After three months on the market, the vacant Minneapolis condo not only hadn't sold, it wasn't even generating many showings. So agent David Abele of Lakes Sotheby's decided to hire a staging expert, who transformed the space by adding stylish furniture, a flat-screen TV, artwork and accent pieces.

When the condo sold -- less than a week later -- the stager didn't need a U-Haul to remove rented furnishings because they weren't real -- they were digital.

Staging homes to give them a style boost before putting them on the market became the norm during real estate's boom years. But now, after several years of declining home values, many owners are reluctant to pay for pricey new decorating or to rent furniture just to try to sell.

"People are now selling at a loss, and when you're in that situation, you think twice about investing money in staging," said Ilaria Barion, the Chicago-based staging expert who digitally decorated Abele's condo.

Enter virtual staging, the latest high-tech wrinkle in home selling for the new economy. It's an emerging niche business that's not widely known, at least not in Minnesota. But a growing number of agents are now sending photos of their properties to virtual stagers, who choose from their catalog of digital furnishings and accessories, then insert them into the photos that buyers see when browsing listings online.

Digital decor may not be real, but at a fraction of the cost of actual staging, it's good enough, say agents who have tried it.

"I always say that the first showing is now online," said Edina Realty agent Steve Smillie, who last year hired Virtually Staging Properties in Atlanta to stage a house in Afton. "If it doesn't look good online, you won't get a showing. I'd certainly consider using it again, especially for the price differential."

While actual staging of a whole house can cost $2,000 to $5,000, virtual staging generally costs less than $100 per photo, a little more to replace existing furniture, "paint" walls or "replace" flooring.

Barion used to be in the traditional staging business, enhancing upper-bracket properties in New York City, where she had an inventory of more than 900 pieces of furniture and charged $12,000 to $25,000 for her services, which included furniture rental for six months. Most listings didn't need that long.

"Properties would sell in a weekend," she said. "Then 2008 happened." The real estate market's crash spurred her to explore virtual staging. "I saw the future and jumped into it," she said, launching Virtual Staging by Ilaria Barion.

Barion's background is merchandising, and her objective, when digitally staging a home, is "to create an experience so compelling that people will pick up the phone, set up an appointment and walk through the property," she said. "It's a shopping experience, like any other -- only it's a much bigger purchase and you can't return it."

Plus, virtual stagers say they can create looks designed to make different types of buyers feel at home.

"A 700-foot condo is a different buyer audience than a 5,000-square-foot house," said Jay Bell, owner of Virtually Staging Properties. "If it's a first-time buyer, we won't fill it with fancy furniture." Smillie's listing in Afton was a large, "executive" home, so VSP gave it a traditional look.

Agents and stagers say that buyers don't complain about feeling duped when the actual home looks dramatically different from the one they saw online.

Today's buyers are savvy about staging and well aware that furniture may be brought in for a photo shoot and then removed.

"I don't think we had any negative reaction," said Smillie.

And virtual staging is no different than traditional staging, he said, in that both are artificial.

"When you see houses as much as we do, you can tell which ones are staged --the knickknacks on the coffee table, the oversized candlesticks. Sometimes it's distracting. The dining room table is completely set, and you think, 'This is ridiculous. Did we just interrupt dinner?'"

'You can do anything'

Today's technology makes it possible to transform every aspect of a home, from removing Grandma's dowdy wallpaper to turning a brown lawn a lush green. "With virtual staging you can do anything; that's the beauty of it," Barion said.

Yet some virtual stagers still take a conservative approach.

"We don't declutter, and any furniture stays in the picture -- we don't remove it," said Kiki Wanshura, regional sales manager for Obeo, a Utah company that added virtual staging services about two years ago.

"One of our policies is not to edit the underlying property," said Bell. "We don't change wall color, carpet or views out windows. We don't even add window treatments. We want to make sure people aren't surprised when they go look."

Many virtually staged properties also carry a disclaimer. "We tell agents to note 'virtually staged' so people know no one's trying to deceive them," said Wanshura.

Virtual staging isn't about subterfuge but about helping a buyer "understand" a room and its role, which is less apparent online than when walking through a house, she said.

"The average home buyer doesn't have the ability to look at a big empty room online and see its potential," she said.

That's why Kim Flanaghan, an agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet, hired Obeo to virtually stage the master bedroom of a house she had listed in Oakdale last year.

"The home sellers relocated and left some furniture, but not in the master bedroom," she said. "In upper-bracket homes, the master bedroom is a pretty important feature. If it looks cozy and warm or cold and empty, it sets the tone for the house itself."

Flanaghan didn't include the empty bedroom in the online gallery, but several prospective buyers asked about it, so she had the room staged virtually. The house didn't sell (it's now being rented), but Flanaghan said she'd use virtual staging again. "I would definitely recommend it to sellers."

Still, the new practice has its limits.

"I'm not against virtual staging, but it doesn't compare to on-site staging," said Kristina Mosloski, owner of KFM Staging in St. Paul. She offers a service that she calls "virtual staging," but rather than placing digital furniture in photos she offers online consultations to homeowners about what actual improvements they should make before putting their homes on the market. She'll digitally change wall color or flooring in photos but only to show the owner what she's recommending. "It gives them a plan of attack."

While she's willing to consult based on photos, on-site staging is more thorough, she said. "There's so much more you can observe when you're in the space." Such as odor. "Homeowners are accustomed to their own scents. You can't pick it up in a photo."

Also, a photo shows only one view of a space, she noted. There may be details that need attention outside the frame.

And the virtual staging she's seen can't compare to the real thing. "In my professional opinion, it doesn't do justice to the home. There's a slight cartoonish aspect."

But virtual staging is gaining market share. Bell's virtual staging business now exceeds his established traditional staging business, he said.

Traditional staging is "tried and true," Abele said. "Virtual staging is up and coming."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784