Why We Started Charging for Property Previews

Recently, we made a decision to start charging new clients for property previews. It is not an easy nor a popular decision, since most stagers choose to not charge for a preview. So why did we do it?

Is it because we are greedy witches? No, we actually lose money on writing proposals either way. If we were to charge our normal consultation rate, the price of previews would triple. Not to mention we credit back half of the preview fee at booking. At the end of the day, when you do the math, we make less than minimum wage on proposals.

THE DECISION COMES DOWN TO BUILDING MORE VALUES FOR OUR CUSTOMERS.

It seems very counter-intuitive. Why would we need to charge for a preview? Something seems so straight forward and simple. But the process actually takes awhile. Before we go out to visit the client, we speak with the potential clients on the phone. Then our Project Coordinator Anita sends out an email to confirm and see if there are any more questions that we can answer prior to the actual appointment. On average, before we head out of the door and get into the car, we’ve already invested 30-60 minutes in the process.

For the actual appointment, me & Yi Hsuen visit most of sites together, discuss the project design, and then draft the proposal. So by the time we sent out the proposal, we’ve invested another 4-5 hours.

We run a small shop, so we have to be efficient and conscious about the workload we take on. Because each project on average takes between 70-80 hours to complete, over time, we learned to be a little smarter about our time. After we started tracking our time, we realized that we were going on a lot of preview appointments to people who are just price shopping or not that serious about staging to begin with. They just want to “see how much it will cost” even after we already communicated our minimum and our normal project range.

That’s heartbreaking because that means we are sacrificing valuable time where we could’ve been working on the business to benefit our clients. Every time we go on a preview appointment takes time away from our existing projects: we can’t prep for existing projects in the pipeline, we can’t go shop for new props, we can’t meet with vendors or catch up on paperwork.

Before we rolled out this policy, we had a lot of back and forth discussions about this. After all, we had been in the business for 9 years and always offered free estimates. However, after a string of appointments that went nowhere, we realized that the appointments started putting stress on our workdays, especially when the housing market started to heat up. Several times, in the middle of prepping for jobs, we had to drop everything and leave to preview properties. That ate 2 hours out of the prep day. The potential clients were usually wishy-washy and wanted free information, even when we had prefaced that it was just for an estimate. Then we were back in the studio, racing, trying to finish the prep on time. It was not a good feeling.

After speaking with a few other stagers in my mastermind group who had implemented this policy with success, we decided to follow suit. Additionally, I remember back in my realtor days, the trainer always advised us to get buyers qualified financially before started working with them. Why? Because if they can’t afford to buy a house, there is no point to show them any houses. It is the same idea. In a way, by charging for previews, we are qualifying the new clients who had never worked with us before.

It’s been a month since we had rolled out this new policy, our booking rate increased and the workflow actually improved as well. We can now book appointments in advanced and manage our work days more efficiently.

What do you think? It was a difficult decision but in the end, we were happy with the responses. We still get the scoffs here and there, but those people are not the right customers for us.

WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ON THIS? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  • Thank you for posting this Cindy. I brought this up for discussion in the mastermind group that I participated in and with a realtor I work with. As the realtor said, “Why wouldn’t you charge? All service people charge. A plumber charges $100 to show up at your house and give you an estimate.”

    This came to mind last month when I did estimates in two nearby towns – one was 40 miles round trip and the other 90 miles round trip. They both needed work done before they would be “stage-ready”. I prepared a written estimate for both including the recommendations to make it “stage-ready”. In total, I had 9 hours invested; they had the recommendations, and an estimate. I did not hear back from the realtors, even after my follow-up. Finally one sent me an email last week saying that they had received an offer and the house was under contract, which I found out this week is not true. (It is being staged by a company that finds house managers.) The second realtor has never responded. After that experience, I decided to charge 1/2 of my regular consultation fee for an estimate. And I like the idea of rebating 1/2 of that if they accept the proposal. It gives the owner incentive and keeps me competitive with those who may not charge. Also, I’ve learned that I need to ask more questions before going out rather than assuming that a house is ready to be staged.

    Cindy, does the realtor or the owner pay for your estimates … or a combination? This has been helpful and I’m so glad to know that I’m not alone in trying to figure this out.

    • Hi Miller!

      I’m glad the blog post was helpful. And I’m so happy to hear from your example where the realtor said: “Why wouldn’t you charge? A plumber charges to come out for an estimate.” That’s my hope with this post, to get our colleagues to understand the value of our time and expertise. Because if it becomes an industry norm, no one will balk at paying for an estimate.

      It sounds like you also need to have a system or work flow to determine if the client is a good fit for you before you invest any more time in a project that is not a great fit for you. That could be a set of questions that you ask to qualify the clients. But the easiest way is usually charging for the estimate up front to weed out the price checkers or sometimes unethical new stagers who are fishing for proposals.

      I leave the decision of payment up to the client. But in our experience, most of the time the agents pay for the estimate and it is something that they market as their “value added service.”

      Hope that helps,
      Cindy

  • Hi Cindy,

    Thank you for posting this!
    After spending an inordinate amount of time in the “free estimate” business, I decided that the only path to sustainability (at least in my market) is to stop doing free previews all-together.

    The quality of the end-result has really skyrocketed now that we can focus on actual projects. Furthermore, unlike interior design, which requires a long-term relationship and an understanding of the client’s taste, our job as stagers is to merchandise the property to the likely buyer demographic. Clients can decide on a proper fit with the stager trhough our portfolios, referrals, telephone conversations, etc..

    The best part is that this prevents stagers from being pitted against each other to work for lower (or non-existent) margins. (Which leads, of course, to the quality of the work, and thus the client’s ROI, to suffer as a result). We’re expected to stage a property quickly and efficiently – engaging in a long, drawn-out sales process is counter-productive for all involved.

