What To Do When You Show Up For A Shoot and The Property Is A Mess?

May 12th, 2016

ClarkListingAubrey asked:

I’ve had a situation come up and I’d love everyone’s opinion on how to handle situations where when I show up to shoot and the property is a mess!

I send a confirmation email to the Agent with all the photo shoot specifics and expectations, yet when I arrive nothing has been done. What do you do to avoid this from happening? I’m starting to thinking I need to do a signed contract that way the agent takes me seriously. What do you do?

The best way to handle these situations is to have a statement in your terms of service that says something like, “based on the judgement of the photographer, if the home is not ready for photographing when the photographer arrives, the shoot will be canceled and there will be a rescheduling fee of $xxx charged.” Another possible policy is to always do the shoot even if it is not ready. If you show up you bill the time. It’s ALWAYS the listing agent’s job to have the property ready for photographing at the time of the shoot. It’s one of the biggest challenges of being a listing agent is to get home sellers to do what is need to sell the property. Some agents are good at this part of the job and some are not very good at it. The underlying root of the problem is that you cannot always get home sellers or whoever is living in the home to do what’s necessary.

The worst situation is always if there is a tenant in the property because the owner and the listing agent have little or no control over tenants to get them to do anything. For this reason, my wife and I got so we would never even do a listing when there was a tenant in the property while the property was being sold.

The photo above (click here to see how bad this place was) is from a bedroom from a listing we did for a friend that had tenants in the property. The tenants were two bachelors. The property was a rural acre near Issaquah, WA that had bears hanging around the property. Our biggest struggle was to get the tenants to stop leaving loaded guns laying around the house while it was on the market. We put so much effort into this issue we didn’t even try to get them to clean the place up. I just shot it like it was. It turned out the mess didn’t even matter. We got 10 offers in the first week on the market and no one was harmed in the sale of the property except a black bear that one of the tenants shot. He was arrested by the Washington State Police for discharging a rifle too close to I-90. What can I say? This was a difficult listing and we were glad to get it sold! Messy rooms were the least of our concerns!

Share this

18 Responses to “What To Do When You Show Up For A Shoot and The Property Is A Mess?”

  • It’s always a good idea to discuss this situation with new customers and put it in their file. (It’s a good idea to keep a file on each customer with their preferences on messy houses, reporting vandalism/people in what is supposed to be a vacant house, specific compositions, etc.) If you wait until you arrive at a job that’s a complete mess, you may not be able to reach the agent to get a decision. Also, develop a checklist to run through when you are booking a job. Is the home occupied? Owner or tenant? Is the power on? Water? Condition of the property. There will be times when a seller needs to unload a home and knows that it’s a disaster. Other things to have are contact names and phone numbers. I just had a job scheduled at sunrise and needed to call the owners as I arrived on time and nobody answered the door. Turned out that the agent may have told them the appointment was at 9am rather than 7am. The agent might have been hard to reach that early too.

    In summary, put your default action in your Terms Of Service with the “unless otherwise agreed” exception wording. If you show up and the home isn’t ready for photos, I would suggest a billing the agent a set amount. You are never going to get that time slot back to recover the lost income. If you are directed to photograph properties as you find them, bill the full amount every time. If they want a reshoot, that’s another job. Even if you are asked to photograph whatever is presented to you, ask if there is anything beyond the pale. They may not want photos if the tenants have a heard of bug-eyed rat scale dogs that are not house broken and nobody has been picking up after them. I haven’t seen that yet, but there are agent videos on YouTube that are even worse.

  • I feel that owners are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the place is ready for photography (and for when the agent has people through) so I’ve created a non-public page on my website ( and have instructed all the agents I work for to print it out and give it to owners, perhaps in their information pack when the owner signs. If I contact owners to make appointments, I ask whether they’ve received the sheet from agents and if not I’ll text the link to their phone (then remind the agent to do so next time!). I’ve educated agents on how to “sell” the concept to owners by asking whether the owner would like to make several thousand dollars for, say, 8 hours work. Of course they would and no, nothing illegal, just follow the advice contained in the sheet. Effectively, that sheet is therefore worth potentially many thousands of dollars. This strategy is a win-win-win (for me as my photos are better and the agent and owner are happy, for the agent as he’s more likely to get more enquiries and sell it before the listing expires, and for the owner in that their place could potentially sell quicker and for more money). On the other hand, if they choose to ignore the advice in the sheet, it’s shot “as-is”. It’s their choice.

