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Monday Jan 22, 2018

Online photos can misrepresent vital aspects of a property

Picture this real estate scenario – like most shoppers searching for a home, you start on the web, checking listings and locations. You find a house that appears to be what you're after, and you tap into the photos for interior shots.

The house seems outstanding for the asking price. Everything appears to be in good physical condition, you're impressed by upgrade extras such as granite counters in the kitchen.

You call the estate agent and furniture to make it easier to sell. That's fine.

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? 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 bathroom instead of the lino that's actually there? Landscaping that looks more lush? 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, and misleading potential buyers? That question has been percolating in the property industry.

Greg Nino, an agent in Houston in the US, had a painful experience. A client fell in love with a house listed by another local agent, who included 16 interior photos on her website. When Nino and his client went to see the house, it was immediately clear the 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. "The carpet is dirty, the walls have dents, scrapes and broken mini- blinds." There was also a rotting watermelon in the kitchen.

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 thousands of online visitors and comments from realty agents around the US, many of whom deplored the use of hi- tech wizardry to make online 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."

Real estate staging professionals are also concerned by growing complaints about digital misbehaviour.

Jay Bell, co-owner of a company in Atlanta that offers both traditional staging and virtual staging, says digital cover-ups of flaws in properties, including changing wall colours, are ethically out of bounds.

"It's a slippery slope," he said in an interview. His VirtuallyStagingProperties.com site prohibits alterations of listing photographs in any way that differs from Bell's physical staging activities, which primarily involve changes to furnishings and decor.

"People ask for this stuff all the time, 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 that the interior photos were virtually staged.

Although the US's 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 Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Alliance in St Louis, says it's all about "truthfulness."

Putting aside changes to furnishings, "is the representation of the property what it actually looks like?" Equally important, Aydt says, are there clear disclosures that photos have been digitally manipulated?

If not, it's likely they violate the code of ethics, which requires agents and brokers to "present a true picture in their advertising, marketing and other representations".

Though most online photos have not been digitally altered, be aware that some may be.

Ask before you visit.

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