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Smile! Sellers may be watching that open house on their nanny cam

Sellers often use their nanny or pet cams at open houses and showings. But cameras that are obviously in use can influence buyer behavior.

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A few weeks ago, a New Yorker went to see a house in Connecticut. She had high hopes for the listing—but one thing put her off even before she stepped in the door. It had, as her broker explained, “cameras everywhere.”

Even though video cameras are a way of life in New York City—monitoring activity in stores, cultural places, and streets, being watched up close was nerve-wracking for this prospective buyer.

“I was acutely self-conscious,” she tells Brick Underground. “I was hyperaware of making a good impression.” And so, she didn’t open closet doors or do anything that might make her look bad. In retrospect, the buyer she said she was so concerned about how she looked that she forgot to pay enough attention to how the house looked.

Brokers say that cameras are often a part of open houses and showings these days, thanks to lower costs and ease of use. You don’t need an electrician or a lot of money to set up a smart-home security system, especially simple devices like nanny or pet cams. But cameras can influence the behavior of buyers—and of brokers themselves, and sellers may be creating an uncomfortable situation—even when showings are more secure as a result of Covid rules.  

Here’s a look at what’s happening on the other side of the lens—or listening device.

Give your opinions outside

Ellen Schwartz, a Westchester-based agent at Compass, says about half of the houses she shows have a Ring device and about 20 percent have more extensive security systems with cameras throughout the house.

She advises buyers to be discreet with their reaction when they’re inside places with cameras. “If someone really loves the house—I’ll say, ‘if you love it let’s talk about it outside.’”

Open houses once were prime targets for thieves—like this team that went on a crime spree years ago. These days, a seller may use a camera during an open house to increase security, even though the pandemic has removed some of the uncertainty of who is attending showings. Now they are by appointment-only because of Covid safety rules.

Financially vetting potential buyers also adds another level of security.

As Schwartz explains, “I won’t work with a buyer who hasn’t signed a contract. When you sign it, I understand your commitment and your financial documents are in order. Now you can’t make an appointment without preapproval.”

More prevalent than ever

Still, cameras and listening devices like Amazon’s Echo, which allow users to "drop into" a room and listen, are more mainstream than they were three years ago, says Christopher Totaro, an agent at Warburg Realty. In the past two years, he estimates dog cameras were in one out of three listings for him, although he hasn’t had a listing with a full surveillance system. (He himself has a Furbo that he uses to give his dog treats and check on his apartment.)

At one showing, the glowing light from a nanny cam was obvious, and he asked the sellers if he could move it out of view. They agreed.

“It was very off-putting for prospective buyers,” he says.

Part of the problem is that cameras make the seller aware of the buyer's presence. A buyer and their agent should be able to speak freely to each other, Totaro says.

Cameras are breaking a cardinal rule of selling: You want to encourage a buyer to see themselves in a place, says McKenzie Ryan, an agent at Compass. And that’s hard to do when you have that feeling of being recorded or watched. Even if the cameras are there for a different purpose, they can wind up working against the seller.

She says buyers who notice a camera in a child’s room will say something like, “Oh look, we’re being recorded.” 

The cameras don’t radically change the dynamic, but they make it a little less comfortable, she says.

“I have recommended for an open house or private showing that we try to put the camera equipment into a drawer. We want buyers to envision themselves in that space in the future and that requires people to feel calm and a sense of ease,” she says.

But in some scenarios, cameras are expected.

Marie Bromberg, an agent at Compass, says buyers visiting a house where a family lives expect a nanny or security cam. “I think it’s implicit,” she says

“I don’t think buyers behave differently,” Bromberg says, adding that buyers are sophisticated enough to know the cameras were “not installed specifically for the open house.”

That being said, she says they can make agents feel on edge because they know the seller is watching them work.

She has listed several places where there were cameras and felt she needed to “stand the whole time even when no one else was there. It’s hard to behave naturally.”

Another time, she was preparing a listing that had a camera—but she forgot it was there. “We were staging the apartment, and my stager said something disparaging about the furniture. I should have warned her.”

Or agents could take a tip from Brian Lewis, a broker at Compass—he makes it part of his shtick.

“Everywhere you go in NYC, you’re on camera, deal with it. If you go to a museum, there’s a camera. If you go to a store, there’s a camera,” he says. Camera or no, “everyone should be on their best behavior.”

He was doing previews of property on West 87th Street. “The place was full of nanny cams, like every room,” he says. “I had to use it to the buyer’s advantage.” He pointed out how the apartment’s electronics were upgraded and told buyers to wave at the camera.

“Do I think the sellers were watching—I’d say emphatically, no—they have other things to do,” he says. Of course, Lewis is very comfortable being on camera. He’s known for putting his acting background to work for him in his over-the-top video listings.

His advice? If sellers have cameras to protect their belongings to let their broker know.

“If that makes you feel better, I’ll sell around it,” he says.