    Tenants are a different story. They’re entitled to “quiet enjoyment” of the property and can’t be told to tidy up. If I move too much stuff, they can tell me to leave, which I must do immediately else I could be charge with trespass, so I tread very carefully with tenants. If the agent or owner turns up (which is usually not the case), they are responsible for negotiating with tenants as to whether things can be moved out of shots; otherwise, it’s generally shot “as-is” (unless the tenant is happy to move things, in which case, I’ll go out of my way to help).

    I shot a pool twilight last night at an empty house and, when I sent him the photos, I included the link above. I got an email from the agent this morning asking “Is it possible to edit the leaves of the bottom of the pool?”. He’s a new agent and I sent him this reply: “That’s why I included the link in the email to you – it’s a guide to preparing the home prior to photography (and, incidentally, viewings) and I encourage all agents to print it out and include it in their listing pack. Last night I removed the pool cover (and put it back on when I finished) and skimmed the top of the water for floating leaves but I didn’t have time to dredge the bottom of the pool. Often, I don’t have the time to do a lot of preparation when I visit a home (I allow an hour generally to give me some time to move minor things out of the way) and for that reason, I insist that the home be prepped beforehand (some houses could literally take many hours to declutter and I don’t think any agent would like me to charge for that time). Normally I charge for this sort of editing but what I’ll do in this case, as this is the first time, is to photoshop the leaves out at no charge but it will take some time. I’ll try to do so tonight but I have 7 properties to shoot and edit (I was up until almost 1am last night editing 9 from yesterday) but it will most likely be tomorrow. Is that OK?”

    His reply was: “Thanks Dave, no stress. Monday Tuesday next week’s cool. Appreciate your help in the matter.”

  • Our goal is basically the same as the real estate agent’s… to make the property look as appealing as possible, and we approach it with that same passion. Our clients know this and are loyal because of it.

    We bend over backwards to help accomodate agents with this problem. I have helped agents with making beds, picked up laundry off the floor, rearranged furniture, removed bathroom products including plungers and toilet brushes, etc. Usually it is not a big deal, although obviously more time consuming and sometimes a bit gross. We generally chalk it up to exceptional customer service, but have had to draw the line occasionally… especially if the agent is not there.

    I have a “staging fee” as a line item on my invoice so that when needed I can offer the agent to shoot “as is” (I text a photo of the problem areas) or with their consent add the staging fee and take the additional time to correct the mess. My staging fee starts at an additional $100 and it is subjectively based on how much needs to be done. Of course, I have to have this additional time available, and sometimes it IS necessary to reschedule, but it is very seldom.

  • This is indeed one of the most challenging parts of RE photography (and a great reason to jump to into architecture photography!) People have ‘stuff’ and there’s only so much closet space!

    I make sure all my agents have a PDF format checklist to give to their sellers.

    The real challenge comes when the listing is an occupied rental. The renter is almost always afraid of the change a new own/landlord will bring, so there’s no incentive for him/her to get the listing ready.
    The stories I could tell you!

    Usually I’ll shoot the listing if it’s not too bad, but there have been times when I’ve had to talk the agent into rescheduling.

  • The trouble with ‘shoot as it is’ leads to dissatisfied customers (agents, homeowners). They can say the virtual tour or the image gallery is bad even if the image quality is good and your job is done the proper way. To have a statement in Terms & Services specifically for this kind of situation is a must.

  • I will move minor things (dish soaps off sink, garbage buckets, remote controls, etc.) but what I am NOT doing is making beds, moving laundry, boxes of clutter, etc. I will say that stuff like this happens very rarely but it does. Actually, last week. The property was an absolute mess and when I got there the home owner explained that the agent said I would help them “shift” stuff around. I ended up barking orders for an hour while bouncing around shooting the property. Beds were still not made, etc. It got shot that way. I sent the images to the client with an email stating that the property was not even close to ready when I arrived and if they think the pictures look bad they should have seen it before I shot it. If you have any issues please feel free to reach out and I will be more than happy to explain.

