New homeowners face difficulties when removing photos from online listings

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Q: We recently purchased a property and, like many other consumers, we want the listing photos removed for both privacy and security reasons.

However, as you may know, this is a huge problem.

The real estate and property appraisal industry claims that itís bad for business, which trumps individualsí privacy or security concerns. Itís a no-win battle that needs to be addressed.

There needs to be a provision for home buyers to opt out of keeping the photos online indefinitely. A program like the "Do Not Call" list to get listings removed upon request is tantamount to personal security, especially online.

In our case, the sellerís agent refused our immediate request to remove the listing with photos after closing. Other real estate companies claim the photos are necessary, as they serve as comparables for their clients.

Is there any recourse for consumers regarding this matter?

óDeborah, of Chicago

A: My first move was to turn to Lauren Johnson, a 14-year real estate veteran currently with Kale Realty in Chicago, to help me uncover some answers for Deborah.

I also received some advice from Lesley Muchow, deputy general counsel for the National Association of Realtors.

According to information Johnson received from the Multiple Listing Service (the huge regional database that lists properties for sale and can be searched by price, neighborhood and features), secondary photos can be suppressed from an MLS listing only at the request of the listing or managing broker.

Secondary photos consist of interior shots and any additional exterior shots the listing broker wishes to include. The primary photo always is an exterior shot of the property.

Per the MLS:

"Photos submitted to the MLS may not be removed from the Service with the exception of (1) replacing photos to reflect a change in the seasons, (2) reflecting improvements to the home; or (3) substituting a higher quality photo of the same image.

"While secondary photos may not be removed from the Service, a listing broker may instruct the Service to suppress off market secondary photos (but not primary photos) from the Serviceís data feed to third parties (such as Zillow.com, Realtor.com, Trulia.com and the listing agentís own brokerage site). Unauthorized removal of photos shall result in a $250 fine and the photos will be restored to the listing."

Which is all to say that neither the buyerís agent nor any other non-listing agent can remove interior photos from an MLS real estate listing. Only the sellerís agent can do that.

Johnson additionally shared with me that each real estate site linked to the MLS is required to refresh downloads from the database at least once every 12 hours in order to pull in new data and exclude old data that has been removed.

For all intents and purposes, listing photos loaded to the MLS are the "property" of the MLS. Any request to suppress them from public view is considered an exception.

The MLS argues that any information used to market a property via its database must stay with the listing because the data is used for both comparative market analysis and home appraisals.

Johnson recommended Deborah reach out to the listing brokerís office manager to request the removal of photos of her new home if she is unable to get the listing agentís cooperation.

A real estate officeís managing broker typically is authorized to edit all of the officeís real estate postings.

Muchow cautioned that for those real estate sites that are not directly populated by the MLS, there is little control over how often information gets updated and moved.

But a homeowner should feel free to request that the third-party site remove unwanted photos. If the request falls on deaf ears, a homeowner should enlist the assistance of his/her broker to get this accomplished, Muchow said.

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