What Are Your Policies on the Classic Real Estate Photography Business Issues?

December 27th, 2017

Ray in North Carolina asks:

I have been shooting full time for 4 years this coming May. In the beginning, I would take any client with a pulse and would do almost whatever they asked without question. Now, having worked with a wide variety of clients, I am eager to steer my business toward the truly professional client.

Two issues that currently challenge me are booking my schedule and collecting payment. On the booking issue, I just did some research and found out that almost 25% of all my bookings were canceled, most being rescheduled a second time, and some even a third. Every time slot I have is a chance to earn income and serve clients. Going into 2018, I want to take better control of my schedule. For payments, I currently invoice on the final photo delivery. I’d say 60 – 70% pay within a week, 15 – 20% within 2 weeks, and 5 – 10% 2 weeks to a month.

Here are my current drafts for my new cancellation and payment policies:

Cancellation Policy

  • Cancellation is accepted without penalty more than 48 hours before scheduled shoot.
  • Cancellation within 48 hours will be assessed a $25 fee and charged with a rescheduled shoot.
  • If a client cancels, reschedules, then cancels a second time for the same property a $50 Cancellation fee will be charged, on top of regular fees, to schedule the same property for the 3rd time.

Payment Policy

  • Accepted by Check or Credit Card (via PayPal).
  • Required within 7 days of shoot. Failure to pay within 7 days automatically triggers a 50% advance deposit requirement for the next booking.
  • No new booking will be taken when client has an outstanding balance owed.
  • Chronic late payment prohibits future bookings.
  • If some unforeseen event prevents timely payment please call.

Here are my thoughts on your new policies:

Cancellation Policy
To me, having to cancel 48 hours ahead of time feels a bit unreasonable. I’d be inclined to have it 24 hours and not have multiple cancellation charges to keep track of. Also, I’d be inclined to just not do business with clients that do a lot of cancellations.

Payment Policy
My experience is that 90 percent of agents can’t be relied on to pay on time. One example of this is that home inspectors in the Seattle area where my wife and I were, agents ALWAYS collect before they start an inspection. If you have to keep track of accounts receivable (who has paid and who hasn’t) it is a huge time investment. I would collect on-site or at photo delivery so you wouldn’t have to spend any time or effort keeping track of all of this. There’s always an argument for invoicing and giving clients 30 days to pay if you have a more professional crowd of clients but that requires a good system for invoicing and tracking accounts receivable.

What are others’ thoughts on Ray’s new policies?

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18 Responses to “What Are Your Policies on the Classic Real Estate Photography Business Issues?”

  • I make them pay same day. I’ve also had cancellations and they almost always reschedule. I use every method of payment so there are no excuses as to why they can’t pay immediately. When they’re making thousands of dollars on the transaction, there’s no reason they can’t pay immediately. Most of the Realtors I work with never have a problem paying upfront before I even deliver the photos.

  • Ok, to put a nail in it, your cancellation policy works against you….. Think about it, threaten someone with a penalty charge and they will look elsewhere for service. That said, create a policy, with a 24 hour hook and then use your head to know when to actually enforce it, you can be the Good Guy by waiving it when you think it appropriate. The fact is that if you are working with clients that have a history of cancellations, have an attitude of care less, then I would weed them out of your client base simply by enforcing your policy. Good riddance. You would be surprised how the word gets out that last minute cancellations have a price.

    Payment policy should deal with payment, not “what if’s” If they are late, past due, etc. then that is another matter. If you want to do away with all the problems you are having with payments, then just make a policy of payment at the time of shoot. Offer them the choice of credit cards, check or cash. You would be surprised how much time and effort you will save by eliminating the invoice system.

    So, pull up your big boy pants and run your business as a owner that will not be played with by those that lack ethics.

  • I require payment on the day of the shoot… preferably check or 3% more for credit card (90% pay with check). 99% of my clients pay on the day of the shoot as it gets it out of the way and they don’t have to mail it later.. easy for both of us. In the unlikely event that they forget their checkbook, or the dog ate it, I will still shoot the property however I let them know that I will hold off on editing until I receive payment. I usually get the check by end of that day or next, and it never happens again with the same client, now that they know it will hold up the images. There are the exceptions to this rule… with important clients that really forget their checkbooks, I will proceed as if they paid… sometimes they mail the check or sometimes they pay me on the next shoot.

