Zillow-surfing became a pandemic pastime when many of us felt boxed in by our walls, regardless of how many square feet we occupied. But the truth is, people have always browsed real estate listings for sport, and in recent years sites like Zillow, Trulia and Redfin have made it easy to scroll to our heart’s content, just like we do on social media. If you have an internet connection and a smartphone, tablet or computer, you have a world of real estate listings at your fingertips, which means that the same information is available to scammers.
When a home is put up for sale, a listing agent uploads information to a multiple listing service, or MLS, for potential buyers. That typically includes photos of the interior and exterior, and often detailed photos or a 3D tour highlighting appliances, fixtures, furniture, floor plans and even personal items.
“Zillow and Trulia are ‘free’ services, but they sell leads and info to everyone else in real estate and surrounding industries, including mortgage lenders and home improvement outlets,” said Bridget Torrey, a managing broker at Gustave White Sotheby’s International Realty in Tiverton, Rhode Island.
The information that can be gathered from real estate listings is staggering.
“Zillow’s portfolio is huge and growing, and they have a lot of transactional data as they also own [the document-signing software] Dotloop … and they have pictures of everyone’s house, what shoes they buy, what their kids look like, what they drink, etc.,” Torrey said. “It’s a consumer market researcher’s gold mine, organized by zip code.”
Torrey tells her clients to hide as much of their personal belongings as possible when taking photos for listings, and she doesn’t post images that show too much personal info. But she also acknowledges that some information is revealed just by the style of furnishings people have in their homes, and that can be a problem.
“Protecting your digital privacy has never been more critically important,” said Monica Eaton, the founder of Chargebacks911, a company that helps consumers reverse charges to their debit or credit cards after fraud. “But when it comes to your online real estate listings, it’s not just your digital privacy — it’s your physical, real-life privacy, too.”
Your Home’s Layout (Among Other Things) Should Not Be Public Information
Celine Coudert, a luxury real estate broker at Serhant in New York City, emphasized that our homes are our private sanctuaries. Listing photos should be removed from the internet after a sale, she said, because there’s just too much information that criminals can extract from the images.
“People feel so much more unsafe these days, and it makes sense not to have the layout of your house on the internet,” Coudert said, adding that “maybe you do or don’t want the world to see how beautiful your home is, but nobody needs to know your access points, where your windows and doors are located.”
“Your home is literally where you live,” Eaton said, “so it’s a very different security threat than, say, a random cyberthief hacking an old email address and spamming your contacts. There are obvious concerns for your physical safety.”
“Your home decor could also reveal if you live alone, and there are indicators about your gender, if you have young children, and so much more.”
– Monica Eaton, founder of Chargebacks911
If you’ve already purchased a home, Coudert recommended downloading the listing photos so you can have them for your records — or if you plan to remodel and want before-and-after shots — and then removing the interior images from real estate websites.
“If a house isn’t on the market, there’s no reason to leave up photos of the interior,” said Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate with the tech services review site Comparitech. “Burglars could use the photos to learn what valuables you own or where you might store them, as well as how to get in and out undetected.”
Though it may make your lovely home look even more impressive, advertising that you have an original Andy Warhol hanging a few feet from your patio entrance isn’t a wise idea.
“This certainly doesn’t mean that every home listed online is going to be burglarized. But we already know that the kind of fruit that criminals covet the most is low-hanging fruit, so don’t make your house stand out as a tempting target,” Eaton said. “It’s like that old proverb: The nail that sticks out the farthest is the one that’s most likely to be hit.”
Bad Actors Are Extremely Tech-Savvy
“I recommend never sharing that you’re going on vacation on social media, and not posting while you’re away,” said Athos Kyriakides, a real estate agent in northern New Jersey. “I know most people share their trips and usually nothing happens, but I think that’s going to change as criminals continue to become more tech-savvy.”
Emmet Szewczyk, a younger realtor who is licensed in Tennessee and Georgia and working on Illinois, was raised with the internet and understands its permanence. “My dad always told me growing up, ‘Anything you post online cannot be removed completely, and it lives forever,’” Szewczyk said. “That doesn’t change for listing photos.”
While the consensus among realtors and cybersecurity experts is that you should remove photos of your home after closing, you don’t have much control over what happens before a sale.
“While the listing is live on the market, anybody with an internet connection can screenshot photos of the house one would potentially buy,” Szewczyk pointed out. “Consequentially, the buyer of that house can never ensure all photos of the house they are purchasing are removed from the internet.”
Kyriakides said that photos should be left on the MLS system for licensed realtors to use, “but not on the public sites where any person can log on and see the interior of your home at any time.”
Determined scammers can glean an extraordinary amount of information about their targets from photos. “Your home decor could also reveal if you live alone, and there are indicators about your gender, if you have young children, and so much more,” Eaton said, “It’s a treasure trove of personal data.”
Now that you know why you should remove your home’s photos from online real estate sites, here’s how to do it on a few of the most popular ones.
How To Remove Your House Photos From Zillow
In its official documentation, Zillow states that the company will not entirely remove pages about homes, saying that these “are based on information gathered from public records.” But you can edit the facts about your home, and once you’ve claimed ownership of the property, you can add, update or delete photos of it.
“Even though you might have to create an account and provide some personal information to Zillow and others to remove photos, you can always delete your account afterward,” Bischoff noted.
How To Remove Your House Photos From Trulia
Trulia receives its photos from Zillow, its sister site. So when you remove images from Zillow, they should be automatically deleted from Trulia as well. If your photos are still on Trulia after deleting them from Zillow, contact Trulia’s consumer care team.
How To Remove Your House Photos From Realtor.com
On Realtor.com, you have to set up an account and verify your address before you can see your home’s dashboard, which has a “remove photos” button under the “My Home” tab.
How To Remove Your House Photos From Redfin
Like other sites, Redfin requires you to have an account and sign in to access your owner dashboard. Go to the dashboard using the drop-down menu under your name in the top-right corner of the page. You can select your home, then click on “edit photos” and then choose “hide listing photos.” There will be a prompt that says ”Yes, Hide Photos,” which you can select when it pops up.