Digital makeovers can potentially cause real serious headaches for a realtor.
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In the growing practice of 'virtual staging,' photos of houses on real estate websites are drastically altered in some cases to make them appear much more attractive and appealing. But a few people feel duped when they see the real thing.
Try to imagine this real estate scenario - virtually. Like most shoppers searching for a new home, you begin on the internet, looking into listings and locations. You find a home that looks to be what you are searching for, and you tap into the photos section of the listing to see the interior shots.
The house is spectacular for the asking price. Everything seems to be in good physical condition, and you're impressed by upgrade extras such as crown molding in some rooms, plus granite counters and premium appliances in the kitchen.
You phone your realtor and arrange to schedule a visit. You both walk in and what you discover is shocking. The walls have many serious cracks, the carpets are stained and filthy. There are no crown moldings, no granite countertops, no premium kitchen appliances.
Could this happen to you? Absolutely - thanks to a relatively new and increasingly controversial concept known as "virtual staging." You're probably familiar with physical staging, in which experts go in and remove clutter and replace or rearrange furnishings to construct a home more readily salable.
Virtual staging, by contrast, requires no physical furnishings, just software and imagination. There's no boundary to the types of digital makeovers that are possible. Don't like the wallpaper? No problem. It's gone with a click. Desire that drooping ceiling in the bedroom to go away? Prefer high-end ceramic floor tiles in the master bath instead of the linoleum that's actually there? It's that easy!
But here's the problem: At what point does virtual staging cross the line from sprucing up the appearance of a home to deliberately manipulating it? That question has been bubbling for months in the real estate brokerage industry.
Greg Nino, a Texas realty agent with Re/Max West Houston Professionals, bumped into the issue painfully. A client fell in love with a house listed by another local agent who included sixteen interior photos on her website. But when Nino and his client went to see the home, it was immediately clear that the 16 photographs portrayed rooms that had been digitally rearranged, repaired and enhanced.
"The carpet is disgusting and the walls have dents, scrapes and broken mini-blinds," Nino said in a posting on the ActiveRain real estate network in late July. Plus there was a rotting watermelon in the kitchen sink.
In an interview, Nino said his client was outraged and blamed him for bringing her to such a blatantly misrepresented house. Nino's blog post attracted online visitors and comments from agents around the country, many of whom deplored the use of high-tech wizardry to make listings look much better than they really are.
"This is misleading the public," Nino said. "It's bad for the industry, and bad for consumers."
Real estate staging professionals also are concerned by growing complaints about digital fixes. Jay Bell, co-owner of a company in Atlanta that offers traditional, physical staging and virtual staging, says that digital cover-ups of defects in properties, changing wall colors and installing make-believe molding are all out of bounds ethically.
"It's a slippery slope," he said in an interview.
His VirtuallyStagingProperties.com site forbids modifications of listing photos in any way that differs from Bell's physical staging activities, which primarily involve changes to furnishing and decor.
"People ask for this stuff all the time," he said, "and we'd love the business."
But he says his company refuses to digitally repair or renovate rooms depicted in photos submitted. Bell's company also requires clients to inform shoppers and visitors online when interior photographs have been virtually staged.
While the National Assn. of Realtors hasn't published specific guidance on virtual staging to its 1.2 million members, Bruce Aydt, past chairman of the group's professional standards committee and senior vice president and general counsel of the Prudential Alliance brokerage in St. Louis, says it's all about "truthfulness."
Putting aside the changes to furnishings, "is the representation of the property what it actually looks like" in reality? Equally important, Aydt asked, are there clear disclosures that photos have been manipulated digitally?
If not, he said, they probably violate Article 12 of the Realtors' code of ethics, which demands agents and brokers to "present a true picture in their advertising, marketing and other representations."
Bottom line: Although most online photos haven't been digitally modified, be well aware that some may be. It does not hurt to ask before you visit.