    On cancellations, I usually run about two weeks out for a shoot appointment… so they know if they miss it, there will usually be another two weeks to get another date. So it is rare that a good client will need to postpone. It’s usually with new construction, and I usually hear something from them a week prior to the shoot that they need to reschedule. Recently a new client (vacation rental company) cancelled a shoot the night before it was scheduled… she said that she booked the property earlier that day for two weeks rental ($3,000 to her)… she did this the week before on another property however she had another property to substitute… the 2nd time she did not have another property… it was a $400 loss to me. I thought about it for a couple of days and yesterday I sent her a polite email saying I appreciate her business however “I was not the photographer for her” and I canceled the two future shoots. Im not saying what she did was wrong for her, if I was in her shoes I might have done the same thing… but our business practices didn’t work together so I just thought it was better for her to select someone else as it’s too risky for me to continue. I find if they do it twice, they will do it a lot more.

    There are some realtors who book shoot appointments even though they don’t have the listing… they expect to get it but at the moment they don’t have a signed document… sometime they lose the listings. I can tell who they are because they usually don’t want to give me an property address. This is why I inform them that I will not schedule anything where I do not have an address.

  • I have one customer that I will bill and the balance pay at the shoot. If their office is not too far away, I’ll stop by to pick up payment or I’ll send an invoice they can pay via PayPal the day before. I might, on a rare occasion, work out something with a new agent to help them get started. I don’t want to spend the time trying to get invoices paid. My business is just me and office work prohibits me from doing other work or enjoying time off.

    I stress to my customers that my time is valuable too so cancellations less than 24 hours before an appointment MAY be billed at 50% of the fee. I wish I were so busy that I could plug a hole by moving up another appointment but I’m not and cancellations usually just mean a hole in my schedule where I’m not going to be earning any money. If I arrive at a property and it’s not ready or I can’t get access to take photos, the full amount of the job is due. If the home is only partially ready, I might photograph part of the home and charge a lower return fee to complete the job in a few days rather than do nothing. I sometimes have short periods of the day when I can pick up a few images to complete a job or make front exterior images to help an agent tease a new listing before the inside is ready. I will discount a job if I am already booked in the area on the same day so if one job cancels, I lose a little on the second job as well. I try to encourage agents to be flexible on dates so I can book several homes nearby on the same day and minimize travel.

    If you know that your client’s home is being rehabbed, be sure that they have toured the property and know first hand that it is ready. If they have just called the contractor and have been told it’s ready, many times it’s not. Contractors are notorious for saying it’s ready and when it isn’t they’ll say “We just need to……” , “We only need to…..”. I find that usually means that they “need” to put all of the cover plates on the outlets and switches or they “only” need to install the appliances or remove the masking paper/tape. The photos in my area can be really horrible and contractors, seeing that, might not think it’s a bad thing to have paint buckets, tools, drop clothes and carpet remnants all over the place.

  • @Jerry Miller: Good advice but did you need to be so disrespectful?

  • I believe in keeping it simple and running my business cash flow about the same as my clients. Realistically if a client pays within 30 days or on the day of the shoot there is little difference to your cash flow or your pocketbook. Choose a payment system that is simple and most clients can deal with. I send invoice via email and expect payment by check or CC link on the email within 15 days. Overall my payments average guess what… 15 days. I rarely chase anyone and if I do it’s just once a month I send reminders via email when I’m doing invoicing anyway. I send friendly reminder. They are embarrassed and pay right away.

    How to deal with clients that always pay late? Do not penalize any of them. It always seems petty and is not that big of a deal. If a client is that bad to deal with keep it simple. Just don’t be available for a shoot when they call. They will move on without you looking like a jerk.

    Now for cancelations. Keep it simple there also. My policy is as long as they cancel before I leave for the day I’m ok with it. If I’m on the rod then they will be billed for half the shoot cost. Cancelations are a part of this business and can hurt but they only tend to hurt if you are fully booked. Recognize that’s a good thing, being fully booked, and unless they are actually hurting your business accept them. Now for those who are chronic about it they will be booking on the chance of getting the listing. I will not book without an address and a listing price and word from them they have the listing signed. I might reserve them a slot but explain I will fill it if I have to if they have not confirmed they got the listing. Sometimes they need to say they can react quickly to get the listing. I try to help. But I explain that hurts my business and to please try not to do that. If they persist and don’t get the listings… once again don’t be a jerk with extra fees that are hard to administer just don’t have that slot open the next time they call. They will just go away.

    So in the end if your business is going that great don’t get complicated with your payments and cancelations policies. Don’t even tell them you are going to charge extra if they don’t comply. It gets you nothing. Just don’t be available. They then will assume you are doing great and not bad mouth you. They will either find another sucker or come back some day but pay on time and not cancel.

    I fire about one client a year and currently average 40 to 50 clients a year. I don’t have damaging cancelations. I fired all of those that are bad payers and cancelers. With an average collection time of 15 days my cash flow is not bad and I have no significant payment issues. I’m optimally busy and no longer have collection or cancelation issues.

