visitor: living room in Mountsewart

At different times we are a visitor… viewer… guest… host…

Our home as our inner sanctum, it is our private world.

When we invite someone into our home it is a mutual recognition of a more intimate relationship; a shift from our public to our private persona.

But we don’t treat all our visitors the same way.

The rules are different for friends, family, acquaintances, authorities, contractors and meter-readers.

We keep strangers (cold callers, deliveries) on the front doorstep or hallway –  sometimes with door tightly closed behind us, or with the doorchain on.  

Access denied. Access not necessary.

The social code dictates that visitors must wait for signs and cues: where to go, where to sit, what to eat/drink and how long to stay.

They may be invited to sit in a certain seat…. must ask to use the bathroom… will usually be invited to share in some hospitality.

The spatial control lies firmly with the hosts.

Visitors should feel comfortable in the space, but not make themselves too comfortable.

Their ‘welcome’ will last only for an allowed time slot  

With close family and friends we are proud to give them a grand tour, extended history of the whole house and free rein to relax. 

And yet, private rooms such as bedrooms, personal bathrooms and studies we may still consider to be out of bounds. To breach these unspoken social codes crosses a line where a welcomed guest quickly becomes an unwelcome snooper.

Every lived in home has a natural level of disruption and disorder. 

At any given hour of the day our home may not be in a state we would like visitors to see. There is an everyday version of our ‘home’ only insiders get to see.

For visitors, we present an ‘improved version’ of our home.

Fore-warned, we have time to tidy up, buy biscuits, change out of pyjamas, brush the floor and be ready to present our best selves.  

We might set out clean towels, fresh flowers, newly-plumped cushions – as quick fixes and visual distractions from the space of our everyday self.

It is a great pleasure to entertain visitors and to able to share our home and hospitality with others.

For the arrival of special visitors or events, we clean our home from top to bottom and bring out our very best (rarely used) cutlery, crockery, glasses.

First impression count.

There is no special expertise required to ‘read’ a home environment. It is an immediate environmental response.

In an instant we can absorb and assess our host’s income level, literary and artistic choices quality of furnishings, taste and interests.

Unconsciously, we register their colour and material choices and anything unusual such as  lack/ over-representation of family photos, religious icons, clutter.

A visitor may look for shared experiences and interests. But will also clock how tidy, how clean, how organised the space is.

Very quickly we connect what we now know about the people who live there – or, what we thought we knew. This can impact on whether or not we feel comfortable – or not. 

People bring their own values, judgement, insight, sensitivity and experience – and view of the world – to every environment

Embedded within that there is a sense of what they like in terms of comfort, quality of design, light, character, function and spatial practicalities.

We have our own sense of what makes a home a home.

This we draw directly from our own experience of homespaces we have visited together with a visual impression of homes from movies and TV programmes, websites and books.

Fascinated by how other people live we are intrigued by the homes of celebrities on MTV Cribs, and visit stately homes just to see how the other half live.

A visit to a Blue Plaque home makes that person somehow seems so much more real.

Lockdown has given us unusual access to other people’s homes.

On Zoom we see glimpses of kitchens, studies, living rooms – and not just of the people we work with.

Journalists, we normally only see in a formal setting fronting The News, in Covid times are now presenting from their own home – which makes them seem more relatable.

When we enter someone’s home for the first time we use our full body sense to see, smell, feel and listen for environmental cues.

From this we can tell a lot: whether the owners had curry last night, the ticking of a clock, proximity to the flight path. But also, cat’s hairs on the sofa, lingering odours of cigarette smoke, the richness  – or stickiness – of the carpet pile. 

Passing a value judgement on someone’s else home is harsh and critical.

But it is also an instinctive and a primal response.

In any environment are continually assessing and evaluating our surroundings for danger/safety – as well as personal comfort. Fight, flight… or lie back and relax. 

The state of someone’s home reveals much more than the occupants’ tastes. It also says something about their mental health and wellbeing.  

Hoarders’ homes (the subject of many TV programmes) may be piled high, with nothing ever thrown out. 

An overly neat and tidy home may suggest someone has OCD; an unhealthy obsession with cleaning and perfectionism.

There are times when outsiders enter our home to evaluate our home environment.

To safeguard children’s welfare, social workers in Worcester use a Home Conditions Assessment tool.

