Home & Garden Columns

About the House: House Photos Are Worth Thousands of Words and Dollars

By Matt Cantor
Friday July 13, 2007

Do you know The Consultant’s Song? It goes: Maybe it’s this way, or maybe it’s that way and I get paid’O in either case’O. 

I’m a consultant of sorts and there is nothing more irksome to me than having to say, “I don’t know.” Now, I realize that this can be a true statement (and ‘No’ is a complete sentence, right) and can even be the most accurate assessment of my findings at some point but I just don’t like it. 

I get paid to provide answers and to try to fill in dark areas. So, when I’m forced to say, “Hey, I can’t see this and I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” it really bugs me. I feel like a cheat. Nevertheless, there are times when I just can’t see things that I’d really need to see in order to make meaningful statements about such-and-such a thing (say a drainage system). If someone had merely snapped a picture or two during the process and kept them around, the verification process would be so much easier. 

I get handed permits on a pretty regular basis and asked to draw some conclusion based on what these cards and forms say. Let me tell you, the data is pretty lean on permits and other municipal records. If there are stamped drawings, well, that’s a different matter. They’re a much better indicator, although there’s no way to be sure that things were done according to plans, and as you might suspect, it’s quite common for things to be anywhere from a little to way different from the plans.  

Now, show me a photo of an open trench bearing pipes, gravel and drainage-fabric and I can begin to say some things about what I’m looking at. Give me 10 photos of the same thing and it’s gets better. Show me a picture of the bubble on the level on the pipe in the trench and I’m all smiles. I’d be downright proud of the homeowner or builder and would sing it loudly. I’m no longer forced to say that I have no idea how well this “supposed” French drain is going to work. I can make a fair guess. 

Back in my remodeling days, I took a lot of pictures of jobs I worked on. These served multiple functions. Firstly, if the city inspector ever claimed to have not seen the inside of a wall we’d closed up, I could grab my file and show them a picture of what the rough plumbing and wiring in that wall looked like. This was always met with agreement and satisfaction (although I don’t recommend reliance on this). 

If we were trying to remember where we put a particular thing in a wall in a later phase of work (such as a pipe or wire), we could pull out the pictures. Clients loved the set of extra prints I’d lay on ‘em during or after work. It showed confidence on my part, gave them something to show their friends (doesn’t everyone like to look at remodels in progress?) and gave proof of the work when selling the house. I’m sure you can think of other cases in which these might prove tremendously valuable. 

As someone who sees things after the fact, I can’t begin to tell you how much it means to me to be handed a file, filled with photos of the remodel I’m being asked to look at. My first assumption is that the builder or homeowner is thinking about the future. Most people seem only to be thinking about that day (or minute). But the act of photographing implies a larger mind-set. They’re also thinking about the next person, not just themselves. They’re including unmet friends in their process and helping the next person to manage what might be a difficult situation. If you know the layout of the drainage system, you may well be able to perform a repair without tearing the whole thing apart. If you have photos of where the pipes and wires were located in a wall, you might be able to make one small hole rather than tear out a wall of sheetrock. 

It’s many a day when I’m looking at a crawlspace filled with newly-placed plywood panels designed to protect the occupants from the shaking earth. Sadly, what’s behind these well-nailed panels is often critical and largely invisible. A set of photos of the bolting behind, say 3 or 4 of these would be enough to satisfy my inner curmudgeon on most days and will likely do the same for future buyers and many city officials. Again, the more photos the better. 

The cost of photos is very, very small. Today, I leave the house with two cameras. A really nice one that I keep hidden away for special stuff and a tiny, used, eBay, fixed-focus, Fuji with enough memory for 122 photos at 1/3 of a Meg (these make sharp 4x6 pictures). Now, I don’t care if you want to shoot film but, if you have a computer, you can store way more photos than you’ll ever need at almost no cost. There is NO excuse not to take pictures. The average remodel runs into many thousands of dollars. A disposable camera costs 5 bucks and might turn out to be a very important thing when they switch site inspector on you or when a buyer starts asking about what’s behind that wall or how deep you poured the concrete under the hot-tub. 

If you’re a homeowner working with a contractor, go take a bunch of pictures of the work every day when you come home. They’ll help if a dispute arises and provide good evidence of the work for the future. If you’re a builder, you’re missing out on one of the best marketing tactics known to woman or man by not photographing your work and keeping photos to show prospective clients. If you buy a little photo album and show before and after pictures of three of your jobs including all the bolting and wiring stuff that some people like to see, you can raise your rates. Photos are worth thousands of words. They’re also worth thousands of dollars when selling a house, sitting in court or selling your wares.  

Now, if you could just get the plumber to smile. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.