  • Our cancellation policy is 24 hours prior and no charge. We can usually work someone from our wait list into that time slot. We require payment at time of service. No photos are released without payment. After 10 years in the business, I have found this is the best policy, otherwise it takes too much valuable time to follow up on payments. Plus my staff gets paid regardless.

  • Most of my clients pay at the shoot, but I have some who I just invoice. I usually process my images and upload the tour, and send the invoice the someday as the shoot. I normally get paid within a week or so. I do get some agents who on occasion, will forget their check book, do not use checks, or want to give me their credit card # (I stopped taking credit cards about 5-7 years ago and it hasn’t hurt me).
    my wife who takes care of the books and scheduling, always places a reminded in QuickBooks when an invoice is two-three weeks overdue, and a reminder goes out. For agents who have not paid and schedule another shoot, I just collect both payments at the time of the shoot. It was suggested that if an invoice was not paid in one month, I should remove the tour from the internet. I disagree as the agent already has the images and I would rather settle it amicably. I normally ask the agent, where I can meet him to pick up his check, which always works.
    so far, my cancelations have not been an issue, but it should be brought to the agent attention how that effects your business and his fellow agents who have to wait for another date. I also require that my agents do a walk through a few days before the shoot (if possible) to make sure everything is ready before I go to a shoot.

  • I require payment before I deliver the final product. I have had no customer complaints about this and, obviously, I have not been “stiffed”. Tourbuzz recently added a great option to their platform for this. When the tour is ready, I use the “Deliver Tour” option and use the new “require payment before delivery” option. Tourbuzz sends a notice that the tour is done and payment is required before delivery. They also include small thumbnails of the photos (very small). When the tour is paid, then the customer automatically, and instantly, receives a second email that provides the download link. Easy-Peasy.

    For scheduling I use acuity scheduling (highly recommend). Customers can self schedule. A customer cannot schedule where I am already booked or where there is not enough time to complete the assignment. They can also re-schedule and cancel, up to 24 hr before the appointment.

    These two options has made my life much, much easier.

  • @ Terence L. – Did not mean to be disrespectful, although looking at it now, could see why it does. Just meant to shake awake someone who is struggling after four years with basic business practices. If you let clients walk all over you, they are going to. Be professional, set reasonable polices and hold them to it. If you weed out the trash, it will make you life much easier. It may also help the next contractor that agent works with when they realize that contractors won’t put up with lax ethics.

    I tend to be blunt when talking with my peers as I come from a generation that expects that. The other end of conversations where there are only hugs and kisses do little to help those that really need it.

  • Well, I get what Ray is talking about relating to taking any client with a pulse and doing whatever they asked. Especially in my market where it’s been a slow-go getting agents to think photographer instead of iPhone. I have a few clients that are super slow pay and always require a friendly reminder in order to get a check. Over this past season I began thinking about what I needed to change and how to change it. Not only to get paid faster but not giving away the farm to get/keep a client.

    First the rates. Rates had to go up as $100 a shoot wasn’t cutting it, and really never had. Considering the time involved, equipment, the editing, the other costs involved (ins, rent, car, PS, LR, ISP…) I had to get realistic with what I was charging. For 2018 my rates are going up to $150. I expect I’ll lose some clients, but realistically, it’s not worth loading all the gear for any less. This is a business not a hobby.

    Second was payments. I had to change this so I could get paid faster. I had been emailing an invoice and waiting for payment. Even my good clients would often take several weeks to send payment. This was a hassle when it came to trying to keep track of who had/hadn’t paid and what to pay the state for sales tax collected. I know this is part of doing business, but there had to be a better way. My clients have been notified that in 2018 they will now pay electronically via PayPal. Last week a client had two homes for me to shoot using this new payment system. They were thrilled with it as it eliminated the hassle of having to write a check, address the envelope, stamp and mail. I was thrilled as I had payment within hours instead of weeks.

    Third was delivering what was ordered. My standard package is 20 images +$ per image over the 20. I’ve never enforced this as I’ve always over delivered. I will still over deliver but not in the way I’ve done in the past by delivering every image from the shoot. In 2018 clients will have the same gallery for viewing finished images, but will now pick the 20 they want. Any extra will be an added charge. After payment for the images selected they will receive their download instructions as in the past.

    Forth was adding drone photography. Ok, this has nothing to do with Ray, but for me the time has come to add this service. It also aides in allowing me to increase rates as I can bundle the photography and drone.

