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What is A Real Estate Photographer To Do If Agents Don't Pay?

Published: 18/04/2016

SquareUPPriscilla says:

My husband just started his real estate photography business. A Realtor hired him to take photos of a listing, which he did. This Realtor requested he send the photos right away and was very anxious to post them on the listing because they had scheduled an open house for that weekend. The Realtor has posted the photos on the listing but has not yet paid. After "I'll send a check"," I'll send you a PayPal":...,no payment. There was no licensing agreement because he was in such a rush.... Who do these photos belong to and can the photographer (my husband) request they be taken offline due to non payment of the temporary rights?

This is a classic real estate photography problem! Simplify your life and take payment at the shoot. The best way to do this is with which allows you to take credit cards on site. This is the easiest approach for everyone involved.

As an alternative, or PayPal or other services allow you to send invoices and get paid BEFORE you deliver the photos.

Yes, you legally own the photos even if there's no licensing agreement but getting the Realtor to take down the photos would probably be more difficult than getting them to pay. They may just be sloppy with their business practices. You should keep after them (nicely) to pay. After a month or so you could escalate the issue by contacting the Realtor's managing broker of their office. Real estate office managers want their agents to be good business people. So this frequently fixes the problem but not always. As this experience will teach you, life is simpler if you get payment before delivery.

Larry Lohrman

21 comments on “What is A Real Estate Photographer To Do If Agents Don't Pay?”

  1. It's a shame your hubby is having a hard time collecting. While I haven't had the experience myself, when I work with someone who hadn't paid upfront, I always watermark my images with a huge watermark that says "example image, not for commercial use" right across the middle on a diagonal. So unless they're really dumb they likely wouldn't use the image. This way, they get to see the work is done in it's its entirety but you don't give them unmarked files until payment in full has been received. The watermark can be set up and applied to all files when exporting your images from Lightroom.

    Someone had me do a large job for a luxury builders portfolio and I had never worked with them before. It was for a palatial mansion, 14000sq ft, 10 hours to shoot. Also several days in Photoshop. I went in a bit nervous about the money and watermarked the pics as described. The agent reviewed them and was happy with the work. After that, we arranged a meeting and I supplied the unmarked versions on a usb stick and was paid at that time.

    When first starting, I advise you to shoot what you can and hedge your bets on the photos themselves being far more valuable as portfolio material to secure new clients. In the beginning building portfolio is what matters most, IMHO. If you get burned on the deal ask them to make it right and if they don't, move on and learn from it. If they are that unscrupulous they may try to defame you to other agents so it's wise to take as a lesson learned rather than raise a stink.

    Is it fair to get shafted? Of course not, you're owed fair and square, it's a shame people take advantage of others but truly, some things just aren't worth pursuing if it could cost you down the line.

    Upfront payment or huge watermark until payment for all new clients. If you do that I suspect he'll never have this issue again. Good luck and sorry for the bad experience. This is a great business to be in, just keep believing, learning and improving quality of work and success will be yours (or in your case, your husband's).

  2. The local MLS can initiate the process of removing the photos provided your husband can prove that he is the originator and owner of the photos. As in anything else, this takes a little time and the local MLS needs to hear the other side of the story. So it will probably be a while before any action is taken.

    Secondly, a strong-toned email or certified letter to the agent's principle or broker should also capture some attention. I would also send the same letter or email to the local realtor board.

    Lastly, a personal visit to the agent's office and requesting to speak with the business manager or managing broker might capture some attention.

    I'm sorry that he is having an issue with this agent. I too ran into a similar problem with an agent about a year ago. Took 6 weeks to resolve and wasn't until the local MLS agency stepped in, but I finally received payment.

  3. I've only ever had this happen once in 10 years. I took the Realtor to small claims court and won the judgement because I had a signed contract. The contract says all costs associated with collecting payment would also be covered by the client, including costs with small claims court. I highly recommend getting a signed contract for every shoot, especially if you aren't collecting payment at the time of the shoot. It clarifies expectations in addition to protecting you.

  4. I ALWAYS get paid at the time of shoot. All of my clients know and new clients are told when they call to schedule.
    Never have a problem.

