As a real estate writer, I read a lot of real estate listings and I visit a lot of homes. And as any home buyer in the midst of an active home search can tell you, there is sometimes a huge gap between image and product. Perhaps the handful of online photos – bursting with bright light and contrasting colors – represent a stylish, sunny living space. But in person, fab turns dull when you notice the stained wallpaper, the crumbling grout, the cracked plaster.
Most of the time, this is hardly surprising or problematic. A real estate ad is, after all, a marketing element at heart. And while advertisers aren’t allowed to outright lie about their products, no one expects them to flaunt them either. Additionally, many of us now give our own photos a splash of color or run them through an Instagram filter before posting them on social media.
But the lines between enhancing reality and folding it all together can quickly become blurrier than a comically negligent list photo. One condo I visited had a charming but purely decorative fireplace – which was a surprise, as photos online showed the flickering flames of a well-fueled fire burning in the fireplace.
This kind of deception crosses an important line, said Michelle Amazeen, associate professor and director of the Communication Research Center at Boston University. According to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, Amazeen said, “Something is misleading if it is a statement, omission or practice that could mislead reasonable consumers. – and whether this declaration or omission is of significant concern to the consumer.
“So you are looking for an apartment. You see in the marketing materials: “Oh look, there’s a fireplace, and it works; there are flames in it. Any reasonable consumer would assume this is a working home, ”Amazeen said. “If this is important to you, then it is a deception.”
More commonly (and more ethically), virtual flames are added to functional fireplaces to enhance functionality and accentuate the comfort of the home. It’s a different story, experts say, because it reflects a scene that exists in reality.
The same goes for changing a dark, overcast background to show a crystal blue sky outside the house or the pink rays of a distant sunset. While dedicated photographers will aim to photograph a home during its “golden hour” – when bathed in early morning or late afternoon light – digitally simulating the effect is sort of. a bread and butter technique in real estate marketing.
One condo I visited had a charming but purely decorative fireplace – which was a surprise, as photos online showed the flickering flames of a well-fueled fire burning in the fireplace.
In addition to writing property descriptions and designing brochures, real estate marketing consultant Dana Linn offers a range of Photoshop services tailored to real estate agents. For a small fee, Linn can straighten homes photographed at an angle or make lawns greener. But her most popular service, she said, is the “twilight treatment” – painting the sky in a palette of pretty pinks and purples. She also receives requests for digital removal of clutter or other items that might distract from the house itself, from toys and extension cords on a bedroom floor to garbage barrels and cars in the house. alley.
To date, Linn has refused only one request that appeared to be misleading. “An agent in California asked to brighten the boardwalk with faded bricks and darken the driveway with worn asphalt,” Linn said. She told the agent this could be viewed as a misrepresentation – that by visiting the property in person, a buyer might be disappointed with the actual condition of the driveway and walk.
“There are a lot of gray areas in this area,” said Bruce Aydt, lawyer, real estate instructor and former chair of the Professional Standards Committee of the National Association of Realtors. While noting that he cannot speak on behalf of NAR, Aydt said section 12 of the NAR Code of Ethics dictates that “real estate agents must present a” true picture “in advertising, marketing and sales. ‘other performances to the public’, and ‘are prohibited from’ otherwise deceptive consumers, including the use of deceptive images’. ”
“In my opinion, changing things like creating a lush green grass yard when it doesn’t exist, adding features to the property like a patio that doesn’t exist etc. are issues with section 12 “said Aydt. However, some virtual upgrades might be acceptable, he added, if the agent includes a disclosure – for example, “This is what this house might look like with a new patio.”
Likewise, virtual staging – the digital addition of furniture to an empty room – is generally acceptable as long as it’s disclosed, Aydt said. (And, Amazeen added, as long as the furniture is realistically proportioned. “If it looks like you can fit more into the room than you can in real life, then that’s misleading,” he said. she said.)
Some multiple listing services (MLS) don’t allow forged photos, Linn said, or require agents to check a box in their ad if a photo has been improved in some way. But others don’t expressly prohibit the practice – and officers don’t always seem to disclose the use of embellished images. “A few years ago, some agents would display a warning directly on the photo that the photo had been improved or corrected, but I haven’t seen that at all recently,” Linn said.
Adyt sees no problem tweaking a home’s backdrop, in most cases. “Does the property generally have these appearances?” If that’s the case and the image is just “not at the right time,” then I don’t think it’s tampering with the property itself, “Aydt said. “But if the property never appears in that situation, that setting, or that condition, I would have trouble portraying it that way.”
Lionel McPherson, associate professor of philosophy at Tufts University, also sees a distinction between adding a view that would normally be visible without a few unwanted rain clouds, versus a view that could never be seen on the property, as a nonexistent skyline or waterfront view. “I would call these significant misrepresentations,” McPherson said. “Or use a wide-angle lens to make rooms look a lot bigger than they are – even though people may have the square footage of the room listed, that would sound fishy to me.”
But if the photographer took pictures on an overcast day that obscured what is usually a beautiful sight, McPherson said, changing skies isn’t really a material deception. “I don’t see a problem, in this case let’s say ‘Photoshopping’ into the kind of sunset you might expect to see or the kind of waterfront view you might expect to see if it doesn’t. was not happening that day when people were there to take pictures. ”
Ultimately, McPherson said, most buyers are able to visit and thoroughly inspect a home before money changes hands, unlike many other consumer goods. “Most people will be able to verify, in effect, what the situation really is,” McPherson said. So even though the photos in the ad are misleading to potential buyers, he said, “unless it’s really glaring, I imagine they won’t get a lot of backlash.”
“It’s fishy, but there are a lot of fishy things,” McPherson added. “It’s more like wasting people time if there are things that, if represented more accurately, some potential buyers wouldn’t even care.”
Jon Gorey blogs about houses at HouseandHammer.com. Send feedback to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter @globehomes.