    Now with all that said and relayed to my clients, I learned yesterday from a client that there is a new young buck in the market starting their real estate photography business, offering rock bottom rates taking on any and every client they can get. I figure that in a year or two they’ll have their fill of low rates and have their own new young buck to deal with… The circle of life as a real estate photographer. The end.

  • My clients pay at the shoot, no problem, no one asks for more time. I charge them for credit card fees as admin fees, also ok. These are business people and they get the business part, most of them. Took me some time to figure out, though, so I was chasing payments and etc for a few years. I only got stiffed once, but, I spent some time the first few years chasing the “next week”people into paying me. Now all $$$ is done at the shoot, no problems, no receivables. I do not make invoices or receipts, unless specifically asked. This year, about 15 people or about 3% wanted paid invoices.

    As to cancellation, I have charged when necessary for cancellation, similar to your policy of 48 hr, 24 hr, same day, three levels. I have only charged probably three times. I do not threaten my customers, but, I have informed them about the cancellation policy and they understand. Mine is cancel less than 48 hr = $75, less than 24 hr =$175, same day = full price. The cancel fee is usually added to the fee for the rescheduled property, unless no resched, then it is it’s own invoice.

    When new people call and I get pushback on any of the policy things, I just don’t have time for them. I am hopefully not going to do business with people that are not fair in how they do business, and my policies are fair.

    Good discussion. Thx.

  • There is two sides to a ToS. The first is your written policy and the second is how you enforce it. I use words such as “may” instead of “will” so I leave myself wiggle room to give a customer the benefit of the doubt without self-violating my ToS. Having a well thought out and thorough policy that is presented to each new client is a good start so they know that you are a professional and you expect the same from them. I don’t worry about losing a customer if I have billed them for canceling an appointment. It’s more than likely that I have given them a pass previously and reminded them about my policy a second time. If they call me and can some up with a good excuse (Alien attack, plague of locusts, etc) I might knock the fee down or eliminate it entirely with a sterner talk about it happening again in the future that I can’t be as generous. What’s more likely is that if I send an invoice billing a client for canceling, they’re going to be fired anyway and if they pay the bill, they are showing that they are accepting fault and that working with them on future jobs might be ok. Lots of doctors and dentists are charging for missed appointments and showing up late. If the carpet company shows up on a job with a crew and the drywall is still going in, they are going to charge for at least the day and a rescheduling fee.

    Exceptions are always an option. If you have a policy of always billing net 30, you may find out much later that it doesn’t work with the agents in your area. If your policy is payment at or before the job, you can still extend terms to your better clients that do pay on time. Real estate can move fast and if you aren’t paid on time the home may be sold before you collect and at that point, you don’t have any leverage. A contractor can file a lien if they aren’t paid and just doing that will throw a monkey wrench into a sale without them having to take the owner to court. If the home has already closed escrow, the lien can still stay with the home and the buyer will be responsible for payment with the seller probably liable to reimburse the buyer via the sales contract. As photographers, we don’t get that option. Know your clients.

  • Two very busy years into this and the first was full of billing adventures & nightmares. I lost several clients, squandered tons of time chasing my money and wasted precious hours ‘simmering’ over it all… Then I read a (Hargis) post on this blog about *just letting clients know upfront what you expect*. Preferably toe to toe, verses email. I expected payment at delivery. Period. And, after I explained that to every client no matter ‘their value’ my AR problems were solved, literally overnight. I use Paypal billing so I can see my AR in a mouse click. Once or twice a month someone forgets so at 10 days I send them a reminder (another 1 mouse click) and receive a heartfelt apology (and immediate payment). Oh, and I’ve never once asked for payment at the time of shoot.

    I wish cancellations and reschedules were that easy. They are killing me. Not to mention weather dependent high-end home shoots in the Northwest, a double whammy. Scott?

  • I have never had a problem collecting money and have been in the Real Estate and Corporate Photography business for 4 years now. I use Shootproof and would not use anything different. We simply go onsite, take the photos with or without the agent and then I post the photos up on Shootproof in a gallery via the Lightroom plugin. We put our pricing on the gallery and watermark all of the photos diagonally. We then send an email to the agent telling them that their photos are ready. The agents can see all of the photos before they purchase them, but they all have a watermark diagonally across the photos. Once they are ready to go live or post the pictures, they simply purchase them online via credit card and the pictures are sent directly to them. Never had an agent not pay in 4 years!. Wake up in the morning, look at my shootproof accounts and simply transfer over the money directly to my bank. Nice and easy. We also have several agents that we do more than 10 houses a week with and we invoice them using shootproof as well. We typically send out an invoice every 2 to 3 weeks depending on the client.