    Well, I never heard from them and I’m sure they were a bit embarrassed… as they should be.

  • I’m never quite sure why a tenant would have to clean up for the owner of a property. I mean lets really think about this for a minute, isn’t this cake and eating it too from the owner’s perspective. I think the rental lease should end, then photos should be taken. Anything else there is no room for complaining on the owners part. I mean I do understand there may be terms in the rental contract, but cmon you have a person who is paying to occupy the space. That’s just my view on that.

  • We have a “staging tips” sheet that we send out to any new clients and encourage that they pass it along to their sellers. Of course the saying still stands…”you can lead a horse to water….” So, if it’s just unacceptable, we will charge for the trip and they will have to reschedule. If there are a few things laying out here and their, we might just move them, but there is a point were it has a significant amount of time onto our schedule and in that case, we would call it unphotographable because if we stayed to her would would actually be late for our next appointment.

    I think the key is just being clear with communication up front. Some people need to feel it in their wallet before they learn.

  • I certainly agree with all stated above, and wanted to add something here to remind agents who think higher cancellation fees are unreasonable. Simply point out that you have scheduled the shot for a given time and date, which TAKES AWAY that spot for another paying client; in other words, the messy listing that was cancelled COST the photographer the opportunity to do a different client’s listing at that time. Lost opportunity is very expensive, so the agent is actually getting off easy with just a cancellation fee.

    I feel 100% certain that there are none of us who have not made beds, moved trash cans, tucked away wires, etc., but when a property is a train wreck you just have to leave.

  • @Dave Williamson, you brought up another good point. There seems to be the belief among some people that anything can be fixed in Photoshop. To a certain extent, that’s true. But, some of those fixes can be the devil to pull off well. I’ve seen shows on TV where homes have been transformed in Photoshop, but people might not realize that it was being done by an expert who might have spent hours gathering all of the elements and rehearsing the moves to make it looks dead simple when the cameras were rolling.

    I always tell my customers that staging work in Photoshop is slow and expensive. Moving a trash can out of sight takes less than a minute, but might take 10-15 minutes to do in Photoshop well enough to be unnoticeable. I use Photoshop for nearly every job, but that’s just to remove myself or the camera from bathroom mirrors, sky replacements and some image blending; things that I am getting better and fast at doing. I bill $50/hr in 15min increments for things like removing signs from the yard, digital gardening and stuff like that. Much of the time, I’m getting paid to learn. I could get the leaves off the bottom of the pool, but that should have been done before I arrived.

    I have a list that I hand out too so owners can prep their home. The agents I work with know to work with their clients and nearly always have the home ready for me to do my work. If the agent spends a little time, it can often lead to a faster sale. They might get a better price as well, but by the time their piece of the rise gets to them, it’s not always enough to cover the extra time they put in. I have a video in my links that is a well done tutorial on basic prep.

  • From the OP: “…I’m starting to thinking I need to do a signed contract that way the agent takes me seriously….”

    Ya think?

  • I have shown up to multiple listings that were in shambles. I think we all have at some point. Anyway, I just pop some shots with my cell phone, send it off to the Realtor (or home owner). After which, I call, let them look at the snaps, and ask if I should proceed or reschedule. It usually works out that I charge my minimum fee and get my full fee on the reshoot.

  • The better I get at this job, the better the properties I get to photograph. That’s not saying that some of those projects don’t start out a little rough, but I have learned to deal with it better. It’s as much about what you don’t shoot as what you do.

    As stated above a couple of key words to look out for: “Tenant Occupied” – I’ll pass!

  • When I hear all of the comments about how they prepare the property I go into “Just what business do you think are you in?” mode.

    If I hit a property that is not prepared when I walk in the door, as my terms state, I simply announce to the home owner with the agent present “Do you want to make a thousand dollars an hour?” Of course they do. I then walk around the home telling them what they must do, and I’m good at it. I explain that the images will bring the top clients and more of them and they do offer higher prices. I explain to the agent that services I just preformed is billable per my agreement and if they want me to return another day to shoot I will, otherwise my photos will include brilliant images of the chicken bones in the corners. It’s up to them.

