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Will Virtual Staging Become the New Norm? Virtual staging has taken off during the coronavirus, and it could change how developers and sellers do business

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, real estate developers and agents in New York City—which was on near-total lockdown to help stem the spread of COVID-19—were facing a huge challenge. In-person home showings were forbidden by the state, and though fewer people were looking for homes than in a normal spring (typically one of the busiest times of year for the industry), buyers were still interested in checking out pricey properties.

“During COVID, we’ve actually been really busy,” says Lauren Cahill, senior development director of AvalonBay Communities, the developer of the Park Loggia, a condo building on the Upper West Side. Though the city was on lockdown, “we continued to get contracts,” Cahill says, including for two penthouses. After those apartments sold (for $9.4 million and $9.2 million), AvalonBay virtually staged a third penthouse, which has helped the developer stay on top of buyer interest in the building.

AvalonBay’s experience with virtual staging is indicative of a potentially larger shift in both the real estate and home staging industries, as the coronavirus continues to impact the market. Social distancing and hygiene measures that have become the norm limit how many people can be inside a property at any given time, which makes the old ways of selling a home difficult. And the technology used for virtual staging has, in recent years, advanced to such a degree that the fake-looking images associated with the practice are a thing of the past.

“[Virtual staging now] is not about rendering a sofa into a picture,” says Ilaria Barion, the founder of Ilaria Barion Design, which has worked with clients on virtual staging for more than a decade. “You have to create a staging design that enhances the property and helps sell the property, which is based on creating an emotional connection with the buyers for that particular home.”

Leonard Steinberg, a top real estate agent at New York City–based brokerage Compass, also sees the benefits of virtual staging. “[It] is an incredibly effective marketing tool in showcasing what could be,” he says. “The difference between showcasing a vacant room and a staged room are two different worlds.” Compass has embraced the shift to digital: In April, it rolled out new tools—including a 3D staging feature, videos of listings, and virtual neighborhood tours—to help its agents show properties online.

But while the pandemic has made virtual staging more appealing in the short term, it could be more cost- and time-effective in the long term too. “Digitally, you can do anything you want—that is the big advantage,” says Barion. Unlike physical staging, which can take weeks to complete, Barion says turnaround for her company right now is up to five business days—and “when you’re ready to go on the market, time is money,” she says.

“It’s so much faster,” adds Cahill. “You can go back and forth, and everyone is [still] very focused on the details and making sure that they’re very happy with the end result, but it’s just much quicker.”

Barion also points to the “unlimited options” that sellers have at their disposal when going with virtual staging. “We can do anything, and not just the furniture,” she says. “We can paint the walls, we can refinish the floors, we can change the light fixtures, we can color the kitchen cabinets.” And for homes that are still occupied—which Barion says makes up about half of her business—virtual staging makes it easier to help buyers imagine what a home can be, rather than what it currently looks like.

Still, there can be downsides. “It’s like online dating,” says Steinberg. “[A] very heavily enhanced, Photoshopped image of a potential date that shows up and doesn’t look anything close to the image is disappointing, and there’s no worse marketing than disappointing people.”

And for some designers who do staging, working virtually will never replicate the experience of getting inside a property and letting the creative juices flow. “When I do design work, I’m always keeping in mind where furniture is going to be placed,” says Lauren White, owner and principal designer of Ellen W. Interior Concepts in Philadelphia. For her, the tactile experience can’t be duplicated through digital methods. “Your pictures are what draw the potential buyer in, and when they get to the property and none of the furniture is there, it’s a disappointment,” she adds.

At the Park Loggia, the virtual experience is just the beginning of the process—if a potential buyer expresses interest in an apartment based on what they’ve seen online, they’re then brought into the building by appointment. As Cahill puts it: “You can’t underestimate seeing something in person.”

Architectural Digest

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