What Can A Real Estate Photographer Do If The Client Doesn’t Pay?

August 15th, 2016

3rdParyViolationA reader in New York asked the following:

What is the best way to make a formal complaint against a broker/agent that has tried to cheat me on the invoice. First time… so annoyed.

PFRE readers report that this kind of thing is a rather rare occurrence. Here are some actions you can take:

  1. Real estate offices are typically interested in establishing and maintaining a good reputation in their market so a good first step is to find out who the managing broker is in the office where your client hangs their license. Personally contact them and explain your problem. They will usually be able to solve the problem.
  2. Some real estate photographers will claim this is a reason to collect before photos are delivered. I would argue that this is an overreaction since this is a relatively rare problem.
  3. Taking this kind of problem to small claims court is another remedy. But to prevail in small claims court you will probably need a signed contract that clearly demonstrates the client did not meet the agreed to terms.

My guess is that most situations like this can be solved by talking to the client’s managing broker.

Update August 19: A follow up from the person that raised this question:

I had emailed the office manager who never responded. After seeing this post (inparticular the comment about letting the office manager know that MLS would be contacted to take the photos down)… that is what I did. She responded back immediately that she was sorry she did not contact me previously but she did take this seriously and would make sure I got paid. Now I received an email from the agent that she would be sending the money and I should not contact her again. Unbelievable! I did nothing wrong…just wanted to be paid. Anyway, I told the agent I had no intention of contacting her since I don’t do business with agents of her caliber. Anyway, lesson learned I take my money up front. Yesterday had a client and that is what I did and there were no issues with them.

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21 Responses to “What Can A Real Estate Photographer Do If The Client Doesn’t Pay?”

  • Every time I had a problem collecting I just talked to the manager. The offending agents paid within an hour. I figure if things got bad I could contact the MLS and have the photos removed – never tried that, but it might be an option.

  • My receivables changed drastically when I implemented (yet another) idea I leaned on this blog – to make it clear *up front* what you expect. What I expect from my clients is this; although I’m more than happy to deliver photos before they’ve been paid for, they must pay for them BEFORE publishing. It’s a nice polite policy that nobody could fault you for. And it cured my a/r drama over night.

    I recommend firing that client (aka you’re too busy the next time they call) and moving on with life. It feels rotten but that kind of pissed off-ness will bring your skill level down.

    Life’s too short!

  • You can always threaten copyright violation. The law allows up to 3 months to file with the US Copyright office from first publishing and it is $35. If they use the images without payment (or by doing a chargeback) then it is a clear violation. File and get statutory protection, which can include statutory fines of up to $150,000 if there is a wilful violation. Threatening this usually gets people to act.

    Then fire them when they pay.

  • Run a targeted FB ad in the agents area and say something like “Jo blow hired me to photograph his listing and then refused to pay. Do you want to hire an agent to sell your house with such low character?” You could probably just craft the ad and send it to the agent and let him know that it launches in 24 hours if you don’t have the money.

  • I’ve only had this happen once, I contacted the Broker in Charge and explained the situation and ask for her help. The broker told me that the agents are independent contractors and there was very little she could do other than asking the agent to pay the bill. I explained to the broker that I had begged for my money long enough and that if I hd not received payment within 72 hours I would contact MLS and demand the photos be taken down. That must have got the attention of the broker because the agent called with 20 minutes asking if she could bring my money to me at home or if I would prefer to have it mailed.

  • One additional action that has not been mentioned…deactivate the virtual tour until you are paid.

  • I always require that agents make a request to me by text or email. That way it’s in writing. US law does not require a signature. Also, if the agents broker isn’t successful, most US states have some kind of real estate commission or licensing body that accepts complaints. The threat of that will usually move an agent to action pretty quickly.

  • @Jaon

    I’m not sure this is the approach I would take (pretty harsh) but I can guarantee you would have immediate payment 🙂

  • About 3/4 of my agents and all new ones pay at the time of the shoot, Non payment doesn’t happen too often to me. But if an agent is two-three weeks behind, I just re-send the invoice saying that “Quick Books” reminds me that your invoice is still open, would you be kind enough to send payment. I feel it is a friendly message and it blames “Quick Books” for the reminder.

    Before Facebook was invented, One of my competitor photographers, who had issues getting paid, would remove the images on the virtual tour and replace them with a nasty note saying the tour was no longer available do to lack of payment, or the agent was a deadbeat (something like that). I, would never recommend doing anything like that, as there are agents who just completely forget about the invoice. A couple of years ago, I waited until the end of the month. since I didn’t hear back from the agent, I called the broker, who informed me that agent was recovering from a heart attack. I received a check and a very nice thank you note with a $25 gift certificate to a local restaurant. It always pays to be diplomatic when ever possible, but I agree that the broker of the agency is a great place to turn for help, if you cant get your agent to pay.

  • Honestly, if you’re having trouble collecting from an agent, go to their broker. In Texas you can search the TREC (Texas Real Estate Commission) for the agent and find out who their sponsoring broker is. Reach out to them with the documentation (emails showing delivered photos, attempted contacts, invoices, etc.) and ask that the broker withhold that amount on their next commission disbursement. In Texas, agents must complete a disbursement form that their brokers approve before it is sent to the title company. The broker is able to take care of commission splits and other costs, and most brokers that I’ve had to contact are more than willing to keep their company in good standing if you present all of the documentation.

