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How Far Would You Go To Clean Up For A Real Estate Shoot?

Published: 08/04/2014

ListingCleanupFred Light recently posted a video in the PFRE flickr forum that he did last December about the work that listing agents do cleaning up listings getting them ready for market.

Helping home sellers get their property parade-ready for going on the market is one of the toughest but most important jobs that a listing agent has. All sellers need some amount of help and some need a lot more than others.

As a photographer you need to take steps to make sure you don't end up in the middle of this problem. That is, good listing agents take care if this issue and work closely with home sellers to make sure homes are ready for photos before a photo shoot is even scheduled. On the other hand, some don't or don't do it as well. As a photographer working for the listing agent make sure you are clear about where your limits for clean-up and decluttering are. Here are some suggestions:

  • It's not the photographers job to clean up and declutter a home or to stand around and wait while it's done.
  • At the same time, little things you do during the shoot like moving a stack of magazines or taking a towel off the refrigerator handle can make big  visual differences.
  • Have a statement in your terms of service about this issue.
  • Provide a home preparation list of recommended things that the home owner and agent should do to prepare for a shoot. Again, good listing agents don't need this but others need to know what you expect.
  • Once you've shot for an agent a few shoots it will be obvious how diligent they are at preparing for a shoot so you'll know who to remind about this issue.
  • With a new client, a short conversation about home preparation up front will tip you off on what to expect.
  • Beware of homes being sold while renters are still in the home. Many of these renters have no incentive to cooperate and frequently listing agents have no control over getting them to cooperate. Expect the worst!

I suggest that you think through how you feel about this and know where your limits are before your first disaster occurs that way you won't have to make it up on the fly. Sooner or later you will arrive at for a shoot at a home that it a total mess. It's just a matter of time.

Larry Lohrman

26 comments on “How Far Would You Go To Clean Up For A Real Estate Shoot?”

  1. This is a timely posting for me. I send my clients a two-page checklist to help them get a listing ready for a shoot. Even with the checklist, I spend far too much time prepping and staging for a shoot. In the past, I have been offering my photo preparation service for free. When I found myself moving 12 bags of mulch that were scattered across the lawn of a client's listing (the owner and the realtor were not at the listing to move the mulch), I decided it was time to start charging a staging/photo preparation fee. Surprisingly, agents don't mind paying for this service. I probably don't charge enough, but at least I'm now getting some compensation for my time and I have more control over the content of my photographs.

  2. Perhaps it would be good to solicit pre shoot instructions photographers have used successfully. I give the agent a "ready-shoot-aim" list that let's them know how important preparation is. Also, burned out light bulbs replaced and lamps that are actually plugged in.

  3. A very good topic. I work with a good crew of agents who pay a lot of attention to this themselves since I have pretty much limited myself to upmarket properties whose owners have usually paid desecrators to do up the house or they are desecrators themselves and use the house as a show case for their talents. Either way, I am being paid for my time and have no hesitation in moving the small things around. I also do a walk through included in my price a day or so before the shoot and identify with the agent all the problems I see.

    But I am running into this on the more modest homes that I am folding into my business plan since in my area there are not that many high end properties for sale nor agents who are selling them to provide a good income stream. I recently shot a 3 bedroom ranch in a development with renters who were pissed that the house was being sold out from under them. I had to move cloths strewn around rooms, make beds and try to hide dirty dishes in the sink. But I could only do so much as it was an Economy Package with a 1 hour shoot and I could not spend most of that staging the house. My client also sells the high end properties and understood completely but was walking a fine line between the seller and the renter whose good will he needed in order just to show the house. All this to say it is just not always possible to fix environments and ask permission to move a resident's things first. Then try to slide dog beds out of the shot, hide other things behind lamps or other room features, shoot low angles, darken the images in post to render the offending bits and pieces less noticeable or crop them out.

    In our area, there is a company that specializes in staging, but it seems that it is the low value housing that needs it the most and commission percentages limit budgets for this. There are some real estate photography companies that make it clear that their photographers are not allow to touch anything but provide guide lines for home owners and agents. Since most of my clients commission me for both the high end and the lower end, their loyalty leads me to give more than I am being paid for on the economy shoots.

    But to make a living at this career, you have to depend on volume to be profitable and time is of the essence so you can only do so much included in the shoot. But that is where the pre-shoot walk through can prime your client for the problems to be expected if the clutter is not dealt with.

  4. You also need to consider your liability. For example, if the photographer's light stand falls and damages an expensive painting on the wall, his liability insurance will probably cover the damages, But if the photographer moves the homeowner's floor lamp over a couple of feet to stage the photo, and he does't have the owner's explicit permission to move it, and the lamp falls and damages that expensive painting, chances are his liability insurance won't cover the damages.

  5. I used to hand out these prep sheets to my agents so they could pass them onto their clients. After a while they all forgot to pass them on/didn't want to/etc. since this year I changed my approach to this: I usually get an email form my agents with the address and the home-owner's phone number. I call them , set up an appointment. I then send the homeowners a text to confirm our date and add a link to my own website where I have a big list of things they can do to prep the house, what to expect,... (I of course asked all my agents for their permission to do so) and ever since I have hardly had any problem! When I arrive at the shoot and ask them if they went to my website 99% says they did and it helps me a lot!

