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For years agents that care about great looking pictures have been using images that are “digitally enhanced” on the MLS. For most, it ranges from straightening, brightening and color balancing to adding detail making pictures look crisp when they are reduced to an inch on the MLS.
As a real estate photographer I have turned down requests from some agents that crossed the line wanting me to fix carpeting, erase power lines or repair yellow patches on a lawn. I have kept up on the world real estate photography scene and am aware of the many lawsuits that come out due to misrepresentation. Like the one where a buyer came out from Florida to LA to see the house he purchased based on the professional photos. The real estate photographer had hidden some speed lights in the front landscaping to light up the home at sunset. It looked beautiful but the lighting was not actually part of the scene. Most photographers would say that is an acceptable use of lighting to brighten the front of the home. In reality, the buyer now wanted his big landscaping lighting package that did not exist… and held the listing realtor responsible for the misrepresentation.
When I started photography I came onto the real estate scene with the notion that if it conveys, don’t touch it. If it does not, it is fair game. This includes things that many contracts require transfer such as window coverings and lighting fixtures. So, if a couch has a tear in it, is it ethical to repair it in post production? Absolutely! How about removing dog poop from the back yard lawn? Most people do not expect that to convey with the home so it is fine.
So let’s apply this same standard to virtual staging then. It is fine to add chairs, tables, plants and pictures to a photo of a vacant listing. However, there are several virtual staging sites that take the next step adding curtains, changing wall and carpet colors and materials, and add landscaping to the yard. In the right context this is great software. For a new model home showing upsell potential. Once a home has closed the buyer may love to see photos of what their house could look like with flooring and color conversion; but not during the sale to get them out to see the listing. Simply put, MLS’s around the country may start rejecting altered photos if buyers start complaining about misrepresentation. This will have a major impact as banning altered photos could make it impossible for you to even straighten or brighten a photo. So that means… even crappier MLS photos than the ones that are already being used to market homes?!!
As a realtor who has professionally photographed over 600 homes and is now working in the virtual staging industry, I am thinking alot about boundaries and keeping this growing industry healthy since most MLS’s treat how agents list their pictures from a regulatory point of view. There are 3 or 4 internet virtual staging companies that claim they will not change defects. I recommend, for agents selling houses, ask before your do business with an online virtual staging company so that you hire a company that is looking to protect your industry in the long run.