A bathroom with AI-generated amenities – but no sink. Photo: Zoopla
Michael Anthony wasn’t sure straightaway, but it was the kid’s bunk bed that gave it away. The bed’s two overlapping ladders were a design decision that no human would make, but the sort of uncanny slip that has become the hallmark of AI generated images. “I got an inkling as I went through the pictures, and suddenly it just didn't seem right,” the 28-year-old software engineer tells VICE. Originally, he thought the weird pictures in the Rightmove listing were just a case of an over-eager estate agent on Photoshop. But after posting some of the images on the Spotted on Rightmove subreddit, people pointed out it was more than likely AI. “To be honest, I thought it was pretty impressive,” he says. “It's come a long way in the past year really, hasn't it?”
Michael had stumbled across a growing phenomenon: estate agents furnishing listing photos with AI. Agents are increasingly playing their own surreal version of The Sims, dressing up adverts with AI furniture to make depressing rental flats look like they’ve come out of the IKEA catalogue. Virtual staging, as the process of adding fake furniture to property pics is known, has been around for a while, but it was previously done using standard image editing software. With the growth of generative AI tools, agents no longer have to rely on expensive graphics people (or their own crap Photoshop skills) to furnish property adverts. Although no public data exists on this new phenomenon, there appears to be a growing number of adverts on property websites such as Rightmove and Zoopla using AI staging. Property industry insiders told VICE that falling costs thanks to AI are likely to lead to its use becoming more widespread. One of the UK’s biggest estate agents said it was already offering third party AI staging tools to its customers.
Although some agents have experimented with using popular AI image generators like Dall-e and Midjourney to “fix” property pictures, the results are usually pretty bizarre, like in this example, where the AI has envisioned bookcases in every corner of the living room and put a hob at perfect height for a toddler. Companies like Virtual Staging AI, ModelProp and Gepetto, which describes itself as like “Pinterest on steroids”, are now taking this technology and tailoring it specifically to virtual furnishing.
“Generating funny images online is cool, but what is actually a viable use case that adds value in real life?” says Michael Bonacina, CEO of Virtual Staging AI, which offers subscriptions to its image generation app from $12 (£9.50) per month to estate agents and landlords. Bonacina tells VICE that the US startup, which launched its service in March last year, now has 3,000 paid subscribers – including estate agents based in the UK – and generates half a million pictures per month. When you doomscroll through the uncanny valley of Rightmove rental listings, it can sometimes be hard to work out which photos contain real furniture, perhaps distorted by an estate agent’s wide-angle lens or the result of an overzealous edit, and which are virtually staged. It is possible to spot Virtual Staging AI’s work on some UK property listings, where agents have left the company’s name in the filename of edited images (like here, here and here). With a closer look, it is usually possible to confirm AI interior design the same way as other forms of generative AI imagery: by looking for unrealistic textures, inconsistent angles, stray pixels or garbled text. But the tech is getting better all the time. Does Virtual Staging AI make it clear when it is being used in listings? “Usually, it's up to the agent to disclose in descriptions,” Bonacina says. “Some of them also add a watermark on the picture and quite a few of them actually upload both pictures, so [people can see] the empty and the staged room.”
But not all agents make it clear that they are using AI. While the US passed the AI Disclosure Act last year, requiring any generative AI content to carry a disclaimer, the UK has no such legislation. Despite Virtual Staging AI not applying a watermark or disclaimer by default, Bonacina says not making AI use clear could have repercussions with prospective movers. Given the housing crisis, competition for rentals is high and there have been reports of some renters taking on properties without viewing them in person. Is AI staging really helping people make an informed decision about where they want to live?“The problem is if you only have the staged pictures, then interested renters or buyers come in with the expectation that there's gonna be furniture in there and then they are disappointed,” Bonacina says. “And so that's why agents usually make sure that people are aware of ‘hey, this is not actually what it looks like in reality right now.’”
The other obvious issue is the potential for AI to fit out rooms with furniture that is not to scale, giving the impression that somewhere is bigger than it actually is. Omar Beg is the managing director of McBryer Beg, a chartered surveyor and letting agency in London that has been using AI to virtually furnish some of its own listings for around a year (you can see an example of their AI handiwork here). He explains that AI furnished rooms can give a less-than-accurate representation of their real life potential: “Some agents can be a little bit flexible with the truth. You know, where a bed and a chair and a wardrobe fit into a space where you couldn’t swing a cat.”
AI staging services usually generate multiple renders of how a room might be furnished, and agents are likely to choose images that make rooms look their best, even if it’s not a realistic setup for people who actually have to live there. Omar gives the example of wardrobes, which he says rarely crop up in AI, but are a staple of pretty much every bedroom in the real world. “The reason why that is done is because open spaces are more attractive. They feel more attractive, they feel more welcoming, but the reality is that's not going to be the space that you're living in.” Surprisingly, Bonacina of Virtual Staging AI agrees. “That is still the case sometimes,” he acknowledges. “If you take a look at older pictures, you'll see that the AI made quite a few mistakes in the past, but it's getting better every week and we are confident to make it realistic in 99.9 percent of the cases over the coming months.”Renters union Acorn says the rise of AI use in the property industry, through virtual staging or otherwise, is a cause for concern. Beyond fake furniture, ChatGPT is increasingly being used to write property advert descriptions, algorithms are fleecing less well-off renters for expensive deposits, and a series of ongoing lawsuits in the US allege that landlords have used AI to manipulate and significantly inflate rent prices on millions of homes. “Ultimately, as long as decent and affordable homes are in short supply, unscrupulous landlords and letting agents are able to exploit people’s need for somewhere to call home,” said Nick Ballard, Acorn’s head organiser. “Whether that’s by encouraging renters to bid against each other over the advertised asking price, or the use of deceptive AI imagery.”