Virtual staging to sell homes is on the rise, raising ethical questions

[Instead of “staging” an empty home with actual furnishings to make it more appealing to potential buyers, why not just alter photos of the empty spaces to create the illusion of a furnished home? The Houston Chronicle reports that the trend is on the rise, but also raising interesting ethical issues regarding its potential for deception. See the original story for five more images. If it’s not already widespread, I assume the next evolution of virtual staging will involve interactive photo-realistic versions of the staged spaces experienced via VR and AR. –Matthew]

[Image: Emily Walling, a TK Images virtual stager and client relations manager, explains how she makes decisions to successfully use digital techniques to virtually furnish a property, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Houston. CREDIT: Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer.]

Picture yourself here: Virtual staging on the rise

R.A. Schuetz
February 22, 2019

Emily Walling eyed an empty West Houston home that was soon to hit the market.

Then, with the click of a mouse, she dropped a table and six wooden chairs into the dining room. Another click, and up popped a China cabinet, its shelves lined with martini glasses and dishware. Later, she could edit the cabinet so it appeared to be stained the same color as the table.

Virtual staging — the practice of populating images of real homes with digital furnishings — is on the rise. The number of Houston-area listings on Redfin disclosing that the house had been virtually staged rose to nearly 200 last year from just one in 2013. And at TK Images, the real estate photography company where Walling works as a photo editor, demand for virtual staging services more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, with the company processing more than 700 photographs of empty rooms last year.

The result can be astonishingly realistic and achieved at a fraction of the cost and time associated with a traditional stager. While traditional staging companies charge homeowners $500 to $600 per month per room, according to the National Association of Realtors, virtual staging companies such as TK Images charge $65 a photo. Gone is the need for sellers or agents to schedule times to let movers bring in temporary furniture; gone is the need for stagers to keep warehouses filled with couches, lamps and artwork.

Demand is so high at TK Images that the company employs three people who start their day prepping photos at 2 a.m., uploading them to the photo management system and adding notes such as “client wants car next door cropped out,” so its seven photo editors can go straight to work when they arrive at 9 a.m.

The company uses software that has an extensive library of furniture options — from couches and rugs to televisions and lighting — that may feel familiar to anyone who has played the life simulation video game The Sims.

“Which is why I like it,” Walling said. “The possibilities are endless.”

Sensing a cost-efficient alternative to traditional staging, real estate photographers, interior designers and at least one traditional Houston staging company have begun offering virtual staging as an add-on to their core services. Patrick Bertolino, a real estate photographer for 20 years, began offering clients virtual staging a year ago, contracting another company to perform the photoshopping service on images he takes.

“I just don’t want my clients to go somewhere else,” Bertolino said of the listing agents who retain him. “One of my clients does it for almost every house.”

Jumping in

Big names in real estate, such as Redfin, a digital-first brokerage, have bought into virtual staging. Redfin virtually stages each home it sells through its iBuyer service, Redfin Now, by roOomy, a San Jose, Calif., company.

“It’s about speed for them — speed and scalability,” said Taylor Wilding, roOomy’s head of business development.

Sotheby’s International Realty has released a virtual staging app, Curate, that allows people to stage vacant properties on the fly. The app, which uses roOomy’s platform, acts like a Snapchat filter for real estate: it detects the floor of an empty room seen through a smart phone’s camera and overlays it with furniture.

“I think it’s something awesome that they’ve brought to the industry,” said Brandey Heckeroth, a real estate agent at Keller Williams Realty, of virtual staging companies. She said she had at least 50 homes she listed virtually staged in the past two years.

Sometimes, the results are so successful that people fall in love with digital furniture.

“We had one listing where we had the buyer who wanted to buy the furniture from the photo,” Heckeroth said. After she explained that the furniture did not actually exist, the buyers went shopping for the closest approximations the real world had to offer.

But while most virtual stagers limit themselves to the products in the realm of traditional stagers, such as tables, chairs and other accessories that make a house a home, others have succumbed to the urge to use powerful photo-editing tools to improve upon reality.

Too good to be true

Houston real estate agent Greg Nino had a memorable encounter with dubious photo editing in 2010. He took a buyer to see a home, only to realize that the photographs they had seen had been digitally altered to include not only furniture but also paint, carpet, wood trim and repairs that were not there in real life.

“It was embarrassing,” Nino said. “I expected it to look like one thing, and it looked like something completely different.”

Nine years later, Nino said, such manipulation has become less notably egregious. He even hires a virtual staging company to help his own clients. Still, he says, roughly one in 20 homes he shows have digital alterations that go beyond staging, misrepresenting what is actually being sold.

“I’ll notice something that isn’t right,” Nino said. “Then I’ll look at the picture and say, ‘Oh, I see what they did here.’”

He has seen power lines are removed from the backyard. Sometimes a fan is added to a room. Now and then, carpeting is touched up.

Setting guidelines

In an effort to head off misrepresentations, the Houston Association of Realtors has guidelines for digital images. Superimposing images of impermanent furnishings and decor, such as sofas, lamps and artwork are allowed, though the description must note it is virtually staged. Images of ceiling fans and light fixtures, which are affixed to the property and would normally be sold with the house, are not, and neither are other changes to the condition of the home, such as altered paint colors or added landscaping.

“Images are critical,” said Chaille Ralph of the Houston Association of Realtors. “From the perspective of MLS (multiple listing service) we want to make sure people understand that it’s virtual staging and that it’s different than what you’ll actually see when you go into the home.” All listings on HAR’s site are also required to have actual photos of the home.

But even with guidelines in place, there is disagreement about certain types of photo editing. For example, while Ralph said digitally enhancing grass to look lush and green was all right as long as there’s grass in the yard, Nino said he thought such enhancements — offered by many companies — created false expectations.

“If you expect to see the grass is green, and when you get there, it’s brown and you can see patches of dirt, that’s a misrepresentation,” he said.

While real estate associations have been grappling with the ethics of virtual staging, Elaine Shaffer, owner of the traditional staging company Organic Home Staging, does not believe the practice is here to stay.

“I think it is a phase,” Shaffer said. “Virtual staging may help get people in the door. But if you don’t feel ‘I could have my home here, I could see my kids running around in this room,’ when you walk in the door, that’s where I see a disconnect.”

Retailers, however, are not so sure it’s a fad. More than 500 home furnishings purveyors, including Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, West Elm and Crate and Barrel, are banking on people’s desire to connect with virtual staging, according to Christa Rainey of San Antonio. Her company, Arrange Virtual Staging, uses digital models of actual furniture made by affiliated retailers so that homebuyers can turn virtually staged spaces into reality.

And while the furniture is filled with purposeful imperfections, such as artfully uneven cushions and woodgrains, the rooms they’re placed in are often professionally prepared to look as perfect as possible, making the line between virtual and actual sometimes difficult to determine.

“I wish I had a furniture gallery to decorate my home with,” TK Images’ Walling said wistfully as she placed a grill on an outdoor patio and began scrolling through options for decor.


One response to “Virtual staging to sell homes is on the rise, raising ethical questions”

  1. Virtual staging is definitely the easiest way to show potential buyers what your house looks like. However, if you overdone staging your home then it will be confusing for the buyers. Great blog by the way and thanks for sharing.

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