Wow! The house is outstanding for the asking price. Everything appears to be in good physical condition, you're impressed by upgrade extras such as crown molding in some rooms, plus granite counters and premium appliances in the kitchen.
You call your real estate agent and arrange a visit to the house. You both walk in and what you find is shocking. The walls have serious cracks, the carpets are stained and dirty. There are no crown moldings, no granite countertops, no premium kitchen appliances. In fact, the kitchen is swarming with flies because of old food left decomposing in the sink. Get me out of here!
Could this happen to you? Absolutely — thanks to a concept known as virtual staging. You're probably familiar with physical staging, where experts come in and de-clutter a house and replace or rearrange furnishings to make it more readily salable. That's fine.
Virtual staging, by contrast, requires no physical furnishings, just software and imagination. There's no limit to the types of digital makeovers that are possible. You don't like the wallpaper? No problem. Get rid of it with a click. Want that sagging ceiling in the bedroom to disappear? Prefer high-end ceramic floor tiles in the master bath instead of the linoleum that's actually there? Landscaping that looks more lush? Click, click, click — you've got it all.
But here's the problem: At what point does virtual staging cross the line from spiffing up the appearance of a house to intentionally misrepresenting it, misleading potential buyers? That question has been percolating in the real estate brokerage industry.
Greg Nino, a realty agent in Houston, ran into the issue painfully. A client fell in love with a house listed by another local agent, who included 16 interior photos on her website. But when Nino and his client went to see the house, it was immediately clear that the 16 photos depicted rooms that had been digitally rearranged, repaired and enhanced.
"The house looks like hell," Nino said in a posting on the ActiveRain real estate network. "The carpet is dirty, the walls have dents, scrapes and broken mini-blinds." In addition, there was partially eaten and rotting watermelon in the kitchen.
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 thousands of online visitors and comments from realty agents around the country, many of whom deplored the use of high-tech wizardry to make online 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 misbehavior. Jay Bell, co-owner of a company in Atlanta that offers both traditional staging and virtual staging, says that digital coverups of flaws in properties, including 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 prohibits alterations of listing photographs in any way that differs from Bell's physical staging activities, which primarily involve changes to furnishings 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 that the interior photos have been virtually staged.
Although the National Association of Realtors has not issued specific guidance to its 1.2 million members on virtual staging, Bruce Aydt, past chairman of the group's professional standards committee and senior vice president and general counsel of the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Alliance in St. Louis, told me it's all about "truthfulness."
Putting aside the changes to furnishings, "is the representation of the property what it actually looks like?" Equally important, Aydt said, are there clear disclosures that photos have been manipulated digitally?
If not, he said, then it's likely that they violate Article 12 of the Realtors' code of ethics, which requires agents and brokers to "present a true picture in their advertising, marketing and other representations."
Bottom line: Although most online photos have not been digitally altered, be aware that some may be. It doesn't hurt to ask before you visit.
Ken Harney's email address is email@example.com.