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How To Handle Personal and Religious Items In Real Estate Photography

Published: 12/11/2014

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StagingEric raised the following question:

I had a situation yesterday at a property and wanted to know how you and others handle religious items.

Yesterday, while on a shoot I was working with two realtors. One was very adamant about removing the religious items without asking. The home owners were the nicest people, but had many religious books, and crosses in the home. Also, the wife was disabled and connected by a very long tube to an oxygen tank.  I hid the tanks to avoid them in the camera, but didn’t want to ask them to remove any of the religious articles as they were very active in their church which I could tell was a big part of their life.

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 of the seller, including items that are strongly religious, while the property is on the market. You are presenting the property, not the sellers. Some listing agents are better than others a 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 if the seller most sellers will understand and enthusiastically comply.

This market preparation process is NOT the photographers job. It is a key part of the listing agents job and it should be done before the photographer even arrives. The photographer should not have to stand around a 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 check list to provide clients so that it is well understood what it means for a property to be photographer ready.

Larry Lohrman

13 comments on “How To Handle Personal and Religious Items In Real Estate Photography”

  1. Larry said: "This is a subject that the listing agent should handle." But often don't. I am one of those photographers who will stage my shots, which includes moving personal items and so on, religious icons can be deemed offensive to some people but I would agree with Larry that it is not my place to cover that topic with the home owner, It's not like asking to move the coffee maker or reposition a couch so I will take the photos and then get with the Realtor® offsite to discuss it. If he / she is in agreement, content aware fill becomes my friend.


  2. By the way this does not only apply to religious items but also to any sign of social activities of the seller. May it be fan articles of his favorite sports team, the display of preferred brands or products or his political orientation. This all belongs to the RE agent's (or 3rd party's) task to de-personalize the property for a sale, not only for photography but also for viewing appointments. I have published a checklist for this: The only context this kind of items is okay in the final image, is when the property will stay in a kinda closed circle of owners / users, like church or company homes.

  3. Larry nailed it, It is NOT the photographers job to prepare/stage the property for photos. That said, Bruce is correct that far to many agents fail to heed prep advice.

    Myself, I do not waste my time "staging/cleaning/fixing" properties that are not prepared ahead of time. I found long ago that if you do as Bruce does, the agents will just count on you to keep doing it. If you are doing any kind of volume, you just are setting yourself up to be late for the next appointment. Impress/train your clients/agents that you are there to photograph the property..... nothing else.

    All of this can be avoided though if you just start with a clear understanding of what your services cover and what they do not with your clients.

  4. I have religious items specifically as one of the things to remove on my prep checklist. The very few agents that are proactive in getting their clients to prepare their home for sale by having them remove these items. I'm more than happy to work with sellers to help them make their homes ready to sell, but it's at additional cost. If an agent has hired me to photograph the home, I expect to walk in to a home ready for me to make images. My pricing has been formulated to give agents the best possible price on the photography. There isn't room for me to spend significant extra time staging/cleaning.

    I'd love to see some stats on how much time agents spend working with their clients on presenting their homes in the best possible light. In my area, the number has to be close to zero and it's the sort of thing where an agent's input is going to be the most valuable.

  5. @Oliver: Thank you for sharing your checklist. One thing I noticed in the second dot point is the word "stools". Perhaps use "chairs" or "furniture" instead. Words often have multiple meanings. I'd be happy to proof read the whole checklist for you.

  6. @Dave: Thanks for suggesting the correction. Btw there is the same second meaning for this word in German, too. 😉 If you find any other translation mistakes, please, just shoot man an e-mail.

  7. I often find that agents believe photographers should "use their better judgement" if pillows need to be fluffed or towels removed from the bathroom, etc. It is hard to get the agents to understand that photographers are NOT stagers, especially when we are coming into the home to photograph after the stager has already been there.

    I like the checklist you shared Oliver, however, does anyone have a checklist that they give agents that is more specific to having the home "photo-ready"? I am thinking of creating something like this but also have disclaimers on there that that we are no responsible for moving items, etc., and also to ask if there are any specific areas/details of the home that the seller wants photographed. As stated above, the seller is comfortable in their home but the things that they love the most may not be something that the buyer will love the most, so asking for suggestions ahead of time will help eliminate any issues of pointing fingers that "the photographer didn't showcase my home properly because they didn't take a good picture of my new kitchen backsplash!"

    So does anyone have any checklists or forms like this already established?!?!

  8. I, too, have a checklist available for Realtors and homeowners. I find Oliver's checklist a little extreme and feel that some of my clientele here in St. Louis may find it offensive. I know that total depersonalization might work well in marketing the home, but selling real estate isn't all about the marketing. My best agents excell at relationships. Most of the time the top agents use their client management skills to achieve a good staging result, perhaps there is still some things that could have been done (windows are a pet peeve, admittedly), but for the most part the homes are photo ready.

