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What's Your Policy Regarding Tidying/Staging at a Real Estate Shoot?

Published: 27/06/2019

Author: Tony Colangelo

Carla, of Denver, CO, writes:

“Recently, I’ve had a few shoots where the homeowners didn’t do a great job of cleaning prior to the shoot. At one house, after the homeowners left to give us the run of the place, my agent client was clearly very upset, muttering under her breath as she was tidying up. Given how ticked off she was, I wanted to help (want to be seen as a team player, right?) but I’m mindful that if I do this once, then I’m locked in to do it all the time. Thoughts?”

Thanks Carla. Yes, that can certainly be a sticky situation. Before I give you my two cents on this issue, it’s important to note that one of the key responsibilities held by all real estate agents is to ensure that the house is in ship-shape when it comes time to hold an open house and/or be photographed. While most agents (and homeowners) are quite diligent about this important responsibility, there are variations regarding commitment levels to clean-up and de-cluttering before a photoshoot.

One of the most important things you can do to support your clients in this regard is to offer a “home preparation checklist” of things that the homeowner and agent should do to prepare for a shoot. In fact, not doing so was listed in a recent article that I wrote, as being one of the top-10 mistakes a real estate photographer can make. You’ll find that good listing agents will take this seriously and won’t need to be reminded about it. With a brand new client, it definitely pays to have a brief conversation about home preparation. In both scenarios, the importance of a tidy home for a photoshoot should be discussed in the “agent’s language”; not yours. In other words, rather than highlight how an untidy house will disrupt you and your workflow, make it clear that an untidy house will impact the quality of their marketing efforts which in turn, may impact the speed with which they end up selling the house. When you present the consequences in a way that impacts them directly, they’ll be more likely to respond well!

I know there are many in our community who believe that we should offer zero help in tidying the place while at a shoot because it is not our job to do so. While it’s not our responsibility to clean-up and de-clutter, I personally believe that there are little things that we can do during a shoot that can make a positive impact on the final shot. For example, moving distracting elements (tea towels hanging from appliances drive me crazy!) and organizing magazines/books on a coffee table will often go a long way to improving the shot. When I’m shooting a kitchen, which is usually the "hero-shot" room in the house, if the scene lends itself to it, I will ask the homeowner for a coffee mug and a magazine to place on the kitchen island and then make a decision on flaring out a stool closest to these props. This creates the sense that someone had just finished having a cup of coffee while reading. I think this serves to increase the sense of “livability” for the prospective buyer who’s going through your client’s listing.

I actually feel strongly about the importance of helping the agent tidy up a bit. Why? Research in the field of cognitive neuroscience has found, repeatedly, that the human brain prefers organized over disorganized and tidy over untidy. The way I see it, it’ll take just a few seconds to do any of the sample tidying/staging that I’ve just noted and by doing so, I’ll probably end up with an image that will more likely resonate with the viewer. And by the way, I’m not advocating doing this in every room in the house, as I know this would add up. I’m simply suggesting that in the hero-shot rooms, it’s more likely to make a greater impact on our final images if we take just a few moments to tidy/straighten-up a bit.

My final point is a word of warning... beware of shooting homes being sold while renters are still living there. The photo that’s at the top of this article was taken by me at one of my first real estate shoots. The homeowners had told the renters just two days before my shoot, that I was going to be there. My agent client told me to expect the worst and she was right! The renters were furious at getting booted out and they went out of their way to leave a messy place ... including not flushing the toilets! In fact, the photo that I’ve listed here was the neatest room in the place!

So, what other advice can you offer Carla? I'm looking forward to seeing your comments. Thanks!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

22 comments on “What's Your Policy Regarding Tidying/Staging at a Real Estate Shoot?”

  1. I will sometimes help in minor ways, particularly if the agent needs a hand for something that needs two people. Most understand I am a photographer not a stager / cleaning crew. On the flip side, I do dress up a bit when working (casual dress slacks, dress shirt) to look professional (good in a number of ways) and helps "say without words" that I am not dressed to be moving furniture around. Perhaps the gray hair helps a bit with that as well ;D

    In fact I am usually hesitant to move personal belongings at all, without specific permission (shampoo bottles left in view in the shower, etc). Some people would feel a bit uncomfortable with strangers messing with there personal stuff, and I would not blame them.

