When Joe Bonk rehabs houses, he carefully watches the bottom line. So instead of spending a lot of money to set up his houses with furniture and accessories, he stages them virtually. Using computer-generated images, he presents a furnished home to online shoppers, when in reality, the home is vacant.

“When rehabbing a home, things can add up very quickly, and online, technology is getting better and better,” said Bonk, owner of Primo Roofing and Solar, based in Feasterville, which buys, sells, and rehabs houses. “When you’re looking at a photo online or on your phone, you’re getting almost the same outcome — the feeling of how the house is laid out and what furniture will fit where.”

It’s not about tricking a potential buyer: Realtors must state that the home is virtually staged. It’s about saving money and time and giving dimension to empty spaces.

“Some Philadelphia stagers charge between $2,000 and $5,000 for a 1,500- to 2,500-square-foot house for three to six months, whereas we charge $35 per edited photo,” said Jordan Cohen, CEO of Powelton Digital Media Group, a real estate marketing and digital content company in Queen Village. For example, in a typical 2,000-square-foot house, virtually staging just the living room, master bedroom and kitchen would cost $105. “That’s a tremendous cost savings.”

It’s very rare that every room is staged, Cohen said. One recent staging of a 7,500-square-foot home included five photos of the living room, master suite and kitchen. Those are included with pictures of the remaining rooms shown empty. Though his company just added the service in January, so far he’s virtually staged 15 or 20 houses.

“It’s a tool to sell the dream of the home — to show the potential buyer what the possibilities are with the space,” said Cohen, who works with real estate agents and home sellers. Most often, his clients suggest the look they want, perhaps contemporary or traditional, and he finds photos to fit that style. But some clients are more specific.

“You can choose any furniture you want as long as we can access the picture on the internet,” he said. “If you like a couch that’s on the West Elm website, we can pull the picture, edit it appropriately, and lay it into any virtually staged picture.”

While the National Association of Realtors, based in Chicago, doesn’t have statistics on the use of virtual staging, in general, staging houses is on the rise. “It helps homes sell faster and typically has a higher dollar value that’s offered for that home,” said Jessica Lautz, the group’s vice president of demographics and behavioral insights. “Especially during this environment, when many of us are at a stay-at-home situation, virtual staging takes advantage of using technology where we may have physically brought in furniture before.”

Kristen Foote, Realtor with Compass Real Estate in Philadelphia, discovered virtual staging about three years ago, when a client had already moved out but didn’t want to pay the cost of physical staging.

“Even with floor plans, it was really difficult to see in the pictures what furniture you could fit,” she recalled. “Sometimes pictures make things look smaller than they are and sometimes larger. We needed to give people a sense of dimension.”

Choosing whether to stage with actual furniture or go digitally often depends on the property itself. In certain older properties, it’s difficult to gauge the layout of an awkward room, Foote said. Through virtual staging, the options are limitless to find furniture and accessories to fit any space.

Though Foote has virtually staged only about five houses so far, she sees that number rising in the future. “There were only a handful of companies that did it," she said, “but now with technology improving, it’s becoming a lot more popular.”

Not everyone is a fan of virtual staging. “It could make a buyer wary,” Lautz said. “Even while staging with real furniture, there are buyers who are suspect. If the home is staged and beautiful, is the foundation in good shape and the roof in good shape, as well?”

Bonk, who sells his houses by owner, depends on the virtual staging company to choose the furniture and accessories. The only downside, he said, is that the furniture isn’t there when the client does a walk-through.

“But I think most people prepare by looking at the house before coming, so I think it still serves its purpose,” he said. “For the cost savings, it does its job in marketing in getting people actually onsite.”