Virtual Staging: Stay True by Disclosing

Is using virtual staging to market unfurnished homes or rooms ethically wrong?

June 1, 2010

Q: I’ve heard about using "virtual staging" to market unfurnished homes or rooms. There are a number of software tools that allow you upload a photograph of an empty room and then add computerized images of furnishings, fixtures, and even paint colors. But is this kind of marketing allowed under the Code of Ethics?

A: It all comes down to truth in advertising. Article 12 of the Code requires that REALTORS® "be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and . . . present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations."

Although virtual staging is a new development in the marketing arena, it has been technologically feasible to alter pictures for many years—and even before that it was possible to take a photo in a misleading way.

Consider a home that’s adjacent to a large, high-powered electric line tower clearly visible from almost any angle. Is there a difference between taking a photo of the home in such a way that the tower isn’t visible and removing it from the image using digital editing software? In my mind, either way you’d be presenting a false picture of the home.

I think about virtual staging in much the same way. It could be done in a way that’s misleading, so you have to be careful. Some may argue that virtual furniture is no different than showing photos of a home when it was actually furnished and is now vacant.

But what if the property is in a state of disrepair and virtual staging makes the home appear as if it’s been remodeled, rehabbed, repainted, and in move-in condition? In such a case, your images would clearly not be painting a true picture of the property.

The safest course when using any kind of visual alteration, including virtual staging, is to disclose in a clear and conspicuous way that the images have been altered or enhanced. That way viewers will understand that, when they physically arrive at and view the property, it will look different than what they see in the image.

Bruce Aydt

Attorney Bruce Aydt, ABR, CRB, SRS, is a national real estate educator, a Missouri real estate broker, and past chair of the National Association of REALTORS® Professional Standards Committee.