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For Sale: One Clean and Decluttered Home

Have you ever bought or sold a home? What might this process teach us about impression managmenet? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how selling a home offers insight to Erving Goffman’s concept of impression management by describing the ways in which she made her home cleaner and less cluttered in order to sell it.

People Buying Home

I’m moving to another state.

This move involves both securing housing in a community roughly a 3.5 hour drive from our current home, but also selling the house in which we currently live.

I’ve never sold a home while still living in it. Since April 1, our home hasn’t really been our home despite us continuing to live here.

To begin, our house is cleaner than it has ever been. It’s not that our house was ever super dirty or unclean, but that we had to make a point to clean the house before going on vacation. I always take out the trash and wash dishes before leaving for vacation, but I never make a point to sweep the floors or pick up my daughter’s toys. While selling a home, your vacation preparation must include extra cleaning. You never know, there might be a showing and you want to make sure potential homebuyers leave your home with a good impression. No one wants to move into a disorganized, clutter-filled, dirty home even if that is exactly what they will do with it once they buy it and move into it. 

I’ve also worked hard at making it appear that we have less stuff than we actually own. Some of my daughter’s bigger toys have been placed in garbage bags and placed in the locked storage shed in our backyard or attic. Success! We have less stuff. Our house is less “cluttered” (in the words of our real estate agent). Fortunately, my daughter has been a real trooper as we packed away, stored, sold, and donated her toys.

Now, onto packing. Rather than have packed boxes stacked around our home, we’ve placed most of them in the storage area in our garage or in the attic. See, when you are moving and trying to sell your home, you are supposed to give people the illusion that you aren’t really moving. The packed boxes need to be hidden. This is especially challenging when you are also trying to hide “clutter.” Potential homebuyers need to be able to imagine a home they could live in and this means hide the boxes! I’m pretty sure this is just something real estate agents made up to drive homesellers crazy. Let’s be real. Anyone who moves will be living amongst boxes for awhile, so keeping the boxes in plain sight enables homebuyers a glimpse at their soon-to-be reality.

The process of selling our home has taught me a lot about impression management. According to Erving Goffman, people actively work to manage the impressions that others have of themselves. For example, a woman wearing professional-looking makeup (as opposed to what one might wear on a daily basis or to go out to a club) to a job interview is typically done to make a positive impression on a potential employer.  In terms of home selling, we have taken steps to make our house appear cleaner and less cluttered than it would be if we were not selling our home.

The home owner of the house we are buying has also practiced impression management. She bought brand new stainless steel appliances prior to putting her home on the market. I have no way of knowing what sorts of appliances were in the kitchen before the home was put up for sale, but stainless steel appliances certainly make a good impression on potential homebuyers.

Buying and selling a home also illustrates Goffman’s points about front stage and back stage of impression management. Most house guests only see portions of your home rather than the whole house. I’m not sure anyone has seen the upstairs of our house besides my parents, babysitter, and friends of my daughter, since we moved into it, for example. If I know we are having company over, I might only clean the downstairs bathroom and leave the upstairs bathroom as it is. This is because the downstairs bathroom becomes part of my front stage, while the upstairs bathroom remains part of my back stage. If my front stage is clean, then I can maintain a positive impression that I live in a clean house even if the back stage (the upstairs bathroom) remains a mess.

Because our house has an accepted offer on it, I suppose I could say that we successfully gave home buyers a positive impression of our home. I will say that it was disappointing to have people look at the home and not return a second time. It made me think we failed to give a good impression even though it just might not have been the right home for their circumstances and completely outside of my control. We might be able to manage the impression others have of us and our homes, but there are limits to this as well.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Is impression management another word for “being fake”? Explain your answer.
  2. Think of all the rooms in a house, which rooms are most often front stages and which rooms are always back stages?
  3. Give an example from your life to explain impression management, front stage, and back stage.
  4. Having your home professionally staged has grown in recent years to entice buyers to buy one home over another. Some home stagers have gone as far as using real life people (not the homeowners) to live in the staged home. Read “One Company’s Secret to Homestaging.” Using your sociological imagination, how might the rise of home staging reinforce inequality?