Amateurs snap shots for real estate cyberscrapbook

Since late last year, a team of amateur photographers has slowly fanned across San Luis Obispo County as they attempt to snap photos of every tract home, quaint bungalow and modest condominium in the region.

Their employer, ZAIO Corp., has launched an ambitious plan to catalog photos of every home in North America as part of a database of appraisals and other real estate records targeted at mortgage lenders and property brokers.

To do that, they have hired a small army of amateur photographers whose job is to take quick photos from nearby roads and other publicly accessible areas.

The local photographers — who are hired as independent contractors — have kept a decidedly low profile, save a few run-ins with overzealous household dogs.

Some homeowners are skeptical, but very few are hostile, says Chester Hood, a Creston real estate appraiser who moonlights for ZAIO.Hood and other photographers are paid 17 cents per photo, according to the company’s Web site, and they’re expected to shoot between 500 and 1,000 per day. So they walk quickly, sometimes slipping in and out of neighborhoods unnoticed.

That’s not to say Hood, a heavyset man who is careful not to block residents’ driveways with his Ford F-250 crewcab, is easy to miss.

Moving at a brisk pace down the middle of Magdalena Avenue in Atascadero on Thursday, he stopped for only a few seconds at a time to aim his Olympus digital camera at the mix of homes on the narrow street.

At that rate, ZAIO CEO Thomas Inserra estimates that Hood and his team of three other photographers have taken snapshots of more than 14,000 San Luis Obispo County homes.

Hood photographed every home on Magdalena Avenue on Thursday morning, his presence noted only by a pair of men in a white Buick who paused briefly when Hood flagged them down to ask if he may take a snapshot of their home. The men obliged and drove away.

“I don’t want us to be like ants,” Hood, 47, said. “I want to be respectful.”

One shot at a time

Headquartered in Calgary, Canada, and Scottsdale, Ariz., ZAIO has amassed more than 3.3 million such photographs of homes throughout North America since the company went public in September, Inserra said.

Those photos, in turn, are compiled daily in a database along with sales trends and other public data to allow lenders and real estate agents to learn a home’s current value instantly in much the same way they would access an online stock quote.

“What we’ve done is we’ve changed the process,” Inserra said. “These things are produced before you need it.”

But critics, including some real estate appraisers, say ZAIO’s business model threatens to undermine the industry by providing only cursory property inspections.

John Fazio, who owns Atascadero-based John T. Fazio & Associates, said an approach like ZAIO’s may not be able to address differences in neighborhoods where home values may vary widely.

“It’s computer-generated, and there’s only so much you can do with it,” said Fazio, an appraiser for 18 years. “I personally don’t feel threatened by technology, but I don’t think it’ll ever take the place of (a traditional appraisal).”

Inserra admits that attempting to take photos of every home in North America is an unusual business strategy, but insists that employees are provided strict guidelines for what may and may not appear in their shot.

An unobstructed view with no cars in the driveway is best, for example; if a car happens to be in the shot, license plate numbers are digitally removed. Photographs with people are rejected.

ZAIO photographers wear company-issued identification badges and carry a stack of brochures designed to ease skeptical homeowners’ minds. Under no circumstances, Inserra says, are they to set foot on private property.

Such activities are constitutionally protected, meaning they may take pictures of the homes even over their owners’ objections. ZAIO, however, allows residents to opt out if they do not want their home in the database.

In most cases, Inserra added, “people never even notice we were there.”

Local reception

On the Central Coast, the photographers’ presence appears to have barely raised an eyebrow.

Hood said he and his team have taken pictures of homes in Paso Robles and along the North Coast. They’re now focused on Atascadero, he said, and plan to branch into the South County soon.

Under company policy, Hood is required to announce his presence to local law enforcement.

Lt. Jim Mulhall, an Atascadero police spokesman, said he had not heard of ZAIO before Hood introduced himself to officers Wednesday.

Since then, Mulhall said, no one has reported suspicious behavior in connection with Hood or his colleagues. But, he added, the photographers’ cell phone numbers were distributed throughout the department just in case.

“We haven’t gotten any complaints,” Mulhall said. “As long as they’re not obstructing traffic and they’re on public property, they can take photographs as anyone could.”

The rules change when ZAIO photographers enter private developments or gated communities where non-residents must gain permission before entering.

Linda Richey, who manages the 2,104-home Heritage Ranch Owners Association north of Paso Robles, said Hood would not likely make it past the close-knit development’s front gate.

“I think 98 percent of our residents would consider it an invasion of privacy, personally,” she said. “We have a lot of people out here who keep an eye on everything.”

Hood, meanwhile, said he doesn’t take such skepticism personally. Instead, he chooses to focus on the job’s other bonuses.

“For the most part, the community has welcomed us,” he said. “Plus, I get to spend time outside and get some exercise.”