  2. This is a customer service question to a degree. If you like the client you're doing work for, and something would make the situation better and them happy, would you do it? If a one-time thing of helping tidy turns into a repetitive task for each shoot moving forward, talk with them.

    I know my clients that demand the best and my clients that don't really care. I do different things for each.

    For the clients who only want the best -
    If I show up and the home is obviously not ready (and the agent isn't there) I contact them and see if I should proceed. If the agent is there, they will usually tell the owner we need to postpone so the owner can handle the task at hand. Sometimes the agent will make the most of the time I'm there and allow me to guide the homeowner what should be done for when I come back (the agent always pays me extra for my time even if I don't ask for it.)
    If the owner has made an effort to get 90% of things done and I see something that would easily make the shot 100%, I do it. I move the trash or wind the toilet paper back up, or hide the two things left on the bathroom counter, or line something up for a shot. It's part of the service I provide (and the good agents know it.) I've taken over several accounts that another photography company in town had because the clients asked me if I would make the shot 100% - as simple as closing a shower curtain or hiding a trash can or even shutting a toilet seat, something the other company didn't do.

    For the clients that don't care -
    I shoot every home as I find it (except toilet lids always get closed, window coverings opened.) If the agent doesn't care and the owner doesn't care, I really don't either.

    Know your clients, know their expectations, and provide great service when needed.

  3. I'll close a toilet, drop stuff to the bottom of a sink, move kitchen towels.

    But if the agent is working at cleaning a place up, I will help unasked

    I feel it's the right thing to do as well as buttering the pay hand.

    For those that feel to good or portant to help, all I can say is 'thanks for the new client'

  4. Carla, I've been in your situation many times when I was starting out. I tell my new agents, to please do a walk through before I get there and to make sure it is ready for photography. if not, I have to charge to come back. I will always walk through before I start shooting and ask the owner or agent to turn lights on or off, fans off, add something like a decorative plate or bowl on a table, a plant in the corner or on the bathroom counter. On my website, there is a section, called preparation check list that I made up using suggestions from many of our fellow RE photographers. there are times I know in advanced what condition the home is in and will try to work with my agent to suggest that they move some items and remove the clutter. when it comes to minor things like personal items, I always ask the agent to move them or have the owner to remove them. Lamp shades for instance, I will never move and ask the agent or owner as these can be fragile and don't want to break them. I'll also inform the owner and some agents that my insurance will not allow me to move anything as i am not covered for damage. with many of my agents, I try to help as best I can, but try not to move anything. I too always dress professional, and wear a monogrammed shirt with my Logo, to look very professional. I don't want to move anything and would like to just start shooting as soon as I get there. I don't want to spend more time than I have to, and sometimes tell my agents I have another shoot after theirs. I truly don't mind telling the client what I think will look great, but I don't want to be the moving guy.

  5. It has more to do with an "it's not my job" attitude. There are many reasons a photographer may believe they shouldn't clean. Plus, what do you know about the situation you are walking into? If I think a place is messy, I'll ask the agent how they feel about the situation. If they want to go through with the photos I tell them I shoot whatever they give me to shoot as they give it to me. I assume nothing about the situation.

  6. I shoot houses on my lunch break and after work/weekends. If Its on my lunch break, I've told them, I dont really have time to move stuff/wait on you. Sometimes Im shooting a back room while they are still up front cleaning/staging. After work, maybe, but I'm not cleaning the house. I'll move a dog crate or something like that. I'm also in dress slacks and nice shirt during the week, so that helps. On the weekends Im a little more slow paced and will help with some things. My one agent stages all her homes so she cleans most all of them anyway. And they all have my checklist.

  7. It is up to the agent to insure the home is ready to photograph....period. Agents that do not take the time to check on the property a day or two before the shoot are not doing their jobs. Our office gets requests for appointments weeks out from agents "getting" a listing. We always reply with, call us once you are ready for photos and we will get you in.