    I do ask realtors or homeowners for light bulbs if any are burned out or missing, but if they are unavailable, guess what? I brought a box of various bulbs with me and might have one in my car. (I buy them for pennies on the dollar at garage and estate sales). I will move stuff around, such as those confounded vertical paper towel holders that clutter up every kitchen, towels hanging from the front of fancy stoves, throw rugs covering beautifully reflective hardwood floors and fuzzy covers on toilet seats for a few examples. I warn the clients when I walk through the door that I will move some things and try to get them back in their places as I go. This is one thing that sets me apart from most of my competition, and that improves my photographs for perhaps a bit better product than the next guy.

    Of course, if the place is too bad I will move onto the next property - my clients understand this - it's quite often hard to get on my schedule so they don't like to waste my time. Or theirs. This is another reason to pursue the business if the top agents in your area. They get the best results.

    I think that in today's world there is plenty of tolerance - although here in Missouri I might avoid shooting a witchcraft display or something blatantly racist (actually have been presented with both), but some religious items aren't going to distract greatly.

  9. I think I agree with all of the comments above. I am shooting real estate for the same prices I charged when I first started out in commercial advertising back in 1976 so there is no time pad built in for doing the staging if I am not also charging for that specialty. But i am not a stager. A good stager can transform a house.

    At real estate shooting budgets, you just have to move through quite quickly just to cover the house and property and visually make them look their best. Other than repositioning foreground furniture, there is no time to style the house as well especially if it is a large house and property.

    I was doing my economy shoot for a client a few weeks ago that was bare of furniture except for the living room which was spartan. But the owner had come by between the time the agent had cleared the house for shooting and my actual shoot. Clothing had been dumped from the closets on the livingroom couch, what lamps and brickabrak there was was sitting on the arm chairs. Really no choice but to quickly put the clothing back in the closet and set up the living room to look as good as it could. A small 2 bedroom, 1 bath so budget and time was tight but it still has to present itself as well as it can what with blue paint in the kitchen and 50 year old cabinetry and bathroom. Sigh. But it still deserves my best efforts for a very good client. So I find that if I am getting a good income stream from a regular client, I will go that extra mile to sort things out.

    It seems to me that this topic came up a year or so ago when another link to a check list was posted which I copied, adjusted to my business and distributed to my clients. They were very appreciative but I notice no changes in real life.

  10. The worst one I ever had was a home decorated in shrine-like fashion like a Tjuana taxi... Hesus, dead relatives, and incense candles, along with ever other bobblehead, doo-dad, glitter, beads, etc all over the whole freakin' house. "Staging" wouldn't be the right word for what was needed. In the end, all I could do was very selective framing to avoid "less" of the jumble.

  11. I will agree with the general comment that staging is not a photographer's job unless he markets himself as a photographer & stagger.

    As for the removing personal/religious items - I think for the most part that is bunk. It has been repeated so many times people think it is a fact, but I challenge anyone to find a large study proving it. The closest study is one done by Duke University that give people a list and asked them what they though was important. It did not verify if homes depersonalized homes sold any differently that personalized homes.

    That doesn't mean cleaning and staging a home won't help, but depersonalizing is usually bunk.

  12. Thanks for the feedback,

    it is quite interesting how everyone looks at this situation and approaches it. Most of the time, I have the realtor do a walk through the property.
    This was the first time I encountered someone who had so many religious articles in the home. I just took it for granted that under the severe disability of the owner's wife and how involved they were with the church, I would work around it.
    But after hearing all the feedback from my fellow real estate photographers, I will bring this to the attention of all my agents in the future.

    All your comments were very helpful.

  13. @Eric - It isn't always that there are religious symbols displayed in a home, but that you run in to the situation you found where there is so much that it's overwhelming. The same thing happens with Disneyanna, world dolls and tons of other collectable stuff. I laughed when I read Kelvin's comment. I haven't seen a house as he describes in years, but I got a strong mental image and cringed.

    Depersonalizing is a lot about decluttering. If the goal is to reduce the gross tonnage of possessions in a home so it shows and photographs larger. Personal items are a great place to start. The seller is going to be moving shortly with any luck and a head start on packing is not going to hurt. Professionally staged homes are, I will grant, are on the bland side. Furniture and accessories are there to give the spaces scale. The size of a bedroom is much easier see if there is a bed and a chest of drawers. Forty family photos on the top of the dresser just looks messy. Three is usually considered the most visually pleasing number of things. Forty crosses on a wall looks more like an arsenal than anything else.

    All people have prejudices. Religion is the most divisive. Anything a seller can do that minimizes a buyers reservation over submitting an offer and ultimately buying the house should be undertaken (within reason).

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