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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.