Virtual Staging: A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Lies

Imagine looking at a picture of a beautiful house with an updated kitchen, new carpet, paint, floors, and best of all, at a very low price.  You jump into the car with your real estate agent by your side and you check it out.  When you arrive, the beautiful house in pristine condition you saw pictured on the MLS listing has been replaced by something quite different.  What you see is an ugly house with dingy walls, stained carpets, vandalized kitchen and not a shred of copper to be found in the place.  Believe it or not, it’s the same house pictured in the MLS, except that the house in the MLS has been “virtually staged.”

Virtual staging started off as a way to add furniture to a photograph of an empty house, but now it’s evolved into virtual repairs and remodeling to “simulate” what the house would look like if the remodeling was done.  The agent is basically lying to you by misrepresenting the house in it’s current condition.  While I’m okay with the type of virtual staging that adds digital furniture to a picture of an empty house, since the furnishings aren’t included in the purchase of the house anyway, I’m not okay with agents misrepresenting the current condition of the house.  I think this is a violation of proper disclosure and I think the practice should be stopped.

Do you think virtual staging has gone too far?  Join our forum for the discussion.


24 thoughts on “Virtual Staging: A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Lies

  1. Mimi:
    I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for commenting. It seems that some agents are taking the technology too far. While I’ve never added furniture, I did eliminate a shadow of a power line from a lush lawn once on a listing. However, a shadow isn’t a fixture nor is it something you’ll ever have to disclose on a seller’s disclosure form. While we crop images, pick the best angles and try to present the listing in the best possible light, we aren’t altering reality. Might as well put a picture of the Biltmore Estate in the MLS, with pictures of it’s 4 acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces to represent the 1200 sq ft listing you’re trying to sell. As long as you put a disclaimer such as “with a few modifications here’s how it could look” some agents think that it’s not misleading? Come on!!

  2. Just saw an apartment whose MLS pictures were from the original listing 4 years ago when it was new, not four years later after tenant and children totally Trashed the place, Tried to complain but nobody would listen

  3. Thanks for your comments and feedback about virtual staging and we are glad to see a lot of talk about the topic.
    My husband and I are realtors and traditional stagers in Atlanta, Georgia and we consider ourselves to be the pioneers of virtual staging. Our patent-pending virtual staging service is very realistic and life like and we do not alter any of the vacant photographs our cients email us. We stay true to the realtor code of ethics rules and advise our clients to always disclose that our services have been used in all marketing materials. We do not change paint colors or remove appliances or even add drapery for that matter. We simply add furnishings and decor only to empty rooms so that we create more recognizable rooms and attractively “staged” online photos where it is a fact that 90% of home buyers are looking for their next home.

    We created Virtual staging simply as a way to drive buyer traffic to the listing and provide agents in Atlanta and nationwide with a more economical marketing tool for those clients who cannot afford the costs of traditional staging. By all means we encourage all of our clients here in Atlanta to use our traditional staging services which is preferred but nationwide there are lots of agents who do not have access to stagers or they too are on tight marketing budgets these days and find that virtual staging really does work. Read all about us and view some of our newscasts on our home and press page and do check out our gallery to see how virtual staging is another amazing marketing tool to get vacant homes sold! Thanks for all the buzz! Sincerely, KRISZTINA BELL, Virtually Staging Properties, Inc, ATLANTA, GA

  4. Hootie:
    The best places to complain would be:
    (in order of severity)
    1. the agent
    2. the agent’s broker
    3. the local Realtor Association where the MLS is run
    4. state’s Real Estate Commission

    Usually the broker is sufficient if they’re not one in the same.

    Glad to hear it. What kind of feedback do you get from buyers when they find out it was virtually staged? What is their reaction? What kind of warnings, if any, do you print to let them know it was virtually staged and not to expect what’s pictured? Or do you feel it’s not necessary? With theft in vacant houses on the rise, I’d certainly prefer virtual items than real ones sitting there. Also, do you continue the illusion when they’re there, like by putting up pictures in the house for buyers to see how it could look?

  5. That’s why I don’t engage myself on online transactions especially when there is money involved in it. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t trust anymore on all the internet has to offer but rather, be wise and responsible in making such decisions.

