Virtual Staging: When Reality Is Too Real For Buyers

Virtual Staging adds furniture to empty rooms (Source VHT Studios)

Every show on HGTV ends with the glamor walk-through where the paint’s fresh and professional stagers have airlifted a lifestyle no one actually lives into place. Tears flow. Have you ever seen the revisit shows?  They don’t show them too often because how people actually live is far, far from photogenic. Crimson walls and gold brocade curtains that are never a part of any staging plan. Monstrously large and cheap sofas. Banged-up walls. Junk everywhere.  And if you’re the listing agent on one of these lived-in homes, dealing with sellers who think their dreck puts Architectural Digest to shame.

It makes you want to shout, “Calgon, take me away”.

Enter virtual staging, where computer jockeys elevate good pictures into great marketing tools. Last week I wrote about a Turtle Creek high-rise listing shot by Epic Foto Group that used drones with remarkable effect. This time, we’re talking about enhancements that can be electronically done to listing photos.

Virtual Redecorating (Source VHT Studios)

When I spoke with the Brian Balduf, CEO of Chicago-based VHT Studios, a nationwide real estate photography service, he described five distinct opportunities to enhance traditional listing pics.

  • Virtual Staging: Adding furniture to an empty house
  • Virtual Paint: Changing wall colors
  • Virtual Declutter: Removing the detritus of life
  • Virtual Redecorate: Erasing a room’s contents and restaging (perhaps changing the room’s purpose)
  • Virtual Twilight: Putting the sun where it doesn’t shine

Aside from the obviousness of people not living camera-ready lives, technology has moved beyond the Instamatic. First, as consumers, we’re exposed to ever-greater imagery of how we’re supposed to live (HGTV, Instagram, Facebook). We don’t just see glossy snaps when we tumble through a supermarket magazine rack looking for new paint ideas. Net-net we have unrealistic expectations driven by a barrage of curated, aspirational lifestyles.

This One Arts Plaza balcony looks like a place to stand … (Photos courtesy Full Package Media)

This has flooded over into home buying. Back in the day, Realtors put in a lot of miles searching and showing homes to prospective buyers. Today, the younger the buyer, the more apt they are to self-select homes they want to see. The internet is now indispensable in buying and selling a property. Curb appeal still matters, but it’s become click-appeal.  To get ‘em in the door, you have to get ‘em past the listing photos.

And yes, I know that NTREIS (Dallas’ Multiple Listing Service) doesn’t allow augmented pictures in listings. According to VHT, this banishment is far from nationally universal. Most MLS services allow augmented photography as long as it’s called out on the photo.

…this One Arts Plaza patio invites you to sit and enjoy the view with friends (Source: Full Package Media)

A local company offering these services is Full Package Media, founded by Thomas Crosson and Gretchen Mikulich, it began operations in 2016. What started as a hobby has become a growing operation serving many of Texas’ largest metro areas. When I spoke with Crosson he spoke of the personal touch a local firm can offer. They’re able to create personal relationships with on-the-ground knowledge.

Service-wise, they offer traditional photography (three tiers based on the property’s square footage) along with a host of services from drones, video, custom websites and one-click social media posts. To bring buyers really into a home, there are 3-D walkthroughs and 3-D floorplans (I’ll write about those soon). As with most things in life, there are add-ons for those wanting to customize a property’s marketing appeal – sky replacement, fresh grass, floorplans, and of course, virtual staging.

Empty One Arts Plaza bedroom (Source: Full Package Media)

On the virtual staging front, Crosson told me that they offer the five services listed above and price those jobs based on a client’s needs (starting at $50 per photo).

One Agent’s Story

I came across Full Package Media when I saw a 1717 Arts Plaza unit that had been virtually staged – adding furniture to an empty space.  I contacted listing agent Troy Olson from Century 21 Judge Fite to get the low-down.

One Parts Plaza Bedroom transformed into inviting space (Source: Full Package Media)

Olson told me he began using virtual staging services about two years ago and roughly 18 months ago switched exclusively to Full Package Media. He is usually able to schedule his favorite photographer and says that after the pics are done, it’s about an extra day to get any post-production work done on the pictures.

Specific to the One Arts Plaza listing, he told me that the virtual staging pics made all the difference netting four times the showings as the prior agent on the property. He said one “real” stager quoted him $5,000 per month with a three-month minimum. The virtual staging pictures cost him an extra $400 on top of the initial photography session.

I asked him if he saw virtual staging as a threat to the traditional staging world. “Of course” he said. Instead of a potential $15,000 in staging, he got the unit sold using virtual staging for a fraction.

