In Real Estate Advertising, ‘A Picture is Not Always Worth 1000 Words’

Is a property photo always worth a 1000 words, to a ‘for sale by owner’, an agent, or anyone else for that matter?  Advertisers tend to forget that buyers need motivation to tour a property, that they should not be prejudging it based solely on the photo presentation or virtual tour. Photographs should pique a buyer’s curiosity, validate the opinion that has been formed from reading the text, then entice them to view the product.

One black and white exterior photo

As a real estate agent who launched his career in 1979, and now the publisher of a niche property, e-commerce  website, I am amazed at how the use of photos in advertising properties for sale has evolved. Of course thirty years ago we didn’t have the luxury of the Internet to advertise a vendor’s property. The usual practice was to periodically place a newspaper classified ad in an effort to generate phone calls, and to add our property listing to the office display ad that usually was published every Saturday in the local newspaper. The ad, as a rule, amounted to a few lines of copy highlighting the most important features, and included an exterior black and white photo of the property.

With the launching of websites targeting ‘for sale by owners’ in the late nineties and early 2000, private sellers were enticed with offers of multiple photos to showcase their properties. The FSBO market was quick to react. That selling feature was not lost on organized real estate; after all, real estate agents had to compete and were not to be outdone by FSBO sites. Debate was endless about how real estate boards could best display property listings – and who was to do that.

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Going overboard with multiple photos

Today, when we do a search query for properties listed for sale on the web, it’s not uncommon to have the opportunity to view 10 to 25 photos, on FSBO sites in particular. Over the last 5 or 6 years as an agent, I recall having several passionate discussions with vendors about the value of real estate photos for average priced properties used in either mls property data bases, or personal and company websites. My contention was that too many photos could cause prospects to eliminate listings as they might come to the wrong conclusion about the property. (I related how in the 80’s, buyers would respond to classified ads, usually a process they used to eliminate a property from their list, as opposed to confirming the property was a fit.) Moreover, an average condo of 800 sq. ft. or even a 2 story house up to 2000 sq. ft. often did not lend itself well to the presentation of professional-like photos.

From my perspective as an agent,the answer to the question is no, not necessarily, is a photo worth a 1000 words. There’s a variety of reasons for that. Many REALTOR association surveys have confirmed that consumers want to view listing photos, but indeed some find photos misleading, in the sense that they misrepresent the property, they are of poor quality, they have been manipulated, or that too few photos or the ‘wrong’ photos are used. An old adage in the real estate business is that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. Focusing on only the exterior photo often leads one to conclude, on the one hand the property lacks curb appeal, for example, and on the other that the property should be at the top of a tour list. But perhaps the house isn’t showing its ‘best side’, or conversely, does, but the photo doesn’t reflect the fact there’s a fixer upper one or two doors down, or that there’s multi-family housing across the street or a contaminated pond behind the house. You get the point. Another tendency is for agents and FSBOs alike to focus too much attention on photos, and less on well written, complete and accurate property copy.

Early in my career I showed and sold as much property utilizing one or two exterior black and white photos as I did  in ‘ought’ years when a dozen photos were displayed in the listing. The property sales ratio of agents to FSBOs today is about the same, if not higher, in some markets. We can all relate to how evolving technology has changed society, and in real estate influenced how agents conduct their business. Many parties to a real estate transaction over recent years seem to overlook the legitimate role of a buyer’s agent. Isn’t it one of the agent competently qualifying the prospect, learning about wants and needs, establishing rapport and trust and earning the buyer’s confidence? The result? “Go find us a property!” The photos could then be used for validation.

I have heard of buyers, consumed by the greed factor, purchasing property sight unseen during the boom years. Whether they were relying totally on listing photos, video, and data, remains to be seen; but I can tell you a lot of them will live to regret the decision. There is NO substitute for a thorough hands on tour and a bout of due diligence.