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  • Lisa Jevens

Virtual staging gives listings a digital touch

With 9 out of 10 homebuyers using the Internet in their search, according to the National Association of Realtors, home shopping is like online dating.

Buyers flip through countless photos of available homes before deciding if one is worth meeting face to face. A photo gallery of empty rooms with white walls is the kiss of death.

"You have to catch their attention," said Ilaria Barion, a Chicago-based home staging professional. "The higher the traffic, the faster you will sell at a higher price. If it sits online it becomes a stale product."

After years of staging homes physically, Barion now creates realistic-looking dream interiors by staging homes digitally. Her business, Virtual Staging by Ilaria Barion, takes photos of empty rooms and adds furniture, accessories and color the way an interior designer would create a rendering. The eye-popping befores and afters take a homely home to va-va-voom.

"The goal of virtual staging is to help potential buyers envision how the property could be," Barion said.

Virtual staging caught on in New York several years ago and is slowly gaining traction here.

Low-cost alternative

Barion said real estate agents and clients like digital decorating because it is faster, more flexible and far less expensive than physical staging. Turnaround time can be as short as a day or two. Styles are easily changed. The price amounts to hundreds (Barion's pricing starts at $65 per room), rather than the thousands it can cost to fill an empty home with rented furniture for a multiple-month contract.

The No. 1 question Barion gets is "does it work?"

Gold Coast broker Linda Shaughnessy of the Baird & Warner real estate agency thinks digital furnishing does. She has used virtual staging on four properties.

"It clearly generates more showings than a vacant apartment, reducing market selling time," she said.

She noted it is excellent for luxury properties that would cost a fortune to fill with appropriate furniture and accessories. It also worked for a client who didn't want the wear and tear of moving furniture in and out of a new home.

"Virtual staging can put vacant properties on a competitive level with professionally decorated listings — sometimes even more competitive — as the virtual-staged rooms are staged for selling, not living, so there is less clutter and more neutral colors," Shaughnessy said.

Evelyn Fred, broker associate at Jameson Sotheby's International Realty, has used virtual staging to market three properties.

Fred said she was getting quotes of $1,500 to $3,500 per month to rent furniture for physical staging at one home, and her sellers weren't willing to shell out the money.

"Virtual staging is a lot less headache," Fred said. "It's quick, with more bang for the buck. It's a no-brainer for clients to invest the extra three or four hundred bucks." Fred said virtual staging works because "many buyers lack vision. They much prefer to see what can be done with a room."

What happens when a buyer walks into an empty home at the showing?

"In our company survey of 100 clients, all of them said seeing the virtual staging in the brochure helped during showings of new listings, and 77 percent said it helped with an old listing," Barion said.

Shaughnessy said she usually calls buyers' agents ahead of time to alert them, and she's never had a complaint. She also uses the phrase "virtually staged for design inspiration."

Fred said she has posted the empty photos and the virtually staged ones side-by-side to show the before and after. Not everyone is sold. The two largest home-staging associations eschew virtual staging.

"The term virtual staging is not staging," said Shell Brodnax, president and chief executive of the Real Estate Staging Association. "RESA views this as an artistic rendering of what a property could look like," she said. "Staging is actually staging a property physically."

Brodnax said digitally enhancing empty homes is unethical unless there is a disclaimer. "If not, it's a bait and switch. You're not representing the property as it is," she said.

Barb Schwarz, a well-known figure in home staging and founder of the International Association of Home Staging Professionals, believes sellers are better off hiring a certified stager. She cites industry statistics showing staged homes sell more quickly and for more money than vacant homes.

"The cost of staging is nothing compared with the average price reduction, which is usually 15 percent or more," Schwarz said.

Disclaimer policies

Midwest Real Estate Data, which provides the Multiple Listing Service for the Chicago area, allows virtually staged photos, as long as they are mentioned in the consumer remarks, said compliance department manager Sarah Burke.

Barion noted her company's photos are stamped in the corner indicating they are virtually staged. She has her own preferences, as well.

For example, she does not change the structure of a home, such as add a fireplace. Yet she and other virtual stagers might digitally repaint walls, install light fixtures or swap flooring — changes that would not be included in the selling price.

Agents point out that in the real world homes are often occupied when the marketing photos are taken. The family might later move out, but the photos remain. Buyers are not buying the furniture, so it is not considered misrepresentation.

Home stager Chris DeBoo of Simply-Staging in Naperville summed it up. "Homeowners know that in this market you have to do everything you can to make sure your house looks the absolute best. Staging alone will not sell your house; it must be priced right and marketed right."

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Homes section, July 2, 2012.

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