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The Real Estate Photography Business Is Cyclical - Plan For It

AlanPopeThis is not news to anyone that has been close to the real estate business for a while. However, I thought it would be useful to talk about this subject for those building their business in real estate photography.

The message is: the real estate photography business is very cyclical because the number of listings that come on the market is very cyclical. So you should expect that your number of shots could vary by as much as 50% over a year. Here's some data from Alan Pope & Associates in the Seattle area NWMLS that shows you what to expect:

  1. First of all there are special factors that can make this very different from city to city and year to year so I'm talking conceptually here.
  2. On this chart "inventory" means number of homes on the market. This chart is for a very large area (population is ~2 million). King County is the area surrounding Seattle, WA. This chart covers a time span from 2008 through present.
  3. Notice how even though each year generally starts low in Jan, peaks in late spring or summer and goes back down in Nov and Dec, the differences in the shape of the chart from year to year are large. Like 2012... what's going on there?
  4. The other interesting thing that this chart shows that in 2008, 2009 and 2010 when the homes were hardly selling at all, there were a huge number of homes on the market. My friends in Seattle were telling me during that time that real estate photography business was great. They were busy because there were a lot of homes that needed photographing!

So the conclusion is:

  • Your income from real estate photography probably will never be uniform over a years time so you should plan for that. One solution is to arrange for some temporary help during the busy season.
  • You may feel like you need help during May through Aug and you may want to go on vacation from thanksgiving through new years. People just don't want to put their home on the market during the holidays.
  • Just because homes aren't selling doesn't mean there won't be a demand for real estate photography... it may go up.

If you have access to your local MLS you can create these charts for your local market, but be forewarned it's harder than it looks. My wife Levi and I use to make these kind of charts by price range for the builders we represented to help them make good decisions.

12 comments on “The Real Estate Photography Business Is Cyclical - Plan For It”

  1. For my area, in Ottawa, Canada, that is exactly the flow. One way I have found to boost revenue in the slower times (Thanksgiving to Christmas) is to email my clients and remind them that seasonally accurate exterior photos are a real benefit (we get fall and snow here) - I always get a good response on that and my clients appreciate the thought.

  2. Off cycle is great for expanding the network and ensuring you are taking time to listen to what clients are needing. I also use it to announce/develop a fine arts portion of my business. For me this increases networking by discussing a different subject with designers & realtors. I can reach for EOY dollars that company's may have to refresh their offices. Lastly I can network for commercial business also.

  3. The "off-season" could also be a good time to hit up realtors that have homes that have been on the market for a while with images that they took, maybe for a temporarily reduced fee for refresher (i.e. better) photos. Those you havent worked with before...

  4. All of my business's have been of a seasonal nature. You learn not to spend everything you get the moment you get it. The 'off' times are great for obsessing over how to take to the next level. Continuing education, or as some like to call it, YouTube. 🙂

  5. This is my first year doing RE photography and my Oct and Nov have been very slow and I expect Dec to be the same. Does it usually pick up a bit in Jan?

  6. @all - As usual, great suggestions for filling in the low activity months.

    @Mike - It's difficult to generalize. As you can see from the King County chart, usually it increases Jan through June but there can be factors that make some year different. E.g. King County in 2012 it dropped from Jan to Mar and then was flat all summer... I have no idea what caused this... could have been some local factor. One thing you can be pretty sure of is that it drops during Nov and Dec because very few people want their home listed during the holidays... some home sellers take it off the market then.

  7. Just curious... during the gov't shutdown, I got zero calls for real estate pics, then after it resumed, phone started ringing off the hook. Did you guy experience the same thing, or was it just my imagination? People freak out sometimes over stuff like that, waiting to make big moves or decisions till the dust settles.

  8. Just because homes are less likely to be put up for sale from Nov-Jan doesn't mean that there isn't work for a real estate photographer. Small resorts, B&B's and Inns in picturesque areas might respond to the suggestion of having photos made to show off fall colors, winter snow or their cheery holiday decorations. Mountain and ski lodges that are open in the winter may also need updated property photos and lifestyle images showing winter activities and the view of the snowscape outside the main room window. A photographer I knew in Hawaii was looking for ways to branch out from his journalism photography at a local newspaper and I thought that with all of the rentals, he could work night and day.

  9. "The other interesting thing that this chart shows that in 2008, 2009 and 2010 when the homes were hardly selling at all, there were a huge number of homes on the market. My friends in Seattle were telling me during that time that real estate photography business was great."

    Interesting...2009 and 2010 were two of my worst years for shooting real estate. I don't have a large real estate client list and am not as prolific as many other photographers in the Seattle area though so maybe my lack of "diversification" was the cause.

    I'm speculating of course but the 2012 graph may represent the Seattle real estate market finally hitting "rock bottom." Homes come on and go off the market for a variety of reasons but there will always be a baseline number of homes for sale at any one time that remains relatively steady regardless of the season or market conditions. These are the people who NEED to list their homes - job relocation, retirement, foreclosure, estate sales etc. I think in 2012 the market was whittled down to primarily those owners who needed to put their home on the market and thus the inventory was pretty steady for the whole year. Those who didn't need to sell their home waited on the sidelines - taking their home off the market or trying to rent it.

    Tracking inventory statistics is kind of a roundabout way of demonstrating the seasonal/cyclical nature of real estate photography. Perhaps a more straightforward method would be to ask some established photographers to chart out the number of listing they have photographed each month for the past few years. Could be interesting - especially the data from those photographing hundreds of listings a year.

  10. Another factor to consider here, a bit less tangible, is the market that exists in brokers heads. In cycles when market time is short, (sellers market) agents are less likely to make that 'extra investment' for 'additional marketing'. Some think like 'it will sell anyway, I don't need to spend $ on photos, flyers, etc. In more balanced markets, the better brokers will beef up their marketing efforts.

  11. Off-season is a good time to take care of computer and software upgrades. Much easier to do when things are slow especially compared to a computer dying in the middle of the busy season.

    Also a good time to experiment and learn new shooting and processing techniques.

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