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FOR SALE // ac.cen'tu.ate the positives

Patricia Irwin is at an utter loss for words. She simply cannot describe that . . . uhhh . . . carpet . . . in the nice house on the south side of town.

"It's a multi-pattern," Irwin says, as tactfully as possible. "It's got these colors . . ."

Finally, she just blurts it out.

"That carpet is ruining that house!" she says.

There. That's it. She's said it. Whatever that color, whatever that style, a perfectly wonderful house has been sitting on the market for two years and Irwin thinks the carpet is the culprit.

We're talking about a potential client here, but if Irwin is not truthful she's not doing her duty.

It's her job to rip up fashionablychallenged floor covering; throw out old junk; gently tell a client that Aunt Sadie's ratty afghan might be beloved but is not that attractive in the living room; or that Tipper the Poodle is truly adorable but the house kind of smells. She'll decorate an empty house or rearrange a cluttered one. Landscaping. Painting.

She even does windows.

At her new business in Tampa, Irwin doesn't decorate homes for good. She decorates homes for sale. The proprietor of More Curb Appeal Inc. isn't looking _ nor are her transient clients _ for permanent decorating solutions. Instead, Irwin is creating an aura, an allure.

A former runway model, she's doing what she's always done: She selling the illusion of perfect grace.

She's already had success as a design consultant since More Curb Appeal made its official debut with a bungalow in South Tampa this summer.

"That house was sitting in the market for 120 days," said Tam-Bay real estate agent Vince Pennino of a vacant house on San Isidro. "She came in, did the decorating, some painting, cleaning, brought in furniture and within a week we had three offers.

"It was amazing," said Pennino. "Her work sold the property."

Irwin, who is hard at work at several other homes now, beams.

"I've always had a knack for putting things together," said Irwin. "I used to help friends decorate their houses for fun. But this was a business. I thought about it for a year before I was ready to move on it. I was always too scared. Finally, I said, "Why not?' I decided to pursue my own dreams."

The quick-sell on San Isidro bolstered her business and confidence.

"Then, I knew," she said. "Yes, this would work."

Irwin makes it clear she's not selling the house: That's the Realtor's or owner's job. She makes it marketable with her decorating skills and an army of subcontractors, whom she supervises.

"Basically my whole deal is to relieve the seller of all headaches," she said during an interview recently in a renovated house on Hawthorne Road that's for sale for $299,900. "A lot of people are working and they don't have the time to pull together all this stuff. Many don't know who to trust for repairs. I coordinate everything."

She does mean everything.

If a house is vacant, she brings in furniture and limited accessories, which she then arranges. For furnishings, Irwin had to be creative. She convinced local stores to loan items with prominent display of the store logo and price.

"There's so much you can do with a little finesse," said Fay Johns, owner of Fay's Side Porch, the shop that supplies most of Irwin's furniture. "This is a lot of hard, hard work. But it's great exposure for my shop."

In the bungalow, Johns lent Irwin an entire house of furniture _ right down to the Fiestaware. One stunning note was old stained-glass panels propped in front of bland, aluminum-sided windows that flanked the mantel. The living was not only flooded with color, but the ho-hum windows were hidden.

Often, Irwin brings in her own furniture if the house needs it. One of her large Oriental rugs seems to be on permanent loan.

If the house is already furnished, she suggests improvements.

The yard is also carefully inspected. Landscapers are called for major work, or Irwin will supply potted plants for a quick touch-up.

Details really count. Is the front porch clean? Does the house smell and feel good? For an open house, Irwin will often bake cookies and serve lemonade. (See related story for tips on how to improve your house.)

"I think it makes a significant difference," said Becky King, an agent with Smith & Associates in Tampa. "She's filling a niche."

Pennino, of Tam-Bay, says Irwin can do what an agent often cannot.

