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Virtual staging draws attention of home buyers

This property at 19 Heather Lane in North Falmouth is under contract.

This property at 19 Heather Lane in North Falmouth is under contract. Above, a living room in the home after it has been virtually staged.

Empty properties just don’t move.

Take real estate broker associate Cynthia Eisen ’s listing in North Falmouth . The (vacant) four-bedroom, cedar-shingle home is light and airy with a cathedral ceiling, hardwood floors, and new heating and electrical systems. There was little interest when she put it on the market in June 2013 , and when buyers did come through, they were thrown by the open floor plan, unsure how they could arrange the furniture.

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Eisen and her partner, Sally Duffy , who work for Kinlin Grover Real Living in Falmouth , looked into staging the space using rented furniture, but the cost was prohibitive in this case. Frustrated, Eisen thought, there must be some way, in this day and age, to stage it on the computer. A quick search on “virtual staging” proved her right. The home is now under contract, less than three months after posting the virtually staged photographs and dropping the price a little bit.

To virtually stage a property is to populate its rooms with lifelike digital renderings of furniture and accessories. There are many companies that offer the service, which is actually quite straightforward. You (or your broker) upload high-quality photographs of empty rooms to the virtual staging company’s website, and about three or four days later, photographs of well-appointed rooms arrive in your in box. The cost can run under $100 per room, or about $325 to “transform” five . That’s thousands less than traditional staging.

According to a 2012 study by the National Association of Realtors , nine out of 10 recent buyers used the Internet to search for a home. Furthermore, tech savvy millennials (also known as Generation Y), who make up 31 percent of home buyers, are entering the peak period in which people typically buy a first home. This means online photographs are more important than ever.

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As William Brokhof , sales team leader at The Boston Home Team in Jamaica Plain, put it: “It’s about understanding the behavior of the modern buyer, who’s searching hundreds of properties online. I have to grab their attention with a one-inch-by-one-inch thumbnail.”

Empty rooms don’t dazzle, nor do they speak to the masses. With only floors, walls, and windows, there’s no sense of scale, and when viewing a property online, it can even be difficult to differentiate the dining room from a bedroom. Plus, many folks have trouble envisioning where they would place furniture, especially in large, multipurpose spaces.

‘It’s about understanding the behavior of the modern buyer, who’s searching hundreds of properties online. I have to grab their attention with a one-inch-by-one-inch thumbnail.’

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Such was the case for the third-floor master suite of a large Victorian on the water in Hull. Sharon Norman , an agent with William Raveis in Hingham, noticed that when potential buyers came through, they wrestled with how they would organize the room. Realizing it would cost a fortune to get furniture up to the third floor, Norman turned to virtual staging. Now, one photo shows a four-poster bed with night stands on either side, while another features the other side of the room, with a desk in front of the window and a glimpse of the bed in the background. The room looks move-in ready.

The homeowner, Deborah Maher , who now lives in Plymouth, is pleased. Although she was vigilant about staying true to her home’s Victorian roots, she realized that not everyone can afford, or would even want, to use period furniture. “I like that they mixed in some modern pieces; it shows that the house looks good with other styles too,” she said.

But are buyers disappointed when they show up to an empty house after seeing tricked-out photos online? Realtors say no. Some realtors display framed prints of the virtually staged rooms or create handouts for interested buyers. They may even stage one room a few different ways to help buyers visualize, for example, how a space could serve as a study, an exercise room, or a guest room, depending on one’s needs. The room’s measurements are not taken; the realtors request the amount and style of furniture.

As for disclosing that rooms have been virtually staged, some do, some don’t. Since they’re not actually changing anything, just popping in furniture, a flat-screen television, and maybe some art, most see disclosure as a nonissue. Some brokers post empty “before” shots alongside the decorated “afters” in a now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do slideshow.

The technology exists to remove walls, update appliances, and swap out linoleum for hardwood in the images, though not all companies partake. Some firms will remove items as a virtual de-cluttering service. Others draw the line at changing what cannot actually be altered, such as the view out a window. Most advocate for transparency, though ultimately, it’s up to the brokers.

Obeo , a large real estate solutions company based in Bountiful , Utah, offers online products that allow users (rather than a realtor or a behind-the-scenes stager) to change the finishes in a room or drag and drop furniture and accessories into it. Real estate agents can purchase such functionality for online listings, enabling buyers to interact with the properties and explore on their own what could be.

Enrique Darer , an agent with Prudential Unlimited Realty in Brookline, finds virtual staging to be a great sales tool.

“We are in the midst of a high-tech revolution,” Darer said. “Every facet of our life is changing. This is yet another example.”

Marni Elyse Katz is a frequent Globe contributor and blogs on design at StyleCarrot.com. Send comments to Address@globe.com.
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