    If there is a situation were the owners are frail, disabled, etc., then I will do what I can. If the situation is the result of poor agent service, then I just shoot it as is. I do not shoot one property a day/week or whatever, I have other properties to shoot through the day and those clients who are prepared, deserve to be serviced as expected.

    This is a business, if you have clients that are always putting your schedule at risk, expecting you to "clean up", be a "team player" or whatever then you can either live with it or as some above say, let them go to those that will be eager to please. Personally, I want clients that are professional and take their jobs as important as I do.

  8. I think Jason Page hit it right on the money on each point. A few things I'll add:

    Avoid the "that's not my job attitude." Try to educate your clients in a subtle and polite way if they tend to have listings that are not in great shape.

    For the clients that like to tidy up and make adjustments throughout the shoot, communicate that it's easier and faster for everyone if they arrive early and make those adjustments ahead of time.

    Some agents prefer to have the photographer there to get feedback on adjustments and tidying up, they're leaning on you for a professional opinion, which is OK. Use the pre-shoot walk through time to make those suggestions and then strategize to work in different areas. For example, after the walk through we'll recognize that all of the bedrooms/bathrooms are good to go but maybe the kitchen needs some tidying up. I'll start shooting in the bedrooms and bathrooms and have the client tidy up the kitchen. By the time I get to the kitchen, the work is done.

    Be flexible but mindful of your time and set limitations. If the client consistently exceeds those limitations, that's a different conversation.

    Team work makes the dream work. Use it liberally but don't get taken advantage of.

  9. Seems to me there's a line between a walking into a disaster and tidying up a bit. I don't do high volume so I have the luxury of being able to move somethings around a bit if needed. I also to do a walk through as soon as I get to a home. I'll note the big problems and ask the homeowner to work on those while I shoot a different room. Being flexible and helpful is a service I want to give to my clients because that is what I would want in return. It's important to not let yourself be taken advantage of. If I give an agent a little extra effort when I need to draw the line they will take me more seriously when I tell them the home is too much of a mess to get decent photos, let alone great photos.

    That said if the home is a disaster I'll discuss with the agent if it's worth even starting.

  10. after reading all these excellent feedback, I think I will take my " Preparation for a photo shoot" page (which I feel some people never read) and make a copy and keep it on my computer desktop.
    now, I will send it as an attachment to all my new agents when they book a tour. then I know they understand what I am expecting when I arrive at a shoot
    thanks for this post, I should have done this along time ago!

  11. Many of my agents depend on me to suggest adjustments to show the best use of space. Minor furniture adjustments, surface tidying, and yes toilet seats are a frequent part of the job if we care enough to deliver great images. Those of us who have done this for awhile quickly recognize what a difference it makes to adjust the angle of a chair, or remove soap bottles someone forgot. I think it is reasonable to tidy a bit, but this too - I never "un-tidy" by putting those soap bottles back on the counter. Homeowners too busy to take care of the details themselves can look under the sink for their soaps. This is of course within reason - homes in major disarray get rescheduled, but when it is small things, we should keep it in proportion. Let's not assume the agent is not doing their job when homeowners fail to tidy as promised. I worked with a new client recently who said their previous photographer shot a dining room and left a McD's take out bag front and center. We never complain about those homes in pristine condition, lights on, seats down, and that we can shoot in 20 minutes.

  12. Wow. Where to start. I have to say in many cases the Agent is blindsided by the fact "their" client hasn't done as instructed. So, in this case I will go the extra mile to "help-out" the de-clutter process to an extent. There are so many variables to the assist however, such as my schedule for the day and if I have time to spend and if it will add more than 15 - 30 minutes to my shoot time. I will ask the group; what do "you" do when the home is a disaster and the provided "to-do" list wasn't adhered to. At all. I typically strongly recommend rescheduling with a fee for time.

  13. Like most here, I too send out my checklist and a brief note about the importance of preparation. If there’s enough time before the shoot, I also follow up with a phone call. I’ll spend as much time as is needed to take good shots and however much time is needed to process. If a stager is involved, I’ll communicate and advise them. That IS my job and I’ll do it to the best of my ability.

