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Realities of Real Estate: A picture is worth a thousand words

Every day, we look at dozens of listings on the multiple list system. Many times, we’ll just go right to the pictures; it’s the quickest way to determine if the house is something one of our clients might want to see.

Buyers do pretty much the same thing, as they get on any number of web sites to see what’s for sale. Consequently, the pictures associated with a listing can become one of the most important elements in attracting a buyer and avoiding the dump heap of also-rans that failed to separate themselves from the pack.

One day last spring, we had one of those days when the thermometer finally bumped into the 80s, and the ensuing warmth enticed the buds to burst, bringing everything into full bloom. Suddenly, all the trees seemed to have leaves, and it was clearly evident that the seasons have changed.

But, when we got into the office and cranked up the computer, a cold hard winter wind was still blowing for lots of listings. It was 85 degrees outside, but there we were, looking at pictures of homes for sale, where the yard’s covered in a blanket of snow.

The dichotomy of shirt-sleeve weather outside in contrast to the lifeless winter world of some homes for sale in the multiple list system was a harsh reminder of how important pictures are to making the sale. Beyond adjusting the pictures to be sure they are seasonally correct, there are a number of dos and don’ts when it comes to securing a positive visual presentation.

-Use a lot of pictures: In the multiple list system, you can have up to 30 pictures. One thing that never ceases to amaze us is how many times you’ll find only four or five photos, especially when it comes to large, expensive homes.

You can go into the MLS and find 10,000-square-foot homes, with six bedrooms, five baths, 3 acres of land and prices at $3 million or more, yet there’ll be only five or so pictures of the property. It boggles our mind how that’s all someone can come up with. Surely, a place like that would have enough eye candy to easily produce 30 good pictures.

Now, if all you’ve got is a two-bedroom, one-bath cottage on a postage stamp size lot, it may be more of a challenge. But, even then, there are ways to provide some photographic interest that could help lure a buyer.

In addition to pictures of the house, you can show community amenities, or areas of public interest nearby that illustrate why this would be a nice place to call home. Also, you can use the pictures section of the MLS for something other than a picture. It’s also an opportunity to include a schematic or plat showing the home’s property lines. A Google Earth shot can give the buyer an understanding of how the house relates to shopping or access to major commuter routes.

Although we recommend maximizing the number of pictures, that doesn’t mean you should use “bad” pictures, just to have “more” pictures. If you’ve got 25 good pictures, then go with 25. Don’t include some worthless shot of a basement half bath, or a meaningless portrayal of the yard nome out front, just to fill up space.

And speaking of bathrooms, unless it’s got a nice soaker tub, or a sumptuous shower, don’t even bother with a picture. Some cramped shot of a tiny vanity, the adjoining toilet, and your agent reflected in the mirror won’t help sell your house.

-Get a great picture of the front of the house: In the multiple list system, the first picture must be the front of the house. Normally, that will also be the first shot portrayed on most home shopping web sites.

If you don’t make a good impression here, you’ll stumble right out of the gate, and buyers are likely to move on to the next house. They won’t bother to take a peek at the other great stuff you might have inside. There are two big mistakes we commonly see here.

First, “head on” pictures of the front of a house are seldom very appealing or interesting. You’ve probably noticed that pictures in automobile ads are almost always at an angle, with a three-quarters shot from the front or rear of the car. The professional advertising agencies have thought this through, and the same is true for homes.

By taking the picture at a bit of an angle, and also from a lower level (looking up) its more attention-getting and can better help convey the size of a home. Plus, make sure the front door is fully visible. Just like it can be uncomfortable talking to someone when they’re wearing sunglasses, it bothers people when they can’t clearly see the front door of a house.

Second, take that picture at a time of day when the sun is out front, and nice blue sky is overhead. Pictures of a house in the shadows, or on a gray day don’t help generate the type of emotion that inspires buyers to say “I want to live there.”

Plus, if there are cars in the driveway or toys in the yard, move them. And, make sure the landscaping is up to snuff. A few flowers for $50 might help you get another $5,000 in the sale of your house.

-Retouch pictures, but don’t overdo it: Even for a professional photographer, rarely is a picture perfect right out of the can. In today’s world, with digital cameras and easy to use editing software, you can drastically improve what initially might start as a so-so shot.

By retouching a picture, you can adjust the white balance, brighten dark areas, and overall, produce a picture of superior quality that will enhance the presentation of your house. On the interior of a home, it’s especially helpful to compensate with retouching to eliminate burnout from lights or the sun coming through a window.

In the same vein, exercise some caution in the degree to which pictures are modified. Retouching for the purpose of enhancing a photo is one thing, editing to the point of deception is quite another. The flip side of digital photography and the associated software is the ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. And, from time to time, we’ve seen a few cases of that.

We showed one house that, by its pictures, had a great back yard. The bad news was that once you got there, the picture of that tranquil, private enclave suddenly included a cell phone tower. The good news was that you would never have a dropped call.

Additionally, there’s the overindulgent use of a “fish-eye” lens. A “wide-angle” lens might be appropriate to get a full shot. However, some photographic equipment can have a way of making a 10-foot by 10-foot room look big enough to play basketball.

In short, the rule of thumb is to enhance, but not exaggerate. If you make a house “artificially” look better than it really is, you won’t accomplish anything. In the end, buyers will eventually come see the place, and if it’s not as advertised, that will hurt you with buyers and agents alike. You want them to walk through the door and say, “this is better than I expected;” you don’t want them to be disappointed.

We could literally write a book about how to take pictures in presenting a house for sale. We’ve only scratched the surface here. In the “description section” provided by the multiple list system, there’s a maximum of 400 characters, or only about 75 words. Conversely they allow 30 pictures. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that’s 30,000 words you have at your disposal. Use them wisely.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience. Their email address is