How Design Psychology Can Help You Lure Buyers

By Constance Forrest and Susan Painter

Constance Forrest & Susan Painter

Constance Forrest & Susan Painter

Design psychology is a subject you know something about, even if this is the first time you’re hearing about it.

When we’re asked what design psychology is, our best sound bite comes from the world of real estate. When helping a buyer find a house, after going on “The Journey of Many Houses,” have you ever had the experience of walking through the door of the umpteenth house and being overwhelmed with the feeling: “YES!  This is the house!”—before you’ve even seen all the rooms?!

Most people make the decision to buy a home having spent less than 20 minutes inside it.

But why? What makes a house just seem “right” to a client so quickly?

As psychologists, we want to know what gives someone the “YES!” feeling — and as designers, we want to know how we can create it — every time. For real estate practitioners, getting to “Yes” means making the perfect match between client and property.

Design psychology is the only approach to design and architecture that recognizes our responses to the physical world are essentially emotional in nature.

At ForrestPainter Design, we’ve adapted psychological interview and testing methods to let us understand our design clients’ emotional responses to the physical world. And then we use that wealth of information to design ideal spaces for them.

Over the next few months, REALTOR® Magazine’s Styled, Staged and Sold blog will have information from the fields of psychology, neurobiology, immunology, and design that can help your clients satisfy that deepest of desires: to live in a house that is truly a home.


In order to get to ‘YES!”, you need to know more about your  client than the number of bedrooms and bathrooms they want in a house. To know what their ideal home would look like — ask them!

We use a technique we call “Castles in the Air.”

Ask your clients what it means to them to feel “at home”, and then take 10 or 15 minutes to imagine their dream home with them, building it room by room.  Here are a few questions to get the ball rolling:

  • When you open your eyes in the morning, what do you want to see?
  • When you have friends and family to the house, how do you want them to feel?
  • When you get home from a long and tiring day, which room is your destination?

In these questions you are capturing three distinct moods, and addressing both public and private areas of the house. We’d love to get your feedback about building “Castles in the Air” with your clients!

Watch the design psychologists in action with this short video on their work from NBC Today Show.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Constance Forrest, PsyD, and Susan Painter, PhD, are credited as the founders of the field of design psychology. They serve as principals at ForrestPainter Design, a Venice, Calif., design psychology practice that specializes in using psychological tools and techniques in the design of interior, workspace and landscape design. They are also instructors for the first university-based course in Design Psychology at the UCLA Architecture/Interior Design Program: Visit their Web site:

Melissa Tracey

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® Magazine, writing about home & design trends, technology, and sales and marketing. She manages the magazine's award-winning Styled, Staged & Sold blog.

More Posts - Website

  1. I completely concur that people buy homes based on an emotional response. However, I have found after 26 years experience merchandising homes to sell that a buyer doesn’t always know exactly what they want until they see it. The best course of action, if you are trying to sell your home, is to a hire a professional Home Stager. Check their credentials, get testimonials to ensure they are qualified. A professional Home Stager will find out the demographics of the area and merchandise the home to appeal to the largest number of potential home buyers. That is the surest way to elicit that “love at first sight” response!

    Allegra Dioguardi
    Styled and Sold Home Staging LLC

  2. Connie – as a fan of your work, I loved learning more about your process. I think the idea of design psychology is fascinating. Loved the Today Show video too. You and Susan might need your own HGTV show!

  3. Lora Mac Alistaire

    As a consumer that has bought & sold many homes through the years, the one thing that turns me off of a house quicker than you can snap your fingers is, when it isn’t clean. The second thing I look at is color or the absence of such. When I walk into the entry of a home and all I see is white or beige walls, I will turn around and leave, more times than not.

    I look for character in a home, and white or beige walls instantly tell me, “This house is boring” and I shoudn’t waste my time looking.

    The houses that I’ve sold through the years that had color on the walls, sold 10 times faster than homes I had, that didn’t have color on them.

