Carrie Goodman, real estate agent with Sotheby's International Realty in San Francisco, had a peculiar listing. Aside from odd furniture, the home had walls coated in a dark red hue that obfuscated natural light.
"It was really hard to depict how bright the property could be," Goodman says.
She decided to reveal the potential of the home digitally. In virtual renderings, the walls became white and the furniture turned modern.
"That way a (buyer) could see what the after version could look like," Goodman says. "That was really effective. I sold that property in a matter of a week."
Goodman is one of many real estate professionals to have utilized technology as a substitute to physically preparing and staging homes for the market. In recent years, virtual depictions have marketed anything from new-build upscale condos to shabby fixer-uppers.
As devices and applications continue to advance, photographically staging residences is often easier, speedier and cheaper than its physical-world alternative. Yet, while the seemingly growing and evolving trend of virtual staging may carry benefits, it comes with caveats, too.
What is Virtual Staging?
Virtual staging denotes the use of computer programs to enhance property photographs with colors, furnishings and decor that, practically, do not exist. It can also remove extant features, although structural modifications usually fall beyond the scope of virtual staging.
"It's basically like a Photoshop technique where you are putting images of furniture and artwork and so forth in a photograph of an actual property," says Jennie Norris, chairwoman of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals. IAHSP represents traditional, physical home stagers, not their virtual counterparts, though some traditional stagers work digitally too.
Only a couple of years back, digital portrayals of rooms looked somewhat unwieldy, readily distinguishable from actual photographs. Today, if done tastefully and skillfully, they are not that simple to tell apart.
"It used to be obvious," says Andrew Ernemann from Aspen Snowmass Sotheby's International Realty in Aspen, Colorado. "You didn't really have to do much because people could tell it was a rendering. But now we can have exterior and interior renderings that look completely like photographs."
Traditional vs. Virtual Staging
Both virtual and physical staging serve to showcase the opportunities in a space. "The visualization part of it is a big, big piece in that a lot of times a buyer will have a hard time visualizing the furnishing choices or the design choices, even the paint color or ceiling fans," says John Passerini, global vice president of interactive marketing at Sotheby's International Realty, based in New York City.
The capabilities of virtual staging, though, are confined to the digital realm, where most buyers begin their home search.
"Virtual staging is really great for the initial presentation," Goodman says. "Ninety percent of the people start their search on the internet, so the photographs are really important. You have to get that right."
To illustrate the crucial role photography plays in advertising homes, Passerini recounts an anecdote from an agent who staged a listing neither physically nor virtually. The house languished on the market for six months, generating little interest. Then, the agent virtually staged it.
"It gave the consumer the confidence to call the agent and say, 'Hey, I want to see this home,'" Passerini says.
Last year, Sotheby's International Realty launched the Curate app for virtual home staging. The app uses furnishings from Perigold and Sotheby's Home, which customers can purchase.
As effective as virtual staging might be for attracting attention, it may spawn an inopportune contrast with the property's actual condition that could dissuade some buyers.
"I've had to restage properties that were presented virtually and didn't sell," says Norris, who owns a staging studio in Denver. "When a buyer walks in the front door, they feel duped. They feel like they were fooled. They don't have any kind of an emotional connection because there's nothing in the house. It doesn't look like it did online. So, it backfires."
Traditional staging mitigates that dissonance. That is also an observation Chris Amberg, agent with Weichert Realtors in Jersey City, New Jersey, made recently. He represented the owners of a two-bedroom condo, priced at $770,000, in a building where he had clinched a number of successful deals. The owners hastened to list, so he settled on virtual staging, which he had not done before.
"I sold many units in that building before. I've always done (physical) staging on them. And this was the first time that I didn't, and I used a virtual staging. It didn't sell," Amberg says.
A single offer did come in around last Christmas, but it ultimately fell through. The owners decided to rent instead.
No statistical comparisons exist to measure the effectiveness of virtual staging versus that of traditional staging. With anecdotal tales of success and failure, it's worth looking at several key differences between the two approaches when deciding which to choose.
The Cost of Staging
When a home is vacant, renting furniture and artwork for open houses and private tours can run thousands of dollars.
"If someone says, 'Hey, I have six bedrooms for staging,' that can get costly," says Karen Parziale, owner of The Real Estate Staging Studio in New Jersey and a certified Feng Shui consultant.
Even a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo may sap $7,000 in traditional staging, Goodman says. Putting virtual furniture, on the other hand, costs only hundreds of dollars.
"Virtual staging is literally pennies on the dollar compared to actual staging," Goodman says.
Some staging studios and even brokerages -- like Compass with its Concierge program -- only charge for their services at the time of closing, eliminating the immediate expense of physical home staging.
Return on investment
Not only cheaper, virtual staging might suit sellers who do not wish to move their own furniture or live far away from furniture showrooms that offer staging rentals.
Still, there is not data whether sellers would reap any monetary benefits from staging their homes digitally. That is not the case for physical home staging.
In its Profile of Home Staging report from 2019, the National Association of Realtors states that 22% of polled listing agents saw up to 5% jump in dollar value offered by buyers for staged properties. Some 17% of agents said that increase was between 6% and 10%.
Virtual staging makes it relatively easy to mask defects -- and mislead shoppers.
"With virtual staging, people are also altering the interior of the property," Morris says. "That's a huge risk. They're changing colors. They're changing wall colors. They're removing things. They are changing the architecture."
The presentation of any architectural alterations in digital renderings should require the approval of a structural engineer, Passerini says. Sotheby's Curate app does not allow for structural changes to properties.
Morris says that she has seen some instances of virtual staging that deviate so strikingly from reality that they are "a lawsuit waiting to happen."
To avoid distortion, Goodman says that she includes both virtually staged and unstaged photographs in listings she preens digitally. "One of the things that you have to be careful with is that virtual staging really can make it look so great," she says. "Especially with a fixer-upper, it can look so good in the photos that people walk in and they're like, 'Whoa, it didn't look like that in the pictures.'"
Traditional staging can also hide some features and accentuate others. An eye-catching interior design may divert attention from scratches on the walls or blotches on the carpet. Norris says that professional stagers usually receive training not to conceal any problems that sellers have not disclosed.
Another sort of dishonesty involves the dimensions of rooms. While physical staging allows home shoppers to see proportions, virtual staging may distort them.
"They can't see the size and scale of a room," Norris says. "With virtual staging, there's no way to know if that's actually a real six-foot sofa."
No matter the advantages and drawbacks that virtual and traditional staging carry, Parziale says, "any type of staging is better than no staging at all."
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