What Do You Do if Your Home’s “Before” Is Someone Else’s “After”?

updated Apr 9, 2021
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woman standing in a loft holding picture frame
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Oh, don’t you just love a good before and after? There’s just not much that’s more compelling, especially for people who love all things home and design. How exciting is it to reveal the after on a project, am I right?! And of course the worse the before, the better the after. 

But as a serial renovator currently at work on a Victorian reno, I’ve started to pause recently, and question the way I — and many people in the design and reno world — talk about and share “before” photos. Put another way: I’m feeling a lot of remorse for talking up other peoples’ design choices and deferred maintenance. I credit my best friend and business partner on this project with prompting the (long-overdue) realization that I needed to give this some more thought. Not into social media himself, he asked me a question once when I started blowing up my Insta and Facebook with pictures of the house: “Don’t you worry the seller will see your posts?”

Not to excuse myself, but the whole mentality of ‘look how awful this is!’ is rampant, says broker Carol Scott, an entrepreneur, investor, and the co-host of The BiggerPockets Business Podcast and co-author of “The Book on Negotiating Real Estate.” 

The ethics of sharing before photos is “something people just don’t talk about,” Scott says. “We’ve just been so conditioned to watch all the shows, and see everybody’s Instagram pages and you don’t really give a whole lot of concerted thought to the ramifications on the seller’s side and the human side in the situation.”

This conditioning has led us to get excited at awful before shots, she says. “‘Oh my gosh look at this big crazy hoarder house that we cleaned out,’ it’s all the drama and all the ‘crazy’ that attracts people,” she says.

The thing is, there were real people, fellow human beings, living in these places. What’s it like for them to see their homes, their afters, broadcast as someone else’s before? As proud as I am of the home that my husband and I renovated, it would be all too easy for someone else to come in and declare it a “before” with its many imperfections and things we haven’t yet gotten to (hello, cracked plaster in the living room and water stain on the ceiling in the bathroom!). Or to hate my beloved black kitchen walls as much as I did the ketchup and mustard-colored ones I walked into. 

So how do we talk about befores? 

Well, the short answer would be to follow the Golden Rule, Scott says. Imagine if it was your home someone was describing. How would you want them to talk about it? Whether it’s a design choice you might not have made, or complete and utter disrepair that could have come about due to any number of circumstances beyond their control (2020 should have taught us that, if nothing else!), grant them the respect and dignity you’d want. 

Because once it’s out there, there’s no going back. “The internet is permanent,” Scott says. “Once you put something out there it’s out there forever and ever and ever so just always have that in mind as you’re putting up any content.” 

And there’s really no keeping it secret. “If you’re out there bashing other people’s houses,” she says, even if you’re keeping it completely anonymous, not divulging any details about the house or location that could identify where it is (which absolutely should be the case!) you should just assume they’re going to find it.  

Does that mean we pretend a place isn’t in need of TLC? Because that can be disingenuous. And before and afters can be inspiring (albeit running the risk of downplaying the work involved in the “during,” which is a whole other issue!). “Everybody understands that houses need love and care and attention,” Scott says. So start by taking out opinions and stick with facts, she advises. For example, if the house still has green shag carpet and yellow appliances — a 1960s dream combo! — you might say “this was the most beautiful house on the block once.”

And rather than focusing on the ugly or undesirable physical aspects of the house, Scott says, focus on the positive, human side. We might say, “this house was well-loved for many years,” she says. “It’s got great bones, it’s got great potential.” 

Now, I wish I had focused more on the beautiful light pouring into the windows of my current project in my social media posts than on overly dramatic descriptions of the work it needed. I can’t go back in time and undo things I’ve said about all the houses I’ve worked on. But beginning with this new year, I’m going to be intentional about remembering every before was someone else’s after.