    And, sadly I’ve only met a few Realtors that could see beyond the color on the walls, and didn’t suggest changing it….
    Feeling is assoicated with color and there are hundreds of books to prove this very fact.

    Thank you,

  4. Pegg Richards

    Before becoming a REALTOR I was a teacher. I didn’t teach my minor, which was Art, but I was able to carry that training into my second career, Realty. I have found that not everyone has “taste.” It is my job to explore possibilities when I walk into a house with red wall and black furniture. I still believe plain white/nutral walls allow for creativity, not the reverse. The best staging tool, however, is not the paint on the walls, it is how clean the home is. A cluttered home, with dirty laundry, cats and dogs, dust bunnies — well, that house won’t sell. I don’t think I could offer enough money back for it to work. And, yet, the sellers are offended when you suggest they CLEAN! So, I’ve found the best way to sell quickly, and for a better price, is to insists on cleaning, putting everything away, keeping the pets controlled, and the house picked up. That does not mean throwing everything in a pile in the closet! If they can’t keep it clean, and some can’t, I suggest they move before they sell. That way the house has fighting chance of attracting qualified buyers.

  5. Lora Mac Alistaire says she is turned off by neutral color schemes, but frankly, here in Fairfield County (Connecticut) I’ve had more clients turned OFF by homes with lurid colors in every room. So much depends on context; for example: a smaller home needs to have a more monochromatic color scheme to avoid looking chopped-up and smaller than it is.

    Speaking of color and layout: this “styledstagedsold” page is exceptionally difficult to read with the black letters over very dark blue background…

  6. Very interesting. I have been using these same types of questions for years to get people to open up and tell me their story. I often encounter those who ask questions that can lead to a simple “yes or no” answer. While knowing someone likes or dislikes a particular feature of a home does not nearly tell you as much about them as finding out why.

    I agree with you Lora, some color is good to bring character. But some “characters” don’t get invited to some “parties”! I have asked clients to tone down some rooms. And when doing so, neutral colors are the colors I recommend to create more of a blank canvas for prospective buyers. You can then bring color/character in with decor.

  7. You guys are right to focus on psychology when staging a home. Staging a typical home to sell is very different than merchandising a new home. As human beings, we like to think we are all very unique and somewhat unpredictable. The truth is, we are all fairly predictable and a good home stager who understands who the target buyer is can create an environment that will have predictable results.

    For us, it’s about letting the home sell itself and working hard to make the home look ‘unstaged.’ This has a lot to do with the traffic flow between the rooms, how comfortable each room is, weather or not people can sit down in each room and especially how clean and great smelling the home is. We don’t want people focusing in on the furniture and accessories; we want their minds busy visualizing what their life will look like in this new home. In the end, we want the value of the life people see to be worth more than the price of the home. When you achieve that, you are more likely to get a sale.
    Looking forward to your articles!

  8. Great post! Being a designer of 12 years and home stager for 6, I know first hand that psychology of design plays a big role in the overall feeling a person has when the walk into a room. The color of walls or position of furniture can be an instant turn off. As a stager and designer one must be mindful of the masses but still know how to strategically place items to ignite the senses of that special buyer or clients. Thats the beauty of being a stager and or designer we get to take control of the space and make people feel a certain way with out saying a word.

  9. There are lots of factors that go into the purchase of anything: houses, cars, a new dress… I have found that color CAN play a role, cleanliness, staging, etc.; they are all factors that can facilitate a buyer to purchase. Right now we specialize in REO foreclosure properties. To investors sometimes the more “trash” in a property, the better – for them. they see more “value-added.” So, it all comes down to the perspective of the buyer. Moreover, I have found after dealing with buyers and sellers for the past 30 years that buyers will NOT compromise on their needs, bu they will compromise on their “wants” – those things they can live without.

    Can you get MORE for a pristine well appointed property? Of course! When you buy a new car, do you buy the “dusty” one, or the one that is all shined and sparkling? It doesn’t mean the other won’t sell; it just may not sell for as much.

