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Shooting Vacant Properties

Published: 18/07/2019

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A little while back, I was shooting a vacant home for a local property manager. About 30 minutes into the shoot, the front door gets busted open and I find myself standing there, camera in hand with 5 guns pointed at my head. Turns out there was a silent alarm that the property manager hadn't made me aware of and the owner of the property had no idea anyone was going to be photographing the property so when the police called to inquire about the alarm he simply stated that it must be a break in.

I was pushed up against the wall, told that I was being arrested for felony break and entering; cuffed, and placed in a cop car. It took about half an hour before the police, homeowner, and property manager were able to connect and confirm that in fact, I was just there doing my job and there was nothing to worry about. This was a huge learning experience for me. Thankfully, the situation ended with no major issues (other than a dirty set of drawers) but it could have very easily gone the other way. We've all seen videos of people being mistakenly shot by law enforcement and if I remember correctly, a real estate photographer in Atlanta was shot by a homeowner back in March of 2018. These are real, tangible risks in our profession, and we need to be diligent to ensure our safety.

Here are a few guidelines to follow when shooting a vacant property:

  1. Double and triple check that the homeowner, realtor, property manager, bank rep, etc. are all on the same page, and know you will be on site at the confirmed day/time.
  2. Let someone close to you know what property you are shooting and when you expect to be done ( I almost got locked in a storage room at a vacant commercial space the other day, if I hadn't caught the closing door and my wife didn't know I was there, I would have been toast.)
  3. When you arrive at the property, do a thorough walk-around of the entire exterior; you never know what might be lurking in the yard, sheds, garage, etc.
  4. When you approach the house, knock loudly and ring the doorbell a few times before entering.
  5. Once inside the property, announce yourself as loud as you can. Make your presence known and go through every room to ensure there is no one on site.
  6. When the shoot is complete, make sure you double check all doors and windows to make sure they are locked and sealed so that in case of a future break-in, you've covered your bases and won't be held liable.
  7. As you're leaving the property, call the booking client to give them a summary of what you've encountered during the shoot. Be sure to mention any damage you saw, doors/windows that didn't work properly, etc. This will go a long way if anything were to ever happen at the property after you were there.

Note: If you show up to a property that is supposed to be vacant but there are people inside, DO NOT ENTER! Turn around and call the booking client.

If PFRE members have anything to add to this list, please don't hesitate to comment below.

Brandon Cooper

15 comments on “Shooting Vacant Properties”

  1. Always lock the doors so no one can come in and surprise you.

    Quick story: I banged on the front door, rang the doorbell and even called out loudly (there were a couple vehicles in the driveway) before entering what was supposed to be an unoccupied home. I should have walked around the house but that would not have helped either because as I walked in, I could see out the large windows overlooking the deck, the naked female homeowner was getting out of the hot tub. I quickly went back out the front door and kept ringing the doorbell until she answered. I believe she did this on purpose. Theres no way she did not hear me before I entered the home.

  2. I've triggered multiple alarms over the past 9 years. About half of them have had law enforcement respond, and every time they have responded they have been courteous. They usually ask to see my license, and then I usually open up my car to show that it's full of equipment with my info on it. That would be a much shittier situation if they came guns drawn. Now, twice I've had officers approach my vehicle guns drawn because I was parked in a neighborhood common area editing while waiting for my next appointment. Go figure! I go through the rhythms of every property I've been given access to where no one else is (or should be present.)

    Confirm and reconfirm address (I've definitely had many occasions where the agent has given me the wrong numbers)

    If there are ever signs someone is home I contact the agent to verify. (trash cans at curb/full, vehicles in driveway)

    I never walk around the home exterior until I have confirmed that my lockbox code / door code / key in hand fits the door lock. If you're at the wrong address, you don't want to be accused of snooping around the property.

    I always ring, knock loudly, announce "photographer here for XXXX agent / agency" when entering and wait at the door for a response.

    I lock the door I entered through and keep the key on me (I've locked myself out of a home several times by leaving the key on a counter and going out the back doors which were set always to lock) You don't want someone else walking in behind you. If I get the key from a combo box, I close it and scramble the combo as well while I'm shooting.

    As mentioned, if something looks strange or out of place I usually photograph it and let the agent know. I do check all the exterior doors before I leave to make sure they are locked.

    Most of these steps I learned from the first year of shooting with agents present.

    On the note of safety, my calendar has my appointments (and it's synced to my wife's calendar as well) but she also has the login information for my mileage tracking app, TripLog, which will show a map of where I am if for some reason I'm not responding.