  5. Priscilla, I am in the same boat as your husband. But in my case it's the broker himself. His property went on contract a day after I delivered the pictures and he never even posted them. Now he keeps saying he'll pay but never does. It's been close to a month. I understand it's very frustrating. I am contemplating going to small-claims court, but then I will miss at least a day or two worth of shoot (if not more). It's pretty frustrating but I am starting to believe it's time to move on and remember the lesson.

  6. Never get mad, get even. Here’s where ‘contractor’ experience pay off. You should investigate putting a lien on the house. Make sure you have proof that your pictures were used in marketing the property and simply file a lien. You might want to give the agent 48 hours’ notice and explain how embarrassing it will be for him at the closing when the title company finds the lien. Don’t forget the late charges and monthly finance charges in the bill you deliver on the way to filing. And, don’t delay or give the agent more time. Time is of the essence.

  7. @Gary, a contractor's lien is only applicable in cases where there was actual work performed (or materials supplied to a contractor) on the property. It is not an available remedy to photographers.

  8. I've never encountered this issue in my area, but I've always had some of the previously presented ideas in my pocket ready to go. If I don't get payment, get in touch with the broker. If that doesn't work, file a complaint with the local realtor association; they have the authority to revoke a realtor's license in such situations.

    If you ever do work for non-realtors, be sure to have a signed agreement ahead of time, detailing exactly what is expected and when payment is due. And ask for a purchase order number that you can list on your invoice. The PO will help expedite the payment process.

  9. My vow to charge up front lasted about 2 days. One of my best accounts forgot her purse. And, on many of my shoots the broker isn't even present. I all sounds like a great plan but, for me, has been absolutely unpractical.

    What HAS worked is a policy of 'payment before publication'. It's a conversation I have with every booking phone call, first timer or long-timer (usually with a brief apology to the long-timers). This policy cleared up my a/r account almost overnight. It's even a warm fuzzy way to get a few check-senders (usually construction companies) to put a check in the mail THAT DAY.

    If you aren't comfortable charging up front (I really never was) than I think you'll have good luck with this policy.

  10. Priscilla. If you could have see me while reading about your husbands payment issue, you would have seen a man with his mouth agape.
    While I've only been in this business for a couple years, I've found real estate agents to be the most upstanding and honest people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.
    I've never had a problem getting paid here in the Portland area.
    I request payment up front, but don't demand it or hold images hostage until payment is made. I feel that would be bad business. Most of my agents prefer to pay at time of service.

    For those who don't (or can't because I'm on site alone), what I've found is that my invoice gets lumped into all the other bills my agents get.
    Like most of us, my agents sit down once a month to pay all their bills. Mine included.
    After three weeks, I'll send the invoice again with a header of "friendly reminder".
    I've never had to send a second one so I can't speak to those who simply won't pay.

  11. I send a confirmation email once the photo shoot is booked with all the expectations, including how to pay and when it's due by. If they don't pay on time then they get a $25 late fee. If they still don't pay then I contact their broker to let them know the situation. It usually gets taken care of immediately because the broker is their boss!

  12. I think it is useful to compare the getting payment onsite or before delivery policy to what other contractors that deal with Realtors do. Specifically, when I was a Realtor in the Seattle area and home inspectors who typically ONLY deal with Realtors all require payment before they start the home inspection.

    There seems to be quite a variation in what real estate photographers experience getting paid. I suspect that much of that variation is due to the way that each of us comes across to clients. Probably just having a payment policy and making sure clients understand the policy goes a long way to making sure you are paid.

    The most important aspect of upfront payment is that it completely eliminates all activities involved in managing your accounts recievable.

  13. Somehow I remember recently seeing a filing service that sends tiny watermarked thumbs in the payment request and releases the pictures after payment. I can't remember the name.
    I'm not exactly in that same boat, but my wife chasing past due 30 day billing is getting old.

  14. Pay before click. I only consider moving someone to an invoice basis after minimum of 5 successful no-hassle transactions. The one time I varied, because 'my credit card's in my purse, in the car,' I spent 10 days chasing payment. That adds to your cost of doing business, driving down average rate. Don't have time for it.