    But, we’ve all encountered the “We have three kids and a dog, and we’re still living here, so this is the best I could do”. I’m not going to go on and on about how to say it, but what needs to be communicated is, price cures all objections. The agent has spent the money for professional photography and I’m going to provide great pictures. What’s in those pictures is up to the seller. They’re going to get somewhere between ‘highest price per square foot in the last year’, or what rehabbers will pay. A savvy agent, working with a good photographer and a cooperative seller will provide the former. And at the risk of sounding brutal, I’m the only one in that equation that gets paid the same regardless. Move something to improve the shot? Yes. “Tidy up?” No.

  14. I agree with pretty much everything said above. Recently I have had to shoot a number of properties that were not ready to be shot but I had to anyway. One had a home owner and declutter person working ahead of me so I did a walk through with both of them pointing out things that needed done. The other was not being lived in but had had an open house and bits of food and packaging were still on counters and floor in the kitchen. So I did clean those up. Faster in person than in Photoshop. Both were with a very good client so I spend the extra time. What does drive me crazy is when the owner schedules their grounds maintenance team to arrive at the same time I am shooting. I had to shoot the grounds with both drone and on the ground, stills and video so I had to come back after the 5 man team had left so I charged for the extra visit.

    I do supply a photo prep sheet to all my clients on a regular basis. But clients are all rushing to get the property listed and do impose a lot of pressure to get the place shot asap and often have me come back when everything is actually ready to shoot to then swap out the better images/video later. I do charge for another visit and processing which they are happy to pay.

    But I hesitate to move things other than toilet paper, WC lids, towels, things in the kitchen. In many houses we face a liability if we should break or damage something. I worry enough about my small equipment bag that I sometimes have over my shoulder swinging and swiping something off a shelf, table or counter. Has not happened yet fortunately. So I always work with the home owner and have them deal with those things. Owners are so accustomed to their living space that they simply don't see the issues that we do. I am the same way in my own home. For then the photos of the kids and grand kids under magnets on the fridge are just part of the place, they don't see them as a problem as we do. I just explain that buyers want to see a fresh canvas on which to impose their own photos, their own family and their own life. That usually lights the bulb behind their eyes and they rush to declutter as I shoot the garden, pool or something else. I usually shoot the exteriors first leaving the interiors for when the sun is higher in the sky anyway, so a walk through on arrival is essential and give whoever is there time to make the changes. But it is amazing how owners and agents manage to declutter the garden(s) but just don't see the bright green or orange garden hoses strewn around the place and even when coiled reach out and grab the eye.

    But I have had to shoot the occasional house where the owner did a great job of decluttering the house and prided themselves on their foresight to order a Pod, bright white, and put everything in that. Unfortunately they usually put it in the driveway right in front of the garage. Sigh. Challenges the photographer's creativity and cropping ability. Hopefully there are trees and shrubs to help obscure it but not always.

    So I agree with almost everything said here. My clients appreciate the fact that I am willing to make the best of the shoot and will do a little rearranging. But I make it very clear that I am not a stager, declutterer and it is not my job nor what I am being paid for for many reasons. So if the property is not ready to be shot I always go over that with my client if they are there and if they are not, I give them a call and ask if they want me to come back when it is ready. The important thing is to communicate in a reasonable way rather than any hint of confrontation.

  15. I got into an insurance claim a few months ago. House was empty besides dining room, which had a dining table upside down on a blanket. Agent said once I had completed family room, we would slide table into it to shoot the dining room. The agent was a senior and so I took upon myself to slide the table. Long story short, i had no idea the blanket was an electric blanket which had plastic outlets that were under the table. After about 7 feet, i saw scratches on the wood floor. OH SHIT!, was my thought. Who the hell uses an electric blanket to safeguard a floor and table? Anyways, the agent immediately asked if I had insurance. Gave her my info and filed a claim. Never heard from her again.

    So now, I will only move small items. Never will I pull up blinds, move furniture or appliances, sweep, and change light bulbs.
    And to the dreaded question, "Does this look ok?," I ALWAYS say yes.

