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Realities of Real Estate: In photos, get your home’s good side

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 websites 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 rest of the pack.

Although it’s been slow in coming this year, it won’t be long before spring has sprung. When that happens, it becomes more evident than ever which agents pay attention to the pictures in their listings and which ones don’t.

The beauty of spring, in contrast with the lifeless winter world of some homes shown for sale in the multiple list system, is 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 do’s and don’ts when it comes to producing a positive presentation.

Use a lot of pictures: In the multiple list system, you can have up to 30 pictures. But what never ceases to amaze us is how many times you’ll find only four or five photos. You can go into the MLS and find 10,000-square-foot homes, with six bedrooms, five baths, three acres of land and prices at $3 million or more, yet there might only be five or so pictures of the property. Surely, a place like that would have enough eye candy to easily produce 30 good pictures.

Conversely, if all you’ve got is a two-bedroom, one-bath cottage on a postage-stamp-size lot, taking pictures could be more of a challenge. But, even then, there are ways to provide some photographic interest that will help lure a buyer. In addition to pictures of the house, you can show community amenities or areas of public interest nearby, all to help 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 an opportunity to include a schematic or plat showing the home’s property lines, or a Google Earth shot that gives the buyer an understanding of how the house relates to shopping or access to 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 portrait of some yard statue 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. A cramped shot of some tiny vanity, the adjoining toilet and your agent’s reflection in the mirror won’t help sell the 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 shown on most websites. 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. Here are the two most common mistakes we see with this important picture:

First, “head-on” shots of the front of a house are seldom 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 strategy holds true for homes. By taking the picture at a bit of an angle, and also from a lower level (looking up), it’s 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 this 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 editing software, you can dramatically improve what initially might start as a so-so shot. By retouching a picture, you can adjust the white balance, brighten dark areas and ultimately produce a picture of superior quality, one that will help enhance the property’s perceived value. On the interior of a home, it’s especially helpful to compensate with retouching by eliminating 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, but 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 backyard. The bad news was that once you got there, the picture of that tranquil, private enclave suddenly included a cell-phone tower. Another mistake is 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 like it’s big enough to play basketball. In short, the rule of thumb is to enhance, but not exaggerate. If you “artificially” make a property look better than it really is, you won’t accomplish anything other than to create disappointment for buyers when they come to see the real thing. You want a buyer to walk through the door and say, “This is better than I expected”; you don’t want buyers to think it looked better in the pictures.

We could literally write a book about how to best use pictures in presenting a house for sale. The order of pictures in the listing, how you frame them, portrait versus landscape shots and a whole host of other considerations can make or break how the public perceives a property. But, in short, just remember that the MLS only allows about 75 words for the property description. On the other hand, you can put in 30 pictures. So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, that’s a 30,000-word statement you can make with great pictures. 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