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How Do Real Estate Photographers Decide How Big Their Service Area Is?

Published: 20/04/2017
By: larry

Mike in Tennesee asks:

How far should one travel for a shoot? And how much of an extra charge is appropriate.  I’m a one man act, a couple of my clients are pretty good customers but they almost always seem to have properties not terribly far out from town but far enough where it sometimes gets in the way of my other jobs, screws up my scheduling, and causes my good local clients to have to wait.

As usual, there's no one simple answer to how big your service area should be that works for everyone. The key consideration is going outside your service area should not appreciably reduce what you are making per hour.

The size of your service area is very much dependent upon your particular location, whether it's rural or a big metro area and the surrounding geography. What I would do is the following:

  1. Establish a service area by looking at where 90% of your business is. Draw your service area on the map.
  2. Do the math for your business and find out what you are making per hour doing a shoot (drive time and shooting time). On the average how much time is spent traveling?
  3. Make sure whatever you charge to go outside your service area is enough to not drop your income.

It's that simple. Charge enough extra to go outside your typical area to make it worth your time. Otherwise, don't do the shoot.

9 comments on “How Do Real Estate Photographers Decide How Big Their Service Area Is?”

  1. I agree with Larry. I have a service area that I sort of treat all the same. Outside of that area I give quotes. The time of the shoot is usually up in the air when I give the quote, so I quote based on sitting in the worst possible traffic. It doesn't matter to me if the shoot is three states over or wherever, I'll do it, but you'll have to agree to my quote. If you want my advice, there's no real formula. The more you drive the more you'll realize "wow I wish I did not take this job at this price". You've just gotta quote making sure you'll be saying "I'm so glad I took this job" on the ride there and back. That it, it is simple don't complicate it.

  2. I do the same as Larry suggested. On rare occasion I've waived my travel fee when it was worth my time to complete the job(s). For example one client had 3 properties about 1.5 hours away. I bundled them together on the same day but the trip was well worth my time as it was interior+exterior+drone shots. I was also hired to shoot a large resort which required me to spend the night on site. They provided the cabin (which was beautiful) and I charged them mileage and meals. It was quoted before I began the work so it wasn't a surprise when the bill came. They happily paid it.

    It's also important to keep track of all the mileage when traveling around. I have an app that runs in the background when I'm driving and keeps the record of each and every drive. It certainly helps come tax time.

  3. Your regular service area needs to be big enough to keep your schedule as full as you want it to be. If you are in a metro area and have enough clients, it can be rather small. My area has a roughly 45mi radius although it's a longer drive to get to one end or the other. I am also starting to market to an area 185 miles away. It's a resort area with many expensive homes and vacation rentals. If a customer wants me to photograph one home after a nearly 4 hour drive, I'll be charging the fee that I would charge for 3 properties much closer to home. My pitch is to get them to have me photograph several homes including rentals and community photos so I can amortize the trip cost and bring the price for photos of each property down to something more budget friendly. Working for 2 or more days with some accommodations would be great. Getting a foot in the door is key. Many of the homes in the area are over a million and if agents are happy with my work they might not mind paying my fee for just one home.

    I have a set price for each town in my area that rises the further away it is and the increment is $25. I have set certain per hour gross income goals and I know how long on average it takes me to produce a finished image. I apply the same hourly rate whether I'm working on the photos, traveling or doing the paperwork. Some people argue that travel should be figured at a lower rate, but to me, that doesn't work. If I have to travel a bunch one day it likely means that I can't book as many jobs so I have to factor that "opportunity expense" into the calculation. If I've figured in my travel at $15 (rapidly becoming minimum wage), I might be halving my income. One hour each way to a job that will take 2 hours to photograph severely dilutes my hourly income.

    There are lots of tactics to keeping your customers happy while keeping yourself in spending money. If there is a community that you photograph often but is further than you want to go on short notice, only book sessions on a particular day(s) of the week. Pick a day such as Thursday so your customers will still have photos in time to get a listing up for the weekend. You can also reserve Friday for jobs closer in so you can turn them around faster. Offer discounts to encourage agents to book more distant properties on a certain day. If Center City (45 mins away) is normally $200, make it $150 on Thursdays or get the same discount for booking two/three jobs on a single day. You would still do single jobs there on other days, but would charge more.