  6. Sounds like a crazy waste of time for everyone. The waste of time to stage it in the first place. Waste of time for the agent and person visiting the place. I suppose if you saw enough staged property you would just get to the point of thinking everything looks worse then the photos.

    • Sam:
      Yes, it’s quite disheartening to show up at a property and not recognize it from the photos in MLS. If you over do the virtual staging, you’ll only disappoint buyers and get resentment from agents and their clients. Personally I’d avoid that agent’s listings if this happened. Why bother if you can’t trust what you see on MLS. There are too many homes without distorted photographs to bother with one like this. While I have touched up photos on my listings, it’s only been minor things like color balance on sun-saturated photos or removing a shadow of a powerline streaking across the green lawn. I don’t have a problem with adding virtual furniture, but I also think photos of the empty room should be included too. Since you’re not buying the furniture, I don’t think these things are misleading, but changing wall colors or hiding flaws in rooms is completely misleading.

  7. In the TV show Carter Can and any remodeling house shows they usually have this real house with all the unorganized set up and they do proposals on what the house would look like after remodeling. And they usually have a good product. The output is so good and the clients are pleased with what the outcome is.

    • You are correct. They do look good and real, but that’s the problem. Showing what the house could look like if…. is misleading because it’s not representative of what they’re selling. If I see a pretty house in MLS, it had better look just as pretty when I drag my clients there to see it. As an agent, I don’t want to waste my client’s time because the listing agent played “what-if” with virtual staging software. What’s worse is that i look like a complete idiot to my client. At what point does it become misleading or fraudulent? Why not impose a second story on the house and draw in a pool in the back yard. Why stop there? Why not give it a mountain view or lake view too?

      I believe virtual furniture, adding things not included with the house, and editing out shadows should be the limit of this technology. Beyond that should be considered misleading.

  8. Pictures are really deceiving at times. People who are buying properties should better take a look the place personally to avoid being mislead by pictures.

  9. Virtual staging should definitely be condoned especially if it’s way too far from what you see in the listings, dingy walls, stained floors and vandalized rooms. I agree with Marc, before you give your trust to a real estate agent, be sure that you personally visit the property you intend to purchase.

  10. I agree with you Sam. It’s completely a crazy waste of time for everybody especially for buyers who will eventually see what they are really buying.

  11. Susan:
    The purpose of virtual staging is to lure you into viewing the house. For that reason, it’s not a waste of time. However, once you get there and don’t see what was promised, you’ll probably be resentful. Resentful people don’t usually convert to buyers. The trick is to do just enough to wet the appetite without promising a lobster while delivering a crayfish.

  12. Hi Bill,

    What experiences do you have to make this assumption? You mentioned “you’ll PROBABLY be resentful” Right now this all sounds like speculation. Have you tried virtual staging? Have you talked directly with home buyers and gotten their opinion? I’ve worked with more virtually staged homes than most people and 90% of my experience has been positive.

    First, the objection that people will be disappointed is simply not reality. Think of it this way: Buyers get the best of both worlds, they get to see the home furnished and vacant. With virtual staging they are given a tool so that they can make a more informed decision. They can see where they would place a couch and how it would look etc.. If a buyer walked into an empty house you are doing them more of a disservice by not helping them understand how the room will actually be when they are living in it.

    I’ve seen many buyers come to a property that was virtually staged and I heard them talking to their significant other about something like: “oh yea, remember in the photo the couch was over here, that really made the room open to the rest of the house” etc.. In fact, many realtors have been printing the virtually staged photos and displaying them in the home. Again, best of both worlds.

    It’s all relative to how you frame it I suppose, I respect your opinion but I don’t think you have the experience with virtual staging to make some of these conclusions. In most cases, I’ve also seen that most people will post both the before and after photos on the MLS so everything is out in the open and buyers see vacant and staged right up front.

    I hope I helped shed some light on how it can be really useful and how from my experience, it has been a very positive tool for home buyers. If you ever want to give virtual staging a try for yourself and see it first hand drop us a line:


    • Bryan:
      I actually like virtual staging for furniture, decorations, removing shadows, etc. I prefer moving virtual furniture over real furniture. Virtual furniture is much lighter. However I do have a problem if it misrepresents the condition of the house. If virtual staging is used to enhance a house, that’s one thing, but if it’s used to conceal defects that’s quite another.

