This week on The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast, Mert Karakus of Oda Studio joins Greg and Kevin to discuss the power of visuals in home builder digital marketing.
Good visuals help prospective buyers see themselves in a home. Mert says, “I think when buyers are looking for a new home, first of all, it's a huge decision, right? There are a lot of options out there, and they're really trying to decide, okay, what kind of home is really emotionally resonating with me? What kind of home is really going to be a place that I can feel comfortable with, bring my lifestyle in, essentially, right? Maybe I have a big family, maybe I'm working from home. Maybe I have dogs. That can change the sort of home that I want to make for myself. Visuals obviously are powerful in being able to provide that information.”
Images also provide potential customers with accurate and relevant data. Mert explains, “Today, it would be impossible to go check out every single home one by one in person. Right? We are trying to make quick decisions. Markets are moving very quickly. A property that's available today is no longer available tomorrow. Right? Images especially are very powerful at providing such information. They can tell you about the layout of the place. They can tell you how you can decorate the place.”
Visuals are more valuable than ever in this home builder market. Mert says, “Well, pictures are important. Images are definitely very important in selling homes, and especially given the market conditions that we have now with inventory homes rising. I would definitely encourage home builders to look into their images and utilize the images as well as possible.”
Listen to this week’s episode to learn how to use visuals more effectively in home builder marketing.
About the Guest:
Mert Karakus is the CEO and Co-founder of Oda Studio, a property technology company backed by Y Combinator and Navitas Capital. He dropped out of MIT Sloan School of Management and Harvard Kennedy School Masters programs to start Oda Studio with his two co-founders, creating a new way to enhance, virtually stage, and manage real estate photos using cutting-edge AI. Prior to launching Oda, Mert worked in finance and economics doing research on cryptocurrency reliability and the US housing industry with an emphasis on the 2008 housing crisis.
Greg Bray: [00:00:00] Hello everybody and welcome to today's episode of The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast. I'm Greg Bray with Blue Tangerine.
Kevin Weitzel: And I'm Kevin Weitzel with OutHouse.
Greg Bray: And we are excited today to welcome to the show, Mert Karakus, the CEO of Oda Studio. Welcome, Mert. Thanks for joining us today
Mert Karakus: Yeah. Thanks for having me, guys. Great to be here.
Greg Bray: And Mert, let's start off, just help people get to know you a little bit. Tell us a little about yourself.
Mert Karakus: Yeah, so I'm one of the co-founders of Oda Studio. I've been working on Oda for about four years now. Prior to Oda, I [00:01:00] was a consultant working on the US housing market, actually. One of my expertise was the previous housing crisis and the financial crisis from 2008, but in the past four years, my focus became artificial intelligence and its applications to the property visuals, primarily in the residential space.
Kevin Weitzel: That is a whole big mouthful of business. I want to hear something personal about you that we'll learn about on our podcast.
Mert Karakus: Absolutely. Well, I was born and raised in Turkey. So, I spent the first 20 years of my life in Istanbul, Turkey, and then I came to the US for college. Yeah, so I've been exposed to a totally different real estate market in Turkey since our topic is builders too. You know, in Turkey I was raised in an apartment building. Not many people live in single-family homes. So, I brought that perspective to America in a way.
Kevin Weitzel: So, Istanbul. How close is that to Constantinople?
Mert Karakus: That's the same thing. Constantinople is the old name.[00:02:00]
Kevin Weitzel: I know, I know. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding.
Greg Bray: Oh, Kevin's showing off his geography skills. There we go. All right. Mert, when you said you were studying the housing market of 2008, tell us a little bit more about that. What do you mean you were studying it? In what way?
Mert Karakus: I worked for a company that basically helped investigate what caused the housing market crash in 2008. You know, one of my areas of specialties was understanding why so many mortgages failed at the time. You know, looking into things that happened around the appraisals and overstating and undocumented applications. Things of that nature. So, I learned quite a lot about the US housing market while working on that.
Kevin Weitzel: Did you learn that banks were just handing out money like it was made for monopoly?
Mert Karakus: Well, yeah. I mean, you learn quite a bit. Exactly. I learned a lot about housing market. I learned quite a bit about the banks at the time as well. For sure.
Greg Bray: So, what got you interested in housing and real estate just as part of your career path?
Mert Karakus: So, I think in 2018, [00:03:00] I joined my grad studies at MIT, and one of the definitely big things at MIT at the time was the work around AI. Computer vision was already being used in things like mobility, in healthcare, et cetera. Coming into MIT and also coming in with that experience of working on the US housing crash and knowing a lot about how valuations were overstated at the time, et cetera, then myself and my two co-founders started working together.
