There’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding a home staging technique called “virtual staging.” Some people love it; some hate it, and some people just don’t understand it. So let’s talk about it—what it is, what it isn’t, and the good, bad and ugly of virtual staging.
What is virtual staging?
First, let me define traditional home staging, which is the process of making a house more marketable for resale. Traditional home staging in an occupied residence can include rearranging existing furniture, artwork and accessories to improve flow and make a house appealing to buyers.
If a house is vacant, meaning no one lives there and there’s no furniture inside, traditional home staging means the house gets furnished with rental items that remain in place while the home is on the market.
In addition to staging a house with furnishings, stagers also advise homeowners on repairs, upgrades and maintenance they should tackle to make the house as move-in-ready as possible.
Like traditional staging, virtual staging is a way to enhance a home’s appearance to impress potential buyers. The primary goal of virtual staging is to grab online house hunters’ attention with amazing photos that motivate them to ask for an appointment to see the house in person and consider buying it.
What isn’t virtual staging?
Some of the confusion surrounding virtual staging has to do with its name because it can mean completely different things, depending on who you ask. Let me explain….There are two types of virtual staging: there’s virtual staging done digitally, and then there’s virtual staging that isn’t.
Let’s deal with the digital method first. In digital virtual staging, you take photos of your home and give them to a professional who uses photo editing software to create pictures of how your house could look.
The editing process can include adding images of furniture to show a potential buyer how they could decorate a room. And some editors will add other enhancements, like light fixtures, appliances, new flooring and new paint colors on the walls.
Next, the edited images get uploaded to real estate listing websites where house hunters can browse listings, pick out homes of interest and schedule in-person tours.
Now, not all photo editing is considered digital virtual staging. Some editing is standard, like altering a photo of your kitchen to remove something unsightly like a garbage can in an awkward location, an electrical appliance cord that should have gotten tucked away or your purse on the countertop.
Removing distracting, non-permanent things like this is not virtual staging because there’s no alteration to the house’s features.
What are the pros and cons of digital virtual staging?
An advantage of digital virtual staging—and a major reason people use it—is that it costs less than traditional staging. How much less, you ask?
Going the digital route can cost a few hundred dollars; on the contrary, traditional staging can cost several thousand dollars, especially if your home is empty and needs top-to-bottom furnishing.
But there are a lot of downsides to digital virtual staging, and some of the pitfalls can tank your sale. Many home buyers and real estate agents believe digital virtual staging has gone too far because overly creative editing is causing more problems than it solves.
One of the biggest problems is this: Digitally altered photos are just that—altered.
And altered photos can be misleading because they can make a house appear to be in better condition than it actually is. Buyers and agents alike complain that they’re disappointed when they see a house in person that‘s shockingly different than the online photos.
Altered photos are especially disappointing when the photos depict a fully furnished home, but upon arrival, all buyers see is a vacant space which makes it difficult to visualize the home as their own.
Although the online photos helped get them through the door, standing in a barren space puts a damper on buyers’ excitement and can make them uncertain about whether the house is right for them.
There have been cases (several of which made real estate news headlines) where photo enhancements did more than change the inside of a house.
Some went so far as to remove permanent exterior structures nearby the property like electrical towers and water towers.
And again, this level of editing can make buyers feel misled when they arrive at a house and see a major eyesore they weren’t expecting.
While it’s pretty obvious that changing permanent structures is problematic, the lines get a little blurry when it comes to the more subtle edits, like changing the paint color on the walls, upgrading the kitchen appliances, or adding fancy light fixtures in a room that has no real lighting at all. These are all common practices in digital virtual staging, and not everyone is happy about it.
In talking with other home stagers and real estate agents about the impact of digital virtual staging, the feedback I’ve heard is that using enhanced digital photos can make the home selling process longer than it takes when using traditional staging.
Why? Because at the end of the day, homes that undergo digital virtual staging typically don’t show well in person. And it’s the live showing that has the most influence over the buying decision.
Many people who try the digital method find that the house sits on the market so long that they end up reducing the price to attract offers, or they go back to square one to fix up the house, add traditional staging with real furnishings and re-take the listing photos.
Real estate agents also have to consider the potential for ethical violations and lawsuits that can arise from misleading advertising. To avoid these issues, agents need to look to their ethical codes and trade associations for guidance.
At a minimum, agents should disclose when photos are digitally altered. And to be on the safe side, agents also should display the unedited photos alongside the edited images so online viewers can see both sets of photos together and make an informed decision about the home.
Since it’s so controversial, why do people use digital virtual staging?
Here’s the truth: Over 90% of home buyers decide whether they’re interested in a house after viewing listing photos online.
That means sellers and agents have to impress buyers online to get them to take the next step to see the house in person.
Without great photos, a listing may not get much traction online, so sellers and agents want to present their listings in a way that makes them stand out among the competition.
What’s different about the “other” virtual staging?
The other virtual staging method doesn’t involve digital photo editing. In fact, this type of virtual staging—which I like to call “online virtual staging”—is a lot like the traditional method.
But instead of a stager coming into your home to do a consultation and give you in-person staging advice and hands-on assistance, online virtual staging allows you to work with a professional stager by phone, email or video at a fraction of the cost of traditional staging.
There are some variations in how stagers provide this service, but in general, it works like this:
You send the stager photos or video clips of your home, and the stager reviews your submissions. Next, the stager will call you or hold a video conference with you to conduct a staging consultation. In that session, you’ll get the same kind of advice that you’d get with an in-person consultation.
But the difference is this: You’ll do the legwork yourself. That means you have to execute the stager’s recommendations on your own. If you’ve got a bit of a DIY spirit, you can totally handle that. But if you’d prefer in-person, hands-on help, then a traditional consultation is what you need.
Also keep in mind that you have to provide good, clear photos or video clips and anything else the stager needs (like room measurements) so the stager has enough information to give you sound advice.
Pricing for online virtual staging consultations varies, but you can expect to pay about half the price of a traditional consultation by going the online route.
And if your stager recommends adding some items to your home’s décor, you may spend a few more bucks to pick up those pieces. (Want a list of my top recommended home staging products? Grab it right here.)
So, what’s my take on the virtual staging debate?
Here’s my opinion: I’m not a fan of digital virtual staging. I don’t think it’s the best way to showcase a home, because when buyers show up in person, they don’t see anything they saw in the online photos. The virtual bait-and-switch leaves them at a loss for visualizing the home as their own.
You want buyers to make an emotional connection with your home, and that’s difficult to do when the house is empty or unsightly “in real life.” Also, buyers can feel tricked or deceived by digital virtual staging, so any positive feelings they had before coming into your house may fade away when they see that the real thing is not what you led them to believe it would be.
Traditional home staging can be expensive—I know. And that’s why people are willing to try the less costly digital virtual staging method. But the truth is that there are affordable ways to stage that don’t involve anything questionable like extreme photo editing.
And that’s why I provide online virtual staging: It’s a service that I believe in because it helps people get their home market-ready without using any tactics that could jeopardize their sale.
I help clients use what they have or add a few missing items to show their home in its best light, and I walk them through the repairs and upgrades they can do to get the maximum return on the investment they’ve made in their home.
If this sounds like what you need to get your house ready to sell, then check out my virtual staging consultations for occupied (furnished) homes. I can walk you through the exact steps to take to get your house market ready so you can sell with success.
by Jennifer Westbrook | Main Stage Home Staging & Organizing
To get expert home staging advice in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia, contact Jennifer at Main Stage Home Staging & Organizing, 240-324-8280, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’re outside the Washington, DC metro area, check out our Virtual Staging Consultations for online home staging advice.