Is Virtual Staging Legal?

Updated January 17, 2023 08:30 AM

When we introduce people to virtual staging for the first time, everyone is absolutely amazed by the transformations but a small group of folks will oftentimes scratch their heads and ask, “Is virtual staging legal?”

Some folks have called virtual staging, “A bait and switch,” “Catfishing,” “False advertising,” and even, “Unethical.”

“Will homebuyers feel misled and get angry?” we've been asked. After all, something that results in unhappy customers is not a wise business choice, even if it is legal.

So it's time to address all of these concerns! Here's what we'll cover in this article:

Not sure what virtual staging is? Read our definitive guide to virtual staging.

Related: Virtual Staging vs. "Real"/Traditional Staging

Is Virtual Staging Honest and Ethical?

To answer this question completely, let's go through two different scenarios for you and your buyers.

Scenario 1: Virtual Staging Gone Bad

You have been looking for a new home, but nothing has been a good fit. You log onto the MLS or pull up a real estate listing app like Zillow and you stumble on a newly listed ranch style property that might actually have everything you're looking for!

You scroll through the beautiful photos and start getting excited about the potential of this home.

Could this be the one?!

legal virtual staging example

You book an appointment right away. Instead of a bright, updated living room with grey walls and modern furniture, you see this:

bad example of virtual staging

“WHAT?! Is this the same room?!”

There is nothing in the listing description or in the photos to suggest that the home would look different, and there isn't anything mentioned at the house.

If you found yourself in this scenario, you'd probably feel incredibly frustrated. In fact, you'd likely be so unhappy with the listing agent or seller that you wouldn't put in an offer - or at least not a good offer.

If virtual staging is executed in this way, it is absolutely a bait and switch. This is an example of virtual staging gone wrong.

In contrast, let's see how virtual staging should be used.

Scenario #2: Virtual Staging Done Right

In search of a new home, you stumble across an online listing of a newly listed condo that might actually have everything you're looking for!

You see that some of the photos of the condo show furnished spaces with a label on them that says “Virtually Staged” followed by photos of the same spaces that are empty without the notation, like this:

ethical virtual staging labeled

Intrigued, you schedule a showing. As soon as you walk in, you see a sign that shows a photo of the room with furniture. Oooh, so that's what “virtual staging” meant.

legal and ethical virtually staged home

Even though the physical room is empty, you love the way they have the space designed with two ottomans and a sectional. Your mind starts thinking of all the possibilities for this room... you could even replicate the photo!


Virtual Staging Insight from Peter Parker and Plato

In these two scenarios, the actual house didn't change at all. But what did change was the buyer's experience and desire for the property.

Instead of feeling frustrated, disappointed, and deceived, when you present virtual staging the right way, buyers feel excited and hopeful.

After all, pretty pictures aren't what sell houses. If that were true, we could just post stock photos as listing photos. What sells a house is the amount of demand and the buyers' perceptions of the home.

For more details about how and why virtual staging helps sell houses, read our guide.

Since virtual staging software has become so realistic and thus, powerful, we think Peter Parker and Plato said it best (even if they're an admittedly peculiar pair):

"With great power comes great responsibility."

"The measure of a man is what he does with power."

So, yes, virtual staging could be used for evil (as scenario #1 shows), but it can also be used for good. Realtors®, sellers, and builders are creating immense value for buyers - and, as a result for sellers and for themselves - by properly using virtually staged photos every single day.

4 Tips to Use Virtual Staging Honestly, Ethically, and Legally

You should be able to use virtual staging confidently, without fearing that you're somehow breaking a law or accidentally misleading anyone. Use the following methods to be completely confident in your honesty and in the way that buyers will respond to virtual staging - even if they've never seen it used before.

1. Mark Each Virtually Staged Photo

We recommend that virtually staged photos added to the MLS or real estate portals (or shared anywhere, for that matter) should be labeled with something that says "Virtually Staged." This is the most honest and transparent way to present your photos. It's why every virtually staged photo that Stuccco produces has an option to download the virtually staged photo with the “Stuccco Virtual Staging” mark in the bottom right corner, like this:

virtually staged listing photos

While most multiple listing services do allow agents to add property photos with marks on them, some do not. Prior to posting photos with marks to a listing, check with your MLS to ensure doing so would not be out of compliance with your MLS policies.

2. Display Staged AND Non-Staged Photos

When you add listing photos to the MLS or to a real estate portal, include the “before” photos immediately before or after its associated “After” (i.e. virtually staged photo). This is another way to prevent potential buyers from feeling deceived when they see the home in person.

