There's a stager born every minute: Haverhill offers big promises -- and shady associations

Haverhill Home Staging says it's "North America's largest and fastest growing Home Staging Company." The point is debatable, but Haverhill is certainly North America's most prominent cable advertiser in home-staging: the art and science of sprucing homes to prepare them for sale.

Haverhill, based in Toronto, caught my attention with the frequent commercials (you can watch a couple of them here and here) that it's run since September on such HGTV series as Designed to Sell and The Stagers. The company says it's in the midst of its national roll-out -- and it's looking to hire new stagers. And where better to look for would be decorating-for-salers than HGTV's audience? And what better time to do it than during this bleak recession, as a perfect storm of the tumultuous real-estate market and the waves of layoffs drive scores of desperate people to do desperate things?

Haverhill's TV spots make some pretty bold claims about what it's offering. Take its $997 course, pass a test, and get guaranteed employment with the company in the exciting, fast-growing world of home staging. But a closer look reveals that Haverhill is the foundation of some consumers' broken dreams. And at the top is a man who's got a sordid history with the Federal Trade Commission.

Here's what bothered me about Haverhill's offer, from the first time I heard the pitch: It just sounded too good to be true. You fork over a thousand bucks for a correspondence course and, if you pass the exam, you get a full- or part-time job (which pays $24 to $31 per hour, according to the company's website). With an offer so good, why would you need to buy ads on HGTV to recruit employees in this economy? It just didn't make any sense, and things that don't make sense often make for interesting blog posts.

I e-mailed Haverhill for information about its training course and employment opportunity and heard back from Darren Morgenstern, who, it turns out, was sued by the Federal Trade Commission in 2001 for operating a "domain name scam," duping consumers into registering variations on domain names they own by contending, falsely, that a third party is about to claim it. Saying the scheme victimized at least 27,000 consumers, the FTC froze Morgenstern's assets pending a trial. Morgenstern explained the case to me in an e-mail: "Me and my company (and other industry players) were sued by the FTC. The matter was settled out of court, there was no admission of guilt and the company continues to operate today." Morgenstern later founded AshleyMadison.com, an online provider of dating services to married people. (In December 2007, The New York Post published an item saying Morgenstern used the site to cheat on his wife.)

Would you buy a home-staging course from this man? Morgenstern declined to tell me the success rate for those who have purchased his course, or how many people had ponied up the $997 to play -- but he did allow that Haverhill has hired 20 full- and part-time stagers, with "about 100 more slated for the coming months." That employment offer is available only to those who pay for the course; Haverhill doesn't hire stagers belonging to other professional associations, like the Accredited Staging Professional program, the leading provider of home-staging training -- unless they pass Haverhill's exam.

Imagine a college that wouldn't offer employment to professors who had earned their credentials at other institutions. Haverhill's unwillingness to hire outside stagers who hadn't spent a thousand dollars on its products suggests that the sale of training is an integral part of the company's business model. (Morgenstern declined to tell me what percentage of the company's revenue comes from the sale of training, as opposed to its staging services.)

Troubling questions about Haverhill also appear on message boards like The Staging Source, where anonymous posters complain that course requirements change constantly, and that instructors are difficult to reach. "You basically get a book which you read," one writes, "and then another little booklet that tells you the basics of finishing their seven exercise books. You have absolutely NO ACCESS to an instructor in real time (phone or email is out of the question and if you call and reach a live person you're instructed to go to their FAQs)."

But don't worry: Haverhill pays close attention to criticism on message boards and blogs -- and sometimes responds with litigation. Haverhill announced in a March 25 press release that it had "filed a libel suit against an online blogger in an effort to vindicate itself and disprove the libelous statements made about it on several online blogs." Haverhill, the release continued, "expects to file several more claims after it receives information from ISP's identifying other anonymous posters."

Is Haverhill Home Staging a great opportunity for employment in a down economy? Maybe, although for a marketing campaign (including frequent spots on HGTV) promising guaranteed employment, 20 full- and part-time jobs just doesn't seem like that many. But what does seem very clear is that instead of offering detailed responses to questions about its business model, Haverhill's public-relations strategy appears to be litigation -- always a red flag.

Here's my advice, and I won't even charge you $997 for it. Stay far, far away from Haverhill Home Staging.

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