  3. A silent alarm is a bit unusual. They are generally used as a robbery alarm where it could be a bad idea to antagonize an armed robber. It's unfortunate that the police in the story were more anxious to wrestle you to the ground than to use their brains, ask a couple of simple questions and not burst a blood vessel. Standing in the middle of a vacant home with a bunch of photo gear (by yourself) shouldn't look like a crime scene.

    I've had one alarm go off on me in seven years and it was a vacant home. The owners had just moved out and for some reason had armed the system. When I called the broker to get the code, he didn't even know that there was an active alarm on the home (phone was off so it couldn't dial the police). The broker was able to reach the owners and get back to me with a code. I waited outside in case the police did come and left my gear in my car. I didn't want to drive off and have a neighbor report my license plate number and arrive home with the SWAT team waiting from me (yeah, my city got a load of military gear and they love to play soldiers).

    I've added an "alarm" check box to my booking sheet as a tickler to ask clients if there is an alarm and what the code is for vacant homes. I won't let myself into an occupied home. There are so many details to keep track of that having a booking sheet is a great way to remind yourself of all of the questions that are good to ask when scheduling a job. Power on? Specific photos wanted? Contact info, etc. You also want some basic information as a double check that you have the correct house. My area has streets with the same name but are "Lane", "Way" or Avenue. You could also transpose the numbers and wind up at the wrong house. That's happened once to me and it's a bit embarrasing.

    I always do my walk through with my gear in the car. Squatters aren't unknown in my area and with HUD and Fannie Mae homes, they can have been vacant for some time and it's possible that somebody has set up a "commercial" enterprise in the house filling small zip lock bags. They may have also been used to hold a party and are trashed. If I need to get back in my car quick and get away, I don't want to be weighed down with a bunch of photo gear that I'd have to leave behind. The upside is that I can find the shortest path to bring my gear in rather than using the front door and carting it miles to the kitchen, usually.

    Vacant homes often don't have the power on, so the doorbell might not work. I'm not so sure that loudly announcing your presence is a great tactic. You may be better off finding somebody without them knowing you are there ahead of time. It could give you an extra stop in the exit direction if it's prudent to pull chocks and get out of the door fast.

    The overarching best advice is to be aware of your surroundings. Are there cars in the driveway? Do the doors and windows appear intact? When you open the door, do you hear anything out of the ordinary? Is there a bunch of trash inside? Does it smell like somebody has lit a fire or been cooking recently? The worst thing you could do is bang your way in talking on the phone and loaded down with all of your gear.

    I will always call the agent if I arrive and find damage or signs of forced entry including damage to lock boxes. As soon as I'm done, I call to let them know I've finished the photography and tell them if I found doors or windows unlocked when I got there. I make the rounds when I'm ready to lock up and leave to make sure I've turned everything off and all windows and doors are secure even if I didn't open them. I want to establish the time I leave and by stating that I have checked the security, I'm letting them know I have checked. Contractors can be really bad about locking up. I often find things unlocked and windows left open. It might be the upper story, but the contractors will leave an extension ladder in easy reach sometimes.

    Along with my booking sheet, I print out a copy of the email I get from the agent with the information on the job. It's something I can show to the police if I need to. The more I look like any other contractor on a job, the less likely it is that the police are going to bang me up in the slammer for the weekend because the (*&*^ agent isn't answering their phone.

  4. Bottom matter what you do, this situation can occur to anyone. Have your ducks in a row with who booked, where when and company.

    I had this situation on a Thanks Giving weekend. Wednesday, late in the day go to shoot my last property...Have the combo for the key, quick easy in and out... except the homeowners left the undisclosed alarm on when they left for a ski vacation. Good thing, the police took long enough to show up that I was able to complete my shoot...Bad thing was that they DID show up as I was leaving the property.

    Long story short, the officers knew one of best friends who was a police officer in a neighbor city and he confirmed I was a good jerk. Otherwise I would have spent the holiday weekend in the clink... matter what you do, shit happens, just roll with it

  5. RE:#6 -DO NOT lock all doors and windows - leave the property how you found it. If you see something that you think should be locked call the agent/contact. Out of habit I locked a basement door once, but the owner didn't have a key so it required getting a locksmith. In new construction it's common to allow access by using the garage code, if the door from the garage to the house is locked no one will be able to get in.

    +1 for Frank's comment on locking the door so you can't be surprised. Multiple times I've had people walk in while I was shooting a home. Most awkward time was when the house was listed as a rental, I was there taking photos for another agent to list the property for sale when the rental agent arrived with a showing.