Our first focus was, Hey, can we use actually property visuals to do better valuations? 'Cause, we can collect all kinds of information from the property images. The quality of it, the view, you know, what kind of material is being used, how much lighting it gets, as much as, you know, looking at map files to then determine, you know, the exact location of the house. Is it at the intersection of two streets or is it in a quieter area? There are a lot of factors like that that contribute to the valuation.
So, we started there and over time we realized that our skill set was more [00:04:00] suited towards just using AI to virtually design images rather than working on the valuations, and the primary reason for that is like appraisals, et cetera, are a far more regulated market in the US. And we are tech guys. You know, we wanted to really take the technology that we were building and apply it in a market that was exciting, that was dynamic and that came with tons of opportunities, and we found it more on real estate and marketing and sales and design side of things.
Greg Bray: So, the original goal was to do more appraisal and valuation work with imagery. That's fascinating that people would try to do that more remotely. I think real estate appraisal is such an interesting conversation in and of itself. We probably don't have time to get into that today. Cause every, every home's unique yet we're trying to find commonalities and be able to figure out how to price them So, fascinating. Well, Mert, tell us a little bit about Oda Studio, what you guys do today, and the services you're providing.
Mert Karakus: Yeah, so Oda is essentially an [00:05:00] AI-powered virtual design platform. So, we work with property images. These images include photos and floor plans, and we can automatically process these images. By processing, I mean we can label them as living room, bedroom. We can detect the objects that are seen in the images, and then we can also use AI to virtually design these images.
First of all, virtually stage them with furniture decor, but also we can do other interior design changes such as replacing the finishes, replacing the appliances. This is all relying on our own internal AI models as well as our design capabilities. That's the core sort of business for Oda and it has applications in a variety of fields, essentially.
Greg Bray: So, when you think about the power of visuals and you're trying to make these images better, I guess, right, is what we're trying to do? We're trying to take the pictures that everybody's taking and we're trying to make them better. What is it about visuals that helps, [00:06:00] you know, with that engagement of the prospective buyer that making them even better is obviously gonna make that better? I used the word better way too many times in that sentence, but hopefully, that question made sense.
Mert Karakus: Yeah, I mean, I think when buyers are looking for a new home, first of all, it's a huge decision, right? There are a lot of options out there, and they're really trying to decide, okay, what kind of home is really emotionally resonating with me. What kind of home is really going to be a place that I can feel comfortable with, bring my lifestyle in, essentially, right? Maybe I have a big family, maybe I'm working from home. Maybe I have dogs. That can change the sort of home that I want to make for myself. Visuals obviously are powerful in being able to provide that information.
Today, it would be impossible to go check out every single home one by one in person. Right? We are trying to make quick decisions. Markets are moving very quickly. A property that's available today is no longer available tomorrow. Right? Images especially are very powerful at providing such information. They [00:07:00] can tell you about the layout of the place. They can tell you how you can decorate the place. If they are used in an effective way, that is where we come in as a company. You know, with AI, we try to maximize the value that images can provide in terms of telling a story about that place. Then it obviously allows the prospective home buyer to make even quicker decisions and be able to take advantage of it.
Kevin Weitzel: Let's talk real here for a second. So, I've seen a lot of virtual staging out there, tons of it. And I'm not talking about rendered staging, I'm talking about photographs that have virtual staging added to it. And 99.9% of the time it is clownish cartoon garbage that should not be used in any sense of any form of marketing.
However, I saw some work that you guys did that completely flipped that script around. It looked like real furniture in the actual presentation of the photographic model. So, what are you doing [00:08:00] differently than some of the clowns in Australia and some of the other places that are doing this, what are you doing differently that makes your stuff so much more hyper photo real than what they're doing? 'Cause, theirs is obviously garbage.
Mert Karakus: Yeah. It really starts with our AI capabilities. I think the virtual staging work itself isn't an easy, straightforward thing, right? It isn't something that anybody can do. It takes a long time and it can take days to get them done. But in real estate business, obviously, you want quicker turnaround. You take the images you need to market the property right away. Then you ask people to do this work quickly. Then they mess it up, right? That's why it doesn't look good at the end.
But we bring AI and we bring our own proprietary designs to this to streamline the process. By doing that, obviously, we are not just able to, you know, bring the best furniture and decorative designs, but we can also very carefully account for, you know, how the lights may reflect from a particular material, what the shadow would look like. You know, when you don't have [00:09:00] those elements in, photorealism isn't there, and it starts looking uncanny. It almost defeats the purpose. Instead of trying to attract people to the property, you have this cartoonish thing as you mentioned, and it can even be off-putting for some people. Really the AI capabilities there help us bring the best designs and quality.
