When a picture is worth .... the asking price: Why pro photos will pay off when selling your home

It's been long established that curb appeal has moved to your computer screen. For at least two years now, the National Association of Realtors has been saying that at least 85% of all home buyers first saw the house they wound up buying on the Internet. We can't think of a better reason to get the best possible photos taken and posted online. Yet the realty industry's reaction has been slow and curious: Agents continue to shoot listing photos with their cell phone cameras.

OK, that's a slight exaggeration to make a point. Sometimes, Realtors actually invest in a digital camera and shoot the photos themselves. But as professional photographers like to say, "Buying a Nikon doesn't make you a photographer; it makes you a Nikon owner."

The practice of taking awful photos has created a cult-like following for websites that track bad MLS photos. Uncle Jack's Vintage Vegas posts some gems each day, but the godfather of keeping track of agents who should perhaps put down their shooters and leave town quietly was Athol Kay, a Connecticut agent who by posting his "worst MLS photo of the day" kept many an agent on his or her toes. Kay is no longer in practice, but many have assumed his battle cry to wipe out silly photos.

There's the Real Estate Bakery, which pointedly asks whether a photo of a home's thermostat is really a selling point? And Active Rain, a site out of Seattle that acknowledges how hunting down absurdly bad MLS photos may be the next Great American Past Time. Just for the record, no one area of the country can lay claim to the title of "worst MLS photos," but many apparently try. Here's one out of Atlanta and another from Austin. In Orlando, there seem to be many agents with fetishes for photographing toilets.

The bottom line is: Real estate agents, with few exceptions, know little about photo composition, lighting, camera angles, shadows or staging. Because of fewer sales and less commission income coming in, they try to handle photography on the cheap, which often means doing it themselves.

Too bad no one has figured out how many lost sales it's actually cost them.

The top agents who sell in places like Beverly Hills or Bel-Air know better -- and can afford better. For their mansions in the sun (without 5 o'clock shadows), they turn to pros like Everett Fenton Gidley and Nick Springett, pricey guys whose work is stunning. There charges generally run about $1,500 for a full day shoot. Their work appears in the high-end glossy shelter magazines. But the truth is, your cookie cutter in the 'burbs may not need that kind of high-end treatment.

With so many unemployed photographers around, professional photos can be had for less. Just Google real estate photography and your home town and you're likely to get a dozen hits. By the way, photography costs are part of your listing agent's marketing expenses and shouldn't cost you, the home seller, a nickel. What will cost though, is having your house sit on the market for months without interest because of mediocre -- or even silly -- photos of it online.

Some general tips from the big guys about what constitutes a well-composed photo:

Declutter, bring in fresh flowers, pay attention to every small detail in the frame (tape the ends of the dining room tablecloth so nothing puckers out), underexpose rather than overexpose, and avoid things in the photo like people, high-tension wires, garbage cans, dirty swimming pools, dying lawns and of course toilets with plungers nearby.

For those in winter climates, if your original photos have snow on the ground, get new ones shot when it melts.Otherwise you are screaming "old listing" at people.
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