Supply chain shortage hits home stagers

Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Jason Saft, realtor for Compass who also manages a staging company, has always borrowed a bit from her own home – occasionally grabbing a trinket or cushion to add a last-minute touch to a client’s home. But during the pandemic, when supply chain issues made it difficult to get anything at any time, even six months in advance, Saft really started to raid, removing works of art. wall art, moving chairs and beanbags, even taking her 5-year-old daughter’s toys. “I had to be creative. Lots of basic stuff that we were waiting for or running around the shops trying to find. There was so much uncertainty,” said Saft, who in addition to stealing items from his home, used Facebook Marketplace, second-hand websites like Kaiyo, vintage furniture stores, online auctions online and places like the Restoration Hardware warehouse, where items can be purchased directly off the floor. Moreover, he stored. “There was this fear buying mentality. Everyone was buying paper towels and toilet paper, and the middlemen were stocking duvets and pillows.

Over the past two years, the supply chain crisis has made it difficult to buy everything from a car to blue color. New sofas come with shipment delays of at least six months, and competition on Craigslist can be fierce even for second-hand Ikea basics, whose appeal, so far, has been mainly that it was furniture that did not require much effort. In this atmosphere, staging, which relies on large quantities of readily available items – from lamps and throw pillows to sectionals and statement fixtures – has become something of a nightmare. Lots of people are selling, middlemen are booked months in advance and everything is more expensive, brokers say. That, and a number of apartments on the market, are either empty, their owners having taken all their possessions with them when they left, or worse, furnished with the cast-offs they deemed unnecessary.

Jason Saft waited eight months for CB2’s out-of-stock ivory loop chairs to arrive. And then he only got half the order. When he finally received the eight chairs, he used them to stage the penthouse at 500 West 22nd Street.
Photo: Hayley Ellen Day/DDReps, Listing Agent: The Leonard Steinberg/Compass Team

“I feel like I’ve never had to deal with more staging deals and staging issues than I am right now,” said Kirsten Jordan, associate broker at Douglas Elliman. “First, sellers want to push prices, and if you want to push prices, you have to stage. Then we have more announcements coming. And because staging costs more, the sellers want multiple estimates. It feels like all we do is spend our time on the phone with interns.”

Scott Harris, associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens, said he had just received a real estate sales listing that needed to be staged. But the organizer who came to see the place told him it would be a six week wait. “It almost kills the spring market,” Harris said. He added that staging is much more expensive than before. The minimum is $10,000 to $12,000 for a room with a rough rule of $10,000 more per room, and costs go up from there for high-end renovations. Directors who were ready to fill out a lackluster roster are now insisting on empty apartments. This means paying not only for full staging, but also the cost of putting all of the owner’s belongings into storage. “It’s an emotionally charged time in the market, and there’s an emotional reaction to staging,” he said. “But it’s hard for sellers to swallow the cost.”

For clients who don’t have the budget for a full makeover, Harris and her team do lighter makeovers themselves, though like everyone else, they’ve had to work with limited resources. He learned to check light fixtures on Amazon: “If you try to buy something with a lot of detail, it can sink you. You don’t want it to look cheap,” he said. “If it has clean lines or if it’s something more contemporary, you can often get away with it.”

The pandemic has pushed even brokers who regularly rely on staging professionals to try their hand at DIY fixes. Tom Postilio and Mickey Conlon, associate brokers at Douglas Elliman, have grown accustomed to laughing with buyers of missing washers and dryers over the past year, but other supply chain absences have struck them as more problematic. In a new development, all the chandeliers were out of stock, so there were only wires sticking out from the ceiling. Hoping to improve the situation, they installed a basic light fixture that the builder had on hand. “We thought maybe it looked a bit minimalistic,” Postilio said. “But every time someone walked in, they looked up and said, ‘Is there a chandelier coming? “” When buyers are impressed by the staging, this is another problem. “People are asking if they can buy furnished places,” Conlon said.

Throughout the pandemic, brokers who offer full staging services have spent an inordinate amount of time researching and redoing second-hand finds — the only thing reliably available. Christophe Tedjasukmana, Associate Broker at Corcoran, sourced furniture from places like CB2 and West Elm. “I tried to get things that had a consistent look, feel, or mood,” he said. The one-stop shop was convenient and he could often recoup much of the cost by reselling the items later. But when that kind of buying became impossible, with shipping times exceeding the length of listing contracts, he started buying locally available used parts. “If it’s within 50 miles of Manhattan, I would consider it,” Tedjasukmana said. He visits local Greenpoint stores like Copper+Plaid and Nice Vintage Things, uses Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, and does Housing Works auctions. He also supplements the purchases with his own possessions, such as a pair of vintage pigeon illustrations he found on a road trip. The downside of using items you like, however, is that shoppers often like them too. While many organizers are happy to part with a Wayfair rug or a counterfeit Saarinen table, when buyers asked to keep the pigeon prints, Tedjasukmana hesitated and offered them a headboard which they loved instead.

Although shopping for second-hand items takes longer – Tedjasukmana had to haul a bed frame from a floor with no elevator and steam clean a section he found on Craigslist that smelled like dog from the previous owner – overall he enjoyed the challenge and thinks it leads to more appealing, interesting spaces. “It gives the impression that someone lives there,” he said.

Cem Evirgen and Aurelio Licon arranged a listing for broker Kirsten Johnson at 56 Marlborough Road, which sold out soon after. The pandemic has made it easier for new businesses like theirs to enter.
Photo: Evan Joseph Photography

Prior to the pandemic, staging was moving away from bland, austere design toward more personal and eclectic styles, according to Saft, and the lack of bland inventory seems to have accelerated that shift. “There’s a whole other approach,” he said. “People don’t want something like real life with kids stuff everywhere and dilapidated furniture, but they want spaces that are contextual and authentic.” However, not everything can be a beautiful antique or a charming vintage. Staging requires a large volume of stuff, from hand soap to light bulbs, and directors admit they’ve bought ‘filler furniture’ they wouldn’t have opted for before the pandemic – all modern sofas from Wayfair, club chairs from Target – because they were available for delivery at a glance.

Even designers accustomed to working with vintage have suffered from pandemic-induced headaches. Cem Evirgen and Aurelio Licon from Monomid design studio said that, overall, the past few years have been great for emerging companies like theirs. “The pandemic was kind of a silver lining,” Licon said. “In the past, a lot of real estate groups didn’t work with new talent, but we’re not wildly expensive like some companies. We’re also bringing a fresher design aesthetic. But it can be hard to get furniture up and running quickly these days – when some chairs needed refurbishing, they realized it would take three to four weeks to send them out, so they spent an entire day doing it themselves. And competition at auction houses close to New York became intense, so they started bidding on items further afield. Picking up a couch in Pennsylvania took half a day; after an hour’s drive to another auction house, they realized that the Brutalist console they had purchased would not fit in their car. And then there were the beautiful mid-century chairs — a steal at $80 each — that were too far away to pick up, but they thought would still be a bargain after shipping. Then they got a quote. It was for $800.

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