A growing number of buyers are demanding the removal of online photos used to market the home they purchased. MLSs and agents are fighting back to keep the pictures intact. Here’s what both sides are saying — plus a few partial solutions.

While doing a comparative market analysis (CMA) recently for an up-and-coming listing, I performed a search of surrounding homes and found one identical in size and room count. It was located a few blocks away and had just closed in the past three weeks.

Delighted to have found a perfect comp, I pulled it up on the multiple listing service (MLS) to view the interior. The problem? All the interior pictures had been removed.

In our area, we frequently get requests from buyers who have purchased our listings asking us to remove the pictures from the MLS and internet real estate portals. They cite reasons ranging from being uncomfortable with someone knowing the home’s interior layout to the possibility of thieves using the pictures to scope out the property.

The most recent example was a call from a concerned husband whose wife was being stalked — and the stalker had specifically mentioned details of their home’s interior. We even had an individual insist we remove the photos because they kept getting parcels stolen off their front porch. Our attempts to explain “opportunistic crimes” fell on deaf ears.

This has become a growing issue as the amount of media utilized to market homes is on an upward swing. When I began in the business, we were limited to nine pictures and a virtual tour. Since today’s buyers will only give sellers a seven to 10 second window to showcase their home, agents have to work hard to pack as much into that window as possible.

As an example, our current standard media package includes drone footage, 40 magazine-quality stills, a virtual tour video posted on YouTube, a Matterport 3D tour, a floor plan and more depending on the price point of the home.

What listing agents and MLSs are saying

While it may be understandable on some level for a buyer to want pictures removed, and while some listing agents may be willing to comply, there are some important reasons listing agents and MLSs are pushing back to keep the photos in place.

1. Historical archive

Once media is produced for a listing and posted on the MLS, it becomes a part of the historical archive for that listing. From the standpoint of the MLS, it’s critical that the historical archive remains intact to preserve the integrity of MLS data. To combat the growing number of agents removing MLS pictures, our local MLS, Bay East Association of Realtors, just issued a new rule:

According to section 11.5C, Photographs on the MLS: “To maintain the accuracy and efficiency of the MLS data base, the MLS will no longer remove photos from sold listings. Alternately, to meet the requests from home buyers and sellers the MLS will update the sold listings IDX and VOW settings to stop the listing from syndicating. Effective immediately.”

2. Effective CMAs, appraisals and BPOs

Agents rely on the pictures of recently sold listings to help sellers establish pricing for new listings or assist buyers in writing competitive offers. Appraisers also rely on the pictures to provide detailed evaluations. Every appraiser I’ve talked to has reiterated how crucial it is to leave all the pictures on the MLS.

Additionally, agents doing broker pricing opinion (BPOs) need access to the photos to be able to quickly establish valuations. A corresponding statement by a Bay East representative explained, “By not deleting photos from the MLS, the MLS retains important historical records. Photos are an essential aspect of gathering and using comparable properties, typically when doing CMAs.”

3. Ongoing advertising

Like many agents, we pay a significant amount for the media package produced for our listings. Other than marketing the home in question, a fundamental rationale behind our spend is the ability to leverage the media from sold listings as “online billboards” to obtain new listings. If the pictures, videos, Matterport tours and so on are removed, we lose this opportunity and our investment.

What buyers are saying

On the other side of the coin, buyers are citing reasons the pictures need to go. Here are the top reasons I’ve been given.

1. Invasion of privacy

In his Aug. 21, 2018 post, Patrick Kearns, an Inman staff writer, cited “Deborah, of Chicago” claiming that MLS pictures left online were an invasion of her privacy. While this sounds like a valid concern on one level, Steve Pierce, J.D., broker for Keller Williams Benchmark Properties and a real estate attorney, stated, “Not so.”

“As for the privacy argument, the photos were not taken at the time the buyer owned the home, therefore, the contents of the home as depicted in the photos, if any, are not the buyers,” he clarified in an email.

“Concerning the layout of the home, anyone can go to the local city or county building department’s public records and look at drawings of the home. With regard to exterior photos, there is no expectation of privacy because it is visible to the whole world. For that matter, one no longer has an expectation of privacy as to the entire exterior of their property as a result of Google Earth’s satellite photos.”

2. A thief may use the pictures to scope out the home

Most thefts are crimes of opportunity and, in our area, we have numerous subdivisions where three or four fundamental floor plans are repeated throughout. Even if pictures are removed for one, and a thief is actually using sites like Zillow to scope out homes, there are plenty of other examples out there of the exact same floor plan.

Ironically, a quick Google search will reveal countless posts and videos providing extensive details on how to break into a home. Our guess is that prospective thieves would be looking at these sites more than realtor.com.

3. The pictures are no longer required to market the home

In and of itself — that’s true. However, the pictures serve more purposes than to simply market the home in question. As mentioned above, they demonstrate the ability of the agent to effectively market any home and serve as ongoing advertisements for the agent.

As many who have had negative material posted online have discovered, once the media is out, it’s virtually impossible to completely eliminate everything. Even if the pictures have been removed from the MLS and primary portals, enterprising individuals can usually find them elsewhere.

Additionally, if a perpetrator is actively looking to scope out a property, it’s very easy to download the media while the listing is active and then keep copies in perpetuity.

A few solutions

For homebuyers concerned about the pictures remaining online, real estate agents can offer a few partial solutions:

1. Turn off the IDX and VOW feeds at closing

As Elizabeth Weintraub wrote in this article on how to remove old home photos from websites, “it starts with the multiple listing service.” Local MLSs give agents the choice of whether key information is broadcast to online portals.

While it’s important that the pictures be featured on sites like realtor.com and Zillow during the listing period, once the home is sold, the IDX feed can be turned off. This preserves the pictures on the MLS but removes them from major sites.

2. Most pictures on major online real estate portals will disappear after a while

As stated by Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin in The Washington Post back in April of 2019, “If the photos are up on Zillow, Trulia or other housing sites, litigation in the past made it clear that those sites only had access to the photos under user agreements during the listing of the home, and those sites usually end up removing those photos shortly after the sale of the home and the listing is closed. We’d think that at six months, you’d be at the time limit for when those sites should take down those photos.”

3. Contact the major portals and ask that the picture be removed

As long as the IDX feed has been turned off by the local MLS, the major websites should be able to remove the pictures with no concern about them reappearing.

While it may not be a significant issue in some regions, the 49 comments to date on Kearns’ 2018 post suggest it’s a very real problem and, as such, will not be going away anytime soon. This is especially true now, in this new COVID-19 reality, since everyone is spending much more of their time at home. 

Carl Medford is the CEO of The Medford Team.

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