  6. Aside from the possibility of hyperbole.... if true, why in the hell do police officers act like that? Are they incapable of assessing the situation.

    Guy + camera = photographing property.

    It's not a significant mental calculation.

    Firing a warning shot into somebody's head should only be used when all other avenues have been exhausted. geez already.

    And if I hadn't had the very same treatment in my own property because the alarm went off and I couldn't remember the code, I'd have called BS. I literally had to jump through hoops to prove to the officer that I belonged in my own studio. You might say "don't you want that kind of security?" and I'd say "NO I don't want THAT kind." I'd rather have Barney Fife than Rambo.

  7. Let's add a word of support for the men and women of law enforcement, lest this thread receive any more snarky comments about officers "playing soldier." In fact, law enforcement today is, unfortunately, becoming increasingly life-threatening. How would we handle having to enter every home with the possibility someone is just around the corner waiting to put us in the grave? It might have a negative impact on our business and the precautions we would take before doing our job. Most cops are heroes. . .men and women who genuinely desire to serve the public at the risk of their lives. . .yes, there are bad cops. . .just as there are bad RE photographers, bad real estate agents and. . dare I say it. . .bad homeowners!!

    Sorry for the rant. . .but for every story of bad policing, there are 100 tragic stories of officers losing their lives to "protect and serve," like in our area, Officer Ashley Guindon, 28, of the Prince William County, VA Police Department, two years ago was killed answering the call for a domestic dispute. . .it was her first day on the job as a Prince William County officer.

  8. I agree with Kevin. The police want to come home to their families every day, just like you and me. Too many crazy people out there that they have to deal with, so I can understand them playing it safe.

    While I have never had the police called on me, I did have a photo shoot where I was given the lock box code and had the impression it was an staged and unoccupied home. After I got inside, I opened the door to the back yard to check what looked like a garage turned into another bed room, to see if it would need photos too and if I would need another key for that. As I walked towards the garage, three large dogs come rushing from the doggy door on the garage towards me ! I slowly backed towards the house, as I slowly realize they are just friendly dogs wanting attention.

  9. Here is a company rule that we set up the day we went into business: No photography without the real estate agent actually on site. No substituting homeowner for agent (unless of course the agent is the homeowner or it is a FSBO).

  10. I just want to clarify that this article had nothing to do with how the police handled the situation, it was just the event that reminded me of the risks that are associated with our profession. The police got a call from the alarm company, checked with the homeowner and he said no one should be in the house. I was in the kitchen where they couldn't see me so they had no idea what they were walking into. I wouldn't expect them to handle it any other way. I actually ended up shooting the house of one of the cops a few months later and he asked me if I was shooting a vacant property a few months ago and got stormed by a team. As soon as he asked, I recognized him as the officer who cuffed me. We had a good laugh about the whole thing and when I was done shooting his house I thanked him for not shooting me. Bottom line is, we just need to be aware that crazy things like this can happen and it's our responsibility to mitigate the risks.

  11. This is a great topic to discuss! Thanks Brandon for bringing it to attention...

    Thank goodness I have not been in a dangerous situation in over 10 yrs of shooting full time but I have set off alarms and fought off attacking cats (yes, attacking cats not a typo...dogs, no prob...cats and one gerbel that bit me...) I have been thrown out of a condo by rude and obnoxious renters that werent even supposed to be occupying the condo at the time...

    It is always a good idea to make sure you double, triple, quadruple check on not only the scheduling of a shoot time with the client and contact but also things like access instructions, and most notably alarms!

    Just a couple weeks ago I shot twilights for an agent and the builder - the agent had ordered the previous interiors and daylight exteriors and scheduled the twilight on her own... I had to get inside to turn on lights (we usually appreciate having the lights already turned on for us as some of our properties are large with extensive lighting and landscape lighting) but this was added last minute. I opened the front door and in two seconds started hearing the beeping of the alarm... and then about two more seconds and its blaring and (new to modern alarm systems apparently - talking to me lol!) anyway.. I proceeded to turn on lights at same time texting the agent .. she said she didn't think the alarm system was supposed to be armed and didn't think it was connected... so she frantically got in touch with the builder and he was able to disarm through his cell phone ... so I was almost done shooting and did a double check up around the home for hidden landscape lighting before I packed up and here comes the Metro Police... not my first rodeo so I wasn't too concerned as Ive met many police officers while working... and they are all always very professional and courteous! Anyway, since my camera was across the street, she couldn't see my camera so took a bit to believe me lol! I showed her the lock box and told her it was new and vacant and even offered to call the client to have her speak to them... but she finally got it ...