    It has taken me some time but every agent I work with now understands it’s their job not mine. Those that accept the job are amazed at how much faster their homes are selling and how much the clients accept the joint responsibility of marketing the property. This of course does not work with agents that are “hit it and quit it” just want listings agents. I won’t work with them and frankly they don’t want professional images anyway.

    …another thing, I heard some say how they spend time without the owner or agent there. What’s wrong with you? You are inviting suits and criminal actions. I recently turned down a shoot after the agent told me they would be there and make sure the lights were on and to leave the key under the mat when I leave.

    So simply put use these words with agent before the shoot “You know it’s your job to make sure the property is prepared not mine. I shoot great images of chicken bones in corners and you will see them in my images.”

    Now all of the being said, part of my package that is included in the time limit I set to be on site, is to first walk room to room with the home owner and the agent. During that time I make suggestions for them to do like move some chairs or accessories and open or close blinds and turn on missed lights. These are minor things and they are always appreciated. I also compliment them for the prep they did do and remind the owners they made a thousand dollars an hour in doing that prep and their time was worth it the images will be great.

    …and one more thing. I got good at just shooting around the pile of chicken bones when I can. It takes practice.

  • We train our agent to have the property ready for us or we will shoot as is. The agents learn that we are not cleaning people and will not move things for them. Moving anything for an agent will then make them think you will do this every time. Our agents learn that they need to do their job before we get there or we will charge an cancellation fee for that property and then they will have to wait in line again for an appointment. Agents are lazy… and when you call them out infront of homeowners and other agents, it makes them rethink their strategies.


  • @Frank zgutowski (“…another thing, I heard some say how they spend time without the owner or agent there. What’s wrong with you? You are inviting suits and criminal actions.”): Whaaaaat? What exactly are you getting up to at the property? 😉 I’m effectively an invited guest (, more specifically a business invitee, and as long as I’m doing no wrong, I’m not liable for any criminal action. I ALWAYS assume I’m being recorded and I actually talk aloud about what I’m doing when this happens so any recording of my activities can’t be misconstrued. When I leave, I make sure doors and windows are locked, lights are off and blinds are closed (except where I’ve notice them on and open respectively when I arrive).

    I’m actually providing a value-added service to my real estate agent clients because they can spend their time doing other business-related activities, like working on getting more listings. Plus, if they’re there and they appear in reflections, that takes valuable time to edit them out. Around 30-40% of my work currently involves picking up the keys, shooting the property and returning the keys. I’ve done well over a thousand homes this way with no problems whatsoever.

  • I’ve never had an issue with photographing a home without the owner or agent present. I’m usually met at the property by one or the other and they may sometimes leave asking me to lock up when I’m done or go out to run errands returning before I leave. For vacant homes, I usually given the code for the lock box in the same way they do for any other contractor or I stop by the RE office and pick up a key.

    At this point in my RE career, I have plenty of references from agents/brokers. Many of the jobs I do are for agents I have worked with in the past. I show up to a job in business casual dress with my name embroidered on my shirt. I hand over my card after introducing myself to the owners and comport myself in a polite, yet friendly, business manner. My gear is all professional looking bags and cases. My goal is to make the client and their client feel comfortable having me in their home.

    I could insist that somebody from the RE office is present at all times or that the owner is on site, but that might wind up losing me jobs. I already have problems sometimes trying to keep people out of the images on the occasions where I am being escorted through a home. They don’t realize just how wide a field of vision a WA lens has and that they are visible even when they are just peeking around a corner or being reflected in a mirror. I’ve never had any questions about my integrity. Not even a cautious question about whether I noticed an object present at a home while I was shooting. I’ve also never knocked anything over or broken anything. I’m pretty good about not banging off the walls when I walk and I’m very careful when I’m moving equipment, especially light stands.

  • @Ken – the fact is, despite the fact that many agents ignore the rule some MLSs have fines for agents that leave contractors of any kind alone in a listed property without an agent present. In 2005 an agent in our office in Issaquah, WA (15 miles east of Seattle) was fined $5000 for leaving with a contractor at the listed property. Many agents still ignore these rules.

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply