The President Meets – Paula Bullard
Sanja Radovanovic: Congratulations on winning the Best Occupied category! What does this award mean to you?
Paula Bullard: Thank you. It is very meaningful to me to receive recognition of my work from experts within our global home staging community. I am honored that I won in this category as it takes skill, good communication and creativity to achieve an optimal result throughout an occupied house. We all know how much it takes to improve the presentation sometimes in an occupied, often not achieving the results that we would have liked but still improving it significantly to impact the selling process. I have invested a lot in myself and my team to understand each step in the process of working with occupied clients to get the most out of the properties we prepare for selling. Just like every person, every house is different. It is up to us to give the best advice to that home seller for their house while supporting the home seller and the agent to achieve the best result. Winning this award was a very nice validation.
S.R.: Please tell us a little bit about your Home Staging journey and what are the distinguishing characteristics of “SPOT ON Vastgoedpresentatie”
P.B.: The road to becoming a home staging company owner wasn’t very long. I worked with success in marketing in two different high tech industries. It was great but later in my career, I thought I had done most of the things you could do as a marketeer and was reaching a ceiling professionally. That is common when you work in large multi-national companies. It was time for a change. But what? It felt very daunting. I had a fleeting hope that I could start something part-time and transition to it full-time. No way, I was traveling 50-60% of the time in my busy high tech job. I made the decision to leave my job and jump into the unknown to figure out what would fit best with my skill set and my goals. There was also a mental barrier for me because I am originally from the US but live in the Netherlands. It was a big step to think I could just start a business in the Dutch culture with limited Dutch speaking and writing skills. Also understanding Dutch business acumen and laws because I was going to be working locally, not internationally. That said, I did not let it stop me and inched forward in my plan. Often, just focusing on what I could control and execute to move forward. I worked with a career coach which helped me to focus on getting the answers I needed to move forward. Step for step, I did a lot of webinars, networking, reading, searching for a service or product or earning model that I thought I could adapt in the Dutch market. In the end, I wanted to be a business owner and use my business skills to run a profitable, sustainable business while helping others with creativity. Pretty vague right?
One day I read a short article about home staging recently being introduced in the Netherlands. I have always been creative and a people person which is why during business college, I supported myself by working in an interior design store and was also a real estate agent part-time. I remembered model homes from way back when. Who knew these two skills would converge together with my marketing skills many years later. I immediately felt a connection to the work and the added value of staging as a business that I could possibly introduce in the Netherlands. I had spent my entire career opening new markets and introducing and attracting customers to new products. I saw the synergy but knew I needed to understand more about running a staging business and what tactics would work for presenting and selling a house. With some research online and a few phone calls later, I had secured a place in an upcoming training course to get oriented. But I needed to understand what having a home staging business entailed so I read Barb’s Building a Successful Home Staging Business book and books by Ann Maurice and my path was set. I wasn’t sure where it was going to end but I had a clear goal and a vision so that I could create a business plan. My business plan fit on an A4 that first year.
The first few years were lean and difficult due to the financial and housing crisis in 2007-2008. But boy oh boy, what a wonderful setting to learn many new skills relating to staging. I learned how to talk to every kind of client you can think of. I learned how to sell myself and my service(s). I worked very hard on my Dutch. I worked on improving my staging skills. I saw the most challenging types of properties in those days. Talked to every kind of real estate agent. The clients and agents that I came into contact with really needed my help and I could make a lot of impact with very little effort. In my downtime, I fine tuned my business plan for my market and was always doing marketing and networking to educate. That is how I “cut my teeth” as we say, in the home staging industry. I just kept asking for an opportunity to show agents and home sellers what I could do for them and they graciously let me. One house at a time. Frankly, I am still doing all of these things but now have a lot of experience, have better skills and resources and way more confidence.
The business has grown and changed a lot over the years but almost 15 years on, I have worked with thousands of homeowners. I am happy to have a small agency. That was a choice, I wanted to be able to do a lot but not have to have a lot of staff. We have the capacity to take on large projects that include project management and execution of small renovations, home staging consultations and furniture rental. We have a truck, a warehouse and at this moment, approximately 40 houses of inventory. My sales team are the numerous real estate agents that I do consults for every property in their portfolio. We stage a lot of vacants. Some agents only call when they have a property that is vacant or a property that needs repositioning because it is not selling. Lastly, we work with real estate investors and housing corporations. We are also one of the few in my local market that can stage luxury properties. All of these things together is I think what sets us apart. We are a full service agency even though we are not very large. This has been one of the reasons we were not heavily impacted by the pandemic, because we could pivot and do different types of services based on what was happening in the market. The housing market here has been a sellers market and now is slowly turning to a buyer’s market. This year the housing market is changing everywhere due to inflation, the rising interest rates and other global conditions. We are getting lots of calls from agents we haven’t spoken to in awhile. So glad they have remembered us.
So the journey until now has been and continues to be a lot of hard work but it is by far, the most fulfilling work I have ever done. All those homeowners out there are waiting for us to help them. They will always be there because people have to live somewhere and will eventually move and want to sell. In little old Eindhoven, Netherlands, Spot On will be around for quite awhile to help homesellers to move on and to support estate agents in making each transaction a successful one.