    The thing is that because I was working on a tight schedule for the twilight... if the officer had pulled up while I was turning on lights... and held me there for a while... I could have quite possibly missed all my windows for obtaining the exposures, and lost work and money and time for that job. So, its important to take all the steps you can to insure the conditions at the job.

    Our office will schedule and double triple check with clients to insure all info is correct and that they have understood the date and time and our TOS ... and then I or our other photographers will txt or call the day before to confirm again... if we don't hear back and have exhausted trying to contact them, we don't go and the job is put on hold.

    Also a great practice, is to try to insure that if its a vacant property, have the client or an assistant meet you at the property to let you in and make sure everythings good to go.. it helps to insure that no mistakes or miscommunications take place but also they can see the property as you are seeing it... see trash, cars, mess... or general conditions that are not expected... as well they can be the liaison between you and the owners if applicable. They don't have to stay the whole time just at least meet you to open up... actually its probably the best option overall to just make sure a representative is meeting you no matter what it is! Its harder to do for some clients but really a good insurance step for us.

    I always lock doors as some others have suggested if Im alone once Im inside... and yes, I will carry the key in my pocket in case I get locked out... another thing I do for that is if Im inside and out during the shoot, I won't close doors completely... especially on balconies or backyards etc.. I will just pull to enough that it doesn't fully latch but so that it doesn't appear open if Im taking a shot back at the door.

    Finally, after insuring your scheduling is straight and clear with the client, make sure if you are showing up by yourself to ring the doorbell and/or knock loudly, and wait and repeat for a couple minutes before you enter... just to be clear that you are about to enter... and once inside, announce your presence loudly... over and over several times to insure no one is surprised... it can happen even in a vacant home.. sometimes there are renters, sometimes there are contractors that you didn't think were there etc... sometimes there are pets that aren't supposed to be there or loose that come running or can startle you... you never know... I consider my tripod a weapon if I need it so I always make sure Im carrying it with me as I check things out... lol! Also, if its occupied and you are there alone... be aware that everyone has cameras and are most likely watching you... so be extra careful and respectful... funny, I hate having to locate fan remotes or sometimes as I stage (minimally) I will hunt for books or magazines to use and I always talk as Im doing it that Im just looking for fan remote or a magazine etc and not casing their home lol! I wave and point and act like they are watching even if they are not lol!

    Anyway, long and short - communicate over and over until its annoying... it can only help and at least you know you have done everything possible. If clients can't work within your needs then probably best to not further the relationship.

  12. I keep expecting to have similar problems but fortunately I never have in 8 years of shooting RE. But then I always have the agent with me when I enter a home. If they are going to be late or are late, I call them and sometimes they tell me to go on in if the owner is there or the door is unlocked. So with the naked lady syndrome in mind, I always ring, call out if I actually enter the house. Generally I use the time to check out the property itself and unload my equipment, set up the camera and tripod, assemble the stabilizer and slider, convince the drone to synch with my tablet and controller and so on. Clear off the memory cards, check that I have extra batteries in one of my pockets, have another sip of my cooling coffee, a bite of an energy bar and usually the agent has arrived by this time and he or she lets me in. Rather have them encounter the guard dog or cat or owner dressed in whatever than me.

    Now that I think about it, I realize I did have one incident a year ago. One of the few times I did not have my major client with me. I was shooting a 40 acre long thin ranch with a nit of orange grove at the far end and a small shack where an old guy lived who I was told had been informed I was flying over the ranch taking photos and video with my drone. Turns out he never checked his answering machine and took out his shot gun and shot at my drone which while hit by a few pellets continued to fly after self stabilizing and once returned to daddy, daddy and drone packed up shop, called the police and client and whipped off back home.

    Guns are not permitted to be fired in city boundaries no matter what, and this property was just inside those boundaries. So after many phone calls between my client, the owner and her garrulous old dad (yeah the guy with the shot gun), I insisted on a police escort back onto the property to make sure there were no lingering trigger fingers at play. Turns out the police woman (who the other policemen are terrified of as it happens) recognized some of the other young men on the property as having been involved in drugs locally. But I have to say that that was the only such incident I have encountered in all these years.

    All this after I had joked with my client that I hoped there was no one around with an AK-47. Well there wasn't, just a shot gun.

  13. On Halloween a few years back I was given two "unoccupied properties" to photograph. They were both on a lockbox and it is common for this agent to not meet me, she's pretty hands-off, which is nice.

