Decorator Show Houses are Designed to Sell

July 8, 2019

The first time Thu Lesher toured her future home, she couldn’t see past its dated look, with heavy furniture and draperies. She changed her mind two years later, when the antebellum home became the Charleston Symphony Orchestra League’s 2014 Designer Show House and received a sweeping face-lift, with fresh wall paint, custom-made curtains and new light fixtures.

In June of that year, Dr. Lesher, a professor at the College of Charleston, and her husband, Aaron Lesher, a pediatric surgeon, bought the six-bedroom property for $1.3 million.

“It was absolutely transformed,” she says. “I needed someone to show me the potential of the house.”

At show houses across the country each year, interior designers work their magic on a lucky home (often a different designer for each room). Designers shoulder the cost, with no charge to the homeowner, to get exposure for their work. Visitors pay an admission fee to tour the show house, with the proceeds usually benefiting a local charity. Removable items and decor used in the renovation are often removed after the show, although fixed items (wallpaper, paint) usually remain. Some homes are for sale. If the property is listed, sellers wager that foot traffic, media buzz and visual upgrades can expedite and improve a sale.

“This is staging on steroids,” says Margaret von Werssowetz, an agent with Handsome Properties in Charleston who is selling this year’s Charleston Show House, a 1903 Victorian listed for $1.65 million.

At least 25% of the show houses in the 47-year history of the Kips Bay Decorator Show House event in New York City have sold within 12 months of the exhibit, says Daniel Quintero, executive director of the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, the event’s beneficiary. This year’s show house, a stately, 12-bedroom, eight-bathroom Upper East Side townhouse currently listed for $29 million, has been decked out with crown molding and fireplaces, hand-painted murals and crystal-encrusted chandeliers.

The annual Decorator Show House in Wichita Falls, Texas, benefiting the Wichita Falls Faith Mission, which operates two local homeless shelters, has sold during or soon after the event nine times in its 11-year-history, according to Frances Anne Manning, director of development at the charitable organization. “Attracting buyers through this prestigious event and showing them a house decorated in this way can help them feel that it’s a high-end home worth the price,” says Allison Gray, a real-estate agent in Wichita Falls, located between Dallas and Oklahoma City.

In 2014, a five-bedroom near Midwestern State University had been for sale for two years before becoming that year’s show house. Wichita Falls locals Britt and Kristi Milstead, who have three children, bought the 3,800-square-foot-property for $240,000 four months after the event. Real estate website Zillow now values it at $306,000.

The show house improvements had made it attractive enough to buy, says Mr. Milstead, 47, but it needed more work. Floors had to be refinished, and kitchen and bathrooms required updating.

But the Milsteads liked the living room, which show house designers had painted a light mint green with a darker green trim that was continued in the formal dining room. There, it was paired with wallpaper that had a medallion pattern.

“Being a show house helped sell that house,” says Mr. Milstead, director of sales at a television station. ”It provided touches that needed to be done and that the seller wasn’t willing to make.”

In Topeka, Kansas, a 7,300-square-foot home was listed but not attracting any buyers when, in the spring of 2014, it became the Designers’ Show House for Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas, a nonprofit helping parents with child care and education.

Local designers installed new kitchen cabinets, removed dated foliage-inspired wallpaper and repainted walls in a neutral palette. The house’s listing touted its fresh renovation and prominence as a show house.

Kristina and John Dietrick bought the five-bedroom property four months after the show house event for $514,000. Today, Zillow estimates it is worth around $581,000. Without the upgrades, they would have balked.

 “It would have been too much work,” says Ms. Dietrick, owner of a human resources outsourcing firm. “The cool thing with a designer show house is that they do the heavy lifting.”

Ms. Dietrick, 50, recalls liking 80% of the show house designs. She removed all of the window treatments, painted over stencil art on the dining room ceiling, and changed the kitchen cabinets from brown to a black that she felt would look better with the appliances and quartz countertops.

“The kitchen cabinetry had a rustic look, while the rest of the house had more of a sleek, modern look,” she remembers.

In the 2014 Charleston Show House, the Leshers kept only burgundy-colored drapes in the study and bright pink valences with a matching pale pink bamboo wallpaper in the master bedroom. First to go after the show house ended: purple walls and ceilings.

“The color of the year was purple—it was everywhere,” recalls Dr. Lesher, 42.

The couple painted over the shade in every room but their daughter’s bedroom. They spent “at least half a million” dollars on additional, structural renovations, says her husband, 42. The cosmetic changes for the show house, donated by participating designers, saved them as much as $30,000, he estimates.

Zillow now values the 5,100-square-foot six-bedroom, 3 1/2-bathroom home at $1.99 million. But the Leshers have no plans of selling. “If we sold it today, we would be in good shape, but we’re not selling it,” says Dr. Lesher.

Not all show house redesigns have the desired marketing impact. If designs vary too much between rooms, real-estate agents say, they can hinder a sale.

“The problem with designer showcase homes is they don’t flow,” says Topeka agent John Valley who sold the Dietricks their home. “One room looks this way, one room looks that way. It doesn’t have any continuity.”

In Palm Springs, James Lee and Dominick Spatafora bought the midcentury modern show house that was part of the town’s 2014 Modernism Week shortly after the festival ended that year. Its look was coordinated by Christopher Kennedy, a local interior designer and prior owner of the home.

“I serve as the creative director,” says Mr. Kennedy, who has put together four show houses and describes his style as “combining Jet-Set nostalgia with California modernism.”

For the 2014 show house, he set a neutral color palette and ensured that permanent features, such as floors, tiles and bathroom fixtures would work together. Messrs. Lee and Spatafora say some of the whimsical designs took them out of their comfort zone, which they liked because it exposed them to cutting-edge décor they had not seen before. It included a gold ceiling in the TV room, a sink that lights up in a fluorescent blue in one bathroom and turquoise and black wallpaper with fish, paired with a black ceiling, in the powder room. One stretch too far: hand-painted zebra-patterned wallpaper in the master bedroom that they removed.

The couple, whose primary residence is in the Marina del Rey area of Los Angeles, bought the 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom property for $1 million, slightly below the asking price of $1.1 million, which had been lowered from the initial price of $1.4 million. They still paid a premium to the average square-foot price in Palm Springs’ Indian Canyon neighborhood in 2014, says Ronald Scott Parks, a broker with Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty in Palm Springs. Mr. Parks estimates the home’s current value between $1.25 million and $1.3 million.

Back in 2014, the couple spent less than $10,000 on additional improvements. After their purchase, they were taken aback when locals mentioned that they had been in their house, but they now enjoy its prominence.

“Initially, you feel so exposed,” says Mr. Spatafora. “But it’s actually fun to talk about it.”


Author: Cecilie Rohwedder

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