Anatomy of a BS real estate listing: eight tricks we all fall for | Life and style

There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are real estate listings. If you have ever wasted hours of your life clicking through houses for sale or rent (are you human? of course you have) then you will know exactly what I mean. That Scandi-chic – and surprisingly affordable – upstate cabin that looked so cute in the photos? It’s actually a crumbling hovel on the side of a highway.

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The difference between what you find advertised online and what you actually see when you visit a place can be extreme. I would know: during my time in New York, I have seen bedrooms with no windows (“cozy!”), fire escapes described as “outdoor space”, and one-bedroom apartments magically transformed into three bedroom apartments via removable walls.

So how do real estate agents do it? What are the little tricks of the trade to make money-pits look like mansions? In the spirit of public service, I called up a Brooklyn-based realtor to find out. “So you want to know how we make shitty apartments look good?” he said after I gave him my carefully worded spiel. Yes, sir, yes I do.

The very first photo you see is where all the effort is

You know this already, but it’s worth emphasizing. The first image you see is the hero shot, the highlight of the house. “We need to make that image clickable,” broker guy tells me. “It’s got to be the Airbnb dream.” How do they do that? Well, sometimes it’s as simple as running out and getting a new couch: “Swapping out that old floppy couch that’s been carted around three different apartments with a new one can increase the sales price immensely.” You’ve been warned: don’t get conned by a couch.

Smoke and lots and lots of mirrors

You don’t have to be an interior designer to know that strategically placed mirrors can make a room look bigger than it is. As the realtor tells me: “If you put a mirror on the wall that’s near a large window, it looks like it’s brighter and has more exposures than it actually has.” Brokers love mirrors. It’s not deception, it’s décor.

illustration of woman looking in mirror
Illustration: Gizem Winter/The Guardian

More photoshop than the Kardashians

Virtual staging, you may have noticed, is all the rage. You’ll click through 10 photos of a picture-perfect house only to realize all the furniture was photoshopped in and the actual listing needs, to borrow from real estate lingo, “a little TLC”.

Isn’t virtual staging a little bit misleading, I ask my insider? Nah, he says. They’re not lying to you, they’re just helping you see the property’s potential. They’re doing you a favor, really. There is, he admits, a point at which “helping people imagine a place’s potential” does cross over. “I have seen people virtually stage an entire backyard that doesn’t exist.” The same is true of roof decks. Does your house have a roof? Congratulations, according to some visionaries in the trade, you automatically have a roof deck!

Awkward eyesore? There’s an app for that!

Sometimes things aren’t just photoshopped into listings, they’re photoshopped out. Those ugly in-window air-conditioning units you see in a lot of New York apartments? They’re one of the most common victims. “We often digitally remove them,” the broker tells me. “Our justification is that half the year they’re not in use. We don’t want to draw attention to the fact that the apartment doesn’t have central AC; if we can remove that obstacle from their visual field we can get them into the apartment. And if we can get them into the apartment, we can get them to fall in love with other things.”

Room with a skew: the wonders of a wide-angle lens or crafty shot

While virtual staging may be a relatively recent phenomenon, real estate agents have always been good at working magic with a camera. Squash yourself against a wall, pull out a wide-angle lens: voila, your room has doubled in size! The right lens and the right angle can make a box room look like a master bedroom, or transform a kid’s paddling pool into a luxury infinity pool. Perspective really is everything.

Sneaky appeals to your inner influencer

You may think you are a savvy buyer, but the real estate broker knows you’re not. The broker knows that there’s a strong probability you’re gonna buy a cheaply renovated house just because it has an Instagrammable bath. One of the tell-tale signs of a super-cheap renovation, the broker tells me, is putting a big modern tub in a glass-walled shower, which is one of the bathroom trends of the moment. If you see that in an up-and-coming neighborhood, it’s pretty much a given that the place has had the cheapest upgrade possible. Expect everything to start falling apart as soon as you’ve closed.

If you can fit a queen bed in a room, it’s officially a ‘master bedroom’

It doesn’t matter to the broker that a bed is literally the only thing that can fit in the room. Nor does it matter that the bedroom doesn’t have a single closet or room for one. Where are you supposed to keep your clothes, you wonder? In the kitchen cupboards? Nope: there’s only one cupboard in the glitzy open-plan kitchen. (There are fancy appliances, though.)

illustration of man putting up wallpaper over cracked wall
Illustration: Gizem Winter/The Guardian

Sometimes it’s not what the listing shows, it’s what it leaves out

Like, you know, the fact that the one-bedroom apartment that costs $2,000 a month doesn’t actually have a toilet. It’s in the communal hall. (The clue in the listing: “A great building to make new friends!”)

Or that it faces on to a cemetery. (The clue in the listing: “Quiet neighbors.”)

Or that it backs out on to a major trucking route. (The clue in the listing: “Easy access to the highway.”)

Or that your neighbors are almost definitely hoarders. (The clue in the listing: absolutely none.)

The sad truth, though? It’s a sellers’ market, so agents don’t even have to try any more

Have you taken a look at the market lately? Rents have ballooned, house prices are out of control, and competition is so fierce one desperate buyer offered to name her first-born child after the vendor (she didn’t get the house).

Brokers once had to put in a bit of work to shift terrible houses. Now there’s no need to pad bad listings with creative language and Photoshop: they can just sit back and relax as people outbid each other for a house they haven’t even viewed.

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