    I have had agents pull out a checkbook at shooting and I kindly tell them to put the checkbook away. We do everything online via credit card. If they truly want to pay with a check, I will do that, but we honestly have never had anyone pay with a check, they love the convenience of online credit card transactions. I also tell them very sincerely that we let them look at the photos before they buy them. If you don’t like what you see, you don’t pay. Of course, you don’t download them either. 🙂 I’m confident in our photography that much to put my money where my mouth is. IN 4 years I have never had an agent not pay. If one does not pay someday, well, time to step up my game and figure out why! That is how I do business.

  • When was the last time you increased your rates?

    Are you actually losing other shoots because of cancelations/postponements?

    My experience has taught me that professional clients are willing to pay for professionalism. I took anyone I could in the beginning, but I have increased my rates as I have acquired more clients and the result is I have more professional clients. The ones that jump ship for a cheaper shoot will be the ones who pay late and can’t schedule effectively.

    I am fairly flexible with rescheduling since I accept this as the nature of the real estate business. The Realtor often is at the mercy of their client in having the home ready and they LOVE that I take it in stride. It has enhanced my relationships with my best clients. They reschedule and I get paid. I don’t believe I lose any business due to cancellations or rescheduling. If you can fill every time slot week after week, that’s great but I think unrealistic for most of us.

    I agree that 24 hours foe cancellations is a better expectation. It is the nature of the business.

    Collecting is not an issue with my clients either. I use Freshbooks for my accounting and invoicing (via email) and and all of my invoices are due upon receipt. They pay directly to my bank account with PayPal or credit card. Sure some pay later than others but if you ensure they are paid up before scheduling another shoot it takes care of itself.

    By all means be clear about policies and expectations. I have found that the right client base is the key to a smooth operation.

  • I will be starting my sixth year of shooting real estate … my business has far exceeded what I expected it to be when I started. I have come to realize that one of the reasons it has grown so nicely, is not necessarily my photos, but the service that I provide to my “Clients.”

    My goal from the beginning was to become a “transparent member of my “Client’s” team.

    I don’t write policies to protect my time and efforts from bad customers. I manage it by simply by becoming “unavailable” to shoot for the problematic individual(s).

    Cancellation Policy: I have no policy. Agents don’t cancel appointments. No, it is their Seller Clients who cancel, typically because “they aren’t ready.” (Is it annoying? Sure, but I’m not going to my penalize my long-term client because their Seller needs to cancel)

    Payment and Invoicing: My terms are net 10 days. The 80/20 rule applies to my sales. Thus, I invoice my clients at the time that I send the finished photos (without watermarks, etc.) to the “Client.” A good number of my clients seem to be listing machines … paying at the time of each property address shoot simply isn’t practical for them.

    Yes, I have had on an occasion or two times when cash flow was affected by slow-paying clients. As I analyzed that problem, I realized it was a “me problem.” I was letting even my good clients slide for too long of periods, remaining silent, stewing a bit, by not telling them they were seriously past due.

    We have to pay attention, and we have to communicate. Once I started doing this on a “regular” basis, my problem went away, and it is at the point I have a couple of large Clients sending me emails to double check if they are paid up with me. (I think the more you manage your receivable the easier it becomes and ultimately takes very little time to manage.)

    I don’t think we need a complicated array of policies … we need to manage for whom we shoot.

    Keep it simple.

  • Thanks everybody for the great comments . . . and thanks to Terrance for his well meant defense. I’ve been a reader of comments her for 4 years and know Jerry Miller’s “personality” well. I know he likes to get to the point so I was not offended. Many of you have hit on issues close to my situation. When I entered RE 4 years ago I did not bring a long history of professional photography. I DID bring 33 years of direct customer service. From day one I committed that no one, now or 10 years from now, would out service me. Others might be cheaper, or take a better picture, but you could ALWAYS count on Ray for consistent quality and service. This approach has served me well as I have lost few clients and raised my prices every year (answer to Liz Ramos’ question).

    To answer Liz’s other question. Yes, I am losing shoots because of cancellations. I work a very large and growing area and my schedule is booked solid from Jan 2 – Thanksgiving. Because of this growth my market is being overwhelmed with new “Professional Real Estate Photohgraphers”. During my busy period I consider every time slot in my work week an income opportunity. When an occasional client calls to book a slot, cancels and books another slot, then cancels again . . . that is 2 lost income opportunities. Even worse if my best client wanted one of those cancelled slots then that hurts extra bad.

    So, for you experienced and market leading photographers, sure I understand how you can set terms comfortable to you. For me, I want to evolve my terms (and communicate them professionally) to better support my business and do so with the confidence that other Pros, like the participants here on PFRE, have been successful with similar terms.

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