Virtual furniture, Photoshopped mould: How far is too far?


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For home buyers - and increasingly renters - property inspections are becoming a game of spot the difference.

Heavy-handed photoshopping, virtual furniture, and camera angles that make a pokey man cave look like the Palace of Versailles are becoming commonplace in real estate listings.

In some cases, 'touch-ups' have been taken to extremes.

is it legal to photoshop real estate listings
The badly-edited yard (left) of an Adelaide real estate listing raised eyebrows last year. Online sleuths quickly found unedited images (right) of the property.

One Reddit post called out a Melbourne house where kitchen cabinets had been (badly) photoshopped in, leading to the comment "the house must be a dive to necessitate this much Photoshop!"

In other cases, touch-ups have led to laughable errors.

One eagle-eyed Reddit reader noted that mould had been photoshopped out of the bathroom walls of a home but not out of the reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Clear laws around misrepresentation

Despite the ballooning use of photoshopping, Australian Consumer Law is clear about misleading or deceptive representations.

Agents must not touch up photographs to the point where the images no longer truthfully represent a property.

According to the NSW Department of Fair Trading this includes changing the appearance of a property by digitally removing or adding features, or zooming in on a view to make it appear closer than it really is.

Even depicting flames in a fireplace can be misleading if it's not a functional and working fireplace.

Agents who flout the rules can cop serious fines - up to $220,000 for an individual, or $1.1 million for a company. Buyers may also be able to claim damages resulting from misrepresentation, something that could potentially apply to those brave enough to buy a place sight unseen.

Hayden Groves, president of the Real Estate Institute of Australia, says agents will seek to "demonstrate property in the online or print space in their best possible light".

Adding virtual furniture, he says, can help consumers understand how they might use a room.

Nonetheless, Groves adds, "Agents need to exercise caution when doctoring photographs of properties to make them appear substantially different than they physically do in reality.

"Photoshopping out an obvious fault such as a structural issue, or detracting feature such as overhead power lines or a phone tower, goes beyond 'sales puffery' and strays into the path of misrepresentation."

It's not just home buyers who may be impacted

Agents are often able to get away with excessive photoshopping because buyers are more interested in finding the right property than lodging a complaint about a rogue real estate agency.

For buyers, a simple Google street view can be an easy way to see what a property's exterior and location really look like.

For home sellers, the issue of misrepresentation is no less important.

According to Open Agent, the cost of professional photography for a medium-sized home starts at around $350. Digital decluttering can cost upwards of $15 per photo. Adding digital furniture can add an extra $45 per image.

Not only does the expense add up. Poor or excessive photoshopping can backfire if buyers feel misled. Worst case scenario, your home could end up trending on social media for all the wrong reasons.

Honesty can pay

Some agents are taking a different tack, being blatantly truthful about the state of a property and making no attempt to hide defects.

One listing for a dilapidated home in Beulah, regional Victoria, pulls no punches, noting "you'll need to watch more than a couple of episodes of The Block before you tackle this one".

To be fair, the property is priced at just $49,000, which in itself has drawn interest.

However, listing agent - John Hadley of NorthWest Real Estate, says his approach is to "Tell it plainly from the start.

"People may be travelling up to 3.5 hours from Melbourne to see the property, and I don't want them thinking 'This isn't what it looked like on the net'".

Presenting the property warts-and-all has paid off.

"We've had massive interest, with over 24,000 hits online and offers as high as $69,000," says Hadley.

It goes to show that when it comes to clinching a sale, a compelling price, honest images and a sense of humour can beat photoshopping hands down.

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A former Chartered Accountant, Nicola Field has been a regular contributor to Money for 20 years, and writes on personal finance issues for some of Australia's largest financial institutions. She is the author of Investing in Your Child's Future and Baby or Bust, and has collaborated with Paul Clitheroe on a variety of projects including radio scripts, newspaper columns, and several books.