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. It marks 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… and cannot demand hospitality.

The spatial control lies firmly with the hosts.

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

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

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

No matter what the state of someone’s home is, it is  the ‘welcome’ is what we remember most.

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

This is something only insiders get to see. For visitors, we present the ‘improved version’.

We like to be fore-warned of their arrival so we have time to tidy up, buy biscuits, change out of pyjamas, brush the floor and be ready to present our best selves.  

For special visitors, or occasions, we prepare the space; we clean our home from top to bottom use our very best (rarely used) cutlery, crockery, glasses.

We set out clean towels, fresh flowers, plump-up our cushions.

First impressions 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 design choices and anything unusual about the space – such as  lack/ over-representation of family photos, religious icons, clutter.

To every environment we bring our own values, judgement, insight, sensitivity and experience and view of the world.

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

Very quickly, we connect what we now know about the people who live there – and what we thought we knew. That is: what they like in terms of comfort, quality of design, light, character, function and spatial practicalities.

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

We develop this from our own experience of homes – that we have actually been to – 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. We visit stately homes just to see how the other half live.

A visit to a Blue Plaque home somehow makes the famous ex-occupant so much more real as a living, breathing person.

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, that we normally only see in a formal setting fronting The News, are now in Covid times presenting from their own home. This somehow makes them seem so much 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 primal response.

In any environment we are continually assessing and evaluating our surroundings for danger/safety. Fight, flight… or lie back and relax. 

The state of someone’s home reveals much more than the occupants’ tastes. It 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.

How our home looks – is important.

In order 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. 

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

As we are shown around each home we observe the occupant’s decorative choices and personal belongings.

We note the occupants’ tidiness, attitude to consumption and lifestyle. From all this we piece together clues to deduce their personal interests and traits.

The idea is to connect what we see, to what we know, and what we presume about who they are and what they do. 

Real lived-in homes can be messy and 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, until we want to sell it. 

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

On property websites homes that we only know (from the outside) are suddenly made available to us ( in the inside).

Without having to be invited we get to see exactly what other people (and our neighbours) have done to their home – and how they live.

In the US, home-stagers typically work  alongside realtors to transform a listed. Their job is to give your home a makeover – not for you to live in – but to add visual appeal so that your home will sell.

Home stagers have the flair and experience to create a look that is irresistible to potential buyers. They work with 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 tastefully arranged throws, fresh flowers and the table set for dinner it is almost as if the occupants have momentarily left the room.

Professionally lit and co-ordinated, primped and prepared  your home can be expertly styled by people who have learned the art of placement and ‘personality’.

Home stagers understand what makes 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 all about influencing a viewer’s decision to buy by targeting their senses, emotions and desires. 

A home stager presents the space so that viewers will ‘see’ it as an aspirational lifestyle, and can actually ‘see’ themselves living here.

What they actually see is in fact a persona of ‘home’; neutralised, sanitised and beautified. It’s a trick and a ploy – but it works.

Strangely, because they are assessing and evaluating the space, a home viewer will have more access privileges in your home than a normal visitor or guest.

For example, 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 may 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 personality distracts viewers from ‘seeing’ the space potential.

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

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

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

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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