September 26, 2022

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Spot fake real estate photos before you book an in-person home tour

6 min read

An online photo of a Cannon Beach house for sale caught Phil Jones’ attention. The image wasn’t of a sweeping ocean view from the hilltop location or the towering brick-faced fireplace in the living room.

Jones, an attorney who often looks at online real estate listings, couldn’t take his eyes off the misshapen kitchen appliances.

The microwave and range looked wide enough to park a car in them, he joked. The camera also stretched out the dishwasher and made doorways appear larger than their standard size.

“Suddenly a small kitchen looks like the kitchen in the White House,” said Jones.

A Cannon Beach house for sale has misshapen kitchen appliances.Zillow

Almost all home shoppers first search online listings. How can you spot misleading photos before you book an in-person tour?

In real estate photos, it’s OK to brighten a cloudy sky, green up a dirt patch on the lawn and add a virtual flame to a working fireplace, but permanent eyesores can’t be erased and fake features can’t be added, says Gregory Pierce, owner of Ruum Media real estate photography service in Oregon and Washington state.

A photographer can also retouch a hole in a wall and digitally remove an old hot tub if those fixes will be done before the property goes on the market, otherwise it’s false advertising, Pierce added.

Jones, an estate planning attorney with the Portland firm of Duffy Kekel LLP, disapproves of some photo editing software alterations as well as images shot to make rooms look deceptively larger than in real life.

“I once toured a house in Gearhart on the coast where the neighbor’s rusty utility trailer had been turned into an expansive green lawn. Not an honest depiction,” Jones said.

He was surprised to see old online photos of his Manzanita house in which the living room seemed stretched, making square windows appeared to be rectangular.

Online real estate marketplaces like Zillow have an aspect ratio that favors the width of the image over the height. Rooms shot with a wide-angle lens to look larger can become distorted. The telltale sign: Even lamps and thermostats look lengthy.

Professional photographers know how to use a wide-angle lens to create a sense of depth, said Pierce. But hobby photographers or someone with a cellphone camera may shoot too close.

Objects close to the wide-angle lens look especially large and distant objects appear abnormally small and far away. “If you shoot overly wide, vertical lines will bend,” he said.

Fisheye lenses and other “bloating” techniques are also discouraged.

While Adobe Photoshop and other photo editing software make retouching easy, experts agree that built-in objects such as power lines, telephone poles and unsightly neighboring homes should not be removed from real estate photos.

An Australian real estate company was fined for a photograph created with a wide-angle lens and a low angle to obscure a looming water tower behind a house.

“If the back of the house is awful, we tend not to shoot it,” said Pierce, whose photography company specializes in luxury resorts, hotels and residential properties. “Good photographers direct a viewer to the pretty parts.”

Three-dimensional photo tours such as Matterport use specialized cameras that capture multiple angles to let you explore rooms as if you’re inside. Here, the images can’t be changed by Photoshop, Pierce said.

His advice: Look at the photos first, then study the Matterport images.

The National Association of Realtors concluded in its blog that it is ethical to digitally install furniture and artwork to virtually decorate a vacant space. The intent: to allow buyers to see the potential of the home.

Since the home is not being sold furnished, the enhanced photos can be used in flyers, ads and multiple listing service (MLS) pages, as well as on websites, according to the association’s blog.

One of the best ways to improve a photo is with light. Professional photographers know to avoid times when the house casts shadows onto the yard. They also take twilight photos, within a tight 20-minute timeframe, to show an illuminated house and landscaping against a darkening sky.

They determine when interior spaces benefit most from natural light (not too dim or too bright). They also draw away curtains and turn on all the light fixtures, and they watch that an external flash doesn’t reflect off mirrors or windows.

A camera’s high dynamic range (HDR) setting can capture greater detail without additional lights.

For an overview image of a room, photographers stand in a doorway or corner and include three walls to achieve a sense of depth. They hold the camera at chest level and shoot straight after they have stabilized the camera to prevent blurry images.

“A seller needs to make sure their real estate agent has a great working relationship with a great photographer,” said Pierce. “This will help you improve the perceived value of what is probably your most expensive asset. You can lose tens of thousands of dollars using bad photos.”

Real estate photos by Ruum Media

This real estate photo of a kitchen was taken by a Ruum Media professional photographer.Ruum Media

Photographers won’t have to contort themselves to point their camera away from an eyesore if the seller prepares the property to look its best.

Pierce points to pill bottles on a bathroom counter in one photo. “A huge no no,” he said. Also off-putting are filled trash cans, mountains of toys, messy beds and open toilet lids.

Long before the photographer arrives, screen each space, inside and outside, of your home as if you’re a first-time visitor. Would you want to move in here?

Pierce offers this practical advice to prepare a home to truthfully look its best.

  • De-clutter to maximize the appearance of spaciousness. Leave only larger décor items like vases and bowls.
  • Depersonalizing rooms by removing family photos and memorabilia helps buyers see themselves in their new home.
  • Windows and mirrors photograph best when clean and streak-free.
  • Lights will be turned on. Replace dead bulbs, even in ceiling fans.
  • Floor mats and door mats should be removed.
  • Put away remote controls, portable phones and other small, distracting items.
  • Home office papers, files, bills, notes, magazines and memorabilia need to be stored. Organize what you can’t store, but remove as much as you can.
  • Declutter all surfaces. Stow cords out of sight where possible.
  • Beds should be freshly made. Clear nightstands and dressers of small items.
  • Bathroom towels should be color coordinated, freshly cleaned, neatly folded and draped on a towel bar. Shower doors, sinks and countertops should be squeaky clean. Shampoo, soap, razors, brushes and all other toiletries should be hidden. “And hide the bathroom scale,” Pierce added.

Outside, remove parked cars from the driveway and the front of house. Store garbage and recycling containers in the garage or out of sight.

The lawn should be recently mowed. Sweep walks and store garden hoses.

Remove covers from hot tubs and in-ground swimming pools. Store pool tools.

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

More on the Portland and Oregon real estate market:

• Former Timbers’ star Diego Valeri puts NW Portland home with private soccer field up for sale at $1,199,000

• Oregon compounds with multiple dwellings for sale: Barns, ponds and a place for every family member

• Portland estate with ‘Brady Bunch’ split-level house and heart-shaped vineyard gets offer in 10 days

• Furnished Pearl District penthouse for sale at $5,695,000: Everything goes to the new owner, except the art

• Storied Portland Heights mansion on a triple lot is for sale at $3,250,000

• Portland area’s housing market frustrated buyers with skyrocketing prices, few options in 2021

• Most popular Oregon homes for sale in 2021: Oddball to oceanfront, teardowns to over-the-top mansions were most-viewed real estate listings this year

• Analysis finds property owners in Portland’s most diverse, gentrifying areas hardest hit by code violation fines

• First-time millennial home shoppers face cash-rich baby boomers: ‘Hang in there’

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