In a 45 minute announced – or unannounced visit – the professionals, parents and young person (together) complete a form. This identifies (on a sliding scale) evidence of odour, cleanliness of the floors, decorative order, cleanliness and tidiness of the kitchen, cooking utensils and crockery.

It also covers the bathroom, furnishings, personal hygiene, household general appearance and evidence of food in the cupboards.   

Specific attention is given to bedding and toys, and if there are signs of drug paraphernalia or vermin. A home for children is expected to include basic safety features and basic essential utilities, be clutter-free and have non-aggressive pets. 

Child neglect can occur equally in a luxurious, well-maintained homes and so the visible signs and condition of the home are just one consideration.

A home that seems ‘too perfect’  (a gilded cage) with little or no signs of being lived-in, or personality, (or toys) might also raise alarm bells. 

As a visitor, the most important thing of all is the personal ‘welcome’ that you receive.

Wipe your feet… take off your shoes… please sit here…warm yourself by the fire… can I get you anything more…more tea?

The level of welcome we receive directly affects what we think about the occupants – and their home.  

No matter how beautiful the home is  the ‘welcome’ is what we remember most.

TV programmes such as Through The Keyhole and This is My House  perfectly make use of our finely-honed ability to read wider, visual and environmental cues.  

We are shown around each home observing the style and layout of home, decorative details and personal belongings.

We note the occupants’ tidiness, attitude to consumption and lifestyle. From all this we deduce some idea of their personal interests and traits.

The idea is to connect what we see, to what we know, and what we presume,  to interpret information about the possibly occupants. That is: who they are and what they do. 

Real lived-in homes can be messy and somewhat mis-matched.

They may also have damp, leaks, mice and draughts.

Only by living somewhere do we truly discover the foibles and characteristics of a space; the lingering smells, noisy neighbours, creaky floorboards, doors that stick.

While these things may not matter too much to the people who live there, they are not ‘selling points’.

It is difficult  to think about our home objectively as a space – that is, until we want to sell it. 

When you list your home this puts your private space firmly into the public domain.

Homes we know (from the outside) are suddenly made available to us ( in the inside) on property websites.

We get to see exactly what other people (and our neighbours) have done to their interior – without having to be invited.

In the US, home-stagers typically work  alongside realtors to transform a home with a makeover – not for you to live in – but to add value to it so your home will sell.

Home stagers have the design flair and experience to create a look, irresistible to potential buyers. They work with the bare bones of the space and (according to the budget) will dress the space to impress

Show homes are staged, and styled to look attractive, ‘homely’ and inviting.

With fresh flowers, tastefully arranged throws and the table set for dinner it is as if the occupants have momentarily left the room.

Professionally lit and co-ordinated, primped and prepared   these spaces are expertly produced by people who have learned the art of placement and ‘personality’..

Home stagers understand how to make a home more appealing – and what puts people off.

Their job ultimately is to curate the space so that the viewer’s first impression is a lasting impression. 

The home stager has much in common with set designers and visual merchandisers. They create a temporary illusion rather than a longterm solution.

This is is about influencing a viewer’s decision to buy by targeting their senses, emotions and desires. 

A home stager makes the most of a space so that people can ‘see’ it as a ready-made home. It is an aspirational lifestyle whereby viewers can actually see themselves living here.

What they actually see is in fact a persona of ‘home’; neutralised, sanitised, beautified.

The house should ‘sell’ itself. 

Strangely, a home viewer will have more access privileges than a visitor or guest.

Because they are assessing and evaluating the space they are permitted to open built-in cupboards and drawers, access the roofspace and bathrooms.

They can measure rooms and windows,  check out the garage and shed, tap the walls and look under the stairs.

They also get to openly say what they think about the space.  As we see every week on Location, Location, Location.

Evidence suggests a home that is not ‘staged’ will not sell as well as one that is.

A home that looks  ‘too lived-in’, expressing too much of the personality of the people who live there distracts people from ‘ seeing’ the space potential.

Viewers will run a mile from the purple walls, smell of cats, or a grotesque collection of masks. And they won’t forget.

When buying a home you have to be able to imagine yourself living there.

It is a seismic shift to go from ‘viewer’ to ‘host’. It is something that needs to feels right, inside and out.

Even if it comes from a little nudge.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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