S.R.: In your opinion, what soft skills should every Professional Home Stager have in order to successfully work with homeowners?
P.B.: Great question! I think every stager has to always be honing their communication skills and be able to quickly adapt to the situation to put the homeowner at ease as much as they can. Establishing trust early on and being clear in explaining their way of working while having empathy and adjusting the patter as needed for the situation. Also to repeat things as needed at each phase of the process because people forget or sometimes do not get it the first time. In my experience, homeowners like it when you gently steer the process and are proactive in telling them what is next, what you need from them and what you are going to do to help them get to a good result to sell. Of course, it depends on what you want to achieve with the homeowner but my point is, the stager really leans on their learned and natural soft skills to bring the right “vibe” to the conversation with the homeowner and the homeowner’s experience. Sure some conversations are easier than others. It is the hard ones that can trip you up but also can be the most rewarding when you know you have truly helped someone move on to the next house or get through something emotional by helping them get their home sold with home staging.
It takes so much energy to be on top of it all the time. I have this little ritual of affirmations I do. It is just a conversation with myself right before I meet with a homeowner or sometimes an agent. I decide it is going to be a good experience for them and for me, no matter what has to get done to achieve a great selling presentation. I also affirm to myself that I am going to be a great communicator during the meeting with the homeowner(s). I am going to be thorough and give them exactly the information they need to hear in a way they will receive it, accept it and be highly motivated to do it, even if it is hard to do. Mind over matter as they say. A positive attitude while being authentic, empathetic and informative about how to get to the end game gets you a long way. Very often much further than you might (or they) would have expected. In my almost 15 years now, I have seen it work many times, especially in occupied consults and stagings.
The point is to stop and think about that every time you are going to speak with a client. Be conscientious of it and affirm it to yourself at each and every meeting you have in your agenda throughout the day. I do it while I am driving over or just before I step out of the car (as I check my hair, teeth and put on that touch of lipstick) before heading to the next front door to ring the bell. Whoever opens the door, I am mentally ready for them and whatever selling situation they are in.
We are helping people to move things around and change their physical environment but I always keep in mind that I have to take the person(s) into consideration as we go through that process.
S.R.: It is well known across the world that the majority of Home Staging Professionals prefer vacant projects over staging occupied properties. According to your experience, what are the most challenging and rewarding aspects when dealing with homeowners in occupied properties?
P.B.: Some points have been covered in other questions but I think one of the most rewarding aspects is seeing how light and bright homeowners become when they have done the work to prep their home and how happy(=relieved) they are that they did it before they move. Also that they are leaving the house in a better physical state than how they have been living in it. It is miraculous what changing the physical presentation will do for helping a homeowner to distance themselves emotionally from their own house. It helps them say goodbye. I often hear homeowners say that they are reminded of why they bought the house in the first place; falling in love with it all over again but they are now better prepared to move. In the beginning some are absolutely dreading it, having difficulty getting organised, sad (sometimes in grief) or very angry (relationship problems/money problems) or some other issue in life. Most are happy because they are moving to a another dreamhome. But whatever the situation, letting them lean on you for advice and giving them a plan that helps them get to a new place or helping them to get more value out of the home is very satisfying.
A short little story about a recent home staging consultation and occupied staging that I did. It was one of the challenging ones. The seller’s sister died this past summer of a brain tumor. The seller actually lived with her husband in the sister’s house being sold for months to care for her sister up until her death. My impression was that she had become very comfortable there and was having a hard time letting go of the house even though she was living back in her own home a few minutes away. So it was sort of (emotionally) occupied. She came to the house everyday for the last few months since her sisters death. There was 20 years of belongings(and a lifetime of memories of her sister for the seller) that had to be gone through, furniture that had to be removed or re-positioned, painting and repairs, furniture and decor added and lastly garden work, all to appeal to the target buyers. It was an intensive process because of the emotional side of it but also that there was so much physical work to be done. But really, what was hard for the seller was to let go of her sister and the attachment to her sister’s house. Now it is a very nice home but the atmosphere was not good. You could say that the soul had gone out of the house. I tasked myself with saying to the seller that to sell the house well, we had to change the look and feel of the house to make room for someone else to live there. Very hard to say to someone who is grieving with such a huge and very recent loss of a loved one. Thankfully, she really took on what I had to say about it and once she had the presentation plan, we all got to work. It was wonderful to see her go from constant tears to a place of peace that she could get the house ready for a new owner. I made a point of asking her if I could give her and her husband a personal tour before we did the photoshoot. I did it this way so that I was leading her around in the house with a new perspective. I even added in one or two things in honor of her sister which really made her smile. She was still sad but also glad of the steps we had taken together to get to that point. She said she felt that the house was ready to be sold and she was ready to sell it. I was very happy with that result and couldn’t expect too much more. The property looks great and she had already given so much in emotions, time, energy and investment in spite of all the personal loss. The house just went on the market so I will be following it closely to see how the sale goes.
Pretty tricky stuff meeting people and stepping into their lives like we stagers do. In my experience, these are a couple of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of dealing with occupied properties though. That is why I became a stager, to make a difference, for all the home sellers we serve, one house at a time.