While the old adage says that real estate is all about ‘location, location, location,’ marketing is all about being in front of the customer. That’s an important factor in marketing co-op and condo apartments that was essentially vaporized by the COVID pandemic. Units were available for sale, but the traditional method of showing a property to let a prospective buyer look around, ‘kick the tires,’ and get a real sense of the place was not possible for many months. On-site, in-person showings were simply verboten.
The Virtual Alternative
Online listings have contained photos, floorplans, and even videos for years. For many buyers, they’re the first contact they have with potential property purchases. Online portals connect the potential buyer to a broker, who arranges a physical encounter with the property for the interested party.
Virtual staging services take this interface between the real and the imagined one step further. Peter Schravemade, global director of sales, marketing, and revenue for BoxBrownie.com, defines virtual staging as “the art of digitally placing furniture into a vacant listing,” and says that “The service can be used for rentals or sales of apartments. The virtual listing has a 360-degree picture to which we add virtual furniture. It better demonstrates to the purchaser what the space actually does. How a room can be viewed for different uses, say as a living room versus a bedroom. Agents understand space immediately when they view a floor plan - that’s how they are trained and that’s their experience. Purchasers on the other hand may look at vacant spaces and not necessarily see the same thing. Virtual staging takes away that opaqueness. It also demonstrates how a space might be used, without needing an agent physically present to suggest to potential purchasers what the potential functions of a room might be.”
Virtual staging was used before the pandemic, explains Schravemade, but COVID accelerated the practice sharply. “From April to May 2020, we grew our virtual staging user base by 7,000 users each month - mostly people who never used it before,” he says. “They had used physical staging, but not virtual. And since physical staging was ruled out by many government entities during the pandemic, there could be no visiting apartments. But once you become used to it, virtual staging becomes a part of how you market property. We have actually discovered that some agents find virtual staging highly addictive. Those users who joined during that two-month period haven’t left. Some return to physical staging and use it in tandem with virtual.”
Another big perk of virtual staging for agents is that it can short-circuit what is often a very uncomfortable moment for sellers, agents, and even buyers. That’s the moment when the agent must explain to the seller that they need to strip all of their personal taste and aesthetic out of the living space in order to attract buyers. This ‘clean-up’ can extend to everything from clutter to out-of-style furniture, to walls in need of a new paint job.
As Schravemade explains, virtual staging is a win-win. Agents don’t have to feel uncomfortable telling sellers their space is potentially unattractive to buyers. Sellers can choose what level of actual staging to do in real time, and at the same time minimize the costs of real-time staging. Buyers can get past the current appearance of the actual space and see how it could look with their furniture, or the furniture of their dreams. “suggests Schravemade. “You can also produce an image as staged virtually for an apartment with any furniture you want in it,” says Schravemade. “Place the vacant and virtual staged images together, and a buyer can see it both ways.”
New York vs. New Jersey
While virtual staging is used in markets throughout the country, there is a real discrepancy in its use between New York and New Jersey brokerages.
BoxBrownie.com conducted a study that analyzed over 25,000 US Multiple Listing Services from both Zillow and Realtor.com surveying their use of virtual staging on the following elements: professional images, HDR images, floor plans, and virtual tours. The percentage of properties with professional photography in New York was 82% vs. 48% for New Jersey. The percentage of properties with HDR images in the New York market was 59%, and for New Jersey only 9%. The percentage of properties with a floor plan was 47% for New York vs. 5% for New Jersey. Lastly, the percentage of properties with a virtual tour were both very low, with just 3% New York for New York and 2% for New Jersey. Overall, though, when compared, New York outranked the Garden State in every category.
Real Reactions From Real Brokers
Ariela Heilman, a broker with Brown Harris Stevens in Manhattan says, “Yes, I use virtual staging - it’s very helpful. It’s more meaningful to buyers to view a virtual image than just raw dimensions when the question is: will my king size bed and both night tables fit in this room, and can I walk around the bed?”
Eugene Cordana, president of Brown Harris Stevens, New Jersey adds, “We’ve used them for probably 15 years or more. They are very helpful, cost efficient, and allow the buyer to see the possibilities of a space which might otherwise be overlooked because it’s dated or vacant.”
Joanna Mayfield Marks, also with BHS and based in Brooklyn says, “I use virtual staging all the time. Sometimes I only need one or two images for a listing. Virtual stagers can erase furnishings and recreate a room. Of course, when possible, we love to show the owner's decor or incorporate actual physical staging, but buyers are accustomed to seeing these images and find them inspiring and helpful to understanding a space and potential furniture layouts and ideas. When the bones are beautiful, it is really helpful to have quality computer generated imaging to boost the imagination!”