As a real estate writer, I view an awful lot of property listings, and I tour an awful lot of homes. And as any home buyer in the midst of an active house hunt can tell you, sometimes there’s a vast gulf between picture and product. Maybe the handful of online photos — popping with vivid light and contrast-blasted colors — portray a stylish, sun-soaked living space. But in person, fab becomes drab as you notice the stained wallpaper, the crumbling grout, the cracked plaster.
Most of the time, this is hardly surprising or problematic. A real estate listing is, after all, a piece of marketing at heart. And while advertisers aren’t allowed to outright lie about their products, no one expects them to flaunt the flaws, either. What’s more, many of us now give our own photos a color boost or run them through an Instagram filter before posting them on social media.
But the boundaries between enhancing reality and bending it all together can quickly get blurrier than a comically careless listing photo. One condo I toured had a lovely, but purely decorative fireplace — which came as a surprise, since the online photos showed the flickering flames of a well-stoked blaze burning in the hearth.
That kind of trickery crosses an important line, said Michelle Amazeen, associate professor and director of the Communication Research Center at Boston University. According to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, Amazeen said, “Something is deceptive if it involves a representation, omission, or practice that is likely to mislead reasonable consumers” — and if that representation or omission is of material concern to the consumer.
“So you’re looking for an apartment. You see in the marketing materials, ‘Oh look, there’s a fireplace, and it works; there are flames in it.’ Any reasonable consumer would assume it’s an operational fireplace,” Amazeen said. “If that is material to you, then that’s a deception.”
More commonly (and more ethically), virtual flames are added to functional fireplaces to showcase the feature and accentuate the home’s coziness. That’s a different story, experts said, because it reflects a scene that exists in reality.
The same goes for changing a dreary, overcast background to show crystal blue skies outside the home or the rosy rays of a distant sunset. While dedicated photographers will aim to shoot a home during its “golden hour” — when it’s bathed in the glow of early morning or late afternoon light — digitally simulating the effect is something of a bread-and-butter technique in real estate marketing.
In addition to writing property descriptions and designing brochures, real estate marketing consultant Dana Linn offers an array of Photoshop services tailored to realtors. For a small fee, Linn can straighten homes photographed at an angle or make lawns look greener. But her most popular service, she said, is “twilight processing” — painting the sky in a palette of pretty pinks and purples. She also gets requests to remove clutter or other objects digitally that might divert attention from a home itself, from toys and extension cords on a bedroom floor to garbage barrels and cars in the driveway.
To date, Linn has turned down only one request that felt deceitful. “An agent in California asked to brighten up the faded brick walk and darken the worn-out asphalt driveway,” Linn said. She told the agent that could be seen as a misrepresentation — that upon visiting the property in person, a buyer might be disappointed by the actual state of the driveway and walk.
“There are many gray areas in this arena,” said Bruce Aydt, a lawyer, real estate instructor, and past chairman of the National Association of Realtors’ Professional Standards Committee. While noting that he can’t speak for NAR, Aydt said Article 12 of the NAR Code of Ethics dictates that “Realtors must present a ‘true picture’ in advertising, marketing, and other representations to the public,” and “are prohibited from ‘otherwise misleading consumers, including use of misleading images.’”
“In my personal opinion, changing things like creating a lush green grass yard when it doesn’t exist, adding features to the property like a patio that’s not there, and the like, are problems with Article 12,” Aydt said. However, some virtual enhancements could be OK, he added, if the agent includes a disclosure — for example, “Here’s what this home could look like with a new patio.”
Likewise, virtual staging — the digital addition of furnishings to an empty room — is generally acceptable as long as it’s disclosed, Aydt said. (And, Amazeen added, so long as the furniture is realistically proportioned. “If it appears that you can fit more into the room than you could in real life, then that’s deceptive,” she said.)
Some Multiple Listing Services (MLS) don’t allow doctored photos, Linn said, or require agents to check a box in their listing if a photo has been enhanced in some way. But others don’t formally forbid the practice — and agents don’t always seem to disclose the use of embellished images. “A few years ago, some agents would display a disclaimer directly on the photo stating the photo was enhanced or corrected, but I haven’t seen that at all lately,” Linn said.
Adyt sees no problem with tweaking a home’s backdrop, in most cases. “Does the property have those appearances typically? If it does, and the image is just ‘not at the right time,’ then I don’t think that’s an alteration of the property itself,” Aydt said. “But if the property never appears in that situation, setting, or condition, I’d have some issues with portraying it that way.”
Lionel McPherson, associate professor of philosophy at Tufts University, also sees a distinction between adding a view that would ordinarily be visible were it not for some ill-timed rain clouds, versus one that could never be seen at the property, such as a nonexistent skyline or waterfront vista. “I would call those material misrepresentations,” McPherson said. “Or using a wide-angle lens to make rooms appear significantly larger than they are — even though people might have the square footage of the room listed, that would seem shady to me.”
But if the photographer just happened to be taking pictures on an overcast day that obscured what is ordinarily a nice view, McPherson said, swapping skies isn’t really a material deception. “I don’t see a problem, in that case, let’s say ‘Photoshopping’ in the kind of sunset that you could expect to see or the kind of waterfront view you could expect to see if it just didn’t happen on that day when people were there shooting photos.”
When it comes down to it, McPherson said, most buyers are able to tour and thoroughly inspect a home before any money changes hands, unlike many other consumer goods. “Most people are going to be able to verify, in effect, what the situation really is,” McPherson said. So even if the listing photos are deceptive to prospective buyers, he said, “unless it’s really flagrant, I would imagine that they aren’t going to face much backlash.”
“It’s shady, but there are a lot of shady things,” McPherson added. “It’s more like wasting people’s time if there are things that, were they more accurately represented, some prospective buyers wouldn’t even bother.”
Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.