The benefits and drawbacks of virtual staging

JUDY GOLDFARB
COLDWELL BANKER
Here is what virtual staging photography did to change the look of this dining room in Unit 503 at 1419 Commonwealth Ave. from what it was to what it could be.
This is what Unit 503 at 1419 Commonwealth Ave. looked like when seen in person.

Virtual staging has become an increasingly powerful sales tool over the last few years.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to this technique and how do they compare to more traditional staging?

WHAT IS VIRTUAL STAGING

Virtual staging entails a photographer taking high resolution photos of vacant spaces and using software to add imaginary furniture and decor. Since the benefits of staging have a proven direct impact on sales performance, virtual staging was developed to provide an alternative, less expensive way to present a property in the best light possible and make the most favorable first impression on buyers. 

DOES IT ‘WORK?’

We are a visual society. Buyers imprint the photos they first see of a home and develop an attraction to a property based on that initial exposure.

* More than 80 percent of buyers appreciate virtual staging as a tool to help them visualize the space as a potential future home.

* More than 40 percent of buyers express greater interest in homes staged in concert with their design and decor preferences.

* Only 4 percent of realtors claim that 3D staging does not have a positive impact on sales or buyers impressions of a home.

(stats according to Spotless Agency from data collected from Realtors.com)

HERE ARE THE BENEFITS TO VIRTUAL STAGING

Traditional staging enables the buyer to experience the unit as it appeared online, but it is expensive. Staging costs include movers, street permits and can also include move-in fees for larger buildings. And the cost can rise if the home does not sell in a timely fashion. Virtual staging costs a fraction of physical staging. Many companies will charge per photo and/or offer package pricing.

MINIMAL INTRUSION, FASTER TURN AROUND

With virtual staging, a photographer takes high resolution shots of the empty spaces and digitally inserts the decorative elements off site. There is no need to move, rent or buy furniture or hire an actual staging company. Only the photographer and the list agent need to enter the home. The turn around varies, but can be less than five business days.

Virtual photography gave buyers an idea of what the living room in Unit 503 at 1419 Commonwealth Ave. could be like.
Here’s what the living room in 503 at 1419 Commonwealth Ave. looked like without added virtual furniture.

TAILORED DESIGN AND FLEXIBLE USE OF SPACE

With virtual staging, you can create a design aesthetic based on the target demographic for the property. A downtown loft space can be virtually designed with a more contemporary look, while a large home in the suburbs may be better suited to a more transitional style. 

Similarly, a room can be staged as a nursery or a gym or a home office; or one photo of each version to show buyers the space’s flexibility. And a primary bedroom can be virtually enhanced with a king size bed to impress buyers with the size of the room

NEGATIVES

Virtually staged photos will get buyers interested and, ideally, in the door. 

According to NAR poll, 83 percent of buyer agents said staging a home made it easier for a buyer to visualize the property as their future home and 35 percent said their buyers were more likely to go to see a staged home they saw online.  

Once potential buyers are seeing the home without the effect of the virtual staging, they may be let down.

NAR poll shows that 23 percent of buyer agents say live staging will enable buyers to overlook other property faults. That benefit is lost when the rooms are bare and the eyes go to the older windows, outdated light fixtures and worn hardwood flooring...

To mitigate the letdown, an easel with photos of each room can be set up as a reference. While certainly helpful, that still won’t create the emotional attachment in person that traditional staging can.

The technology for virtual staging is almost too good. The photos look extremely realistic. One of the drawbacks is thus the potential for misleading imagery that violates NAR's Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice

Article 12 of the Code states that: “REALTORS® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing and other representations.”

Furthermore, Standard of Practice 12-10 states: “A Realtor’s obligation to present a true picture in their advertising and representations to the public and prohibits Realtors from... 2) manipulating listing and other content in any way that produces a deceptive or misleading result...”

By way of example: if a broker was marketing a unit as “sun-drenched” and then proceeded to electronically alter the amount of sun-light in a digital photo of the interior of an actual (furnished) unit, that could be construed as misleading.  Using computer-aided architectural rendering software to move walls or change interior colors could be an example of misleading the public if there were no disclosures about what was changed. 

Digital “Watermarks” can be applied to images of listed properties that use any electronic virtualizations (e.g. “Virtual Staging”) thereby putting consumers on notice that the images used contain virtualizations and the watermark itself will be unavoidably replicated on other platforms (e.g. via IDX feeds).  

The MLS listing information itself can and should include disclosures that any associated digital images are virtualizations.  Another way to prevent confusion to do use both the staged and unstaged photos in MLS.

Matt Murphy, owner of Boston Virtual Imaging, said that: “As a policy, we will remove items from an image that are temporarily in the photograph and easily moveable. For example, if a car is parked in front of a property, we can retouch a photograph to remove it through image editing. 

“However, it is against our policy to edit an image in such a way where the editing would alter the permanent physical characteristics of a property and may affect a viewer’s perception of value of that property. For example, it is against our policy to edit an image to fix chipping paint or fill in a patch of dead grass or remove utility wires that are attached to a property.” 

Courtney Trautman, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Realty sums it up:

"My seller clients appreciate the cost savings and ease of virtual staging. I can imagine a buyer feeling let down when they visit an unstaged unit in person, but I have not seen that strongly enough to dissuade me from using properly disclosed virtual staging in the future.” 

Judy Goldfarb is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Realty’s Back Bay office. She can be reached at Judy.Goldfarb@nemoves.com or 617-943-3318.

Here’s another example of how virtual photography can change the look of an empty room.
Here’s how this bedroom looked like if it was seen in person while on the market.