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Sabrina's Makeover Magic

The HGTV star and Bethesda resident is making a name for herself one house transformation at a time.



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Over the years she also appeared on several other HGTV shows and specials, including White House Christmas, which she hosted in 2007 and 2008. After about three years on Get It Sold, Soto began hosting Real Estate Intervention 18 months ago, and soon progressed to improving and staging homes in the Greater Washington area on the weekly show, which runs on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. Her co-star, North Potomac real estate agent Mike Aubrey, helps owners figure out what improvements are needed and set a price after examining comparable homes for sale.

Motivated sellers can apply to be on the show, but producers also scout real estate ads for houses to showcase. After a house is scheduled to be filmed, Soto checks it out, takes measurements and determines what she will need to fix it up. For homes requiring extensive work, such as a redesigned kitchen, owners are asked to commit to spending as much as $5,000 in addition to the show’s contribution of $2,500.

Then Soto and her mother shop before returning the following week with a production crew that includes handymen, assistants and interns who must finish the job in two days. When the renovation is done, the “reveal” is filmed while Soto explains the improvements to the homeowner.

Soto says fans are starting to recognize her now when she shops at HomeGoods and Target in Rockville (often with four carts between her and her mother). “I need to start dressing better,” she jokes.

Soto demonstrates how to clean soot off a fireplace while filming at the Bethesda home of Ben Kovacs. It’s during a long stretch of hot and humid July days when Soto and her crew end up on the front steps of Ben Kovacs’ small Cape Cod near downtown Bethesda. The show’s producers spotted Kovacs’ online house ad in May. In the process of a divorce, Kovacs, 28, was living with two male roommates and knew his house needed improvements to sell, so he agreed to participate.

“It was kind of like a frat house. It didn’t have any class to it. People were going to come into the house and say this is not going to be a place they want to buy for this much money,” says Kovacs, who had listed the 1923 dwelling for $899,000.

When Soto first walks in, she’s overwhelmed by the lemon yellow walls and all the furniture crammed into the small living room, including a huge sectional sofa that practically blocks access to the space. A large desk consumes the kitchen’s eating area.

Whoa, Soto thinks as she looks around. “It was overpowered by the furniture.”

Plans are made to redo the living room, kitchen and the worn-looking back deck that overlooks a parking lot. After sending her mother shopping with a list, Soto and her crew return the following week to begin work.

The deck is power-washed, the grill cleaned, the teak furniture repainted a warm, dark brown, and a new red umbrella and brightly colored seat cushions are installed. “We clean, we stage, we do it all,” Soto says. “That’s what’s great about staging homes. It’s nothing I do that you can’t do yourself.”

The living room is painted beige, and a tan couch, fake brown leather armchair and coffee table purchased at Value City Furniture are arranged to create an inviting look. Then Soto starts cleaning the sooty fireplace.

Soto doesn’t tackle all the projects herself. The crew will film her doing a small job like cleaning the fireplace, or starting or finishing another project. “It would be impossible to get everything done” in two days if the handymen and other crew members didn’t do most of the work, she says.

“We try to capture as much of it as it is happening,” series producer Keith Saunders says.

Saunders is the show’s mastermind, setting each scene and directing Soto in the points she needs to cover. Kneeling in blue skinny jeans and lacy yellow ballet flats, Soto loses neither her smile nor her enthusiasm as she improvises her lines for take after take while cleaning the fireplace.

“In 10 minutes now it looks like a brand-new fireplace,” she says as the camera rolls.

Be sure to mention how improving the fireplace will help sell the house, Saunders advises.

Take two: “For 10 minutes’ worth of work, the fireplace is a potential selling feature that buyers will love,” Soto says brightly.

Saunders says Soto’s star appeal is genuine and doesn’t turn off when the camera does. “She glows. It’s natural, and that’s the way it’s been from day one. Her personality is fun. It’s not like she takes herself seriously,” he says, predicting “she’ll be on TV. If it’s not this show, it will be another show.”

As Soto works on the house, she employs little tricks of the trade picked up over the years from classes, design books and store catalogs. Rather than photos, for example, she places pieces of coordinating fabric in white wooden frames and hangs them on the living room wall. Later she’ll set the table in the kitchen with new dinnerware, place an open cookbook on the counter and write a barbecue menu on a chalkboard that has been mounted on a wall.

Watching the transformation of his home, Kovacs is clearly pleased. “It’s awesome. It’s way better than I expected,” he says.

As Soto moves on to another project in the house, her mother bustles in with a load of plastic-wrapped firewood for the fireplace. A bedroom floor is lined with bags of other items she purchased that will be used to complete the staging, including the silver-colored fork and spoon, each measuring 4 feet and costing $70, that are destined for a kitchen wall.

Soto invited her mother to come work with her after Maria Soto, who is divorced from Soto’s father, was laid off from a company she worked for in Los Angeles. Moving in with her daughter was supposed to be temporary, but the arrangement has lasted about a year. Both women say it’s working out well—Sabrina often relies on her mother’s design advice—even if crew members say they sometimes wouldn’t know that from the women’s raised voices.

“Everyone thinks it’s screaming, but we’re just speaking very loudly,” says Soto, who surprises her mother with an ice cream cake for her birthday when filming wraps for the day.

Two days later, the crew returns to finish staging the house and film Soto’s walk-through with Kovacs. The episode is scheduled to run on Nov. 16.

The reactions of Kovacs and one of his roommates, Tom Bergan, prove that Soto has scored another success. “Before [people] could be like, ‘This house is really small, and three dudes live here…,’” Kovacs begins.

“Now when they come in,” Bergan cuts in, “people can see it’s small, but people can envision themselves in the house.”

Her work finished, Soto moves on to plans for another shoot at another house. When she can, she’ll head home to her Labradoodle, Harper, and indulge her second passion, cooking. During the summer’s heat wave, she’ll whip up a plate of spaghetti squash covered with homemade tomato sauce and take a dip in an inflatable pool in her backyard.

Although she has some thoughts about her future—she’d love to have her own line of furniture and accessories at some point—she’s taking “life day by day because it’s so hectic.”

She can’t help but smile when her father sends e-mails asking, “When are you going to get that [college] degree?”

“Hey, Dad,” she says, “I’m doing all right.”

Stage Right

The Real Estate Intervention episode about Ben Kovacs’ Bethesda house is scheduled to air on HGTV at 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 16.

For others preparing their homes for sale, designer Sabrina Soto offers one word of advice: accessorize. “People always worry about furniture arranging and decluttering, but to really make a room look polished, that’s where accessories come in,” says the show’s host.

  • Remove personal items, such as picture frames, and replace them with knickknacks that will help potential buyers envision themselves living there, she says. A big no-no: that knocker on the front door with your name on it. “When someone walks into a house [and sees personal items], it clearly doesn’t belong to them, so they disengage,” Soto says.
  • Staging a house for sale is “part psychology and part design,” she says. So place an open book and reading glasses on a coffee table, or put a throw in a woven basket near a comfortable chair to create an inviting look.
  • Arrange accessories in small, odd-numbered groupings that provide balance and a place for the eye to go. And don’t use items that are smaller than a cantaloupe because that results in a cluttered look. To create interest in Kovacs’ home, Soto added a gray driftwood ball to the coffee table and a big bowl of bright sunflowers to the kitchen.
  • Neutral colors are good for walls and furniture—Soto loves gray and beige—with accessories providing “big pops of color that trickle throughout the room.”

    You want things to be interesting,” Soto says.
     

Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post.

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