Not-so-real estate: Is it ethical to alter photos?
For an increasing number of homes on the market, the grass seems greener in the photo, and the utility lines have gone missing.
Airbrushed photos are becoming more common as prospective home buyers turn to the Web as the first point in their house hunts.
A few years ago, Jonathan J. Miller, a Manhattan real-estate appraiser, bought a house outside New York City. Shortly after the sale, he looked up the listing on the Web site of the seller's agent and noticed something unusual: The utility lines running over his house were nowhere to be seen in the listing photo. They had been airbrushed out of the picture.
Although he would have bought the house anyway, Miller says, he was annoyed by the falsified photo.
"We physically saw the property, and therefore the utility lines, before buying, but did they really need to modify the photo that much? It didn't really seem right, either legally or ethically."
Miller posed this question on his real-estate blog, Matrix, and it immediately became his most-read posting. Real-estate agents and graphic designers across the country debated the ethics of altering photos to show homes to their best advantage. Some saw no problem with it; others said it crossed a line. "I was really surprised by the debate," Miller says. "But it seems like what happened to me was one of the least-harmful examples."
Internet driving the trend
According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), 83% of homebuyers check home-listing photos on the Internet before they visit a house, and photo views outrank video tours by a 2-1 ratio.
"It is more and more critical to have a presence online, both to generate interest in the agent and present properties in the best light to interest buyers," says Chris McElroy, an agent with The Group, a real-estate firm in Fort Collins, Colo.
Only 45% of real-estate agents use the Web for their businesses, the NAR says, but that number will grow as the market increasingly favors buyers. And agents, under the gun to close a deal, will feel more pressure to make their properties look as ideal as possible.
Home photos for real-estate listings are taken by agents or professional photographers. Some agents rely solely on photographing the best angle. McElroy says his firm has its own staff photographer who takes multiple photos of every room and exterior from different angles, so that the agent can pick the ones that show a home in its best light. Other agents rely on technology for that: They upload photos into a software program such as Photoshop, where they can crop, edit and visually enhance the images. Sometimes an agent does it himself or herself; other times the agent asks a graphic designer to make changes.
How much is too much?
It's still a gray area about how much "Photoshopping" is too much. Ralph Holmen, an associate general counsel for the NAR, says the organization's code of ethics requires agents to provide a true picture, although some touching-up is allowed. So it's up to each agent to decide what the limitations are.
Many, such as Vince Malta, a real-estate agent in San Francisco and the past president of the California Association of Realtors, don't understand what the fuss is about.
"In my opinion, photos that take out visible utility lines are not trying to conceal material facts from prospective purchasers," Malta says. "It's just a form of marketing so that buyers can see the house."
Malta concedes he airbrushes out utility lines running in front of a house and cars parked in front. "The photo may not be accurate, but it does allow one to see all the features of a home. Otherwise, the power lines may block the view. I don't believe that's concealment, and it's much better than concealing pure defects. When they come to view the house, they're going to see the utility lines anyway."
'The Ethicist' weighs in
Some believe that showing anything other than the actual photo is just plain wrong. Randy Cohen, who wrote "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine, calls it unambiguously unethical and deliberately deceitful. "There's no such thing as an objective photo unless you take it from all angles. You might photograph the backyard from a particular angle to emphasize the view of the waterfall, and no one would quibble. But if you deliberately remove a bush to get that view, you're definitely crossing the line. Deliberately obscuring the fact that there's a lead-smelting plant across the street is not ethical.
"The question for sellers is 'What are your intentions?'" he asks. "Deceiving a Web-site viewer into thinking there are no power lines from that angle is the visual equivalent of lying because if you stand where the photographer did to get that shot, you will see something quite different.
"Sellers should set a slightly higher standard and give potential buyers a clear understanding of what the house is like. To do that, you should select a certain view of the room, yard or house and present that to the public. The more you deviate from that, the less ethical your conduct."
A little touch-up is OK for some
Nevertheless, more real-estate firms are touching up their photos. Bart Wilson, chief marketing officer of Voyager International, a firm that does photo and video graphics for real-estate firms, says his clients' retouch requests are increasing, even on higher-end properties.
Wilson tells the story of an agent with a 19th-century Santa Fe, N.M., house that he wanted to make look more modern in photos. Doing so meant erasing the power lines and some bushes, and "straightening up" the adobe wall in the backyard. The photo was put on the Web site. Soon after, a prospective buyer from New Jersey wired $2 million into an escrow account with the intention to buy. He flew to Santa Fe, rented a limo and drove to the house, photo printout in hand.
"When he walked into the backyard, he looked at the utility lines, then at the photo; looked at the adobe wall, then back at the photo," Wilson says. "The guy was British and typically very civilized, but he got pretty nasty right then in the backyard."
The millionaire filed a complaint, and the agent almost got his license revoked.
Wilson suggests that sellers and their agents not try to make the house look too pretty or too good.
"It's kosher to Photoshop out a garden hose mistakenly lying out on the front lawn or make a sunset look more colorful. It's another thing to remove trees and make the neighbor's house look four acres away instead of right next door."
Not all real-estate agents cross the line like the one in Santa Fe. Many agents, and the visual experts they use, have their own code of ethics for how and why they'll alter photos on listings.
Michael Brubaker, a project manager for the Gritikis Group in Savannah, Ga., says the notation, "This photo has been visually enhanced," accompanies each altered photo on the firm's Internet real-estate listings. Also, before a visual designer makes big changes, such as erasing graffiti on the street or removing bushes from a yard, the seller must promise to remove the eyesores in reality. "We take steps to document their actions because the ethical part for us is whether they do it or not," Brubaker says.
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Is it legal?
If home buyers feel duped by sellers and their agents, do they have legal recourse? State laws differ, but in most cases, the law pertains to verbal disclosure to give an accurate sense of the property. For example, if a seller is showing a house in summer or fall, he must legally disclose to buyers that it may experience flooding during heavy rain in the springtime.
It's another matter for a buyer to show injury, says Holmen, of the NAR.
"If the buyer wants to raise a legal claim, he must show material representation that the photo caused him to be injured," he says. "If he says he was duped by a bush airbrushed out of a backyard photo, what is there to do? You cut down the bush. After seeing a photo, the buyer will eventually see the house and notice the differences anyway."
John O'Brien, the chairman of the Illinois Real Estate Lawyer Association, agrees, saying that overuse of altered photos approaches only an ethical line right now, not a legal line.
"Advertising is (legally) held to be boasting and bragging, not to be taken as holy writ in many states," he says. "Consumers should have enough sense to know to visit the house and do their due diligence on the condition of the property. At least for now, power lines are not the thing that will cross the line into reason for a lawsuit."
By Vanessa Richardson, Bankrate.com