With resale property prices stabilising and rents forecast to slide further this year, it is a tough market for sellers and landlords.
But a decorating technique that has been the rage in America might do the trick to turn a slow-moving property into a hot listing here. Called "home staging" - and like the theatrical connotations in the term - it refers to transforming a lived-in home so that it is fit for an audience.
Said to have originated in the United States in 1972 by real-estate agent Barb Schwarz, home staging involves everything from cleaning up and re-arranging furniture to repainting walls and baking bread during viewings so that the house smells irresistibly welcoming.
For landlords looking to rent out a property, home staging can involve renting furniture instead of leaving the apartment empty for viewings.
The aim, of course, is to have the property stand out in a buyer's market, to sell it fast and possibly at a higher price.
There are many reality television shows based on this decor concept. The popular series Property Brothers, shown here on HGTV (StarHub TV Channel 437), features twin brothers Jonathan and Drew Scott who help home owners turn a profit on a fixed-up house.
In the soft property market, home staging might just be the X factor that gets a property sold quicker.
In Singapore, there are only a handful of professionals that offer home staging services. These include Asian Professional Organisers, which specialises in space management, and interior design and styling studio paper+white, which often upcycles existing furniture.
There are also furniture rental companies. These include WTP The Furniture Company, which leases out furniture that it makes in-house for a minimum of three months, and Singapore Furniture Rental, which rents out furniture and home accessories such as carpets and cutlery.
Packages start from $1,400 a month to furnish a studio apartment. Singapore Furniture Rental will send stylists to arrange the furniture and the fee includes transportation and photography.
Some property agents also provide home staging services.
For one of them, before taking photos of the home or hosting a viewing, he lugs suitcases of cutlery, throw pillows and potted plants to stage a house. If necessary, he changes the home owner's bedsheets to fit the theme. He also uses home scents and may serve wine to prospective buyers during viewings.
Last year, he took an online course to learn more about home staging. He is a member of the Real Estate Staging Association, an international trade association for professional home stagers.
His past work is showcased on LuvingHomes.com and he has staged at least 50 homes, from a three-room HDB flat to a semi- detached house.
So does home staging work? Many baulk at the idea of forking out money on a house that is to be sold, but home stagers say it is worth the money.
Mr Eugene Lim, key executive officer at real estate firm ERA Realty, says that resale flat prices are "likely to be stable this year, with minimal price movements", while rental rates are expected to continue falling.
He says that buyers are more likely to pick a spruced-up home over a messy one, even if its price is slightly higher. "A cluttered house is visually not appealing and stays on the market longer. The longer the house stays on the market, the more likely it will sell at a lower price."
In general, the cost of home staging depends on factors such as the size of the house; the areas to stage; and the furniture and accessories needed.
Some property agents may tag on the staging bill to their commission or throw it in as part of the service.
London-based designer Davina Stanley, 45, founder and creative director at paper+white, charges a minimum of $2,500 for work that includes sprucing up furniture pieces or shopping for items. The company has a Singapore office.
Commuting between London and Singapore, she works mainly on black-and-white colonial houses here. She often helps expatriates find new renters to take on their lease if they are leaving Singapore, for example.
But she says that Singaporean clients might not be looking at the reward of spending some cash first.
"Elsewhere, home owners understand that they can spend a five- figure sum to home stage, but they can get back that amount and an even bigger profit because their house has attracted buyers willing to bid high for a good-looking house. The difference can be enormous."
Moreover, home owners can also take the new furniture to their next house, she adds.
There is another benefit of home staging: a swifter sale.
For those in a hurry, home staging can help them sell their house quickly.
Over and over, property agents say that homes that have been sitting on the market for a long time get sold in weeks after being spruced up.
Asian Professional Organisers' chief executive officer Georgina Wong, who is in her early 50s, recalls a three-bedroom flat in West Coast Drive that had been sitting on the market for eight months.
Her five-year-old company, which specialises in organisation and space management, started offering home staging services about 31/2 years ago.
When the owner brought her in to help sell the flat, she made him clear a spare room that was filled with photography equipment so that she could snap uncluttered pictures of the space. Five weeks later, the property was sold.
She says: "In a market that is competitive, it's not only about getting a higher price. Home staging helps your house move faster."
One of her clients, noodle manufacturer Annie Tan, 47, swears by home staging.
She had been renting out a furnished three-room HDB flat in Tampines for two years before deciding to sell it in 2014. It received an offer 10 days after Ms Wong started decorating it with flowers and throw pillows for photos.
Ms Tan says: "She created a cosy environment that would appeal to a lot of young families."
Adapted from: The Straits Times, 30 January 2016