    Check out my list of tips at!tips/ctqv (it is in dutch, but you can use Google translate or something, you'll get the point)

    If anyone wants to copy my list, feel free to do so!

  6. There are some good suggestions here that I'm going to look at very hard. Last week I had an agent call to set up a shoot. He said that the house may be a bit messy because it's a Dad and his son living in the house with the wife and daughter already moved to the next location. My client said he would be happy to pay a bit more for any inconvenience. The agent had his assistant meet me at the house to open up and help pick up the clutter. Well the clutter was a foot deep. Well almost but what a pig stye. It's a nice home with good bones but unless they get a bulldozer in there nobody will be able to see it. The assistant and I did the best we could with in reason and got the shoot completed. I called the agent the next day right after I delivered the images to let him know that I did the the beast I could under the circumstances. He said the images were fine and that he would talk to the owner about doing a clean up and maybe another shoot. Who knows if that will happen but it does tell me I need to be more prepared for dirty houses.

  7. I ask the listing agent to set up a meeting with the sellers and also for a walk through the house.

  8. This is very timely for me as well. Recently made the decision to let go of the clients who consistently had listings that were unprepared, despite a check-list of what could be done to prepare the home. I added a policy to my terms of service - that although we are always happy to make small adjustments, we will otherwise be shooting as-is and not moving personal items or tidying up. Also added that we will no longer be shooting rental homes (as there were too many sketchy situations including some of the issues listed above). Some clients came to rely on us as a cleaning service and that is just not what we do, I wanted to focus my time and energy on the shot.

  9. Michael-
    I would've taken a few quick pics on my phone and texted them to the agent (which I have done), and tell them that I need to come back when the house is ready for me, otherwise the pics will not look good.
    I had to go back to a home three times until the house was ready. The agent understood, and paid the travel fee (that is spelled out in my terms and conditions document), but was very unhappy with the occupants. She made sure it was ready when I showed up the third time!
    I know it sucks to have to put your foot down, but it's not our job to prep the home.

  10. In my experience, real estate agents seem to ignore property preparation checklists. Fortunately, it is common in my area for properties to be pretty well prepared, at least in the upper mid range and higher end markets. However, sometimes things get missed or forgotten about, or a particular seller might not be as cooperative as one might wish, in terms of prepping the property. Nevertheless, it is the real estate agent's responsibility to see that the property is prepped for photography and my terms specify that I will shoot the property as is. In practice, I will generally help out with a small amount of decluttering or rearranging if needed, but I will not spend more than about 5 minutes on that, and I am not going to wait around on site for extensive decluttering to occur. All set up of a room needs to take place before I start shooting the room; and, if a room is not ready when I am ready to shoot it, I will shoot the room as is or leave it out entirely.

  11. I state in my terms " that the property is photographed in as-is condition and therefore should be staged and photo-ready prior to my arrival." If they ask what that means, I suggest they prepare the property as if they are having an open house or showing. It is the agent's responsibility to market the property (product). Mine is to photograph the product they are marketing. Of course I'll move a few items or hide them as necessary. But, if there is junk and clutter everywhere and perhaps dog poop on the bed, then I will light it as beautifully as I can. As a photographer, my cleaning fees are currently at $1200/hr. No takers yet.

  12. @Karl - yes, this photographer in Oslo has the same policy as Travis in Maui. everything photographed as-is!

  13. Its nice to see I am not the only one who runs into this problem. I try to get everyone on my page but I show up and it can be a real mess. The problem is I have just driven 30-60 minuets and don't want to leave and come back.

    Some agents are great at preparing the home and some have no clue. I move lots of stuff and try to get good shots. After 10 years I have seen things no one should have to see. Its a crazy world and we are walking into peoples homes.

  14. I should add that I don't see many un-prepped properties anymore. The "as-is" thing is more of disclaimer so my clients don't expect me to provide any staging items or spend a bunch of time rearranging their furniture. In rare cases, I tell my client the property is not ready and reschedule. At this point, my clients know what I need to do a good job for them and so they work with the sellers to get the properties ready to sell. For the more difficult sellers, I tell my clients to make me the bad guy if necessary. "Tell them I won't shoot it, if it looks like that." I'm an artist not an insurance adjuster. It's really all about the end product; to present the property in its best light and the sellers always end up pleased with the results.

  15. I'm running into some of this a lot, even on higher end homes. I tell people what to expect and how to prep the house. But generally, its the homeowner that either cooperates - or not. The agents I have been working with are actually quite consistent. Its a matter of how much control they have over a given situation. I had one shoot that should have taken about 90 minutes, but it took 3 hours because of the clutter. I couldn't even do an entire room because I just had to shift the junk around - clear one area - shoot it, move the crap back, shoot another area etc.. The result was not as good as it should have been, but to do a better job was going to take 5 hours which was obviously not an option.

