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Reinventing Herself as a Home Stager

Former stay-at-home mom finds her dream career: Rearranging decor for houses going up for sale

Catherine Silverman's life has gone through many stages: world traveler, press secretary, stay-at-home mom, interior designer. But it wasn't until she was in her late 50s that she found a career that proved to be a perfect fit.

In 2004, Silverman began working as a "home stager," someone who arranges furniture and decor in a way that makes a for-sale house more appealing to potential buyers. Her business has been a resounding success: In the course of seven years, she has gone from doing three or four jobs a year to three or four a month. Working in the Washington, D.C., area, Silverman, 64, stages for every type of home, from small condos to expensive mansions. She talked to "Your Life Calling" about her road to reinvention and about advice she has for others looking to try something new.

Q: You say that moving around a lot as a kid helped you prepare for your career as a home stager. How so?

A: My father is a journalist, and we lived all over the world. And every time we moved, within a very short time, the house looked like our home because my mother would make it so. Obviously she purchased different things at different times in each of the countries, but there was a core mass of furniture that she had that she used every time. She just made do with what she had. It was important for me to see that you can do something, make something look good, and you can do it quickly. In some ways, that's a lot more creative because you have to work with what you've got.

Q: You spent some time in the '70s working as John Glenn's press secretary. What was it like working on Capitol Hill?

A: I loved it. My job was very creative, and it was also very exciting to be working for someone who was not only a great boss and an excellent senator, but a famous American.

When you're working as a press secretary, you have a deadline. You have to get the press release out, or you have to get the interview scheduled and done. To some people, working under the pressure of a deadline is stressful and difficult, but for me it's extremely stimulating.

Q: Fast forward a bit: After 10 years on the Hill, you decided to stay home and raise your three children. What were you doing in your downtime?

A: I'd always been interested in interior design, and as the kids would go off to school in the daytime, I had a decent chunk of time to pursue that. In the beginning it was a lot of fun, but I soon found that it was not satisfying for me because there was no closure. There was a beginning, but there was no end! And that got to be very draining and exhausting, and because I couldn't do it full time, I really didn't feel comfortable taking on a lot of clients. A lot of people wanted someone who was at their beck and call, which I totally understand. But then out of the blue, a real estate friend called me in and asked me to stage her house.

Q: Had you ever heard of home staging before that?

A: No! But I tried it. I brought some furniture in — and then the house sold in three days. And I thought to myself, "OK, now I know what was missing in this interim period." For the first time in a long time, I had the same kind of positive feelings that I'd had when I was working up on Capitol Hill. They gave me a job, I had a deadline and I did it. The house had to get on the market by a certain day, I had to get the stuff in on a certain day, I did it, it sold and it was very exciting.

Next: You have to be careful not to offend people. >>

Q: What's the hardest part of being a stager?

A: For me, sometimes the hardest thing is to convince people that they really do need to let go of the house and not to take offense, for example, if the house doesn't look anything like the way it looked when they lived there. The hardest thing about putting your house on the market is to make the psychological break with the house. So as a stager, that can sometimes be very difficult. You have to be careful not to offend people.

The business part of it is also a challenge. As far as the inventory goes, if you don't have enough furniture in storage somewhere, you won't be able to take on enough jobs. And then people will say, "Oh well, I guess I just have to hire somebody else." If you have too much, your storage costs get to be too high. In the beginning it's a constant juggling act. At some point you have to say, "The business is going to stay about the size that it is now." You're going to have to accept the fact that you can't take on seven jobs or something, otherwise you need more personnel. I can only be one person, and in order to give the attention to detail that I think is so important in these jobs, I have to limit myself.

Q: I'd imagine this job requires a ton of physical stamina, right?

A: That's exactly right. You go downstairs, you meet the movers, you walk up and down the stairs several times — and if you're tired, that's just too bad, because the house is going on the market tomorrow and the clock is ticking! When I have restrictions on time, I also find myself doing a lot more of the heavy lifting — literally. Helping the movers unload the truck, because we've got to get it done before the photographer comes.  

"Sometimes you just need to be as introspective as possible and figure out what it is that, when you're doing it, you're happy about the fact that you're doing it."

Q: But you seem to love it just the same. Would you say that this job feels like "work"?

A: Yes and no. Every job has scut work involved. In this job, the paperwork is enormous — and that's complete scut work to me. To some people that might be the best part of the job, but to me it's not. But because I keep my eye on what the finished product is going to be, I'm able to put one foot in front of the other and just get it done. Because in the end I know I'll look back at the whole project and say, "OK, that was challenging, but I did it."

Q: What's your advice to people looking to reinvent their lives or careers, but don't know where to start?

A: The most important thing is to look inside of yourself and figure out what makes you happy. Sometimes you just need to be as introspective as possible and figure out what it is that, when you're doing it, you're happy about the fact that you're doing it. Because as I say, chances are, if you like to do it, you're going to be pretty good at it. And even if you're not good yet, you enjoy it so much that you're willing to put a lot of time and effort into becoming good at it, because it's something that you already like to do.

It's not necessarily obvious in the beginning, so you may have to have a few false starts. For me, it wasn't so much what I wanted to do — it's that I knew what I didn't want to do. Narrow it down. That's just as important.

Next: Advice for aspiring stagers. >>

Q: Any specific advice for aspiring stagers?

A: Chances are if you're thinking of becoming a stager, you probably already have a knack for decorating.

 If you want to see if you can translate this knack into something a little bit more professional, I would go to somebody that I knew who was planning to put their house on the market, and ask them if they'd let you try staging it for free. Rearrange the furniture —– bring in some pillows, lamps, flowers and do some other things, just to see if it's something you can do and something you enjoy doing. You don't want to invest any money until you know that this is going to be something you enjoy. In the beginning, try to get a couple of people to let you do it for free, and see what happens.

"You don't want to invest any money until you know that this is going to be something you enjoy."

Q: What's next for you?

A: I certainly don't see myself adding any more employees. The business has grown to the point that I do need a lot more help than I used to, and I don't want to lose the control over the individual projects. I would not be able to devote the attention to detail that I really feel is so necessary. So I think that for the time being, I can probably keep on along with the way I'm doing things. When I get to be in my 80s, will I be doing this? Probably not. But for the foreseeable future, I can't imagine doing anything else.

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