Awhile back, a friend invited me to see the house she and her husband just bought. What I saw were tiny rooms, ugly carpet and a lot of wood that looked like it had been spray painted by a hyperactive 5-year-old.

She, on the other hand, saw the house as a masterpiece in the making.

Today, the house looks like her vision. Some of us, however, can’t see that kind of potential without some prompts.

It’s those prompts, combined with a budget, that lead some real-estate agents to virtual staging, according to Rob Larsen, owner of Rob Larsen Photography Inc. in Boulder.

Whereas some home sellers post pictures of properties with current or rented furnishings, those who use virtual staging rely on computer images to spice up a room.

“Virtual staging is a cost-effective way of making an empty house appeal to viewers who are looking online,” Larsen said. “It’s sometimes hard for some people to visualize how a space can be utilized.”

Real-estate brokers know that staging is a marketing tool that can increase the appeal of a property for sale. The most basic step in traditional staging is to de-clutter: Take pictures off the refrigerator and liquidate the piles of magazines in corners.

After that, adding a chair here or a couch there could be the add-ons that attract potential buyers to a showing.

Using computer graphics to create virtual furniture and home decor increases options in how a room can look as well as how much needs to be invested in creating that look.

“One client told me she paid $250 a month, and I’ve heard of it going as high as $500 or $600 a month,” Larsen said, describing traditional staging costs, which involve renting the furnishings.

Aside from his photo fee, Larsen’s fee for virtual staging is a flat charge of $180 to create three different images. He recommends choosing the living room, kitchen and master bedroom for the project, pointing out that the digitally altered images go beyond the furniture and include additions such as curtains, rugs and artwork.

Images come from collections of photos of the real additions, either from traditionally staged real estate or rooms that are staged in furniture stores.

“Agents start by telling me what the look and feel they want is — styles like country, Pottery Barn or rustic,” Larsen said. “I then shoot the empty rooms with consideration for the final image.”

His photos accommodate the angles, lighting and views that match up to the library of virtual furnishings he works with.

Larsen’s photo fees start from $150 to $350, depending on the listing price of a home.

“Most folks charge on the quantity of photos, but I’ve found that the best indicator of time it takes me to produce images is the listing price,” he said. “The listing price takes into account the amount of time I put into highlighting amenities and details that show off the essence of a property.

“A million-dollar house, for example, gets more marketing dollars by Realtors.”

Virtual staging is better suited for properties that are less expensive, he added. Smaller mountain homes tend to be well matched to the benefits.

“Mountain homes are less accessible. People have to want to make the trip to see them; to have a reason to see the rest of a property,” Larsen said, describing how he first got involved with virtual staging.

“I saw the service available somewhere, told a client about it, and she said she’d like to try it.”

The result was three showings a day.

“It’s challenging to get to remote properties in places like Nederland on a dirt road,” he added. “She felt the virtual staging was driving attraction to this place more than the empty shell of a home was.

“Agents don’t always want to make a large investment in properties that are less expensive and if they charge their clients for staging, those owners don’t always want to spend that kind of money either.”

Clearly, the upside of virtual staging is that it’s less expensive than renting furnishings. The downside, however, can be that potential home buyers sometimes are shocked when they see the real thing: Empty rooms.

“Personally, it seems disingenuous for someone to be upset by that. Most homes don’t include furniture anyway,” Larsen said.

One of his clients decided to decrease the surprise, however, by adding a post that the photos were virtual imaging.

Whereas Larsen describes virtual staging as a small percentage of his current work, he admits that he’s yet to do any marketing of the process.

Dennis Miller, co-founder of Virtual Staging Solutions in Austin, Texas, on the other hand, has created a business of the process that now has served more than 5,000 clients internationally.

Miller has combined his background in design with the technical background of his business partner, Bryan Bittner, to shape the company.

A lot of agents post the different virtual looks to show shoppers a variety of potentials, he added.

He deals with the concern about deceiving potential buyers by telling agents, “We just show an idea of what it could look like.”