    • Hi Patty

      YES, YES and YES! Thank you for your lovely comment, pretty much stole the words out of my mouth. It also prevents unethical stagers as well. Now that the market is doing well, I have gotten more calls from new stagers calling and pretending to be agents trying to fish pricing and how we talk to potential clients (I once heard the caller typing down everything I said). Now I just post everything online, be super transparent, and that seems to deter those types of behaviors.

      Thanks again for commenting!

      Cheers,
      Cindy

  • Kudos to you! People who work in creative industries are not given the respect they deserve. My business partner and I have gone on a few estimates, spent many hours, time and our energy, only to learn that they do not want to pay the money that it costs to stage. Eventually, we are going to follow this business model as well. But we have only been in business for 2 years, so we haven’t earned it yet, like you have ; )
    Maria DiMartino
    Corinthian Home Staging, New Jersey

    • Maria,

      Thank you so much for your comment!

      Yes I think we are a little lucky to have 9 years under our belt already, but I also think it’s how you frame it. We’ve just started to experiment with this, and we have been thinking adding more during the preview so that the preview costs seem more reasonable. I think if you are able to add value to your sellers and agents, people will be willing to pay for your previews.

      I have also noticed that people who really love our work are not deterred by the preview fee at all. Those potential clients kept asking when we can set an appointment even after we presented the preview fee. The positive responses have outweighed the negative ones.

      Cheers,
      Cindy

  • I started doing this just 2 years into my now-5 year-old business for the very same reasons! Yes, I lose quite a few prospects this way, but I figure in the end they either weren’t serious or would be very cheap — just not the right clients for me. We all have to value our time so that others value our time as well. I also give lots of info over the phone or by email for free — often for 20-30 minutes — and a guideline of staging costs as well for their property. If the prospects are serious about wanting a more exact price for their property, they are usually willing to pay for the 4-5 hours of my total time spent previewing the property, researching furniture selections, coming up with a design concept, and writing the proposal in order to write a specific estimate for them. I feel much more in control of my time and efficiency in running my business now!

  • Thank you, Cindy, for your boldness and decision to charge for your property proposals/previews. I agree with your post and I’m seriously thinking about doing the same. In a private email to me, would you please be willing to share more specifics on how this works for your company and spell out the procedure for me? I would greatly appreciate it. My email is virginia.dostage@gmail.com. I’m an ASP (Accredited Staging Professional) serving the Charlotte, NC and the surrounding areas. Staging requires hours of planning and such work needs to be valued in order for this industry to shine for what its worth in our communities. Thanks!
    Virginia

    • Hi Virginia,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I’ve been wanting to visit Charlotte. It seems like such a cool town! Lots of styling and cool design stuff happening there.

      We are pretty transparent with our business operations so I can just share it here. Here is what we do:

      When the client inquires / asks for a preview, I speak with him / her on the phone and go over some brief points about our services and answer any questions that they may have.
      2. Our Project Coordinator Anita gets in touch with the client and starts the process of setting up the appointment.
      3. Once payment is received (paid online. We only take credit card payments nowadays.), the appointment is confirmed.
      4. We (we = me and my sister / business partner) go on site, visit, discuss the design plan, inventory, etc., drafts a proposal.
      5. Anita sends out the proposal.

      Hope that helps!

      Cheers,
      Cindy

  • Cindy Congrats on your decision to start doing this and staying with it. From the comments here everyone is in agreement with you. You’ve been in the business long enough to really ‘value’ what you have to offer so it is different from the newbie who is trying to ‘get their foot in the door’. Early on I would quote a dollar amount per square foot for a complete vacant and if that fee was too much then they would not hire me. I agree that our time (even though I am a home staging coach after 10+ years in the biz) is valuable and when you add it all up – it’s not worth it to do it complimentary.

    I like your blog posts they are ‘high content and high value’ so I’m looking forward to them!

    • Hi Dana

      Thank you for your kind comments! I do take a bit of time writing blog posts, so it’s always great to get feedback that people are finding values with our content!

      I agree with you. It is also more difficult if staging is new in an area. Giving free estimates becomes a necessity. However, I think if more stagers start charging for estimates and value their time, it becomes an norm for charging for estimates.

      My dog recently had a cracked tooth. When we took her to the dentist for an estimate, they billed for the session, even though we already knew we need root canal. We didn’t balk at the fee because it was the norm. During the session, our dog got a check up, recommendations, and an estimate for the surgery. It is actually fairly similar to our estimate process. We come in, assess the condition of the home, presents our estimate with a brief list of recommendations.

      I think the landscape of staging has changed a lot since I’ve been in business and now that home staging has a stronger national presence, we as an industry needs to focus on continue education for clients and ourselves and have professional practices that build values for our clients. This will ensure our long term survival 🙂

      Thanks again for your wonderful comment!

      Cheers,
      Cindy

  • You are completely accurate in your points and assessment of the reasoning behind this decision. We have been doing this for a while now in my business and I have seen drastic improvement in the quality of our work environment as well as the final projects we are working on. Paid clients get the best of us now instead of the exhausted leftovers. Thank you for this wonderful article, I would love permission to share it. Jill Gargus

    • Jill,

      It is so nice of you to comment! It is difficult some times because we understand the clients may feel sticker-shocked. But we are also at a different place in our career than a lot of other staging companies. We have been in the business for almost 10 years and we already have a steady stream of clients. So we can afford to be more niche and lean in our operations. It is not to say whose business model is better, this is just how we choose to run our business.

      I was definitely influenced by your and many others’ comments when I was contemplating this decision. And yes, please feel free to share it!

      Cheers,
      Cindy