    One of the reasons I can support such a large area is that traffic is not an issue so travel times are dictated by distance in nearly every case. Getting caught in a traffic jam has never been an issue.

    Write yourself a formula that you always use when calculating your pricing and quotes. Make it a formal text document or spread sheet that your refer to often. If you know that it takes you 6 minutes per photo to capture and edit averaged over a whole home, that becomes a piece of your calculation. If you get faster, update your notes. If you know the average gas mileage for your car, you can take that along with the time it takes to drive plus a little for wear and tear as your direct travel cost. (fuel + $$/hour + 2%) You don't have to be exact or too detailed. You are charging the customer a trip charged based on the distance and getting a deduction for the mileage on your taxes that should cover registration, insurance and maintenance.

    Get out Google Earth and draw circles (with the ruler tool) at, say, 10 mile intervals until you encompass all of the cities you plan to cover as part of your regular service area. List the cities and assign a charge to do a job in each one. You can publish the list or use it to deliver quotes quickly. Any towns you don't want to do can be on the list as N/A. You can also have a list of the more expensive market areas that are further out that you want to do and have those on your prepared list as well.

  4. I should add that you don't want to list your trip charge as a separate line item on your invoice. Only break out things that your are willing to negotiate or that are optional. For most RE work it's best to have one line item, eg: Photos of 123 Main St. Center City $200.

  5. @ Ken,

    While I can understand the desire to look at what appears to be greener pasture across the fence, I'd recommend some real homework before I'd commit to driving 3 1/2 hours one-way to shoot real estate. Not only because of the 400 mile round trip, but take an honest appraisal of the level of existing competition in that market.

    That "new" area (Coachella Valley) is actually smaller than the area that you are currently already serving. In addition, let's for arguments sake say that there are already about 20-25 local photographers shooting real estate there.

    Competing on price, is a no-win situation as your expenses will always be more because of your need to travel. But if your work is much better than the photographers already in the market, then maybe local customers will choose you instead.

    Be the way, being a "resort area", means that the market is really seasonal, and so is most of the work. Markets were the population drops by more than 50-60 percent seasonally, is very different from typical residential markets.

    Just my 2 cents

  6. Love reviewing folks' comments as there's always some new idea worth considering.

    Few thoughts:

    * I agree with Andrew Pece: Keep it simple.
    * I have an included 30 mile radius. Beyond that (up to an hour's drive time) there's an incremental increase.

    That takes care of the majority of my clientele.

    * For trip's over an hour's drive, it's expenses (e.g. mileage, hotel, etc.) plus an hourly rate. I've created an Excel template that makes it real quick for me to put together a quote.
    * I also agree with George's comment. Look at the remote competition. I've declined opportunities because, even though the customer -still- wanted me to go do a shoot (10 hr drive or $700 airplane ticket), I simply let them know they could get it done more cost effectively using local talent.
    * Do NOT be afraid to cite your price. You're in this for a profit. If someone really wants you to do a shoot for them 300 miles away because of your relationship and/or work, that's fabulous. Quote them appropriately. Of all the shoots I've done in almost 4 years now, an 1/8th of them, commercial accounts, paid more for travel expenses than for the shoot itself.
    * If you treat it professionally, the bill may be big, but serious customers won't blink.

    * Listing travel on your quote. Here, I differ from Ken's view, primarily due to size of bill. If you're talking an extra $25 for travel, sure, just bury it in your shoot quote as he describes. But, if you're doing a $500+ bid for 20 images, that probably won't fly. Commercial accounts often want it broken out separately for their own accounting purposes (and I like them to be happy). So, this is important: Only list travel as a single line item, all inclusive, on your quote. This prevents the customer, especially bigger commercial ones, from feeling like they can negotiate individual items (like your hourly rate). Simply state your number. They'll take it or leave it. It's also a lot easier, if you do negotiate something, to reduce 5% overall, than nickel-and-dime each individual line items.

