Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words. But how many of those words are the truth?

Many years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth and I first got into real estate, there were no pictures. 

Oh, maybe if the property was really expensive--say, $800,000--you might have pictures taken for a brochure or an ad in the Luxury Homes and Estates section of the Sunday Times Magazine.  But by and large, brokers were dependent on words to sell properties. 

I remember "Glistening Diamond" as a headline advertising a cramped one-bedroom in a very ordinary 60s white-brick building.  "Exquisite," "Stunning," "Gorgeous" and "Fabulous" were all used and overused.

Every other apartment had "Old World Charm."  The ones that didn't have "Old World Charm" had "Soaring Ceilings."

Of course not all these descriptors were particularly apt.  But if you went to look at the apartment, you could dismiss the language as not an outright lie, just a difference of opinion.

Then our computers got smarter. Suddenly our most important medium for advertising was the web, and there were numerous pictures for every listing. 

New rules sprang up, written or unwritten.  At least one firm prohibited pictures of kitchens and bathrooms as being declasse.

The wide-angle lens became the photographers' and brokers' favorite.  It not only allowed a photographer to get much more of a room into a single shot, it also had the effect of making the room look enormous. 

(The wide-angle lens is a simple fact of life, and it's not going away.  Just remember that, as the back seats in the old car ads were not really twenty feet wide, the apartments you see photographed do not actually occupy a full acre.)

Then came a flood of conversion and new construction.  Suddenly apartments were being sold before they were actually built, off floorplans and what are called architectural renderings.  These became not just important, but crucial.

If a picture was worth a thousand words, it was now worth at least that many dollars.

Architectural rendering of 157 West
57th Street (New York Daily News,
Architectural renderings are careful and supposedly realistic representations of what a building will look like when it's done, made when the building is still just lines on a piece of paper. (There was an interesting article in the Times recently about them.*)  

They're important not only to attract buyers but also to create good will among the building's neighbors.  Nobody wants an eyesore sprouting on their block, especially if they're going to have to live through years of the pounding of the jackhammers, the roaring and clanking of the steam shovels, the dust, and the suddenly homeless rats wandering through the neighborhood. 

But if the neighbors can be convinced that the building will be beautiful, will make the block beautiful, and will raise their property values, the noise gets a lot quieter and the rats a lot cuter.

And the better the pictures look, the more likely the developer is to get the (lately astronomical) prices for properties that are, at this point, literally castles in the air. 

Actual photograph of 157 West 57th Street
The renderings don't exactly lie, but they might bend the truth a bit.  A lot depends on the angle the artist chooses.

Viewed from below, the building can look tall and elegant.  Viewed straight on or from a helicopter, it can look intrusive and ugly.  Those who don't want the building built for whatever reason will find a way to make it look like a blot on the landscape.

Developers aren't the only people who use art to make properties more appealing.

Today there is something called virtual staging, which can add furniture, paintings, rugs, whatever you want, to an empty apartment.  The things are only there in the pictures, but they should give you an idea of what the place will look like when people live in it. 

Virtual staging is easily spotted and always looks phony to me, but it's a lot less expensive than renting furniture.  If it's made clear that it's virtual staging, not the real thing, it's helpful as a sales tool.  And it doesn't change anything about the actual space, just what's in it.

PhotoShop is a different story.  Just as PhotoShop can make an ordinary person a stunner, it can make an apartment look like Versailles. 

A beat-up 80s parquet floor becomes shiny oak strips.  An ancient Formica kitchen counter becomes Cardoza limestone.  Cracked tile becomes gleaming marble.

This is lying.

It's also stupid.

Leaving aside the moral and ethical issues, it's an excellent way to lose a client. 

Anyone who gets interested enough in an apartment to go to see it because of PhotoShopped pictures is going to be immediately disillusioned, angry because of the wasted time, and completely turned off to the property as soon as he sees the shabby truth.

Staging an apartment is one thing--rearranging furniture, getting rid of clutter, making minor repairs, hanging pictures on the walls, etc., etc., etc.  This is perfectly legitimate and can add thousands or even hundreds of thousands to the selling price.

There's even one photographic trick that I find acceptable.  Photographers I work with take two pictures of rooms with windows.  The first picture is exposed for the room, and the second, taken from the exact same spot, is exposed for the window. 

The two images are then married, and you get a picture that shows the room as well as the view.  It's the real room and the real view.

Two photographs were combined here to show both the room
and the view in the same picture. And yes, a wide-angle lens
was used.(Tom Grimes photo)

As in any business, the vast majority of people in real estate are honest.  But also as in any business there are a few who are not.  Fortunately, there are some controls.

I read recently of a broker who not only used PhotoShop to make a property look significantly better than it was, but actually did this while being photographed for a tv show!  The Department of State launched an investigation into his business practice.



No comments: