Online Real Estate Photographs - You Have Heard of Photoshop?

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When Israel invaded southern Lebanon a few years ago, this picture from Reuters ran worldwide

20060805BeirutPhotoshop

The problem was that it was heavily photoshopped by a Palestinian stringer trying to make it appear like the Israelis were setting the entire city on fire indiscriminately. This was original photo:

20060806BeirutPhotoshop09

It shows one fire and smoke from it drifting as it dissipated, presenting a far different picture of the situation. Instead of shelling everywhere, Israel was making precise strikes at locations where there actually were terrorists firing at their troops. Reuters got a lot of bad publicity out of this, and it cost them a fair amount of money because it wasn't what they were representing it to be. Reuters claims to be reporting the news as it really is without an agenda to grind, and items like this (of which there have been many) punch significant holes in their credibility with people who really pay attention to what's going on. (If you care, I got the photos from an article Little Green Footballs did on it)

So what's this got to do with real estate?

Unlike Reuters, listing agents don't have any sort of obligation to report the news as it is. Theoretically, agents and Realtors have a duty of fair and honest dealing with all parties, but this is more honored in the breach than in any other way, and they figure that if you can come out and see the actual property, doctored photos don't matter. It's their job to make the property look attractive. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake. People lie, cheat, steal, commit felonies and risk jail to sell real estate for a higher price - on that scale, the minor dishonesty of doctoring photos just doesn't register. Result: Lots of photoshopped pictures.

I do not understand why people pay attention to online photos. Actually, I do. I'll admit to being a bit slow on the uptake - it must have taken two months back when I first started being an agent for me to stop paying attention to them. People think they're saving the time and gas of driving to ugly properties. The truth is that there really isn't a lot of actual correlation between ugly photos and bad properties, or good photos and worthwhile properties. I usually don't look at photos at all unless clients want to talk about them - I look at several other factors that tell me whether there's a possibility of finding a bargain here.

Most buyers, however, won't listen until they've had a certain amount of bitter experience with cold hard reality, which is that somewhere between the camera lens and the online listing pictures, there have usually been alterations made. I tell my clients point blank that I never look at photos, but when people are starting to look it seems they just can't help but shop for property by the photographs. After all, this apparently saves the effort of driving to the property! Even when I ask people point blank whether they've heard of photoshopping, they won't connect it to this situation - until they've dragged themselves to a couple dozen properties where the photos did their subjects entirely too much justice, if you know what I mean.

Instead of pictures, I tend to look at things like price (especially as compared to nearby properties), showing instructions, whether the listing acts like it really wants to sell or is doing the peasantry the immense favor of offering it for for their perusal, whether the listing agent works within a very few miles or is from further away and a few other data points that most clients never do figure out the importance of. Are they telling us it's a "fee simple" title while admitting there are HOA fees? If they're trying to play buyers for saps, chances are that property is not going to be a bargain or even so much as worth looking at. That listing agent is hoping to get a sucker to come in and via Dual Agency make an offer based on an undebunked rose-colored picture of the property. Not only is this another reason buyers want to find a good buyer's agent before they start looking at actual property, but it's a sign that there are likely to be other games going on once you make an offer as well.

Sometimes pictures not only haven't been altered, but don't do their subject properties sufficient justice. It is just as silly to toss a property from consideration for a bad photo as it is to include it because of a photoshopped one. The only way to see what it really looks like is to go look at it with your own eyeballs - there are no acceptable substitutes. I've seen just as many real pictures taken with bad cameras from poor vantage points as I have photoshopped ones. As I've discussed, just because flinty eyed buyer's specialists like myself have learned to ignore online photos, or at least take them with an appropriate amount of salt, doesn't mean everyone has. Good photos can bring people out to the property to look.

I do advise against photoshopping in significant ways. If the photo doesn't match the reality, most people will figure it out at some point. It's fine to choose a good angle that shows the property to advantage, but if you change an entire room full of clutter to what George Orwell would have called unpersons, people who actually come look at the property, which is what you want pictures to cause them to do, are going to be turned off. If you simply showed things as they are, someone might have thought it was good enough. It really is a matter of managing expectations. Lure people with a promise of something super, and the merely satisfactory doesn't cut it, but if they're only expecting the satisfactory, they might be happy with it.

I don't trust any real estate photos I can't vouch for personally, which means that I have learned not to pay a whole lot of attention to them. Similarly, doctoring photos doesn't really help. If potential buyers are obsessing about the cool pictures of the bathroom, the kitchen, or the backyard pool, they're more likely than not going to be disappointed when they actually go to the property, and disappointed people don't make good offers, which is what the sellers (and their agents!) really want.

Caveat Emptor

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on February 13, 2020 7:00 AM.

What Are Your Options If You Can't Make Your Mortgage Loan Payment? was the previous entry in this blog.

"We'll Beat Any Quote" in Mortgage Loans is the next entry in this blog.

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