website, photo editing, paperwork - lots and lots and lots of stuff to do. When you have employees, you also need to learn about human resource laws, leadership & management skills, and dealing with employees’ mistakes or unethical behaviors like stealing clients. Or competitors stealing your branding, marketing copy, even your portfolio photos. You are expected to work weekends and may get clients’ calls/texts/emails after 6pm. Not to mention the pleasantness of filing endless paperwork to the IRS and your local and state governments.
Now I’ve had my business for almost more than 10 years, and I’ve been through both hot and cold seller’s markets. I am much more at ease with my workload and I can start delegating tasks and training people to take over certain areas of my business that I feel I don’t need to be involved in anymore. It does get easier.
5. You should have a fairly deep pocket and very good credit.
The costs of running a home staging business can be high, which is something they don’t talk about in trainings or TV shows. Acquiring inventory costs money, and then it costs more money when you need people to move it, store it, and maintain it. Even if you use rental furniture, you still need to buy home accessories and soft goods, since most rental companies only rent furnishings. You will also need to have good credit since you will be fronting a lot of inventory investment before getting paid.
You will need to learn how to manage your cash flow effectively, because it sucks to turn down projects when you are low on inventory, especially with your regular clients. More importantly, NEVER get in serious debts for your business. It can snowball very quickly. Spend and invest wisely on your business, and always find fat in your balance sheet to trim. Tightening the belt during recession really saved my business.
In general, before you start a new business, you should have 6-12 months of living costs saved on reserve. The building phase takes time. Depending on how popular home staging is in your area, the ramp up time can vary. In the beginning, you will also need to invest on building a brand, like printing business card, set up a website, etc.
6. You will see many sides of human nature, and sometimes, they are not the nicest sides.
Sellers can be HIGHLY emotional. After all, it’s the largest purchase one’s ever made and now they are selling it for the first time, or they just got a divorce, or someone has just passed away, or you are working with a rookie realtor who needs a lot of hand holding at times. It is a lot of money on the line and a lot of pressure. You are expected to be understanding, patient, and cool as a cucumber no matter what happens.
You also need to learn not to take comments personally, and give feedback gently and professionally. There will be clients who drive you completely nuts and want to make you quit this business, but it will pass.
7. Having an extremely well-written contract will save you over and over.
We once had a client who came around the job site around the clock to check on how we were doing. The seller first loved everything then hated everything. Then called me and texted me until 8pm on a Sunday and continued to text and call me all day the following day (Memorial Day). It was intense. But luckily we had a very solid contract that protected us. And of course, after the experience, I added more clauses into the contract to make sure we are more bulletproof.
There will always be clients who try to break the rules and push every button. That’s why you need a strong contract to protect yourself and your business interests.
8. Not comfortable at sales or marketing? Well, let it go.
One of the things I’ve learned through building my business is that real estate is a people business, regardless how advanced the technology has become. You still need to put in face time to woo and keep your clients.
At the same time, you still need to have a strong web presence. Having a great website that is easy to navigate and that showcases your work is important. Marketing your work constantly through social media and your blog can help you build credibility and book projects. The majority of my clients come from our website and referrals.
9. Build a great reputation the right way.
It’s true that they say “fake it until you make it,” but do it ethically. People are strange creatures when it comes to careers and money. I’ve had stagers who copied our brand name, our website color schemes, and marketing copy. I also had to bring legal action to a former assistant (who actually went through a 18-month professional development program with me) who took my portfolio photos off our website, cropped off the big ol’ watermarks and put the photos on hers as part of her portfolio.
Copyright violation is never okay, neither is inflating your ability. You may be able to get the job by exaggerating your abilities, but once you get to the job site, you can’t hide what you can’t do.
10. Understand the legal & financial responsibilities of your business.
Setting up your business legally and correctly is important. In addition to your legal business entity, it is important to have a great contract that protects you and liability insurance in case something happens. If you ever decide to hire employees or independent contractors, human resource law can be complicated.
It’s been a challenging and interesting road. There were points where I wanted to just give up. There were points where I was confused and unsure of what I was doing. I had guilt from not spending enough time with my family. I felt ashamed because I didn’t feel like I was successful enough.
Despite dealing with so many obstacles and how crazy life can be (and people can be pain in the ###), at the end of the day, I still love every day of it. My business has taught me a lot, both as a business owner and a human. In a way, I grew up with my business, and I feel very blessed for the experience.