6 Red Flags About Online Real Estate Listings, According to Experts

Stretched out photos? Typos in the description? Real estate experts say to beware of these signs.

Whether you're looking to buy a home, or you just enjoy perusing photos of aspirational residences, there's something to be said for the ease of online real estate listings. You're not beholden to your broker, and you can easily compare prices and specs. But like anything in life, this isn't a fail-proof system. Scammers get through the cracks, some agents are dishonest, and certain properties are too good to be true. To help make you a more discerning buyer (or buyer in waiting), we consulted real estate agents to get their take on the biggest red flags about online real estate listings. From funky photos to grammatically incorrect descriptions, read on to learn what you should be looking out for.

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The description is vague or error-ridden.

30s woman pouted lips looking at smartphone frustrated by received sms or notification, bad news reading on cell phone feels upset, waiting message from boyfriend, negative response concept.
iStock / ilkermetinkursova

A little typo here and there is harmless, but if a listing description is riddled with errors or is just a few vague sentences, beware.

"This may suggest the seller is concealing information, lacks attention to detail, or is not professionally represented," explains Ivan Lobo, a real estate consultant at Made in CA. "A quality listing should provide accurate information about the home's features, location, history, and condition."

Jennifer Patchen, a broker at Opendoor, adds that if the description "seems sloppy and inaccurate" it could point to how "legitimate the rest of the home-buying process will be."

The realtor has too many five-star ratings.

woman looking skeptical at computer
VK Studio / Shutterstock

One way to assure the validity of an online listing is to look at the ratings and the reviews of the listing agent. But make sure they have both of these things before proceeding.

"A realtor with hundreds of five-star [ratings] but no comments is always a red flag to me," says Rebecca Hidalgo Rains, the CEO and managing broker of real estate firm Integrity All Stars at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Phoenix, Arizona.

Hidalgo Rains says this may be a red flag that they purchased these reviews from an outsourcing service. "Genuine realtor reviews won't just be five stars but be a combination of mostly good reviews with a few critical reviews."

She says the best way to avoid this pitfall is to look up the realtor on your state's department of real estate and your local realtor board to check that they have no complaints filed against them.

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You're being asked for money upfront.

rent money with keys on top

Whether you're looking to buy or rent, there is pretty much no circumstance under which you should be asked for payment upfront.

"Be cautious of listings asking for cash only, requiring large upfront deposits, offering seller financing with high-interest rates or fees, or claiming multiple offers are already on the table," warns Lobo. "These could be scams or pressure tactics to make you act hastily without proper due diligence."

Samuel Jung, a realtor with Century 21 Blue Marlin Pelican, calls out rental scams that that falsely advertise photos of real rental properties. "They often target unsuspecting renters by asking for security deposits or rent payments upfront, without providing a lease or even access to the property."

The asking price is suspiciously low.

Online Real Estate Search On Laptop
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

If an asking price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

"This could signal major repairs or renovations are needed, or that the property is a short sale or foreclosure, which could entail legal complications, hidden costs, and lengthy delays," notes Lobo.

Likewise, if a home looks well-kept, is in a good location, and has a fair asking price, there's likely something up if it hasn't sold as quickly as comparable properties in the area.

"If a home has been on the market for an unexpected amount of time and you can't find anything truly wrong with it… that may be your red flag," Patchen says.

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The photos are distorted.

Close up of a drone in the sky with a house in the background
Dmitry Kalinovsky / Shutterstock

Of all the expert advice we received, this was by the far the biggest red flag.

"Stressed, distorted, or pixelated imagery can be deceptive and can manipulate a buyer into thinking a home is in better shape than it actually is," notes Patchen.

You should also exercise caution with any drone photos. "These can often be misleading if the boundary lines are not included in the photos," points out Maureen McDermut a realtor with Sotheby's International. "Drone photos can also be used to make a view look much more expansive than it truly is."

Broker Gerard Splendore of Coldwell Banker Warburg adds that you should be wary if a view through a window is whited-out or shows something unrealistic (say, a view of treetops from a first floor), as this can mean the photos were doctored.

There's a lack of interior photos.

Young man watching movie on laptop at home

In addition to scrutinizing the photos themselves, you should also pay attention to how many photos are included in the carousel. Is the living room missing? Are you only seeing two of the three bedrooms?

"If a specific area is not being shown, it is rarely omitted accidentally—many times it is eliminated on purpose to hide a not-so-enticing space," says Patchen.

Dana Schulz
Dana Schulz is the Deputy Lifestyle Editor at Best Life. She was previously the managing editor of 6sqft, where she oversaw all content related to real estate, apartment living, and the best local things to do. Read more
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