    Many times, homeowners are present and move things around for the shoot for me. But this too takes time. This wasn't such an issue before I started getting busy, but now its becoming a real hassle because I'm now getting more than one shoot a day and scheduling becomes a real issue.

    So thanks for the tips. Once again - much appreciated!

  16. @Jan - The Google translator is always lots of fun. I like the layout of your checklist.

    @Karl - The kitchen is messy, but I have seen much worse.

    I haven't run into pet waste at a home, for which I am relieved. I limit moving stuff around to getting decorative items out out of the foreground and touching up streaks on otherwise clean reflective surfaces. I'd be happy to spend more time arranging rooms and providing staging services, but in my area it's been a tough sell just to get agents to have me take the photos. I would think that the homes on the lower end of the scale would benefit the most from proper staging. It could possibly add thousands of dollars to the sale price.

    I have not photographed a home yet that is occupied by renters. Everything has been vacant or owner-occupied. I'll have to add that to my question sheet when I talk to agents and make sure I prompt them to make sure the property is ready when I am scheduled. I have a question list that I print out and use when I'm being booked for a job. It helps make sure I have all of the information I need before I get to the home. Address, contact numbers, back-up contact, time of appointment and size details are obvious. I also want to know if the power is on, water is on, may I use the restroom (got the 11th essential in the car if there isn't a ready supply), alarm code, agents favorite features to try and capture. I'll just add a prompt to check for hostile natives. It's also good to know if there is heating/cooling. I'm in the desert where summer days can be blistering and it gets down to freezing in the winter.

    I have shown up for an appointment and found that the painters were still finishing painting trim and touching things up with plastic sheeting and drop cloths covering the floors. Now I make sure that any work being done is complete. I ask that question specifically as if I just ask if the property is ready for pictures, they may not even think to check that everything is not only supposed to be finished, but actually is.

  17. I was once hired to photograph a 7K square foot home and when I was done the seller refused to pay for the photos because I did not stage the home. As always I learned my lesson the hard way and now I have something in writing that says staging will cost extra and is separate from photography and I have to charge extra if I have to wait while someone moves stuff around. I would like to charge double if the homeowner is following me around but I have not reached a level in my career where people would hire me if I did that.

    I will move the towel from the handle on the fridge and I will put the sponge next to the sink in the sink where it won't show up in the photos and I close the toilet lid and re-arrange the pillows on the couch without complaint.

  18. I do have my 21 Tips To Prepare (great suggestion from Larry's eBook 🙂 that lives on my website and that I send to every new client. One of my first questions when I arrive is , "do you want me to make additional suggestions"? The answer is always an emphatic yes from the sellers and most Realtors. I find it helps to set the parameters.

  19. Good timing on this article! I met a new client yesterday who said she may or may not give my "home prep" list to sellers depending on the seller. She said that usually homeowners are so frazzled and drained by listing time that she doesn't want to put even more pressure on them with a big to-do list.

    I understand where she's coming from, and in the end it's really her job to sell the place so it's her call whether she wants to push a seller to get everything as tidy as possible. Luckily yesterday's sellers had the place looking like new.

    Speaking of tidying up, I can't count the times I've gone to shoot a back yard only to come across a minefield of dog poop. Last weekend a seller's yard literally had a pile of poop every 6 inches. At least it wasn't raining.

  20. @Jeff - I would think that the job of a good agent is to offload the frazzle inducing aspects from the seller. It's not really a "big" to-do list. It's a call for the seller to thoroughly clean their home, perform some minor needed maintenance and a few extra tasks specifically for the photos. We have put it all in a check list just to make sure it all gets done. The prep is not only valid for photos, but just as important for showing the home. While we live in our homes, we don't often worry about the dishes in the sink, the magazines and newspapers here and there on the coffee table and clothing draped on chairs and left in bathrooms, but these all detract from the impression that needs to be made to a potential buyer. It could leave thousands of dollars on the table or slow the sale of a home by months. The agent isn't doing the homeowner any favors by not pushing the seller's into getting their home ready, really ready, to sell. In fact, they're cheating them out of those thousands of dollars and lowering their own commission.

    I don't know about you, but I am not creatively inspired when I'm presented with a dark, cramped and messy home to photograph. The best photos you will find on the Flickr group are light, spacious and tidy. Those photos are probably of such high quality because the photographer was eager and encouraged by the home to do really good work. I know my work is better when I photograph nicely staged and clean properties. Even vacant homes can get the creative juices flowing better than a hovel. The same thing happens when I'm playing drums. If I'm jamming with good musicians, my performance rises. Especially if the bass player has talent. If it isn't a good group, I end up with the feeling that I couldn't have played worse with both of my arms in casts.

  21. @Ken

    Heh... drummer here too, and I know what you mean. It's tough to feel the groove when your bassist can't find the downbeat.

  22. I have a three-page pre-shoot checklist that goes to all the agents and owners. And in my terms, I state that if a home is not ready on the scheduled day, and I am not able to finish the shoot due to owner/agent lack of preparation, I charge an additional 50% to return and finish. I also do not photograph rentals for all the reasons mentioned by others in this thread.

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