He said it gets people in the door and admits to seeing smart agents mount the virtually staged photos on poster board and place them in the physical rooms for buyers to see when they view a property. “People are looking for ideas, potential,” said Olson. And as I’ve often said, people are inherently unimaginative.

One Arts Plaza living room cries out for humanity (Source Full Package Media)

We talked about listing price points and Olson said any property over $400,000 that would benefit gets the virtual treatment. He readily admits that rarely will every photograph need to be retouched, but you need enough to get buyers through the door and seeing themselves in a space. Listing photos have a story to tell. Virtual staging spices up listings by upping audience engagement as any good storyteller knows (and every Realtor should know).  I can’t tell you how many times I see bad basic storytelling – listing photos uploaded with no cadence, no rhythm – like a book with the pages mixed up.

Olson views virtual staging as one more differentiator in his selling technique that beings in buyers faster which in turn brings sellers.

Figure 8 ….this One Arts Plaza listing shows buyers how furniture fits (Source: Full Package Media)

VHT: A National Photography Service

As mentioned above, photography isn’t only about local operations. Chicago’s VHT Studios has been in business for 20 years and has grown into a leading national real estate photography operation. CEO Balduf told me they shot over 100,000 properties last year. He sees VHT as the same business model as the real estate agencies themselves. They centralize photo editing and augmentation coupled with a network of photographer “stringers” in local markets. They also acquire local photography operations to extend their network.

One reason they got so large is investment capital. Just before the Recession, private equity firms provided millions in funding to grow the operation. My reaction was that those venture capitalists lost a lot of money for a few years while the market crashed. It wasn’t until after 2013 that the private equity guys started breathing a little easier when real estate went from bust to boom nationwide. But those Recession years were likely good in that time moved forward and imagery became much more important.

Virtual Painting – Don’t have a white kitchen? Now you do. (Source VHT Studios)

In addition to individual project work, VHT really goes after the large brokerages in high-growth markets. For example, one of Chicago’s largest brokerages, Baird & Warner is a 164-year-old firm with over 2,000 agents. Every listing is shot by VHT. The same can be said of large brokerages in New York, South Florida and other key markets.

They classify their photographers into three categories (Silver, Gold, and Platinum) based on qualifications. They say only about five percent of interested photographers gain certification in their program.

When an agent signs up, they get a portal where they can schedule photo shoots and after-shoot services like virtual staging or virtual painting. Users select their photographer level and can even reschedule with specific photographers they’ve worked with in the past. Depending on the property’s needs, agents pick the level of photographer they require.

When it comes to virtual staging, VHT has furniture “packages” classified by a style that enable rooms to be staged for different lifestyles (modern, classic, etc.). Technicians work with the agent on furniture placement options. I was told one of the hardest things to get right are shadows. We innately know when the sun is streaming through a window and the shadow is wonky.

What’s It All Cost, Alfie?

Full Package Media’s pricing is based on square footage beginning at $110 for 36 pics of a sub-3,000 square foot home, $150 for 3,000 to 5,999 square feet and $185 for over 6,000 square feet. Adding in things like drone video, branded/unbranded websites, and social media posting and the square footage packages increase to $300, $350 and $400+. From there, are $25 upcharges for sky, grass and fire (in a fireplace). Virtual staging starts at $50 per pic.

In Dallas, VHT’s photography packages for 10 pics are priced at $119 for Silver, $209 for Gold, and $459 for Platinum. On top of that, there are per-photo charges: Twilight lighting for $39, changing paint colors for $59, virtual staging for $79, decluttering for $99 and room redecoration for $199 per pic.

Shop around

There are tons of photography operations in Dallas and nationwide who offer these services. It’s worth pouring over their portfolios to see which is the best for you and your budget. By doing some work up-front, you can start building a relationship that short-hands your needs with the best results.

Throughout all my conversations, all agree that imagery becomes more important by the day. Part of that is a factor of younger buyers being more comfortable with technology at the same time they’re more demanding of leading a staged life.

For those selling ugly duckling listings, virtual staging allows questionable interiors to be reimagined.  At the same time they show those easily-distracted (and unimaginative) the results of a simple pot of paint or changing a nursery into a home office.

What none of the companies I spoke with offered was virtual renovation services. I suspect in the future Realtors, in concert with contractors, will offer tools for those contemplating a full-scale renovation – new kitchen, baths, and eventually floorplan reconfiguration. I can hardly wait!