  • I always ask for the money prior to delivery. Yes not getting paid rarely happens, but I also would rather be shooting than being a debt collector. Realtors are used to paying vendors on the spot, why change that?

  • Most of our existing clients have no trouble paying in advance or the day of the shoot. It’s just the way we do business and its the only way we bring on new clients. If we do have an issue with payment we go to the broker or head person at the firm once and only once. If it is not resolved in 3 days, we no longer do business with that agent. We are at a point in our business where we don’t really need to take on payment issues – either they pay or they don’t play. And, even when we were just starting out – we had a deposit 50%, pay 50% on delivery – which some of our more valued clients sill do.
    The value of a real estate sale in itself is not enough to spend the time on the issue -the value of losing a valuable agent who provides steady work is only worth pursuing if it is a one time occurrence. Since only 25% of our clients we can afford to be a little choosier about how we invoice and collect.

  • Not much to add here in regards to collecting an existing outstanding bill, other than contacting the local real estate board for help. I ran into a lot of problems with realtors not receiving invoices (email systems often file them as junk/spam) and having to follow up with them to ensure they paid. I decided to switch to a digital download directly from my website. When I complete a set of photos, I add it to my website as a digital download. Customer logs in, pays and downloads the photos.

  • I can sympathize. Only happened to me once and that was when the agent I shot for was recommended by one of my best clients. 2 shoots went fine but then on the 3rd, the agent lost the listing a short time after the tour was published and I had paid for domain name and tour. He never paid despite several polite reminders from me and from my great client who was embarrassed to have recommended him. But life goes on and you just have to accept that sometimes there will be a glitch and move on in a positive frame of mind so that you don’t let your frustrations spill over onto good clients without intending to. In the age of digital, expenses are so low that it is just usually your time that is burned. In the days of film and Polaroid, expenses could easily be half or more of the bill. So we can be happy we live in a digital age when it comes to being burned. But my lesson is to insist on payment up front with new clients until they have proven their honesty. So far no problems with that.

  • @Jaon (did you mean Jason?) – I’m not an attorney but pretty sure running a “smear ad” on Facebook would likely expose you to claims of defamation and tortious interference. Not to mention it’s extremely immature and will quickly destroy your business reputation. In some states you may even be violating debt collection practice statutes. De-escalation and professionalism should always be the goal in situations like this.

  • I have been using Paypal invoice system and it has worked pretty flawless. I have been using the language that “Per Paypal merchant agreement the payment has to be paid in full before delivery of product can be made.” This is not made up either so it takes me away from being the bad guy. However, I did let it slide once and sure enough that was the one that has not paid yet. 4 weeks now and I have to go easy since I have received steady business from that specific real estate office. @Mark Graves, what program are you using on your website? I like the concept of customer login, payment and THEN has the ability to download the photos. It automates the whole process!

  • I’m using the Easy Digital Downloads WordPress plugin.

  • Wide range of responses yet fairly narrow band of alternatives.

    @Jaon’s approach is certainly one that may make one feel better about the situation. However there is just no way to do that without denigrating one’s own image. If you saw that, would you ever call that photographer?

    @Pierre’s mindset is similar to my own. If there’s a way to mitigate being a debt collector, why not do so? I simply advise new clients that this is similar to any other service person they may call, such as a plumber. Payment is at time of service. Only for standing commercial accounts expecting to do ongoing repeat business will I do invoicing.

    There have been a couple cases where I’ve granted someone an exception and, each time, regretted doing so. Each attempt to collect is a hit against GP. If you figure $25/outreach, it doesn’t take much effort to turn a project into a loss–even if they eventually pay.

    I always remind customers: They’re satisfaction is my goal. If they’re not happy, I’ll make another visit to attempt a cure, or, full refund. I’ve made return trips on occasion; no refunds ever requested due to dissatisfaction though!

  • My best clients are fine with paying me at the shoot or within a day if the session was on a weekend. The RE business is so fast paced right now that by the time somebody would be overdue with standard terms, the home is already sold and there is no leverage with the customer. Small claims court is an option, but to take a day off can be more money than what the claim is for and they typically do not allow a suit for more than the disputed amount.

    If you are shooting a few homes a day, one deadbeat every so often isn’t as big of a deal as if you are only doing 2 or 3 a week. I typically deliver galleries the next day so I don’t have any problem asking for payment up front. It’s no different from buying a product online, paying for it and getting it in the mail a few days later.

  • I agree with Ken Brown. I ask for payments up front. WHY?

    1. I don’t have to worry about the small percentage of clients who will never pay.
    2. And I NEVER have to send multiple emails to get people to pay me. Some clients just don’t want to pay on time. They sure want their real estate shot quickly, but they seem less eager to pay. Now that I collect up front, I don’t have to be in the collections business.

  • Just contact the local MLS as realtors have signed contract that they have permission for use of the photographs. If agent doesn’t want to pay just have the MLS remove the photos.

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