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The Pandemic Has Shown the Value and Limitation of Virtual Home Staging

Interior designers have built an entire cottage industry on staging homes for realtors. Seldom do we see photos online of homes, apartments, and commercial properties without a fluffy touch of pillows, art on the walls, and patterned rugs.

Now, they all have a Photoshopped touch, bleached white walls, shadows, and crisp crown moldings, as well as digitized furniture copied and pasted into a living room to make it seem more “livable.” Digital virtual staging is changing the multifamily leasing game, and it’s something we can’t live without now. Now that many are using tools like Facetune to freshen up the way we look for our online meeting we are realizing that the same can be done for our property listing. Flaws are the enemy. A facelift for interior design, one where you don’t always know where the nips and tucks are. A good plastic surgeon, in other words.

Clearly, with the ongoing pandemic preventing people from visiting homes and properties, many homes are bought while not seen in real life. Granted, you can always send a friend to check it out or see a video tour via smartphone. But increasingly people are getting comfortable with virtual tours. Are virtual stagings becoming the norm? It looks like we are going in that direction. Ninety-five percent of home buyers start their searches online and video can drive 150 percent increase in organic traffic from search engines.

Is this the next step for video tours? Any realtor and property manager who uses “virtual stagings” is more likely to sell or rent the home faster, meaning they’re on the market for a shorter amount of time. 

In a 2020 report from the National Association of Realtors, 81 percent of buyers can visualize a space better when it is staged, virtually or otherwise (the living room was the most important room, with 46 percent of buyers interested in the living space). Staged properties sell 73 percent faster than non-staged photos of homes, which basically sit like an empty shell.

The idea wasn’t born yesterday, of course. Since 2010, luxury home stager Ilaria Baron has helped create the virtual staging industry with Barion Design. Agents started to use virtual staging over a decade ago to romance buyers into sales without breaking the bank. Avoiding home stagers, the digital version of staging is an inexpensive way to stage properties (especially for smaller properties that weren’t worthy of a physical staging).

“I started my real estate career physically staging luxury homes,” said Baron. “I moved into virtual home staging because no one was offering it at the time.”

But over the years, she explains, her service has evolved and become more and more sophisticated and photorealistic. “We combine years of luxury home staging expertise and high-end design with state-of-the-art rendering technology,” said Baron. “The result is a sophisticated visual marketing that appeals to the most demanding buyers.”

Today, it’s an entire industry. There’s Brownie Box, an Australian-based firm with agents across the globe that offer touch-ups to home photos. It was co-founded by real estate photographer Brad Filliponi, who knows how to capture homes in their best light. There’s also iStaging, an entire software program to cover up the flaws of a home.

There’s Virtual Stager, where a DIY software program where you get to click your way through staging your own home with flawless mid-century furniture, regal bookcases, and even pianos (it’s very SIMS-like). Cedar Architect offers 360 Virtual Visits that you can upload to YouTube.

And then there’s Toronto-based firm Lightbound 3D, which offers digital design staging within a day turnaround. Their advertising claims: “While the service is ideal for properties without furniture which provide a blank canvas for virtual dressing designs, virtual staging can be utilized for any home no matter how ‘lived-in’ it appears.”

These digital facelifts beg the question: At what point is it ethical to basically lie that a living space isn’t going to be as great as what it is? Especially after someone signs on the dotted line? Are virtual stagings deceptive, or just good business? Home stagers hate them, like Debra Gould who says that: “If you know that the home will be bought by a foreign buyer or investor, virtual staging might have a place. An investor just needs to see something that looks easy to rent and generate positive cash flow. They don’t have to fall in love with the home.”

“There are several companies offering virtual staging, but most of them are simply re-sellers of tech companies based overseas,” she says. “They take your pictures, send them overseas and there a tech person plugs your images into a 3D set. Will that sell your home? I doubt it.”

Clearly, hiring a professional to stage a luxury home can range from $30,000 to up to $200,000. While virtual staging may be cheaper, it is not always the best solution. “What can you possibly expect when you’re paying $30 to virtually stage a room?” asks Baron. “You get a tech person overseas who knows nothing about staging luxury real estate in the United States. When millions are at stake, that’s a really unwise choice.”

In fact, it can backfire. Virtual stagings that look like a joke end up repelling buyers and mark both the realtor and the seller as suspect. Low-end virtual stagings can look too much like a video game, like pillows that look extra pixelated. In fact, furniture is the key to realistic virtual staging. Anything too pixelated and you’ve gone too far. “While realistic virtual staging generates traffic and sells your home, cartoonish virtual furniture and staging will backfire, instead, as no buyer dreams of living in a fake-looking home,” said Baron.

To make it work, the home must have the correct design appeal to the right home buyers, says Baron. It must be specifically curated, in other words, to the market, the region, and the neighborhood. It may be best to go local with someone who knows the area and what homeowners there want.

“Virtual staging is a real estate marketing tool in which a property is staged realistically by computer, the goal is to help home buyers see a property’s potential,” said Baron. “The image may not be of the room as it is right now, but it does portray what it can be.”

Clearly, once we reach herd immunity thanks to the vaccination, physical home stagings could see a rise in real life stagings once again. After all, real furniture and accessories can create an emotional wow factor when a buyer walks into a property that has been lovingly furnished by a professional home stager. “You need somebody who knows what they’re doing to appeal to the right home buyers,” said Baron.

Indeed, it is about creating an emotional connection—something graphic designers do all the time when working at ad firms. “Virtual staging, like physical home staging, is aimed at enticing home buyers and helping them connect emotionally with a property, it may be virtual, but it’s still staging,” said Baron. “The same rules that make traditional home staging effective also apply to virtual staging.”

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