"It's hard for us as Realtors to tell our clients the negative aspects about their home," he said. "Sometimes, it's better to get a neutral party. I've had people almost throw me out when I tell them what to do! And when it comes to pets, it's very difficult to tell them that they smell."

As the neutral party, Irwin already has the approval to tell the whole truth and nothing but.

"When they sign a contract with me they are giving me the okay to be the expert," she says. "I am going to do the very best job I can do."

Asked what she would do if faced with a horror house of tacky stuff, she smiles like a diplomat.

"If I did have a lot of tacky stuff, I would gently persuade them to temporarily remove it," she says politely. With her calm presence, impeccable style, an easy smile and laugh, Irwin seems to put people at ease.

"Trisha is so good with people," Fay Johns says. "She's just a delightful person."

Her advice may be particularly useful to a homeowner selling solo. In those cases, Irwin insists that all she can do is make suggestions and decorate. She cannot sell or hold open houses.

A basic consultation is a minimum $125. After that, the job dictates the price.

"The difference between a decorated show home and what I do is that I don't layer on accessories," she said. "I'm not doing a head-to-toe design. I'm also not showing my skills or design. It's all done to show the house so when the buyer comes through they can visualize themselves in that house."

That's a key phrase with Irwin: visualization.

Her work suggests a home, any home _ thus, your home.

For example, in the Hawthorne Road house, she kept family pictures to a minimum and added the most basic accessories _ a throw tossed at the end of a bed, or several good books on a table with a pair of reading glasses perched atop. Since it is a classical home, she chose more conservative furniture. In the bungalow, she picked funkier pieces designed to appeal to the 30-something crowd that is attracted to that type of home. In a modern home, she would use sparse, contemporary design.

By rearranging furniture, or supplying it, she suggests scale.

"In an empty room, most people don't really have vision," she said.

Irwin, however, does have that vision. She can make anything appealing _ for a fee, of course.

_More Curb Appeal Inc. can be reached at (813) 251-4967.

Patricia Irwin's Top 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Make Your House More Marketable

10. Bye-Bye, Fido! Get rid of all pet odors and pets' paraphernalia. Board your pet while the house is being shown.

9. The Big Chill: Make sure your home is cool and comfortable with air conditioning. (But not frigid.)

8. The Big Sweep: Brush leaves off porch, outside windowsills, sidewalk. Sweep front and back entranceways.

7. Privacy, Please! Prospective buyers don't want to know too much about the current owners. Irwin says it's important that they see your house as their house. Thus: Stash all medications in drawers or cabinets (if they peek, it's their fault). Consider removing all but a few family pictures: Timmy's precious paintings from pre-K come down off the fridge. The doormat with your name on it should probably be replaced with a more generic one.

6. Let There Be Light. Turn on all the lights, open shutters and blinds. A bright house is more appealing.

5. Maid to Please . . . you and your buyer! Irwin says it's worth the money to hire a maid service to give your house that extra polish.

4. Book 'Em. Get rid of those Danielle Steele novels and put some interesting, clever books on your shelves. The Reader's Digest Condensed versions? They look too much like the ones in the fake show homes.

3. House & Garden: Don't forget to trim the grass, hedges and flowering bushes. Real curb appeal, Irwin says, starts at the front walk. Inside, load the house with plants and flowers, especially if they're from your own garden. It makes the house look cheerful and alive.

2. Two Words: No Clutter. Get rid of all those collectibles, magazines and stuff that clutters closets. You want your home to look as spacious as possible. If you're really overstuffed, rent a small storage unit to hide your odds and ends until you sell the house. Again, a clean, clutter-free house allows buyers to create their own vision.

And the No. 1 One Way To Make Your Home More Appealing:

1. Try this scent-sational idea. Make your house smell like home by baking cookies or a simple quickbread. (You can then serve it with fresh lemonade or iced tea during the open house.) Appealing to the subtle sense of smell is a strong way to attract buyers.

_ JENNIFER L. STEVENSON

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