Pictures worth a thousand headaches

Try to picture this real estate scenario — virtually. Like most shoppers searching for a home, you start on the web, checking out listings and locations. You find a house that appears to be what you’re after, and you tap into the photos section of the listing to see the interior shots.

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. 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 relatively new and increasingly controversial concept known as “virtual staging.” You’re probably familiar with physical staging, where experts come in and remove clutter and replace or rearrange furnishings to make a house more readily salable.

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? 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? That question has been bubbling for months in the real estate brokerage industry.

Greg Nino, a Texas realty agent with RE/MAX West Houston Professionals, 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 in late July. “The carpet is disgusting and the walls have dents, scrapes and broken mini-blinds.” Plus there was a rotting watermelon in the kitchen sink.

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 online visitors and comments from realty agents around the country, many of whom deplored the use of high-tech wizardry to make 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.”

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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, physical staging and virtual staging, says that digital cover-ups of flaws in properties, 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 site prohibits alterations of listing photographs in any way that differs from Bell’s physical staging activities, which primarily involve changes to furnishing 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 when interior photos have been virtually staged.

Though 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 Prudential Alliance brokerage in St. Louis, says it’s all about “truthfulness.”

Putting aside the changes to furnishings, “is the representation of the property [and] what it actually looks like” in reality? Equally important, Aydt said, are there clear disclosures that photos have been manipulated digitally?

If not, he said, it’s likely 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: Though 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 is a syndicated real estate columnist.