      I definitely see the value of digital furniture placement. However the power of virtual staging can be quite extreme, and as Peter Parker’s Uncle, Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

  13. Great point Bill. Thanks for clarifying. I think there are some really easy ways to be transparent about virtual staging and if someone goes out of their way to deceive, then they probably have some personal ethical issues that need to be fixed first.

    • Bryan:
      I really don’t understand why real estate agents use computer enhancements to make major home makeovers. If it’s really drastic, my first impression as a buyer is that I wasted my time, not wow those computer enhancements really make me want to buy this crappy house. One thing I thought about doing is taking a virtual staging picture, remove the home, leaving just the computer enhancements, printing it on a clear plastic sheet, and placing them in vantage points in an open house so that if you looked at the picture of the furniture placement, you’d see the real house through the picture. Wonder if it would work. I don’t think just having the enhanced photo of the room in the room is as memorable since it doesn’t have a gimmick that’s memorable.

      • I think changing out the spindles is one of the best updates a client can do for the money it is one of the first things you see when you enter the home and makes it look new and fresh, a very cost effective emotional pull for little money and it stays with the home. Valued added update for the buyer.

    • I know of a real estate company that really puts technology to good use! The agent’s car has a mount for a touch screen tablet laptop with satellite internet along with a printer and scanner mounted in the glove box. They even use GPS to display the agents location in the interactive map.

  14. Since I have been searching for a house it seems this is all I have seen. Pictures look good, everything looks good. Then i get there and it is not at all what I saw before. I always end up leaving disappointed. I realize that people want to sell their house, but do they really believe that people are going to buy a house off the internet and from pictures without ever looking at it?

    • You are so correct. That always baffles me too. Sure, you want your MLS listing to show off the house in the best way possible but you can’t over do it. You’ll never sell a house if the buyer’s first impression is resentment or disappointment regarding the concealment of an eyesore or potential problem when they visit your listing.

      One listing I saw in our local MLS appeared to be a great looking house but I noticed that the photos of the front of the house were tightly cropped below the roofline. There was a reason why, but I didn’t discover the reason until I drove by the house. Right behind the house was a huge city water tower less than 100 feet from the property line. Needless to say, I kept driving. If it were my listing, I probably would have cropped the water tower too for the main MLS picture, but I would have also included pictures of the water tower with other MLS pictures of the house.

      I had a similar listing situation on an investment property I was selling. It was located across the street from a school. I added a picture of the school in the MLS pictures and mentioned the school’s location in the picture’s description. By positioning the house this way, the buyer could see the pretty house but also see the view of the school from the front yard. They could decide at that point if the school presented a problem or not.

  15. I am researching a small neighborhood as a potential buyer. I am not a realtor.
    A realtor posted pictures of Property A on the realtor’s website. They were clearly if unobtrusively overprinted “Virtual Staging”. IMO that’s all well and good.
    The realtor’s website did not post any actual photos of the apartment as it is. That tells me that there are serious problems which must be hidden. Well and good, though not as helpful as it could be.
    BUT – whoever owns those virtual photos (i.e., the realtor) has placed them on listings on websites all over the internet WITHOUT any disclaimer etc. IMO that is dishonest.
    In a few years buyers will wise up to this trick like all the others over the years. But today was the first time I ever heard of “virtual staging”, and I feel like a victim of deception.
    Also, like counterfeit money, the bad drives the good out of circulation. I looked at over a dozen apartments on various websites and realtor’s sites, and as far as I know, I saw zero actual pictures of the actual thing that is for sale. But who can tell?
    The upshot: I could have seen what was for sale today, online, and made appointments to see apartments which I might really buy. Instead I am just as likely to contact FSBOs who can send me actual photos. Any appointments I make without seeing the place probably will be a waste of time.

    • Good point. Not sure of the legality, but I do know that one of the agents on the TV show Million Dollar Agent New York got fired for doing something like you described so it’s not generally an excepted practice. However, I think virtual staging is good if you’re using it to add furniture, throw rugs, etc because houses look better with furniture, and you’re not selling the furniture. I also thing it’s OK to edit photos to remove things like shadows, flash bright spots, etc. It’s not always easy to get the best photograph in a room, especially the bathroom when it’s full of mirrors. However I agree, anything that misrepresents the item you’re selling like digitized granite cabinets when the house has Formica cabinets is fraudulent. That’s why you should never buy before see the place.

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