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Phoenix Realtor scours Web for ugly (and funny) homes

by Kara G. Morrison - Jan. 14, 2010 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

It's tough to find a house that will shock Leif Swanson.

Shabby-home visits were a part of his life even before he became a real-estate agent. As a medical social worker for Maricopa County, helping the elderly and disabled stay in their homes, he saw ceilings in such bad shape sunlight streamed through.

He witnessed walls covered in mildew, couches wet from incontinence and cockroaches "so bad that I had to tap my feet when I sat through an appointment." "I would order heavy housecleaning for these people," he said. "It's hard for me to be stunned or amazed anymore."

With those images fresh in his mind when he received his real-estate license in 1999, he found himself documenting unbelievable things people would do (or leave undone) when selling their homes.

The photos became an online newsletter for his clients. Two years ago, emboldened by other local blogs, Swanson's snarky musings went public.

At, he chronicles clutter, bad taste and downright disgusting housekeeping.

"I don't pick on anyone whose house is not for sale," said Swanson, a Phoenix Realtor with John Hall & Associates. He does not list addresses for the homes. "I try not to humiliate anyone."

He has a growing number of readers who point him to photos of unfortunate homes on the market around the globe. Daily, Swanson takes on tacky collections and terrible faux paint treatments.

The result is an addictive photo essay that makes the average homeowner feel pretty good about the state of his or her abode.

"It's for satire, of course, and for educating sellers," Swanson, 44, said, calling his blog a hobby.

Common offenses

A few obsessions have emerged: ugly collections (refrigerator magnets and stuffed animals almost always make the blog), tacky kitchen cabinets (especially those by a certain 1970s Valley homebuilder), and real-estate photos with babies, pets or people doing weird things.

"This is common sense," he said. "The (buyers') first impression is ruined by a bad photo."

Swanson always takes a camera when he's showing or previewing a home, but he also finds photos on real-estate Web sites and mines Google for ugly real-estate shots. Except for a few holidays off, he posts something new daily.

He admits he gets excited when he finds little gems - images reeling with bad taste. His recent favorite: a living-room photo that appears to have been taken by someone watching television with his feet propped up on the couch. He posted the shot with a few clicks of the mouse.

"This one takes the cake, folks," Swanson blogged. "The seller was too lazy to get off the couch, straighten up the room and take a proper photo."

Dru Bloomfield, a Scottsdale Realtor with John Hall & Associates and creator of the blog athomeinscottsdale .com, encouraged Swanson to put his collection of real-estate statistics and funny photos online.

"I strongly suggested that he get into blogging," she said. "He has a fabulous sense of humor, and I think his blog really shows that. . . . I think it's creative, I think it's funny, and he's found himself a niche he enjoys."

Jay Thompson, a Gilbert real-estate broker and creator of the phoenixreal blog, agreed, adding bad real-estate-listing photos are a problem in the industry.

"It's an interesting site," Thompson said. "Ugly listing photos are a pet peeve of mine. They absolutely drive me nuts, so I think it's cool that it exposes that."

Through it all, Swanson is careful not to criticize other Realtors - something he says is unethical under the National Association of Realtors Code of Ethics. And he has removed photos from the site when asked to do so.

Overall, Swanson said he thinks the site helps protect the public by helping them know what not to do when selling their home.

"Sometimes you need to stir the pot a little bit," Thompson said. "I post articles on my blog that call out some of the practices that are done in the real-estate industry, and I think those things need to be called out. . . . Sometimes those negative examples are very instructional. Sometimes a picture's worth a thousand words."

The biggest surprise: Most of the ugly houses on his blog have sold. That's just one more reason Swanson has fun with his posts, and why his audience is growing.

This month, unique visitors to his site surpassed 1 million. They're pulled in by a mix of voyeurism, shock value, sense of nostalgia and perhaps the bemused satisfaction of knowing better taste.

"I have a good, steady group of followers, and they comment on everything," he said. "It's become like a little family."

Wanted: Elbow grease

Swanson's top pet peeves and blog targets are fixes that require effort rather than money. Hence, he has an almost gruesome fascination with clutter.

Swanson watches "Hoarders" on A&E TV religiously, and he collects clutter photos that would make the strongest stomach crawl.

It's the clutter - especially odd collections of knickknacks - that garner some of his funniest comments. In one post, he lambasts a Queen Creek home strewn with orange memorabilia and kids' toys.

Swanson blogged: "I'm not sure the meaning behind the phrase 'Who Dey!' but it must have something to do with the perennially awful Cincinnati Bengals. . . . As in 'Who are they? Have they ever had a winning season?' . . . (But) honestly, it was the best photo they had of the home."

The posted photo showed the home's living room loaded with kids' toys and what appears to be a used Kleenex on the couch.

Swanson said collections and memorabilia have to go, because buyers remember the home as the one with the creepy clown collection, for example, rather than the house with the vaulted ceiling and great mountain views.

The gross and grimy

An even bigger offender than clutter is smell, and one such open house featured an odor that shocked even Swanson.

"I went on a Realtor's home tour, and we were greeted by a caged rat at the front door," he said. "And there were other rats in the house." After spotting a second pet rat and two ferrets, he was out the door. "I couldn't tell you what the rest of the house looked like. We left immediately."

Rats aside, Swanson said buyers won't spend more than a few seconds inside a home that reeks of pet odor, urine, mildew or smoke.

A Phoenix home he toured this summer garnered some of the most hits on his Web site.

"That house was a doozy," Swanson recalled. "It smelled awful, and it was disgusting. . . . Then I got excited and said, 'I have to go get my camera!' "

The resulting 20 photos showed frame by frame how someone turned a home that in 2006 sold for $213,000 into a foreclosure listed at $38,900. The water-damaged home was filled with piles of clothing and garbage. The kicker: Half-full milk and juice jugs sat on the kitchen countertop, where they had lingered for months.

"I had to put my shirt over my nose because of the smell," Swanson wrote.

Gross or grimy bathrooms are another big blog hit.

Swanson's "Bathroom" section shows everything from ugly shower curtains to an otherwise fine bathtub surrounded by either moldy or missing drywall.

"The bathtub does indeed look clean," Swanson blogged about one example. "Maybe some candles and flowers will create a romantic mood for a hot bubble bath?"

Don't even get him started about tacky faux paint treatments, outdated wallpaper or custom murals. He has seen it all, and he even had a buyer all but run out the door when every room in the home was covered with graffiti.

Swanson doesn't find anything funny about vandalism. But he has found graffiti with a sense of humor: One living-room wall in a foreclosed Phoenix home featured a spray-painted couch, family "portraits" and even a lighted lamp, with a few pop-culture references thrown in. Shock value: priceless.

His "Hall of Shame" section perhaps best sums up the worst offenses when selling one's home. One "Hall of Shame" exterior real-estate photo actually shows a dog pooping on the front lawn.

"Do you think the photographer could have waited one minute till the dog was finished?" Swanson blogged.



America the Messy Yard Police State