SPECIAL REPORT #29
 
Real Estate Ads Foto-Fraud
 
August 25th, 2010
 
This is a tough topic to address. We have friends who are Realtors and we don't wish to offend anyone, but this issue has escalated to the point where we, folks who hate to see new laws passed, feel that there needs to be a law. When business people show so little integrity as to put forth blatantly misrepresentative advertising, somebody needs to oversee the situation. The Boards of Realtors, here and on the mainland, are apparently not the ones to do it.
 
In recent months, the use of very-wide-angle lenses and digital photo enhancement techniques has become commonplace in real estate ads. We hear complaints from others about this and being in a business that puts us in the middle of the situation ourselves makes us acutely aware of how this intentionally-misleading advertising technique has gone mainstream. Where a few months ago, it was only certain Realtors who used these kinds of photos, it is now more common than not to see them in online ads.
 
When a Realtor uses grossly exaggerated photos in an ad here in Hawaii, people from the mainland spend a lot of money and commit a lot of time and inconvenience to come over here only to be very disappointed when the mansion they saw online turns out to be a plantation shack with a fresh Home Depot quickie makeover.
 
Rooms that are in fact 10' x 12' are made to look like auditorium-sized spaces. Six-foot wide decks become 20' wide. Tiny kitchens morph into ginormous designer meal-preparation facilities. Where does it stop?
 
Since the industry does not seem to police itself, the only recourse we, as clients have is our own due diligence. It is our recommendation that if you get turned on by the elegant photo tour (with beautiful music in the background) presented by a Realtor online, before you drop everything and book a trip to Hawaii, ask the agent to take his/her pocket camera to the house and take some real photos of what it actually looks like. The s/he will not do it, find a different agent or assume the reason is that s/h knows the real pic would be a deal breaker. A conscientious Realtor who has your best interests in mind will take the time to do it.
If you want an example of how hugely this new generation of uber-photos actually misrepresent reality, just check some online ads for properties near you that are offering an open house. After looking at the photos, go look at the real thing. It's pathetic.
 
In fairness to the few Realtors who have not adopted this process yet, there are still some out there who do their own photography, some good, some not so good. But most have now gone to hiring a photographer who specializes in "enhancing" the photos. Most of the work is pretty obvious once you get a feel for it. The wide-angle lenses distort vertical lines, making rooms look like the walls slope in at the tops and like some rooms are trapezoidal in shape. In kitchens, a dishwasher will be as wide as it is high. Refrigerators look to be six feet wide. Also, the colors are, in some cases, almost cartoon-like in their enhancement to impossible hues.
 
We've been looking for a vacation rental home in California's Russian River area (Sonoma County). It's about having a place to stay when we go see family. The misrepresentation in the Internet ads for the homes there is unbelievable. We've looked at listings for some of these seemingly gorgeous homes, with photo tours that make them look like a 1800 square foot jewel, only to read the fine print and find out it's a 750 square foot cabin! No exaggeration!
 
Our advice: Check the square-foot size of the house and compare it against what you think you see in the photos. Another new technique on some of these listings is now to withhold the size data from the listing! We're eagerly awaiting the time when the Boards of Realtors who are supposedly overseeing these practices finally come down on false and misleading advertising.
 
While we're at it, when you see an ad for a house you really like, look it up on Google Maps. Some of these "great deals" will turn out to be on conspicuously busy roads, back up to school yards, across the street from some high-traffic business park, or any number of other deal breakers. If you find it on Google Maps and still like where it is, go to the "Street View" and see what the house actually looks like from the street. "Walk" down the street, look on both sides, see what your potential neighbors' places look like.
Google Maps has disqualified lots of properties for us in our searches, eliminating many hours of driving and a lot of disappointment when we would find a wrecking yard right next door to the great-looking house we saw on the Internet. In Hawaii, where many there is typically little consistency in the types of houses you'll find in a community, you can learn a lot using Google Maps. It is not uncommon to find a beautiful and expensive home flanked by very humble dwellings. This is "Island Style," and can be an issue with newcomers not used to it.
 
Then when you think you've really found something worthwhile, Google the name of the community, neighborhood, subdivision or wherever the property is. Skim through everything that comes up and see if you find anything of interest to you. We fell in love with a property in Sonoma County and Googled the street name only to find out that there are chronic low-water-table issues with the private wells in the area. Our Realtor was aparently unaware of the problem. Due diligence! Don't depend on your Realtor or on the Disclosure Statement you get from a seller. The Internet is an amazing resource for information. Use it!
 
I'm expecting to hear from some Realtors who will try to defend this new photo policy by saying they owe it to their clients to represent the homes to the best of their ability. Hey, if you want me to sell your Toyota, would you want me to advertise it as a Lexus only to have customers walk out (or worse) when they come see the car in real time?
With much aloha,
Skip
 
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You are also welcome to check in to the Affordable Paradise Blog and respond to this article and to talk story about your concerns. You can read some of the many postings there and learn from the conversations of others, too. You can also go on konaweb.com and punaweb.org and either participate in the discussions or just eavesdrop for a while!
 
We wish you all the best, and never forget to
~~~~
Please Live Aloha!
 
Mahalo for "listening."
Skip Thomsen & Ohana
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Updated 8/25/2010