Fake Estate: Digitally-doctored listing photos are on the rise

It creates a particular problem for investors buying property sight-unseen

(Credit: Pixabay and StreetEasy)
(Credit: Pixabay and StreetEasy)

It will cost $2.40 for a paint job, $24 to replace flooring, and $40 to remove a wall or add a swimming pool.

Digital photo manipulation has become so widespread and cheap that home sellers are increasingly using the technology to spruce up their listings, the Wall Street Journal reported. This has the potential to create new headaches for end users, investors, appraisers and brokers.

“This is a really new technology,” Denee Evans, chief executive of the Council of Multiple Listing Services said. “It’s just starting to bubble up questions as to where is that line” delineating acceptable uses, she added.

One obvious risk is for sight-unseen buyers. A Redfin survey from last May found that 20 percent of recent homebuyers had made an offer on a house they had never visited, down from 35 percent in 2017 when the market was hotter. In 2014, Olshan Realty found that nearly half of NYC’s luxury product had been purchased sight unseen.

And then there are the investors and house-flippers like Opendoor, whose business model is based on making sight-unseen buys at scale, based on algorithms. Those algorithms will have to be trained to distinguish between real and virtually-staged listing photos.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

Furthermore, with federal regulators pushing for automated appraisals that will make use of online listings, the hazards of doctored images could be spread to the general public.

Practitioners of virtual staging argue that it can protect tenant privacy, and help buyers better imagine future uses of the space. “Empty homes online are not super appealing,” Redfin’s Quinn Hawkins said. “It’s hard to figure out where your furniture is going to fit.”

An executive from BoxBrownie, one major provider of virtual staging services, recently urged brokers to post altered photos side-by-side with the originals. Often, the product on the listing site looks nothing like the real thing. It’s the company charging $2.40 for virtual paint jobs, with full room renovation images going for $64.

San Jose-based roOomy, which Redfin employs to stage vacant listings, says it discloses when the furniture in images is fake.

In any case, virtual staging represents a far cheaper alternative to the in-real-life kind, which can cost thousands of dollars and has generally been limited to luxury properties. [WSJ] — Kevin Sun