  14. *Dammit - I dropped the mouse and it saved my comment before I was done!*

    On Halloween a few years back I was given two “unoccupied properties” to photograph. They were both on a lockbox and it is common for this agent to not meet me, she’s pretty hands-off, which is nice. Both properties were in the city, one in a somewhat dicey area, so that was the one I went to first. It has been my experience that criminals are more likely to be active before dawn and after lunch, so I went about 10 am.

    I performed all the above suggestions, knocking loudly, etc. and got the key from the lockbox and opened the front door to a one-bedroom condo type townhouse - I could see all the way from the front door to the back door through the single hallway - the only break in between the front room and the kitchen area was the single bathroom.

    The first thing that struck me was the ceiling fan. I had never seen a ceiling fan turning so fast - it even sounded like a small helicopter and was rattling something awful due to the speed it was turning. Then I noticed the place was hazy - but it didn't smell like smoke, only the typical inner-city unlived in for an extended period home. I took a few steps forward when I saw the bathroom light was on and I started to push the door open further when I noticed someone's ass squeezing through the small window to the outside. I was a little surprised, well, quite taken aback, actually, so I kind of backed up out of the bathroom and looked to the left to see all the appliances in the kitchen tipped over and these holes in the walls behind them where someone had been ripping out the copper pipes and such. I could hear the neighbor's dogs barking at the alley where I figured the invader or invaders were currently hauling ass away from there.

    I still don't understand what was going on with the ceiling fan and why it sticks so forward in my memory. I backed out of there fast as I realized I could be in danger and it would be a shame to lose the $10k worth of equipment in a bag on my back. I got in my car and called the cops and then the realtor to report what had happened. She asked me to wait for the cops to arrive, so I commenced waiting. After about 40 minutes I figured they were otherwise occupied, so I locked the door on the unit and left, again calling the realtor to let her know. I somewhat shakily headed to the next property.

    The next one was a huge, probably 8000 sf brick Victorian structure that I had been looking at from the highway for probably a decade as it slipped into disrepair. It then looked like a haunted house with boarded-up windows and part of the front porch flooring collapsed. This was an as-is property and I was just to get a few exteriors and a couple of representative interiors for the MLS. It, too, was on a lockbox and I made a lot of noise before I popped open the front door. By now, as October 30 sometimes goes, the weather had turned to more of a winter-like atmosphere with a dark sky signaling an upcoming storm of some sort, probably a cold rain. It was Halloween-gloomy. It was not without trepidation when I opened the front door and started to step in when I realized something wasn't right. I let my eyes adjust to the dark and realized there was no floor! The floor had apparently totally rotted away or was removed at some point. I almost walked right in to fall into the basement (filled with who-knows-what, I'm sure), but by dumb luck was saved from my own ignorance. I again called the realtor to let her know and to ask why she had not told me about the floor. Well, she had never been inside - it was too spooky and she just slapped a lockbox on it. As I was talking to her, I noticed a big spider web with a nice big spider on it in the well where my dashboard gauges were. I went home to prepare for trick-or-treaters because I knew it was time to give up.

    That was a weird day. I have set off several alarms since, and not once has a cop showed up. I shot a whole 1700 sf home with the alarm blaring - took about 50 minutes, but I just put on my headphones and cranked up the music. Neither the realtor or homeowner answered my phone calls so I just locked it up and left with it still alarming out and several neighbors looking on from their porches and yards. I just waved because I wasn't certain what else to do and I had a couple of follow-on appointments. I was paid, no questions asked and no further comments on it.

    I've also gone into properties that I wasn't supposed to be in because of the wrong address given to me or because of my own stupidity. They just happened to have a Supra device on them and be for sale like the properties I was supposed to be shooting. The first one I didn't realize until I opened the door to be confronted by a large, pissed off wolf-looking dog jumping towards the door with its teeth bared and growling deeply. Then I noticed the sign in the yard was someone I didn't know. There was a sign from my realtor down the street at the property I was supposed to be shooting. Another I set off the alarm and after I noticed the home was far from ready I called the realtor and she determined she had given me the wrong address. She was as surprised as I was that it had a Supra. No signs involved in that one. I let her figure out who the actual realtor was and left the alarm blaring again. I shot the house down the street at the right address and after I got done at least an hour later, the alarm was still going off with no sign of the cops.

    I have since determined that if you are in the city of St. Louis a burglar alarm is a waste of money. A big, nasty dog probably works much better.

    Be careful out there!

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