Greg Bray: So, I can't just cut out a couch from one photo and stick it into the, even if my Photoshop skills were that good. Right? Because what you mentioned are some of those nuances, lighting and shadow and things. Sometimes we don't even recognize it just looks wrong to us, but we don't know why, per se. But that's why right? Because the lighting and the shadow and the placement isn't quite right, you know, with some of those things.
I'm with Kevin. I've seen some of the examples of what you guys are doing, and it's very impressive and really looks real. You know, as to what these rooms can look like with the power of the furniture. Putting in something that makes it look lived in really does change compared to an empty room of just walls and [00:10:00] floor, right, that you're looking at how you can visualize yourself in that space and connect with it. So, I think it's really powerful.
Now, Mert, when you look at the tools you guys are using, does this mean we don't need photographers anymore, that we can all just become photographers? Or where's that line of when I still need that professional photo shoot versus using some of these tools?
Mert Karakus: I will say that we aren't replacing photographers. I mean, I think, we make it easier for marketing and sales teams to take images. They can take tons of images and our models can find the best ones and do the virtual staging work and basically bring them up to the highest quality. Right?
A photographer's skills are still useful in the sense that if you want to create a particular composition if you want to keep the camera at a particular angle. Those sort of things are still helpful. So, I wouldn't say we are necessarily replacing photographers, but we are making it easier for more people to be able to take much better photos than they do now and use them in their marketing.
Kevin Weitzel: So, your product, [00:11:00] and not just a singular product, I'll just take staging, for example, is so much better than everything else I've seen. Is it ridiculously expensive?
Mert Karakus: No. No, definitely not. That's the thing that doesn't make sense to some of our customers as well because we are actually cheaper than perhaps some of the other competitors that you are thinking of. And again, that is because our process is streamlined. You know, we are able to remove the human intervention from the process, and as a result, that automation is bringing consistent quality, the technical attributes that I mentioned, such as shadow and lighting. But on top of that, the ability to scale things up without spending too much money. So, our cost is actually definitely below average and below most other competitors.
Kevin Weitzel: Even though the output is far superior.
Mert Karakus: That's right.
Kevin Weitzel: And I'm not trying to stroke your ego, Mert. I seriously look at these things all the time. We sell the rendered digital assets. We don't do any of the virtual staging. It's a market that we're just not in, our company, OutHouse. But when we look at the virtual staging side, I have to look at all these [00:12:00] people because people ask me, I need to be able to give recommendations. Honestly, 99.9% of the time I look at who they're recommending, I'm just like, this is junk. I wouldn't want this on my website if I was a home builder. It was a breath of fresh air when we found you guys and how amazing your product is.
Mert Karakus: Yep. Thank you. Thank you. I guess one quick thing that I would like to add there is we also love to streamline and keep the fees low so that it's easier for home builders to be able to use us at scale. We get value from these things. If you can take 10, 15 photos and be able to virtually stage them all with very high fees, it becomes prohibitive, but we try to make it as accessible as possible.
Greg Bray: I think one of the things that I find intriguing about being able to do it so affordably is what you just hinted at, is that you can actually do different versions, different styles of the same room. Whereas if you're gonna do a photo shoot, the good old fashioned way right, is we bring interior designer in and we actually have to buy furniture or rent furniture and fill the room and do the photo shoot and everything else.
Well, you're not gonna do [00:13:00] like five different versions of that room, but you guys could do different styles like you were talking about. I see that room and that's just not my style, but I see this other one. I go, oh, okay. That staging, maybe it has that risk of turning me off if it's not my style. Saying, oh, not really the house for me, and I don't even realize it's because of just the design of what they pick to put in there. So, I think this idea of having affordability to do even multiple versions if you wanted to make that kind of investment is really an intriguing idea.
Mert Karakus: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Greg Bray: Mert one of the things that we see a little bit out there right now with some of the camera phone ads and things like that, is the ability to remove things from images, take out some of the background noise or some of those things. Do you guys do any of that as well, or is that something that's a little bit different?
Mert Karakus: Yeah, no, we do that as well. Exactly. I mean, it is, from a model point of view, it's a different kind of model, but cleaning up clutter or taking furniture out are still things that AI models are capable of doing. Absolutely.[00:14:00]
Greg Bray: Okay, so when they, uh, leave the trash can overflowing in the corner, we can...
Mert Karakus: Right. Right. Either that or leave the toilet seat open. You know, there are some standard repeating examples of that, but yeah. We have models that can specifically work with such clutter and clean up.
