Rental Dementia: Say Cheese

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Recently, my younger brother was debating whether or not to travel to Connecticut for the weekend. Currently living in South Jersey, it would be a bit of a commitment, considering what he had in mind. He had only ever spoken to the young woman on the phone and had no idea of what she looked like. It started harmlessly enough with a few work related calls, until they spoke one evening after hours. A week of chatting it up on a more personal level, and she finally suggested that he drive up. However logical it may seem to an outsider, he was too polite, afraid or shy to ask for a picture before he made the trip. Instead, he called her office and intentionally asked for the wrong extension. Before being re-directed to her, he casually asked the guy who answered what she looked like, making it seem as though he wanted to get the right number this time. The answer was, “Pretty cute.” This almost clinched the trip, until he called me for counsel.

In my experience, “pretty cute” can mean a lot of different things, ranging from nice personality to not horribly ugly to she’s a real wise ass. I cautioned my brother not to make the trip until he had a picture—a full body shot if at all possible—but he reasoned that once pictures are exchanged, he’d be almost obligated to go. To say no at that point was too obviously insulting. Again, he doesn’t live in New York, so he hasn’t been forced to outgrow this naive need to protect someone else’s feelings. If only renter’s felt the same way. They won't budge without proof of life, or what I call proof of rent. In the rental market, it’s all about the pictures.

Sometimes it starts while you’re busy at work. You have decided to move on to another apartment, and being the good renter that you are, you have given your current landlord the requisite 30 days notice. They, in turn call the rental companies to notify us of the future vacancy and, in a frenzy, we descend on the apartment like paparazzi on Lindsay Lohan after a night of binge drinking. The only difference is we never publish the unflattering shots. Well, we try not to anyway.

It’s a race to get there, and then another race to get out of there. We rush back to the office and try to post the ads as quickly as possible. Experience dictates that within three days every broker in town will be advertising this same apartment and many will be using very similar shots. I’m no photographic genius, but to my mind you can only get so creative with a square box; unless, of course, you have an accomplice who is willing to let you sit on their shoulders for some aerial views. I always feel a little silly standing in a furnished apartment with 10 other brokers while we shuffle around and try to stay out of each other’s frames. Even a sliver of some anonymous agent in the background is like a black flag on the otherwise perfect shot of light streaming through the windows. You want to capture it clean, and it’s no easy task with all of the commotion.

So, you are busy at work, perusing the New York Times for your next apartment, making dozens of phone calls and getting the same result, “It was just rented but I have …” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, 15 rental agents are running through your current apartment (none of them wiped their feet) snapping away at your bathroom. You really should have taken your delicates to the dry cleaners instead of hanging them on the shower rod, because in two days those, too, will appear everywhere online. While I'm on the subject, you three guys using the towels as curtains could have at least put the bong away. We can always shoot around the dirty dishes.

With thousands of listings now available online and a fair amount of them almost accurate and reasonably current, agents are forced to get more and more creative with their apartment ads. Use of the wide angle lens for the illusion of greater square footage is one standard tactic, while others have now employed companies like Gotham Photo for a more polished and professional look (although this is more often the case in the sales market). Rental agents aren’t normally willing to spring for fancy pictures on an open listing that some other joker may just as easily rent with only a blurry snapshot of the building.

My brother passed on the trip to Connecticut ... for now. He wisely decided not to rush into anything without more crucial information. In the meantime, he is busy devising a plan to obtain a picture. But even then I warned him that there is no way of telling when the picture was taken, or how accurately it reflects the true nature of it’s subject. Eventually he’s just going to have to take his chances.

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