How to Handle Sellers’ Personal Items in Real Estate Photography

December 11th, 2017

StagingDave in NZ ask the following question:

In the USA, are there any legal requirements to blur any family photos, certificates, awards, military honors, etc. when photographing a home? In my case, I do it if there is a tenant living in the property. The reason for the question is that a property I shot a year or so back, there was a hold-up. Turns out the homeowner was an undercover detective! Can only imagine how that person’s pics/names/named certificates/military accomplishments may have turned out for him if they were online (in a reactionary way) for everyone to see, including potentially some long lost “semi-friends” of his? Are there any precedents in the states? Any stories of lawsuits?

I’ve never heard of any laws in this area or legal actions against photographers. However, this is a subject that the listing agent should handle. Good listing agents try to present a property so that prospective buyers can project themselves into the environment. That is, visualize themselves and their belongings living in the property. This is a natural part of deciding if you want to purchase a property. As a result, a large part of this process is removing personal items that belong to the seller while the property is on the market. You are presenting the property; not the sellers. Some listing agents are better than others at doing this or having a stager help them do it. It takes tact and gentle persuasion to get many home sellers to do this. But if the listing agent explains why this is in the best interest of the seller, most sellers will understand and enthusiastically comply.

This market preparation process is NOT the photographer’s job. It is a key part of the listing agent’s job and it should be done before the photographer even arrives. The photographer should not have to stand around and wait until a property is staged or have to convince the sellers to do what they need to do. My experience is that with many sellers, this staging and market preparation process can be very time-consuming. With many listings, it takes several trips to the property and a lot of discussion with sellers to get them to do what is needed to make their property market ready.

I recommend that real estate photographers have a discussion with clients while scheduling a shoot to determine if the property is ready to photograph and exactly what that means. As you work with clients, you’ll learn which ones handle this well and which ones don’t. Many real estate photographers use a checklist to provide clients so that it is well understood what it means for a property to be photographer ready.

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7 Responses to “How to Handle Sellers’ Personal Items in Real Estate Photography”

  • Usually, it is the case where people tell me at which point I get them busy a room in front of me removing small items with my guidance of ‘favorite nearby hiding places’ so won’t be in the photo but easy to return. In other situations, they appreciate when I see something and ask – such as a Nest security camera (they placed it behind a chair) or declining to photograph from an angle that shows a gun or personal safe. The other thing is when you know they have a protected unpublished address – homes of law enforcement, judges, lawyers etc. – and it is an easy conversation with them that they appreciate. In those cases will typically blur certificates, but those are typically limited to the home office rather than throughout the home. In only one occasion did I have a ‘regular’ family ask me to not publish their family photo which was a centerpiece over the sofa and replaced it with a stock landscape photo complimenting their décor vs cloning out to a bare wall. About the only time I personally move/remove things is when simple and part of normal composition that do routinely – like lowering the toilet seat, straightening a pillow or moving a kitchen garbage can a foot or two over out of frame etc. Just little minor stuff.

  • I am with Larry. I have found, even with my best client, very often he and others are splitting the listing with another realtor and there can be gaps in communications with owners who often are not in residence and rely on property managers to prepare the property for photography but have no idea what is involved. I also supply my clients a list of all the things that need to be done to prepare a property for photography, but they all too often that they have such a list and thus don’t provide it to the owner.

    This drives me nuts. I have had owners or their employees preparing rooms for photography, stacking excess furniture outside that inevitably can be seen through French doors. This slows down the shoot so I just have to charge a correspondingly additional amount of money when it is imperative that the property shoot not be delayed. I have sometimes had to take 2 days to do a shoot when it was scheduled for a single day (understand I shoot stills, video and drone with both along with twilight so a lot of time is involved). But I always point out to the realtor that the property is not ready for photography and that this is what will happen before I continue to shoot. Since the realtor is often not with me after seeing me into the property, this usually is on the phone.

    What happens in practice is that mistakes are made. When you cannot shoot in a smooth and linear manner, especially when you are shooting video and stills in the same shoot, and instead have to jump back and forth across the property just so you can keep the shoot going, some rooms get skipped with either stills or video, another reason for having to come back the next day. That and missing out of the very light you scheduled the shoot to capture.

    I try to ensure that all this is understood and arranged before the shoot, but in the real world that often does not happen. Owners who have lived in their space for so long, often simply don’t see the kitty litter box under the bathroom vanity, their cell phone charger on their desk, the wires from their kids play station all over the coffee table.

  • Sorry Larry, I think, in this case, you missed on answering the questions. (You still have a great track record). A property can be both ready for photographs and still have personal items present. The owners do live in the property, sometimes for months, while it sells. In many cases the property is occupied by a tenant, and it would be unreasonable to tell a tenant to remove all personal effects. In short, as photographers, we will have homes to shoot that display personal effects.

    Depending on how your MLS handles photos, compression and resolution reduction will take care of blurring many photos in your photo. If not, a simple box blur will handle it. We generally blur any photos of children or intimate photos the owners may have displayed. We also remove children names from the wall and interior items. Other items we either remove or avoid shooting are safes (gun and regular), weapons of all types, secret rooms, and police items.

