Does Virtual Staging Manipulate Buyers?

Find out how one brokerage enhances listing photos without misleading potential buyers about the look and feel of a property. Plus: virtual staging services to add to your toolbox.

If potential buyers can’t picture themselves living in a home simply by looking at a listing photo online, they’ll move right along. So showcasing the best features of a property and making attractive use of the space isn’t just essential for in-person showings. “If a room is decorated as a carpeted nursery, it’s hard to imagine what it would look like as a bedroom or with hardwood floors,” says Tiffany Jonas, advertising and marketing manager at Kiawah Partners in Charleston, S.C.

Enter virtual staging, the process of using pictures of real rooms and changing the design elements or creating 100 percent virtual renderings for new-construction homes that do not yet exist. It’s not exactly a new concept in real estate—and it isn’t without controversy—but the technology and practice has made significant strides in recent years.

Jonas markets new luxury beach communities across Kiawah’s print, digital, and social media channels, as well as emerging interactive marketing technologies, including virtual reality and virtual staging. Her agency tends to use virtual staging for properties priced at or above $1 million or for vacant properties to broaden their appeal. “Perhaps a home is decorated very tastefully but traditionally. We might virtually stage some of the rooms to show what it would look like if it were furnished with more modern or transitional furnishings, or if the flooring were changed from tile to hardwood,” she says.

First, Kiawah’s agents always get written permission from sellers before they employ virtual staging techniques. “From the get-go, the agents explain to the sellers that we want to market their home in the best light and capture a range of styles,” Jonas says.

Kiawah often uses the virtual staging services of real estate photography company VHT Studios to switch out furniture or rearrange decor in an interior space. Staging the photo of a single room costs $199. “They’ve been accommodating to us in terms of our needs and the needs of our target audience,” says Jonas, who’s done branding for Fortune 500 companies around the world. “What will work for virtually staging a starter home, for instance, isn’t what will work for staging a luxury home.” And the quality of images has improved from just a few years ago, looking less digital and more realistic.

For new construction, they’ll use a freelance artist to do virtual renderings of rooms based on the architect’s plans. Kiawah also uses Village Features LLC, a virtual realty and 3-D rendering firm, for their new communities still under construction. Joshua Hale, president and cofounder of Village Features, estimates that the company’s VR tours have helped agents close 10 percent to 20 percent more late-stage prospects. A single 3-D illustration runs $995, and VR packages start at $2,495, which include a 360-degree branded tour that plays on any computer, phone, or tablet, as well as through viewing devices such as Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, or HTC Vive for the immersive VR experience. To showcase existing homes, Kiawah uses Matterport technology, which they own in house, to film 3-D tours.

Services such as Virtual Staging Solutions offer packages from $225 for three photos up to $525 for seven photos, with bulk discounts available. Pick the furniture from their gallery of options, or you can get furniture removed from an image. They also offer hard-copy prints to display at the property.

Spotless Agency is another virtual staging company, which is based in New York but works with clients from around the world, offering both interior and exterior virtual staging, as well as renderings using floor plans of new construction. “We can improve exterior images in many ways, like changing finishes, adding landscape design, reconstruction—adding or removing some building parts,” says founder Andrew Zlobin.

He says it wasn’t long ago when virtual staging services were not considered a strong alternative to traditional physical staging. “It was mainly explained by lack of technologies [available] to make photo-quality images,” Zlobin says. That situation has changed with advancements in computer graphics and 3-D software. “It has raised the visualization level,” he says. Spotless’ pricing starts at $79 per image.

Then there are apps like Hutch, which is both a home shopping and virtual staging app available in the App Store and Google Play. Agents or clients can use it to upload a photo and try various interior design styles through a set of room filters. Slide between the before-and-after pictures by swiping an image transformation bar. Of course, the furnishings and products in the staged photos are for sale, which is how Hutch is monetized.

There were initial concerns at Kiawah over the use of virtual staging while still presenting a true picture of a property, but Jonas says the company purposefully addressed those before launching the marketing program. “The last thing we wanted was for a potential home buyer to see some staged photographs of one of our listings online, and then find while seeing the home with one of our sales executives that it’s not at all what they thought it would be,” she says.

Therefore, to avoid manipulating buyers, the company shows two versions of the photos: the room as it was originally photographed and the virtually staged room with the word “visualization” prominently watermarked in the corner of the image. “The potential home buyer can see that the kitchen currently has beautiful dark wood cabinets and dark quartzite countertops, say, but can also see what it would look like if the cabinets were painted white and the dark countertop was replaced with a white marble,” Jonas says. They also include a plainly written disclaimer about the virtual staging in the description of the property.

Jonas says Kiawah has also created simple printed packets of “before” and “after” room photos—which they call “DoubleTakes”—showing the original photo first and then the virtually staged photo with a prominent watermark. The cover page also includes the disclaimer. Kiawah has virtually staged 10 properties to date, with at least one buyer requesting to see a property specifically after seeing the virtually staged photos.

At the property itself, Kiawah displays the “after” photos on a larger scale, mounted on foam board and sitting on easels in the corresponding rooms. “The potential home buyer can plainly see the original, real room in front of their eyes and, in the mounted photo, how that room would look with different furnishings and finishes,” Jonas says. “When we started using this cutting-edge technology, not many companies were doing it,” Jonas says. “It speaks to our brand.”

How One Brokerage Handles Virtually Staged Listings

138 Red Cedar Lane
Single-family home; example of a virtually staged property priced below $1 million.

59 Surfsong Road
Single-family home on the beach; example of a home with beach-inspired decor, built in 1993 and priced above $2 million.

119 Halona Lane
Existing single-family cottage; example of a Matterport 3-D tour.

511 Claret Way
Planned single-family home; example of an immersive virtual reality tour.

You can see VR tours of four more home plans here.