 

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

 

11 Comment

  • Great piece, Jon. I’m glad you mentioned “NTREIS (Dallas’ Multiple Listing Service) doesn’t allow augmented pictures in listings. According to VHT, this banishment is far from nationally universal. Most MLS services allow augmented photography as long as it’s called out on the photo.” Don’t get me started on this…NTREIS is WAY behind the times on this. Of course “real” stagers are happy that the no-augmenting policy is in place, but it needs to change. We all face competition from a variety of sources. As long as it’s “called out” in the photo that the room is virtually staged, and the room dimensions are taken into account when placing the virtual furniture (therefore not misrepresenting the size of a room), I see no issue with this. Builders are allowed to show a rendering of a home that hasn’t even been built — surrounded by a canopy of non-existent mature trees (which WOULD convey in the sale of the property, if they were really there), yet we’re not allowed to depict virtual furniture which would NOT convey with the sale of the property anyway. Such nonsense, and this policy is taking away a very important tool in the agent’s toolkit. There is still a great benefit to walking into a room that has been staged with ‘real’ furniture, but for the seller or broker who doesn’t have the budget to go the “real” route, virtual is a great alternative.

  • As someone helping my son look for his first home in Dallas, I am suspect when I see photos that have been enhanced. And, then to go see the home and realize it is nothing like what is represented adds insult to injury. I want to see the “real thing”.

    • mm

      Dallas’ MLS doesn’t allow augmented pictures (not saying it doesn’t happen). I specifically asked if people were irked by virtual pictures (when they saw reality) and was told “no”, so long as they’re noted as such. And I agree, as long as it’s upfront and not deceptive. Not seeing a home because the walls aren’t “neutral”, or there’s kitchen clutter, or the room is empty, etc. seems silly – but it happens all the time.

      • To Teresa’s point, which is totally fair: you never want misrepresentation. I’m just saying that when you look at a big empty space online, it can seem lifeless, and most people have a hard time visualizing where they would put things. The main point is to notate the photo is virtually staged. I am not a fan of “greening the grass”, for example, but virtual furniture, appropriately –and not misleadingly– scaled for the room, and depicted as such, should be a benefit. Many other major-metro MLS’s allow this… but not ours. Oh, wait, Jon: I “got started” again. 🙂

  • As a business offering traditional staging and virtual staging services, I love your article!! I feel there is a place for both traditional staging and virtual staging in the real estate business. I am sorry that as a whole, traditional stagers do not value the use of technology in the staging business, and are unwilling to adapt their services and thinking accordingly. “Curb appeal vs. click appeal” Love it!

  • Isn’t virtual staging a violation of the MLS rules that say you have to present a true and accurate picture of the listing?
    I was in a listing this week that looked completely different. Pictures drew in the buyer, but the reality did not match the online presence.

  • Might be better to put the virtual staging pictures inside the house…on a stand as a representation of what it could look like….not on the listing itself.
    Just as we have often left carpet, flooring, countertop and perhaps other design samples to show what it could look like with enhancements.

  • I understand that photos are most important because really they are the first showing of the house and it’s critical to get buyers in the door. However, it’s a huge let down when the house is not the same when buyers arrive. Buyers will notice flaws more quickly in a vacant home, and especially young buyers will be disappointed to find a house dated, cluttered, or granny-feeling. Millennials usually do not have the money or desire to “fix up” things, and they’ve grown up watching HGTV transformations. Their expectations are high. My thoughts are to stage in reality if you can afford to, and definitely don’t be deceptive.

  • mm

    The real issue here is most photography companies offering virtual staging are not doing a particularly good job. I’ve seen a lot of this and have yet to see a virtual staging that did not need help. Often the scale of furniture is wrong or an existing piece has been left in the photo that does not go with the furniture. It’s a real work in progress but I’m sure it will eventually be a staple in our industry. There is definitely a place for it. I’ve been encouraging fellow stagers to get to know someone that is actually good at this process and refer lower budget jobs to them. That said, I just spoke to NAR yesterday and they have chosen not to include virtual staging in their Profile of Home Staging. It’s controversial, and as Jon noted, not allowed in some areas on the MLS system. At this point NAR does not see it as a worthwhile area to research. I encouraged them to dig into this anyway as it’s now another two years before their next report comes out. In the end, nothing will replace actual staging. I’m in contact with hundreds of stagers across the country through closed social media networking groups where we share a great deal of information. I can tell you from our discussions we are hearing from Realtors that plenty of buyers have strong objections to virtual staging. It does nothing to help them understand the space when they are in it. People are, in general, spatially challenged when it comes to furniture placement. There are a couple of important things to remember. Staging a vacant home is always less than the first price reduction. As Barbara Corcoran says, “Home staging is no longer optional in this real estate market, it’s a MUST.   It’s what will make the difference in whether your home sells or not.”   And no she is not talking about virtual staging. The other point is most stagers work on occupied homes. There are far more homes for sale with folks living in them than there are vacant homes. This is where real staging talent comes into play as you have to not only make existing furnishings look great, you have to have the skills of a therapist and a diplomat!