    In practice, I have (discounting invoiced commercial accounts) taken 100% credit card payment in the past 3 years, all before first-click with the one noted exception. One key, I believe, is in being professional in your discussion so they feel they can trust you. Just like you're judging them.

  15. @Gary -- you can't put a lien on the house if you didn't do physical work on it.

    As for the OP -- you don't say how long it's been since the work was delivered, but most people assume 30 days net is acceptable, and very few businesses don't extend those terms.
    Ultimately, if you don't get paid you should fire that client and move on -- and you should never, ever, EVER work without a contract again.

    I know that "payment up front" is becoming the norm around here, but I have to say it mystifies 7 or 8 years of intensive real estate photography, I never had a significant problem with late payment, and after the 2nd year I'm pretty sure I never had anyone fail outright to pay me. It was really a non-issue. I attribute that to the fact that I carried myself, and conducted my business, as if I were no different than the mortgage lender, the title company, the electric company or the agent's cell phone provider -- all of whom (presumably) get paid according to the terms they lay out at the beginning of the relationship. If you expect people to rip you off, many of them will oblige you. If you expect them to treat you as a professional, then they'll do that. But it all starts with how you are perceived. Do you dress like a grown-up or are you wearing flip-flops and a ratty t-shirt to your shoots? Are you confident and in charge at the shoot, or are you fearful and over-accommodating? Are you willing to say "No" to a request? Do you have policies that you can articulate clearly and consistently, or do you "make it up" each time and apologize for it? Are those terms in writing, or are you afraid to have the hard conversations?

    It's my view that approaching clients with the message that
    1) you don't trust them,
    2) that you are so desperate for money that you have to be paid TODAY,
    3) that you will hold the entire business relationship hostage over a $200 check,
    ...then you're going to get clients who feel the exact same way. It becomes a vicious cycle in which you telegraph that you expect them to be dirtbags, and they validate you just often enough that you never get past it.

    Payment-up-front sends the message that you are small-time. You have to wonder how many RE photographers who demand payment up front also pay their cell phone bill on the exact same day it arrives. At some point you have to decide if you want to be a "retail" photographer, or a B2B photographer. Wanna guess where the money and opportunity is in that choice?

    Lastly, the real estate agents I worked with generally listed multiple properties every month -- they sure didn't want to be writing all those checks, and I sure didn't want to be getting them! One invoice, one check, per month. So easy...for everyone involved.

  16. I prefer to get paid before I start photographing a home, but my better customers get some leeway. I always get paid before I deliver finished images. My customers all know this and it's never been a problem. One hundred percent of my clients pay with a check so I haven't signed up to accept debit/credit cards via PayPal. I prefer PayPal because I have access to the funds immediately and do not have to wait a few days for the money to be transferred to my bank account.

    Some real estate agents are good business people and many are not. I can see in my area that many agents are working in real estate as a hobby from their reported sales figures and probably don't NET any money on an annual basis and should be classed as "licensed amateurs."

    I initially had a problem with an agent that decided that she was only going to pay me 3/4 of what was due, late and the check turned out to be bad when I presented it at her bank to redeem. Since that time, I've stuck with payment in advance of work for most of my clients. It's easier now that I have several years of working in RE photography and can provide good references. I have a bunch of agents that use me 4 or 5 times a year, so I'm not as crucial to their business and may wind up low on their priority list if their funds get tight. A couple of clients hire me 4 to 5 times a month and I'm likely to be higher on the list to get paid by them. Those clients are also the best at making sure there is a check waiting for me at the job or at the office for me to pick up.

    Small claims court in a option, but as already stated, it's a day or two off of work to go that route and you cannot add your lost work days to the judgement. You can send the MLS a properly formatted DMCA notice demanding that the images are taken down due to copyright infringement, but you can't sue for the infringement if you aren't registering your work. (So register your work). If it's an agent that has not paid or bounced a check and isn't fixing the error, a polite email to their broker might solve the problem. Brokers and MLS's do not want to deal with these issues and will fine or fire agents that start generating complaints. There are plenty of agents out there and the best ones are on top of business matters. The best thing may be to ask for payment up front until you are comfortable enough with the client to believe that they are likely to pay bills on time from your invoice. There is nothing wrong with asking customers who want terms to fill out a credit application with references that you can call. Search online for "commercial credit application" for examples.