This will be particularly effective if you learn exactly placing a virtual staging order on Stuccco is choosing exactly what you want to have staged or changed in each photo. There are nine different options:

  • Add furniture and decor
  • Remove items and add furniture and decor
  • Change interior wall, trim, and/or cabinet color
  • Change flooring
  • Change ceiling
  • Change exterior wall, trim, and/or door color
  • Change landscaping
  • Day to dusk
  • Enhance photo

Virtual staging typically includes adding furniture and decor to photos of empty spaces. If you chose to change the flooring, ceiling, wall color, and appliances, then you've taken your listing photos beyond the realm of staging, and a more accurate description would be a “virtual renovation.”

virtual renovation example
Showing a virtual renovation can be an extremely effective way to market a fixer-upper home to buyers. As mentioned, many people have trouble visualizing possible changes that could be made to a home. If you are marketing a property that has had its photos “virtually renovated,” we recommend excluding them from the property's online listing altogether.

When marketing photos that have been edited to this extent, we recommend displaying them in the home, as documented in scenario #2. This is the best way to attract the right buyers (i.e. buyers who are not dead set on a move-in-ready home) and still excite them about the home's potential upon arrival.

If you want to share photos of a property that have been virtually renovated, we recommend doing so on social media and/or email where you can first disclose that you have had the photos virtually renovated and then show the virtually renovated photos to an audience so they clearly understand the purpose and value of the edited photos.

4. Acknowledge Virtual Staging in the Listing Description

In addition to labeling each virtually staged image with a watermark, you should also mention it in the listing description. Here's a sample disclaimer you can add to your listing description:

“Some images included in the listing have been virtually staged to help showcase the intended use and true potential of spaces in the home.”

How Do Buyers Actually Respond to Virtual Staging?

Most real estate agents have this question or concern when they first stumble on the idea of virtual staging. These are the most commonly asked questions:

  1. Do buyers think it's dishonest or misleading… or just weird?
  2. Does it actually work?

As stated above, if you do not use virtual staging correctly - with complete honesty and transparency - then it's much more likely that buyers will feel misled. But when it's used correctly, virtual staging can be incredibly helpful and valuable to all parties. For instance, here are just a few of hundreds of virtual staging reviews, results and stories we've received from our happy virtual staging customers...

“Virtually staging the finished lower level is what sold the home! The buyer could envision the space as a guest room and that was exactly what they needed.”

“We had 34 showings scheduled and received 7 Offers (all over list price). I received feedback from several agents saying how “cool” the virtual staging was, and we went under contract in three days with an offer $20,000 over list price. AWESOME!”

I got an overwhelming response and rented our place in one day. That is all due to the great job of Stuccco's virtual staging. I'm an interior design snob, so I left notes for the designers and they nailed it.”

“On Thursday afternoon, I listed a virtually staged home. Showings started within an hour, and in three days we had over 50 groups come through. We got six offers - all over listing - and we're going under contract with one that's $19,350 over asking. I had five agents comment about how the virtual staging encouraged their clients to ask to see the house and my client adored the pictures.”

Related: 35 Virtual Staging Statistics

Show Buyers How Virtual Staging Can Benefit Them

Another way to improve the buyer's experience is to highlight the benefit of virtual staging for them.

Virtual staging is primarily designed to benefit real estate agents and their listing clients because it's an incredibly impactful tool to sell homes faster and for more money.

But with Stuccco, it can also benefit the buyers.

That's because Stuccco is the only virtual staging company that also offers online interior design.

If the buyers of a home LOVE the virtually staged design of a room, they can recreate it or have it adjusted by hiring a Stuccco online interior designer. All of the products used in Stuccco's virtually staged designs can be purchased and placed in the room.

That means that buyers have the opportunity to buy a home and have it designed by professional interior designers without even having to think about it. That could change the entire buying decision!

The Verdict: Is Virtual Staging Legal?

Virtual staging is not only legal, it's perfectly ethical.

In fact, it makes it even easier for buyers to see the home's true flaws. Physically staged furniture can cover stains and scratches - vacant homes have nothing to hide.

Being transparent is one of Stuccco's five core values. If we don't have trust - or help you build and maintain the trust you have with your clients - we don't have anything. This is a core value of how Stuccco's team members operate and how we expect our customers to act and serve their customers.

Virtual staging is a new tool that disrupts the traditional home staging industry. Some people will be skeptical and critical of virtual staging, while others who embrace it and use it well will benefit from its power.

Which one will you be? Try virtual staging today.

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