What’s the first thing buyers notice when they walk into an open house?
Soto: It’s what they notice before they walk into the open house. It goes down to the sidewalk. You have to make sure curb appeal is in tiptop shape. Most people look at homes after work with their agents. They have plenty of time to look around the front door, so make sure the porch is nice, you have a new welcome mat. If you have a doormat that’s falling apart and a broken doorbell, forget about it. You may have already lost the buyer.
If you could stage only one or two rooms to make your house appealing, which are the most important?
Soto: Kitchens, bathrooms—they’re the most expensive to renovate, so those are the first rooms people look at. But people really make a decision on whether or not they like the house in 60 to 90 seconds of touring. So really, it’s that first floor. There really is no room that you could just negate.
Aubrey: Staged homes sell 52 percent quicker than non-staged homes, last number I saw. And when you talk about hard versus soft upgrades, you see a dramatic difference in value shift. Putting in granite countertops or stainless appliances, ceramic tile into a bathroom that has vinyl—that’s a hard upgrade. Soft upgrades are more about accessories, paint color. You see less of a dollar-for-dollar return for soft upgrades.
What are your pet peeves?
Soto: I don’t like toilet-lid covers or carpeting in a bathroom. Having the carpet right around your toilet, it’s just not sanitary. I don’t like too much furniture in a space. I’m not a huge fan of collections—beer cans, things like that. My grandfather had a beer-mug collection, and it was extensive, but he had it in the bar. That is acceptable.
Aubrey: Gold fixtures in bathrooms—people want brushed nickel. They want oil-rubbed bronze. They don’t want to see dated-looking fixtures because that then becomes a project house. Light fixtures—I mean, builder-grade brass is a loser. Wallpaper’s a huge offender with me. People hate wallpaper.
Soto: Mike, hold on. Wallpaper has made a comeback. People hate some wallpaper, but there’s really wonderful wallpaper out there. So any wallpaper that was installed before 2009 I would say is probably bad wallpaper.
Sometimes don’t you just rely on quick fixes?
Aubrey: I tell people all the time: If you have a limited amount of money, paint isn’t that expensive, and you don’t have to hire a professional. Have your carpet cleaned—make it look good and fresher and newer.
What else can make a house look nice cheaply?
Soto: The smallest thing, the accessories. People think about the big things, the furniture. That’s great, but that’s only half the battle. New throw pillows, new window treatments, maybe a slipcover, coffee-table accessories—that’s what makes a space look polished. Light fixtures, lamps, sconces, chandeliers can completely transform a space.
Do “green” techniques help or hurt in home marketing?
Aubrey: Green is the new black. Everybody is all about eco right now. I still see a lot of buyers who maybe want to recycle and do some small stuff to be green. But they don’t necessarily want to spend green to be green.
What are the next hottest things in home design and staging?
Soto: For 2011, it’s going to be black and white with pops of primary colors—reds and blues and yellows. You’ll also see honeysuckle, which is the color of the year. It’s like a golden kind of orange. You’ll see that in home accessories. And also metallics. Matte gold, which is almost like a white gold—you’ll see that in accessories as well, and in frames and chandeliers and even switchplate covers.
How’s 2011 turning out for local real estate?
Aubrey: We are in the midst of a W-shaped recovery in real estate. We were screaming downhill, and that sort of stopped. In the Washington area, we saw things come back up a little bit. Recently, they released new numbers and we’ve seen things go down. Once we get to the bottom, you’re not going to see appreciation go up at a dramatic rate. My view of the Washington area in 2011 is that we will either stay flat or see very small growth.
Areas inside the Beltway—Arlington Virginia’s Route 29 corridor, Northwest DC—have the best chance of growing some equity in 2011. Outside the Beltway, markets are going to be tougher—the 270 corridor in North Potomac, Gaithersburg, Germantown.
Prince George’s County got amazingly overbuilt during the boom. A lot of people there did some really impractical and unstable loan products, and there’s a high number of short sales and foreclosures. Recovery is going to take longer in a place like PG.
Do you ever run into homes that seem too much of a dump to help sell?
Aubrey: Thank God you can order PODS as storage places because I’ve gone into places where I literally have to turn sideways to get down the hallways because of the stacks of stuff sitting around. Do you remember, Sabrina, the house in Laurel—the older Victorian? It was a guy and his son, they were bachelors, and the place sort of had a frat-house feel. In a shower upstairs, the handle had broken off, so they had a set of vise grips clipped onto it. They had no intention of fixing that. It worked to turn the water on and off, and they didn’t really get why that needed to be changed.
Are you surprised at the types of people who watch a home-and-real-estate show?
Aubrey: I’m driving down 370 to go into the Shady Grove Metro, and there’s a police officer standing in the road holding a radar gun. I’m going about 20 miles an hour over the limit. He asks for my license and registration, so I give it to him and he says, “Listen, my wife and I like the show. We watch it all the time. You think you could sign an autograph for my wife?” So I sign an autograph—and get a warning. This officer is about six-four and 240 pounds, and he watches HGTV.
Any other surprising fans?
Aubrey: I was at the Donovan House hotel near Dupont Circle, standing by the bar on the roof waiting to order a drink, and I got this tap on my shoulder. I heard this guy say, “Yo, man, I really love the show.” I turned around and said, “Clinton Portis, you watch HGTV, man?” He said, “Yeah, man, all the time.” I was pretty much floored that a Redskin was watching HGTV. And like everybody else in the world, including the non-famous people, Clinton said, “How about Sabrina? Is she really that good-looking in real life?”
Some people have “brag walls” of themselves with well-known figures. How does that affect potential buyers?
Aubrey: Stay away from politics, religion, things that are polarizing to people—especially in the Washington area, because this is such an amazing melting pot of cultures, religions, and types of people. You want them to see themselves in that house. You want to take away all that stuff that is polarizing. It’s about the house, not the seller.
Soto: You want them to walk away and go, “Oh, I love the house with the gorgeous deck or the fabulous front porch or that wonderful master bedroom!” Once you put that for sale sign in front of your home, it’s no longer your home. It’s a product you’re trying to sell.
What have you learned about life?
Aubrey: That it’s meant to be lived and not watched. My job has awarded me the opportunity to see all sides of the human experience. I’ve seen people at their happiest—and at the very bottom. Things can change at a moment’s notice. Life is not all about money or things you can buy or sell—it’s about the experiences, memories, and the people you love along the way.
Soto: I’ve learned the same thing I’ve learned doing design for TV: There are a lot of compromises you have to make, and you just have to be flexible. Mistakes happen every day. If you aren’t flexible, you end up making everybody’s life difficult. So you have to be a bit easygoing but still keep your vision.
Listen, I still have a lot to learn.
This article appears April 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.