  16. When I shoot or train my students to do REP we provide a comprehensive checklist that is given to the RE agent so the residence can be prepped before we arrive. I do not move or clean anything and I tell my students not to do it either. This is a business, as is real estate, and our job is to photograph or video, not stage and clean. I only read a few of the responses above, but in them I did not see anyone mention the liability aspect - one of my students had to replace a $500 bottle of perfume because it spilled as she was moving it and someone else was accused of taking a Rolex.

  17. True story. Happened just today.

    Met homeowner and agent at a $3,000,000 listing. After talking about the desired shots, I turned on some lights. As I was doing it, the homeowner shouted at me to not touch any lamps because some of the were worth $10,000. Coulda fooled me cause they looked like nothing special. At all. Who wants to move things?

  18. I do and I don't. My official policy is that homes are photographed as-is. I allot a certain amount of time for each job on site. If I spend it all staging, no photos are going to get made. Fortunately, my best customers have been using me for years and know how to get a home prepped before I show up. I try to sit down with new customers to get them onboard with spending the time to make sure their listing is ready for photos and showings and how to cajole the owners into doing the work. It's worth thousands for owners to do the work and even pay to have professional cleaners come in for a good scrub. I have a list, but I really rely on agents to work with the sellers for specific advice. I'm happy to make a visit and go over a home with the owners in advance. I charge for that and don't offer the same in-depth help that a stager might, but it gives and agent an outside "expert" if they need to convince their client. A big issue is that if I have multiple jobs on a day with defined times, if I spend too much time on one first off, I'm going to be late for the rest. Being right on time for appointments is a cornerstone of my business philosophy.

    My unofficial policy is to do what I have time for on case by case basis. I always do a walk through so I know what I have to work with and if I need to order the images based on the sun or other considerations. If the owners are there, I'll put them to work detailing rooms ahead of me by removing trash cans, putting down toilet seats, removing rugs, turning off lights, raising blinds and all of the other little stuff that I will normally do and the things I will not normally do without permission. I will also ask them right at the beginning if there is anything of exceptional value or fragility that I shouldn't move. What idiot buys a $10,000 lamp? Well, if there are a few, I don't want to touch them. I may also not want to photograph some things. I had one home with an original Picasso. I had them swap it out with a painting from another room just to be safe. I'm often arranging chairs and getting rid of the huge thing on the kitchen island that blocks the view of everything behind. Oh yeah, always ask about blinds. Half the time they are broken or you have to be very careful that when you pull on the cord so the whole thing doesn't come crashing down.

    On a rare occasion I will help (not do on my own) move furniture, boxes and other stuff. I do this in important rooms for the "hero" shots. I depends on how much it will help the image and how long it will take. I'm not going to go through the exercise to wind up with the room looking the same in a different configuration. Pulling a comforter tight or arranging pillows is a no brainer. Moving a portable fan or heater is mandatory in my book as they don't look good and scream "lousy HVAC in this place". I have also had the situation where dad is left with his three little angels that are doing their best to sabotage the house and the family was moving to Hawaii so it was a much bigger project to get ready to move. I took pity and spent some extra time getting each room staged. The broker that hired me still talks about that as he had visited the house the day before and couldn't believe that what I delivered was of the same place. I went to the effort to point out that I was only able to get those results as I didn't have another appointment and felt sorry for the owner who was a very cool guy. The owner also gave me a nice tip which doesn't happen very often. It's not a bad idea to stock up on Brownie points to use when things don't go as well as you would like. Do it all of the time and your customers will expect it every time at the same price.

    This topic goes hand in hand with Colin's recent post. If you have any hope of running a profitable PFRE business, you have to manage your time with respect to what your customer is paying. Some details are just too fast and easy that they should be thought of as mandatory such as toilet seats and sweeping cleaning supplies into the sink or popping them under the counter. Rearranging furniture incurs some risk when you are looking at moving dining room tables, couches and easy chairs as well as taking more time. Going through the kitchen cabinets to assemble props to style the kitchen and dining areas might be appreciated by some and freak others out that you have been going through their stuff. If they are there with you and want to go that far, it becomes a question of having the time. I offer a bespoke service where I will schedule an entire day with the owner/agent/stylist to spend time on the details and will operate the Windex bottle as required to pursue perfection. I charge triple my normal rate as I will book up to three jobs on a day so they are paying an "opportunity" fee as well as for the package of images they will receive. Those are typically much higher end properties and I will meet with the owner/agent prior to the appointment if I can to do a walk through where I will make some recommendations so there isn't big things to do on photo day.