    Finally, every once in awhile I get someone ask me to provide them my mileage. I decline. It is my expense to claim, not theirs. I also do not (see note just above) want them telling me, '...well, we only pay X/mile.' That's nice, but I am not their employee nor do I elect to submit myself to -their- travel policies.

    I typically schedule these out-of-area shoots for the weekend whenever possible. Avoids disrupting other work. So when someone wants to pay me $600 to drive a ways for a $300 shoot, I simply turn up the stereo and smile the entire way.

  7. @George, The area I'm looking at is not the Coachella Valley. The reason I am marketing into the new area is that I am not finding any professional photography of the listings. A couple of agents do a better than average (cell phone) job, but not to the level a seller with a million dollar plus property might want to see. I wouldn't try to compete in Beverly Hills, Laguna Beach of Palm Springs. All of those cities are a long drive and have very good RE photographers that would be tough to compete against.

    The resort aspect may work as I am willing to bet that the agents/brokers also manage properties for rent and it can make for good filler work in addition to the homes for sale so I could be shooting all day each day I'm there. I do NOT compete on price and if I were, it would only be if an established photographer in the area was priced very high. I'd still charge my normal prices inclusive of a larger travel charge. I do know that many of the homes in the area are used by the owners to enjoy the local attractions (in and out of season) and are not rented out.

    If I can make the same or more money by driving a few hours a few times a month, I'd enjoy the trips out. Unfortunately, I have more time available in my schedule than I'd like. Most local agents are not willing to spend a few dollars to up their game although if the out-of-town agents that do employ professional photography keep taking more and more of the market, one of the locals might wake up and get with the program.

    One of my goals for this year is to get more work photographing upscale properties. I have a portfolio that is stuffed with boring beige middle class homes. I like to think that technically the images are very good, but the subjects are pretty boring. Getting work at the upper end of the market is very similar to what agents face. It's a catch-22 where you need to show that you have done it to get the listings. It's that rare exception when you get an opportunity from somebody to shoot a more upscale property. Part of getting that chance is putting effort into making contacts that could give you that chance.

  8. @JT,

    If you are working on commercial jobs, having a line item for travel and accommodations isn't an issue if you are charging for both a "creative fee" and a licensing fee. Larger companies also deal with travel expenses all of the time for their own staff and know that it needs to be considered as part of a job.

    I've had issues in the past with RE agents refusing to pay the trip charge or feel that I am gouging them after the job has delivered. This is one of the reasons I prefer to collect payment when I photograph the property or at least before I deliver images. They blank out on the discussion we had on pricing when the job was booked. Many agents I have worked with strike me as more of a hobbiest than a professional. They are also used to driving around without having to account for it against a particular job. All of their expenses just get lumped together where we need to track our costs to make certain there is a profit.

    A good friend of mine many years ago when I had a manufacturing company and did custom development work advised me to never put anything in a quote or invoice that I wasn't willing to negotiate. If there were things in a quote that I would negotiate, he told me to break out some items in that didn't cost me very much that I could sacrifice to preserve items that cost me more where it would be dangerous to cut too much.

    I've never had a client ask for my receipts from a trip or my mileage. I agree that it's not a reasonable request. I only pad my travel costs estimates a little to cover nickel and time items and make a profit only on my time. If a client wants to provide me with a place to stay and have me deduct what I had budgeted for a hotel, that's fine. I'm not adding anything to cost of a hotel other than maybe rounding the price up to an even dollar amount. I much prefer to make my own transportation arrangements. 11 years as a roadie taught me what I hate the most about travel like 2-stop flights with 2 hours of layover time at each stop when leaving on the next flight only has one 45 minute layover for only $10 more. These days I'll be driving unless I have to cross an ocean and I don't think at this point somebody will want me as their photographer enough for a trip like that.

  9. I occasionally charge a separate travel fee for real estate assignments and have never experienced any resistance or attempts to negotiate the fee from clients.

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