Woman working on computer replying to emails

Opting to stage a home virtually can save money, but you'll need to be sure the images don't hide major flaws in a room as well. (Getty Images)

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.

[Read: What’s Dragging Down the Value of Your Home?]

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.

[Read: 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Selling Your Home]

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%.

[Read: Why You Should (and Shouldn't) Sell Your Home in 2020]


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.”

10 Secrets to Selling Your Home Faster

Ensure a quick sale.

Upscale modern house for sale

(Getty Images)

Selling your home quickly not only allows you to move on with your life, it also means fewer days of keeping your home in pristine condition and leaving every time your agent brings prospective buyers for a tour. According to real estate information company Zillow, the best time to list a home for sale is on a Saturday between May 1 and 15; homes listed during those times sell six days faster and for 0.7% more than the average annual home price. But how fast your home actually sells, and at what price, depends on factors beyond timing. Here are 10 secrets to selling your home faster, no matter when you list it.

Updated on March 20, 2020: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Pick a selling strategy.

Pick a selling strategy.

African American neighbors greeting each other over fence

(Getty Images)

Before putting a for sale sign in your yard, it's important to pick the selling strategy that will work best for you. The for-sale-by-owner option may be best if you feel confident in your ability to market the home and negotiate. If your time is better spent on other details, a real estate agent could be best. If you need to sell the home quickly, you may want to inquire with an iBuyer, an entity that can make the deal close faster than the typical homebuyer. You should feel confident in the selling strategy you choose, and avoid switching from one to the other while your house is on the market. Buyers could be turned off by the constant changing of circumstances.

Invest in a professional photographer.

Invest in a professional photographer.

Close-up of a man photographing with a camera

(Getty Images)

According to NAR's 2019 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, 44% of recent buyers started their search online. Of those, 87% found photos very useful in their home search. If your listing photos don’t show off the features of your home, prospective buyers may reject it without even taking a tour or going to the open house. Hiring a professional photographer and posting at least 30 photos of your home, inside and out, is a good way to attract buyers. Photography is often free for home sellers, as shoots are often conducted at the expense of real estate brokers as part of marketing the property.

Clean everything.

Clean everything.

Not prepared to miss a spot!

(People Images/ Getty Images)

Nothing turns off buyers like a dirty house. Hire a company to deep clean if you can’t do it yourself. “When the (home) is on the market, no matter what time of day or night, it should be clean and neat,” says Ellen Cohen, a licensed associate real estate broker with real estate brokerage Compass in New York City.

Key places to clean while your home is on the market include:

  • Kitchen countertops.
  • Inside cabinets and appliances.
  • Floors and room corners where dust collects.
  • Shelves.
  • Bathroom counters, toilets, tubs and showers.
  • Inside closets.
  • Windows, inside and out.
  • Scuffed walls, baseboards and doors.
  • Basement and garage.

Depersonalize the home.

Depersonalize the home.

Modern living room

(Getty Images)

Remove all your family photos and memorabilia. You want buyers to see the house as a home for their family, not yours. Remove political and religious items, your children’s artwork (and everything else) from the refrigerator and anything that marks the house as your territory rather than neutral territory. The same goes for any collections such as figurines, sports memorabilia or kids' toys that can make a buyer think less about the house and more about you. Family photos can be replaced by neutral art or removed entirely – just be sure to remove any nails and repair nail holes where any hanging photos used to be.

Let the light in.

Let the light in.

Sunlight through a bedroom window.

(Getty Images)

People love light and bright, and the best way to show off your house is to let the sunshine in. Open all the curtains, blinds and shades, and turn lights on in any dark rooms. If the natural light situation is lacking in any room, strategically place lamps or light sources throughout to set the mood. And while your house is on the market, open all curtains and turn on lights every time you leave your house for work or errands in case you get word that a buyer would like to tour the space before you get home.

Be flexible with showings.

Be flexible with showings.

Woman realtor talking to a young family

(Getty Images)

Buyers like to see homes on their schedule, which often means evenings and weekends. Plus, they want to be able to tour a home soon after they find it online, especially in a hot market where they're competing with other buyers. If your home can be shown with little or no notice, more prospective buyers will see it. If you require 24 hours’ notice, they may choose to skip your home altogether. "That's one less person who gets to see the property," Cohen says. Be ready to leave quickly as well – if you're still cleaning up or hanging around outside when the buyer arrives, it can make for an awkward interaction.

Set the right price.

Set the right price.

House with for sale sign in yard and open wooden fence

(Getty Images)

No seller wants to leave money on the table, but the strategy of setting an unrealistically high price with the idea that you can come down later doesn’t work in real estate. Buyers and their agents have access to more information on comparable homes than ever, and they know what most homes are worth before viewing them. A home that’s overpriced in the beginning tends to stay on the market longer, even after the price is cut, because buyers think there must be something wrong with it. "Pricing correctly on the lower side tends to work much better," Cohen says.

Remove excess furniture and clutter.

Remove excess furniture and clutter.

Self storage units

(Getty Images)

Nothing makes a home seem smaller than too much big furniture. Rent a self-storage container or a storage unit and remove as much furniture as you can. It will immediately make your home seem calmer and larger. Remove knickknacks from all surfaces, pack them away and store the pieces upon which you displayed them. Take a minimalist approach to books, throw rugs and draperies, and clear off your kitchen and bathroom countertops, even removing appliances you normally use. If you can scale down the contents of your closets, that’s even better, because it makes the home's storage space look more ample.

Repaint in neutral colors.

Repaint in neutral colors.

Couple preparing to paint living room

(Getty Images)

A new coat of paint will do wonders to freshen up your home, both inside and out. This is the time to paint over your daughter’s purple bedroom, nix the quirky turquoise bathroom and cover up the red accent wall in your dining room. Busy wallpaper can also turn off potential buyers. Your goal is to create a neutral palette so buyers can envision incorporating their own personal touches in the home. "You just want people to see the space for what it is," Cohen says. Rather than a stark white, consider neutral shades of gray, taupe and cream on the walls.

Spruce up the front of your home.

Spruce up the front of your home.

With white pillars, steps in the entry way

(Getty Images)

You’ve heard it 100 times before, and it’s still true: Curb appeal matters. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. A new or freshly painted front door, new house numbers and a new mailbox can breathe life into your entryway. Fresh landscaping and flowers in beds or in pots also enhance your home’s first impression. Trim trees and bushes, tidy up flower beds, remove dead leaves from plants, clear out cobwebs from nooks near the entrance and pressure-wash walkways, patios and decks. Leave the outdoor lights on, too, because prospective buyers may drive by at night.

Here are 10 tips to sell your home faster:

Here are 10 tips to sell your home faster:

Aerial view of house roofs in suburban neighborhood

(Getty Images)

  • Pick a selling strategy.
  • Invest in a professional photographer.
  • Clean everything.
  • Depersonalize the home.
  • Let the light in.
  • Be flexible with showings.
  • Set the right price.
  • Remove excess furniture and clutter.
  • Repaint in neutral colors.
  • Spruce up the front of your home.

Read More

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, existing home sales, pending home sales, home prices

Dima Williams is a reporter and editor who covers the residential real estate industry with an emphasis on economics, policy as well as luxury. As a managing editor for a national real estate website and magazine, Williams extensively collaborated with top producing agents across the country to develop expert opinion pieces and advice articles. Connect with Williams on LinkedIn.

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