Look sharp! Is virtual staging or traditional staging the best way to sell a home?

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Real Estate

The pros and cons of both, as well as expert advice on making the most of this service

Dante Bruzzese has the loft of this Beverly home virtually staged to show prospective buyers the variety of uses for the space: living room or game room.

By Robyn A. Friedman — Globe Correspondent

February 8, 2023 | 11:23 AM

There’s no question that staging adds value to a home for sale. According to the National Association of Realtors 2021 Profile of Home Staging, 82 percent of buyers’ agents said staging a home made it easier for a buyer to visualize the property as a future home. And a 2021 survey of 4,600 properties by the Real Estate Staging Association indicated that staged homes sold for an average of $40,000 over list price, and an average of nine days faster than the average days on the market.

But there are two ways to stage a house: the traditional way — in which the home’s appearance and desirability are improved by rearranging existing furniture or bringing in different pieces altogether, as well as cleaning, decluttering, and otherwise improving the aesthetics — and virtual staging, in which a vacant or poorly designed room is enhanced through the use of computer software.

Which is preferable?

Proponents of virtual staging say it has two advantages over traditional staging. The first is cost. Dante Bruzzese, a real estate broker with The Movement Group at Compass in Boston, who uses a combination of digital and actual staging for his listings, said physically staging a 500-square-foot room can cost a minimum of $1,500 to $2,000, while virtually staging that same room would typically run between $250 and $350. Virtually staging also can illustrate alternative uses of a space, to show a buyer how versatile the home is, and provide ideas for multiple ways that the space can be used.

For example, if a home has a vacant bedroom, Bruzzese may virtually stage it as a playroom, gym, or home office. “We know it’s a bedroom already,” he said. “Why not show it in a different light?”

Similarly, a finished basement can be virtually staged to transform it into a gym, home theater, or wine bar.

Bruzzese posts photos of the vacant room online, as well as digital renderings. Agents often print out those virtual mockups and place them on an easel in the home so buyers can envision the staged room, rather than just the empty one, when they walk in the door.

Last year, Bruzzese listed a six-bedroom home in Beverly for $739,000 and sold it less than two months later for $810,000. The home had a vacant loft on the second floor, and he had it virtually staged as a game room and living room. Other spaces in the home, such as the bedrooms and living room, were traditionally staged.

“Physically seeing the furniture there helps the consumer really understand the emotional aspect of the home,” he said. “As much as I believe that virtual staging is great, the true return on investment comes from physical staging.”

Indeed, industry professionals say that a major disadvantage of virtual staging is buyer disappointment or confusion. After all, they’ve seen the home online, fully decorated, but when they arrive in person, entire rooms — or the whole house — may be vacant.

“When buyers make a decision to buy a house, it’s not only from its online presence, but also from going to the house, making an emotional connection, and really feeling what life could be like there,” said Ines Cortes, founder of Envision Redesign in Woburn, a stager and interior designer. “That’s something you can only get with actual staging that transforms a space into a home.”

Cortes said virtual staging doesn’t always take scale into account, either. “It will show a living room with a sectional, two accent chairs, a coffee table, and bookshelves, but when you get to the property, you see the space actually only fits a smaller sofa and one accent chair. It leaves buyers disappointed.”

Still, virtual staging can be a valuable tool for a real estate agent, particularly if the marketing budget is limited. “It allows you to show a lifestyle that you might not otherwise be able to afford to bring into the home,” said Lorrie Card, owner of The Best Dressed House in Salem, a stager and designer. “You can use more upscale furniture or accessories than if you actually staged.”

In August, Card staged an 870-square-foot condominium in Salem located in a historical Georgian Colonial building that had been converted from commercial use. The two-bedroom unit had white oak flooring and a kitchen with Shaker cabinets and quartz countertops, but it was vacant and located on a busy street, two challenges Card was able to overcome through virtual staging. The result: The unit sold within days for more than the listing price.

A before-and-after merged photo of a vacant room staged to be a living room.Stager Lorrie Card wanted to show just how much furniture would fit into this 870-square-foot Salem condo. – BostonREP
Before-and-after photos of a vacant room virtually staged to be a bedroom.Card sought to distract from the street scene outside the windows by drawing attention away from them. – BostonREP

“It was a blank slate, and I wanted to create a living space to present a lifestyle and show people how they could use that space,” she said. Through virtual staging, she was able to evoke a feeling of comfort in potential buyers so that when they actually visited the space, they were able to envision what it would look like if they lived there.

Virtual staging needs to start with a clean, clutter-free room and professional, high-resolution photographs. Card also recommended using a wide-angle camera lens to capture the entire room.

Agents should disclose in their listings that some or all of the rooms may have been virtually staged, so buyers aren’t surprised when they show up to a vacant home. But, done correctly, virtual staging can help buyers imagine what their future home could look like.

Card summed it up this way: “It can be a superb marketing tool for the real estate agent.”

Robyn A. Friedman has been writing about real estate and the home market for more than two decades. Follow her @robynafriedman. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter @GlobeHomes.

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