Watch for These Four Red Flags When You’re Reading a Home Listing

by J.R.March 9, 2018

Looking at home listings is the dating-app version of buying a house. You blitz through dozens of profiles, mentally swiping left and right until you’ve got your list narrowed down to a few favorites. You read through the profiles a few times to assess the good and bad, then email a few requests to the real estate agent to set up a meet-and-greet with the Colonial you’ve been eyeing.

Unfortunately, that first date with your prospective home can be vastly different than what you anticipated. The strategically shot photos and frequent use of “vintage” in the listing end up hiding the home’s glaring weaknesses – dark rooms, cracked concrete, pet stains on the carpet, a sagging roof or weird quirks you weren’t prepared for.

My wife and I know this process well. We found a home in a neighborhood 45 minutes away that looked promising in the listing. We and our real estate agent made the trek, only to realize the home was nothing like what we expected.

Sometimes that’s a good thing but in most cases, it’s not. Are you doomed to find yourself driving to homes that don’t live up to the listing? No, according to the real estate experts we talked with. Knowing which listing red flags to watch for can save you time, gas and, most importantly, the energy and mental acuity you’ll need when you’re ready to make an offer on the right home.
Fish-eye perspective of living room

Listing Red Flag #1: Odd camera angles and photos taken with a fish-eye lens

Bilox Wells, founder of Find Home Pro and a 30-year real estate vet, said odd-angle photos and fish-eye lenses are most likely an indication the seller is hiding certain shortcomings.

“Some agents really love to use the camera to help make rooms look bigger than they are and to re-frame the exterior or a house to make its location more appealing,” Wells said. If you’ve shopped for a home, you probably know what he’s talking about. Strategic framing of a beautiful home surrounded by run-down properties is a classic strategy. Photos that don’t show much of what’s on the left or right side of the home are probably meant to cut out the surroundings.

“The truth gets revealed rather quickly upon visiting the property,” Wells said. “Staging a shot is one thing; using gimmicks and tricks to make something seem really different is never good.”

Listing Red Flag #2: The home’s estimated value doesn’t reflect the market

Home listing sites love to provide you with estimates of a home’s value based on their in-house math. Unfortunately, those estimates aren’t always accurate.

Ray Sturm, CEO of AlphaFlow, a company that diversifies portfolios through real estate investments, says you shouldn’t rely on a website’s in-house estimate as the best indicator of the home’s value.

In fact, Sturm went as far as to say that some sites’ figures could be off by more than $10,000. “The typical error on some sites in the U.S. is about $14,000, which for most homes is a material difference. Whether you are buying or selling, a significantly inaccurate estimate can lead to problems in the sales process,” Sturm said.

Listing Red Flag #3: Overuse of real estate buzz words

As a buyer, your goal is to sift through listings and find homes whose photos and descriptions are as accurate as possible.

Therefore, when you find a listing that uses a lot of catchy phrases like “quaint” or “vintage”, you might be wasting your time, says Jennifer Brownhill, regional marketing manager at Ottawa-based real estate firm CLV Group. “If the listing is filled with buzzwords, it’s possible that they aren’t 100% accurate,” she said. “It’s important to know what these words might actually mean.”

Classic buzzwords include “quaint”, “up-and-coming neighborhood” or “vintage” could hint at problems. A quaint home could be too small, an up-and-coming neighborhood could be a few homes crammed in between industrial lots and a vintage house could be one that needs a serious renovation.

“Seeing some of these words shouldn’t cause any concern but if every sentence is packed with them, then the listing owner might be trying to hide some issues with the home by distracting you with glamor words,” Brownhill said.

Combat these iffy listings by looking for descriptions that include a lot of factual information, she said.
Estate Agent On Phone

Listing Red Flag #4: Someone other than the listing agent picks up the phone

During my home search in 2017, I called the numbers on at least a dozen listings. Sometimes I reached the agent, other times I didn’t. When I didn’t reach the agent, I often talked with other agents who offered to step in and help.

This can end up being a problem, Wells said, because good agents will make sure you’re dealing directly with them or their staff. The ones who want to snag your business when the other agent is out of the office? Not so much.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called the numbers on a listing and the person I get on the line claims to ‘know the agent’ and ‘can handle it for me,'” he said. “The good agents deal with you directly or have a sales staff working directly with them that can handle your inquiries.”

There’s no rule that says you have to work with the person who answers the phone, especially if you get a bad vibe from them. “If you feel uncomfortable with who you got routed to,” Wells said, “look elsewhere.”

Trust Your Instinct, Stay Committed, and Don’t Give Up!

Finding the right home takes a lot of time and patience. In a seller’s market, plan on spending one to two months searching listings before you make an offer on a home.

I speak from experience when I say that the process is a taxing one. Your hopes shift up and down, your energy comes and goes and your patience is endless one day and absent the next.

You can protect yourself from wasting energy by being discerning about which listings you choose to visit and which ones you skip. Be wary of odd camera angles and fish-eye lenses; they’re often used to make small rooms look big. Don’t count on a website’s estimate to know a home’s value; the lender’s property appraiser will do that.

Listings full of buzzwords most likely have something to hide. And, when you call the phone number on the listing to set up an appointment, expect to speak with the listing agent. The good ones will make sure to connect with you.

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About The Author
J.R. is a reporter for, uncovers the hard truths about personal finance through in-depth research and interviews with experts. He has written extensively on topics including credit cards, credit scores, debt, financial advisors, and other personal finance issues.