    Chris M

  10. Jen

    I am having a heck of a time selling a property, and I KNOW it has to do with the horrible paint technique/colors used. I have gotten several comments but when I suggested to the seller she paint it neutral she about bit my head off. I guess I am hoping maybe you can help me figure out a persuasive way to tell her — or do I just tell her point blank — if you want to sell it paint it neutral. She basically said she “cant afford it” and that as long as she is living there she is going to leave it the way she wants it. I need to get really creative with this house if I am ever going to sell it…any ideas?! Clutter is not an issue, and its clean, just needs something to make it POP and appeal to more buyers…mind you this home has been through many realtors and on the market going on 2.5 years!!!

  11. Jen,
    I totally emphathize but the cold hard fact is we have to tell our sellers what they don’t want to hear. We cannot afford to take a listing that doesn’t sell and it’s a disservice to our sellers. The presentation is critical and individual; sometimes they need to see all the buyer feedback forms, othertimes, another professional can come in and deliver the bad news. It’s time for the seller to get invested in this process and demonstrate she really wants to sell.

  12. David

    I’ve found that when walking into a home (in Las Vegas) that’s white with all the foreclosures it instantly says RENTAL. Whether it’s a foreclosure, short sale, or resale if a home has a nuetral color or non jarring color scheme it’s much more desirable. The new beige here is a very pale warm yellow. It plays off well with making a space feel larger, clean, cheery, and it fits in with about every decorating scheme as oposed to those that have dark, dirty, colors. The worst is any form of green with the word Sage in it. too easy to seem dirty and it’s about 3-4 years past being in style. The other biggest turn off for buyers on color are the stock builder basic or off the shelf of the reno center cabinets. Painting them White is an easy fix as they are replaced by most buyers even in these times as soon as they move in. Light colored wood is the worst as no matter what kind, or whether it’s on the floor or as cabinets it looks cheap.

  13. Fran

    Some sellers are so funny, they are trying to sell their home but are still emotionally attached to the point where they don’t realize it won’t belong to them when they sell it. They seem to want someone just like them to move in the “their” home, and take over where they left off.
    I suggest that you hold a Realtor tour, and ask each Realtor to fill out a short questionaire. Ask simple questions that require a simple response, and leave a comment area at the bottom for free thoughts to flow. Questions you could ask are “Is the home priced right? Are ammenities sufficient and desirable? What would you suggest would sell this home? Do you have a buyer who might be interested? Would you like to make an appointment to tour with your buyer?” I do this on my listings, and it helps to show these things to the seller when negotiating a change/upgrade/ repaint/whatever to the home. Perhaps your seller truly can’t “afford” paint. She could go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and peruse the returned/unwanted paints. These are sold for a fraction of the cost of new paint, and if a person is diligent, she can find some nice neutral colors. I painted an entire 1320 sq foot home for about $73 last year by cruising the returned paint area for several weeks. (15 gallons of really good paint, at an average of $4.86 per gallon!)
    The comments you will receive from Realtors, coupled with the counseling of your seller (by you) that if she really wants to sell this home, she will need to try to think like a buyer and let go of her emotional attachment with the paint scheme. Do you think something like this just might do the trick? Worth a shot. Best of luck to you!

  14. Using psychology to sell products is age-old…merchandising. And selling a home is selling a product. Professional Stagers are merchandisers and good ones will have an understanding of the seller’s target market. There are universal things that buyers look for…warmth, comfort, spaciousness. Someone commented earlier that many buyers don’t know what they want until they see it. SO true…or until they feel it. Stagers can identify the strengths of a property and use special techniques to highlight those to create a universal style. Many of my Realtor colleagues like to have me tell the clients what they don’t want to hear about the wrong colors or furniture layout and explain the ROI that making those changes provides. As the “3rd party”, I am often viewed as more objective and the relationship between agent and seller can be preserved. Some agents hire me as part of their listing package so those issues get addressed early on so the home have a better chance of selling quickly. I’d encourage any Realtor to create a working relationship with a good, professional stager!

  15. Thanks For great post.

  16. Thank you for the excellent article