Fake house? Use Google Street View to travel through time and expose flippers

If you're house hunting, it's important to know all you can about any property you're considering. Here's how to use Google Street View to see what a seller might not want you to know.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft surpasses IBM (but Google outgrows them all)

After six months of non-stop house-hunting, my wife and I began to develop a sixth sense about whether a house had recently been flipped.

Flipping has been big over the past few years. A number of TV shows celebrate the practice of buying a run-down house, doing the minimum necessary to make it livable, dressing it up with paint and new drywall, and reselling it for a mad profit.

Be wary of the fix and flip

In theory, there's nothing wrong with a fix and flip. But as home buyers, we felt it was in our best interest to steer clear of flipped properties. We found, for example, a house where an open floor plan had been created where one obviously hadn't previously existed.

How did we know? The beam that previously must have had a supporting wall sagged almost four inches in the middle. The flippers must have taken out a load-bearing wall. While the room looked more open and modern, any buyer would probably have to contend with some serious structural repairs after purchase.

Also: Adult dorms in Silicon Valley? Maybe the millennials were right CNET

In addition to the inappropriately large open space, the new windows were architecturally out of place for the age of the structure, and the trendy new kitchen style was completely out of character for the personality of the house.

It's hard, sometimes, to picture what a house looked like before it got spruced up for resale. Sometimes, a house's history is obscured. We're still not sure about all the details for the house we eventually did buy, but neighbors tell us the room we'll be using as our living room was once probably a garage.

Using Street View to travel through time

It turns out, though, that there is a tool that can help you peer back in time: Google Street View. Yep, our old friend, Google Street View. Let me caution you that the trick I'm about to demonstrate doesn't always work. Google might not have captured historical images, or the images might not provide useful information. But when it does work, it's cool.

Take the following house. If you look in the upper left corner of Street View, you'll see a date indicator:


Street View shows when the image of a property was taken.

But if you move left just a tad, the indicator changes:


Adjust the position and location of the Street View camera. Sometimes, you'll get a history of images.

Do you see it? It's a little clock. That little clock indicator is your time machine. Let's tap it to see what it can show us:


This is the historical image browser in Street View. It's hidden under the icon, but it can be a gold mine of imagery.

Notice that there's a drop-down thumbnail view, and three years indicated. This means that Street View drove through this neighborhood three times, once in 2009, once in 2013, and once in 2016. By tapping on the thumbnail, we can see how the property has changed over the years:


You can see how the property has changed over the years.

As you can see, the original property was torn down, and a new house has been built. Let's look at another property. This one has been flipped. You can see how it evolved from 2012 through 2018, with the white version on the lower right being the image used on real estate sales sites to promote the house:


This house has had some major renovations.

While using Street View for a time-jumping investigation into a prospective purchase's history, it's also important to remember that it can be used simply to examine a property. The following screenshot shows how the current sellers (and this was definitely a flip) want the house to be perceived on Zillow:


Some creative camera work was done to prepare this house for sale.

In Zillow, it looks like a large house on a large piece of land. Ah, but wide-angle cameras can distort reality, as can a fresh coat of paint. Here's what the house looked like in 2013. It's actually a cute little house, but what you can't see is that the house has a relatively narrow front yard that happens to be on a highway. Here's a more accurate image of the house from Street View, pre-flip and repaint:


It's a nice house, but the Zillow representation and the Street View version are substantially different.

The time travel feature of Street View is not universal. If the Street View car didn't pass by an area multiple times, there won't be multiple images. But as we continue to catalog and capture digital data of our world around us, we can expect to have a rich (and, yes, somewhat intrusive) storehouse of fascinating images and information about the areas we visit and the homes we might consider buying.

Also, I should note that the houses shown in this article are real homes. For the sake of privacy of the residents and home owners, I've removed any identifying information about where the houses are located.

Also: New company brings Street View to the construction industry

For the record, my wife and I looked at the last two properties shown above. The second one (the one with the balcony) had a lot going for it, including a really inviting breakfast nook. It just didn't meet our needs.

But what was really surprising about that house was just how much work went into cleaning it up for sale, and then the incredibly bad quality of the images shown on the real estate sites. The inside of the house was charming, but the sellers took a bunch of overly tight vertical phone images, and didn't even focus on the richly appealing elements of the house, including a lovely fireplace and that nook.


You wouldn't know it from this picture, but that's actually a beautiful, wide, focal-point fireplace and mantel. This is such a waste of remodeling and promotional effort.

If you do consider selling a house, be sure to take the time to take high quality images. If you're going to spend tens of thousands of dollars to remodel and repaint, spend an extra hour to compose attractive pictures.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Editorial standards