    One a home has been sold or the agent loses the listing, you have almost zero leverage and may need to take the non-paying client to court to see any of your money.

  17. @Scott Hargis

    +1 to everything you said. I couldn't imagine asking for payment for something the client has not even seen yet. I had the roof done on our rental house costing 6K and would have laughed if they asked for any money up front...why on earth would I pay for something when I have not seen the results yet. The only time I see pre payment making any sense is for a pre manufactured product (camera, computer iphone etc)

    IMO if you cant trust who you are working with to respect YOUR business and pay you on shouldn't be working with them.

    I do Net 30, using Freshbooks to send out automatic reminders at 20 days and 25 days (if needed). On the rare occasion an agent forgets (maybe 3 times in 5 years) a simple phone call quickly clears everything up.

    Maybe its different in other areas, but around here (Toronto area), most reputable companies invoice (house inspectors, stagers, lawn care, roofers, air conditioner repair etc).

  18. This is definitely a big issue for freelancers or independents, especially in markets like mine where there are established companies that have agreements agency-wide across many/all agencies, and office staff in place to bill and follow up.
    I think photographers don't love asking for money, esp. broaching that subject at the shoot, but it's key to get paid or a guarantee while you are still in control of the images.
    I am using Lance Selgo's platform ViewShoot ( which has a free 30 day trial- tons of value-added features and he is totally responsive when there is a question from either me or when I need to reach him on behalf of a client.
    His site works with your stripe account, so you get paid quickly for credit card transactions, and it's easy for me to keep track of shoots that are being billed to a marketing coordinator for an agency with multiple agents on one account (that are on NET30 terms with me).
    I cannot overstate what a terrific platform Lance has built- this time last year, I was fishing around for a more professional means to deliver my images to agents with a built in proofing step, before files were just available for download (I don't love blasting proofs with watermarks as a deterrent, and my wife hassles me about dropbox/gmail exchanges) and I couldn't find anything. We almost had a web designer build this kind of integrated platform from scratch.
    Now, I pay a subscription fee, and images are delivered in zip files- two sizes, MLS and full- to my agents for proofing, and they can pay then and there to enable downloading, or for my accounts, I can lift the fee and trigger an email which lets them know images are finalized for download.
    Also, with a full subscription, a branded or non-branded virtual tour is included, for some markets I bet this would be a big plus!

  19. Interesting various responses to a rare problem in my experience. Shooting since 2008, over 5000 homes shot during that period and over 600 clients, I have only missed a payment for a shoot one time. That is my basis for what I'll say next.

    When first starting, missing a payment was a big deal so I can understand the signed contracts and payment up front prior to delivery but I would agree with other comments that Real Estate people are nearly all very honest people and many if not most experienced Realtors have experienced the pain of not receiving what they were due. They respect the small business person and will always pay.

    In my efforts to grow my business, I was quite willing to deliver and receive payment afterwards. Usually payment was by check and I typically carried $3K-$5K in receivables on a monthly basis. After awhile, I determined that accepting credit cards either on site or through my website and absorbing the processing fee of a few dollars was well worth receiving the money within a few days. Now, my receivables beyond 7 days only runs less than $500.

    It is an easy story to sell in convincing the Realtors to pay with a credit card by explaining that you understand cash flow and by using the credit card, they can take as long as they want to pay.

    It changed my business whereas I do not spend a lot of time chasing Realtors for payment, which I do not like to do anyway. Besides, continually reminding Realtors that you need payment, seeking out their office manager, contacting MLS service to complain, etc. is a negative side of business which I don't care to dwell on.

    Reputation is EVERYTHING in this business. Most of my solid leads and 'forever' clients have come from a personal referral from another client. It will not get any better than that and I want all comments and impressions to be positive with no negatives. That is worth the $1500 or so I pay for processing fees every year. It is a marketing expense.

    Just another angle.....

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