    My official policy is in place to avoid showing up to jobs or having to revisit jobs on my dime for things that are out of my control. I want to show up to an appointment with a home that is nicely groomed and staged so all I have to do is make pictures. Sans that, I want there to be as little as possible that isn't making photos. Sans sans that, I want to be able to walk away or be able to charge more if I really need to so the job is worthwhile. It's so much easier to negotiate with a customer when you have a well defined written policy that you have gone over with them.

  19. Read the posts...anticipated this would be a high-engagement topic with multiple views. Yep, sure is:).

    It's a big 'it depends.' In line with Jason's comment earlier, my variation is, "It is not my job to care -more- for the property, than does the agent and seller."

    Routinely I'll place things in sinks, take up throw rugs, tweak furniture...and put it all back afterward. However, there's a narrow line with every shoot. And, it's 'my' line.

    The more apparent the prep effort, the more I'm willing to help. Some. If there's been no, or poor, effort, I won't even try. I agree with many of the 'customer service' comments. At the same time, I'm not prepared to take an expected 2 hr shoot and make it 3.

    One of my favorite shoots, fits here. The agent was exasperated. His client, a mother with a 5 year-old (husband had taken new job out-state), simply wasn't ready. He was trying to help her but eventually left. The place wasn't terrible, but it needed some serious decluttering.

    For some reason, her daughter, what a Hoot!, ended up latching on to me. Mom apologized. I let her know know I'd keep track of her daughter while she finished the house. When I caught up to her, I move to do the exterior shots. Probably the only shoot that qualified as 'fun.' Got some great pictures of their daughter which I put in the delivery packet.

    Planets aligned on that one. I cannot imagine that happening again :).

  20. This happened at today's shoot.
    this property has been on hold three times as the owner was working and couldn't get it together. its a brand new $400 K and up community with a beautiful clubhouse.
    when I got to the house and walked around the property, the Lanai which was clearly visible from the back, had ladders, construction stuff and a full workout gym. not to mention a huge dog (so, no close ups from the rear)
    inside, the house was kind of sparse. the owner was a young body builder and there were workout machines, and tread mills in a couple of bedrooms and his office. My broker met me there and was very disillusioned when he saw what this guy had considered as ready for photography. my broker and his assistant, moved some of the sparse clutter to one side of each room, and did some minor staging. I ended up shooting some tight vignettes in each room and think these angles will work. I think the owner is going through a divorce and has to sell, so it was a bit tense and he was overwhelmed. He noticed my Navy veterans hat and told me he was a disabled marine. so now I was feeling a bit sorry for him and helped with a little staging. you could tell he was living alone as there was not much furniture, no plants or any decorative items to stage, just guy stuff like gun, car and sports illustrated magazines.
    this doesn't happen too often, it was just a coincidence that it happened as this post is still active.

  21. Preparing a property for market is a business, just like photography. If you are cleaning, decluttering, rearranging furniture it should be an additional charge.
    No agent should expect a professional photographer to come in and clean or stage without paying for those services. I'm ok with angling a chair, or closing a lid on a toilet. Each service should be charged accordingly for. No agent should expect a photographer to do those gratuitous. Does an agent expect to sell a house without pay?
    As a professional photographer connect with a local professional stager and put their contact information on your preparation list. This way if they can not prepare the property they know of someone that can help.

  22. I picked up a metal paper towel holder to move it. The very heavy bottom half fell off, onto a ceramic tile, which cracked. I no longer move things. We provide a checklist, and we let new customers know about the value of capturing the most appealing photos to help them with the marketing of their listing. Most agents embrace the checklist and discuss it during their listing presentation. They're encouraged to not present it to their client until after they secure the listing. 90% of the time, listings are pretty much ready to go.

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