Dick and Diana Ritter's lakeside home in Delafield, Wis., has been sitting for nearly three years.
It didn't sell in the waning days of the hot market, and they turned down a lowball offer - the only offer they got - more than a year ago. They bought a condo, moved out, and canceled the lawn service. Two brokers couldn't move the 11-room house, and a 12-month listing on a for-sale-by-owner Web site didn't elicit one serious response.
"I never thought that I'd have any trouble selling a lake home," said Dick Ritter. "What the hell happened to the market?"
It was time to try something completely different: Fifty thousand dollars worth of home staging, orchestrated by stager Laurie Flatt.
Her diagnosis: The asking price - first $1.9 million, later lowered to $1.7 million - was out of step with the home's interior.
The Ritters had already spent $9,000 to remove wallpaper in every room but the master bedroom, whose walls bear a subtle gold-and-cream Florentine filigree design.
But the rest of the house clearly reflected its 1983 origins: dark pine kitchen cabinets and an expanse of cream laminate counters; heavy, dark wood beams in the cathedral ceiling of the living room and the flat ceiling of the rec room; and mauve-and-gray counter and fixtures in a guest bathroom.
Dick Ritter first assumed that a buyer would expect to come in and redecorate.
"I thought someone would offer me $50,000 to $100,000 less than what I asked, and I'd take it, and they'd have the money to do what they wanted," he said. "But people these days, they want it all done. . . . I figured I could drop the price again, or I could put money into it and at least improve it."
Whatever they did, they had to do it fast. "A lake property sells in summer," said Ritter. "You've got April through August."
Flatt's first impression: "The house feels a little abandoned. We want . . . a space where people can see themselves living here."
She proposed about $15,000 in permanent changes, such as new light fixtures and new kitchen appliances. Even that amount - far more than the usual $1,000 to $5,000 cost for staging a house - had to be targeted to make a visible difference in the Ritters' 5,884-square-foot home.
Flatt agreed to go flat-out for three weeks. Her goal was to showcase the transformation at an evening party for local real estate brokers, yacht club members, and residents.
"Because the house has been on the market for so long, people think they know it," she said. "But we're going to say, 'You haven't seen it now that we're done with it.' "
Flatt concentrated her budget on the main kitchen, one of the most important rooms for selling a house. She advised the Ritters to resist the urge to replace the laminate counters with granite, likely a $20,000 project and a potential turnoff for house-hunters who might want to choose their own stone.
She had the cabinets scrubbed. She replaced the dated knobs with twisty cast-metal pulls - a style repeated in most of the bathrooms. The original cooktop was stainless steel; the rest of the appliances were replaced to match.
The kitchen walls, once a stark white, are now a warm sand, a few shades away from the cream of the counters. With less contrast, the cabinets and counters now are variations on the same earth tones. By removing a set of hanging cabinets above the island, Flatt opened up the sight lines in the room and created a focal point by adding new pendant lights.
At first, Flatt said, her instinct was to paint the cabinets and wood beams. But the Ritters objected, and Flatt reshaped her vision from all-white beach house to European country casual.
That's reflected in the living room, where she painted the walls a warm beige to set off the white-and-wood cathedral ceiling. The space is now filled with light, "thanks to trimming the trees outside," Diana Ritter said.
Taking off the window screens helped, too. Now, the living room has a clear view of the lake. Final touches included propping an oversize painting on the fireplace mantel to emphasize the scale of the room, and setting up an alcove as a game room with a bar-size table, a pub table, stools, and a chess game.
Flatt had her way with the master bathroom, painting the cabinets white, replacing the faucets, and installing white-framed round mirrors. But she left the Florentine wallpaper intact in the bedroom, noting that it's in good shape and its color is now consistent with the rest of the main floor.
A rented bed occupies the room, demonstrating that there's plenty of space, and a rented chaise decorated with a draped throw makes the point that the suite can be a retreat.
Furniture rentals will cost $2,500 a month for the whole house. Flatt brought in some accessories from her own stash and purchased others.
The dining room, once occupied only by a Queen Anne table strewn with property-marketing materials, is painted a deep sage green. Rented upholstered chairs gather around a cloth-draped table, which holds stacks of dishes and a pile of napkins. The message is clear: a dinner party is in the making.
The lower level, which opens to an expansive deck, also got the white-paint treatment. In the rec room, Flatt had the ceiling planks painted white, evoking the popular bead-board look.
The lower-level kitchen got a pop of red paint on its backsplash, and a new white refrigerator to match the stove.
An awkward windowless interior bedroom is now presented as a kids' bunk room, with twin beds, a media armoire, and games in process. The theme carries over to the adjacent bathroom, which proved a challenge: different-colored fixtures and gray paint. Flatt commissioned a large painting of an Adirondack chair that included all the colors in the room. The painting dominates the small space.
Outside, the deck was power-washed, the landscaping trimmed and freshened, and pots of red geraniums set in front and back.
Real estate broker Gary Murray took a hard look at the Ritters' house when they first put it on the market. He recalls being underwhelmed, even though the house has a lake shoreline with two new piers, and a gazebo at the water's edge.
"People want something newer, they want something updated," Murray said. "They want to see the finished product; they don't want to imagine what it could be."
He was especially put off by the darker wood that dominated the interior. At least, he was then.