By now, most everyone knows how to “photoshop” a basic photo, using a wide variety of programs. In most cases, doing so is harmless and can even result in more stunning photos. In other cases, however, digitally manipulating photos can cause scandal and even ruin to some. A new trend is on the rise in real estate which can run from the harmless and helpful to the costly and potentially downright fraudulent.
Photos and videos have long been a basic staple in online real estate listings, including 360-degree tours. While ordinarily, these can be incredibly helpful to home buyers, many of these images are now being digitally manipulated. In one sense, digital manipulation can be no different than staging a home in the first place. A professional photographer might help make a somewhat less-than-spectacular pool appear to be a crown jewel in a backyard oasis. Photographing your house at the peak of spring when the trees are in full blossom is preferable to the dead of winter when the grass is brown and the trees look dead and lifeless, but isn’t inherently misleading.
A number of virtual staging services are on the rise, however, that could create a problem. Virtual staging services allow sellers or their agents to send in photos of an empty or nearly empty room and they create a digital rendering of essentially a designer room. One of the advantages to this is that virtual staging photos are relatively inexpensive and can be tailored specifically to the preferences of different buyers. A listing on Trulia might include very different pictures than a listing on RE/MAX, which caters to a very different demographic.
If buyers are only looking at photos to determine which listings they would like to view in person, then digitally altered photos are somewhat harmless. The buyers that can end up actually being defrauded by digitally altered photos, however, are those who might have to buy a home sight unseen. Investors and appraisers who also use online photos as their primary means of making valuations can also be harmed by photos that might be radically different from reality. This is particularly concerning in the case of appraisals. With federal regulators pushing to use software that makes use of online listings to create automated appraisals, doctored photos could present a legitimate threat to the general public.
Potential buyers should err on the side of caution and see a home in-person when possible. Thanks to technology, they could also video chat with someone local to “tour” the home live from a remote location. A picture is worth a thousand words, but seeing a home first-hand is always best.