  • Great post for the day. I think it’s simple and Larry answered the question as directly as he could. Homes have personal property, it’s up to the homeowner, not the photographer to decide if it’s ok for the property to be in the images.

    The homeowner should prepped for the shoot by the re agent. Now that the homeowner knows that a photographer is coming, they have the option to remove anything that they do not want in the images. If someone was coming to shoot my property, i would remove almost everyting in my studio to avoid temptation of theft. If I didn’t want to take the time to do it, that’s my decision as I know a photographer is coming.

    The problem is that people are lazy and don’t want to prep. But that’s their issue and I would use that to make money on a re shoot.

    Lastly, I don’t want my shots that I work hard on to have blurry boxes on them. How are you gonna sell you great work with blurred boxes on it? Tell them about the homeowner and Future clients will Just think you cant properly communicate between the agent and homeowner, thus another reason not to hire you.

  • I don’t think Larry missed answering the question. If a homeowner knows the home will be photographed, it stands to reason, even for the uninitiated, that personal effects throughout the home will be visible in the property photographs. If it’s not practical to remove everything, as might be the case for a large family portrait, the editing request should be made to the photographer prior to (or at least at) the shoot. Particularly in the OP’s example, if the owner was a detective, one would think said owner would have thought about the natural and logical consequence of having family photos visible for a property photo shoot. As for names and other non-sensitive information, unless the home is in a trust or other entity, it’s not difficult to obtain ownership info of an address. Unless the home is owned by a celebrity or public figure (which IMHO should be made known to the photographer ahead of time), it’s doubtful anyone would have interest in information they could easily garner just by Google searching the address anyway.

    With respect to tenants, the lease agreements I’ve seen in my area typically confirm the owner’s permission to enter and photograph the property with sufficient notice if the property is ever listed for sale (or for other business purposes such as inspections). One multi-unit building I photographed a while back had tenants who were all unhappy the unit was being listed for sale. Rightly so—they enjoyed rents well below market rates for years without an increase, simply because the owner was a nice guy, and they knew the new owner would likely immediately begin increasing rents 10 percent per year (state max) until the rates caught up with the market. The agent fielded numerous complaints about ridiculous things like their cars’ license numbers being visible in the photos (never mind they were visible from the street as well). One tenant insisted he be able to “approve” my photos so that his ten-year-old computer monitor was not visible in the photographs. I blocked out the license plates just to appease the tenants, which was more about service to my client than lending credence to the notion anyone would have interest in such details which, again, are easily visible just by driving by the property.

  • I work with some talented agents who are on top of this in most cases. Still if the homeowner is present I don’t feel it is that time consuming to ask them some key questions at the top of the shoot. First for permission to move things that may appear distorted in the frame or just attract too much attention. Second I explain that I will attempt to replace anything re-positioned, but that if I miss something, it will be close to its original (remotes look first under the couch pillow normally gets a laugh and gets the general point across). Third I ask if there is anything they do NOT want photographed such as collectibles or high value art, etc., and suggest large family photos might be one thing we should conceal if privacy is a concern. When this conversation happens at the top of the shoot, homeowners and agents have time to work ahead of me, and things move along quickly as they should. Along the way, its not a big deal to hide an overlooked dog toy or roll of paper towels, just do it, stay calm, and move ahead to capture the best possible images.

    Now those homes that are completely wrecked and require as much time to clean as to shoot are everyone’s nightmare. Staying or rescheduling is a product of drive time, relationship management, and other appointments, and are by far the biggest source of headache in doing this kind of work. Thankfully these are rare if addressed correctly. Maybe an interesting future topic for Larry?

  • If the owner is present, I ask them to show me the home so I see every room and I ask if there is anything they specifically do not want photographed. I do not photograph details of security systems and will use the spot healing brush to remove alarm panels or sensors in many cases. I have had a couple of occasions where there was a large family or wedding picture the owner didn’t want to move, but didn’t want in listing photos. I have a collection of public domain images from the Library of Congress Flickr page to drop in. Sometimes I need to colorize them or make a sepia image since they are nearly all B/W. NASA can also be a great source for images if the subject matter will go with the home such as with a more modern design. On a job this year there was a nude painting in the master bedroom that the agent wanted changed and I “moved” an similar aspect ratio image from the dining room having made a photo of it specifically for that purpose.

    It’s so much faster to make changes on site that I chivy agents and owners to physically remove or swap art rather than me doing it in photoshop. If I only have to make one straightforward edit in PS, I will often do that without charge (if you haven’t already done it before, simple can sometimes turn into hours). Other times I charge $5-$10 per edit or more depending on what needs to be done. If I know ahead of time, I might adjust my composition for an easier edit in PS. If I get a call after I have delivered the images, I charge much more. Safes are an automatic edit if I can’t compose around them. I really wish people would put them in the back of a closet and not in the corner of the master bedroom.

    Agents should be giving their clients good preparation advice and I have a checklist on my website that they can give owners to work from. The home is going to be shown to prospective buyers and the agent may even hold an open house, so there shouldn’t be any items left out that could cause a problem. Buyers may want to take photos of their own to make visual notes when they visit a listing. These days it’s not hard to see them posting all of their images to social media to show all of their “friends”.

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