Kevin Weitzel: Wait one minute. You're telling me I could take a picture of my dining room and then you could give me a perpetually full glass of wine that never empties?
Mert Karakus: Well, hopefully, I'm very curious of the other elements that you may want to see in your photos. But, but yes, yes, that's right.
Greg Bray: Mert meet Kevin. Kevin meet Mert. So, Mert, now we're doing all these versions. We've got all kinds of things going on, but image management at volume, at scale, has been a challenge for builders and that's one reason why sometimes they don't have as many, I think. They can't keep track of them all. What are some of the things you've seen builders [00:15:00] do wrong with image management versus some of the things that you're trying to help with as you help create these libraries of images for them?
Mert Karakus: Yeah, so the image management is a challenge because you have so many different people taking these images, right? You have your photographers, probably multiple of them, and then you have your on-site teams, marketing teams, sales teams taking photos, and they are scattered. Some of them might be in a desktop, some of them might be in a Google drive. Most of the time they remain stuck in somebody's phone.
In the absence of being able to access these images, then you can't really have a strong marketing strategy that is built on images. That is precise of why we built all the smart storage. So, that is the software that is essentially supporting all our AI capabilities. Our smart storage allows all different users that I just mentioned to be able to upload their images to our system, and then those images get automatically labeled and tagged and they get paired with the community and the specific house even that they [00:16:00] belong to.
We have, again, searchability and other functionality there to help a marketing person or a salesperson to be able to find the photos that they need very quickly and also be able to share those images with prospects both through the existing marketing channels, but as well as, if a home buyer wanted to see the images of a particular house, they could just select those photos and then make it available to that particular home buyer.
Greg Bray: I think that the fact that you're recognizing the image management piece as part of the toolset you're providing is so important because it's not just a send you an image and you get back something, and now I have to figure out where to put it or what to do with it. I've got a place to keep all of these together and keep track of them and categorize them and search them and find them later because we've had clients before. It's like, oh, we're gonna do another photo shoot 'cause nobody can find the pictures from the last one. It's like, what a waste of money, you know, to have to do it twice because you just lost them somewhere out there. It's really an [00:17:00] interesting challenge.
Mert Karakus: Absolutely, and we also realize that being able to store photos, manage photos, as well as share them is a challenge, right? Like even if you centralize them somewhere, how do you put them on the website? How do send it to an online platform? So, we also have tools that make it very easy to add the virtual stage images to the website. Essentially with a link, they can have popups on the website that shows all the virtual stage images.
Kevin Weitzel: Let me ask you this because you've got home builders that have the budget, that have the wherewithal and the forethought to hire a professional photographer and get a series of the photos done for a home and they usually follow some sort of design protocol or guidelines that they have to follow. For those less sophisticated builders that maybe have a flunky there, or some new kid that they just got on staff to help out with moving boxes that they said, oh, hey, he's got a phone with a camera on it. If that person takes a series of pictures, can Oda Studios make those photos more professional looking?[00:18:00] Maybe they can maybe stave off the pain point of having to hire a photographer.
Mert Karakus: That's right. That's right. So, every photo that goes to our system, the first thing that happens is it goes to our enhancement process. So, an enhancement process is taking a photo and fixing the geometry of the photo, fixing the lights, colors, the exposures, the resolution. Basically, we can make photos taken by somebody's smartphone, somebody who is not a professional photographer to look like they're professionally taken. We realize that is definitely one of the keys to make it easier for home builders to take more images and use them in their marketing.
Greg Bray: Do you have any tips just in general though, to help us take better pictures? Anything that you see people doing wrong when they're just using their phones? Or does anybody not use their phones anymore? I know there's, I see people with these big cameras or whatever, but most people are just using their phones for this, right? How do we take better pictures, Mert?
Mert Karakus: I think you know that there are two ways to answer that question, right? One is [00:19:00] like, how do you take, from a technical point of view, better images that capture the lighting very well, that capture the space well. Having the right camera reposition, et cetera, are very important for that, and it requires some practice so I can get there.
But the other thing I want to note there, which I think is very powerful, is what are they taking photos of? Especially in the home builder market. As we were talking at the beginning, like the design elements. Highlighting the parts of the home that sells most are very, very important. This involves your finishes, this involves your appliances, and this involves a lot of design element of the home. Maybe you just take a few snapshots of the property to capture as much content as possible. You might be giving almost like a bird's eye view of what the living room looks like, but then you are missing out on all those details that are important to buyer. From a home builder point of view, perhaps the thing that I would like to stress most is being able to capture those details that matter to your customers.
Greg Bray: That's a great suggestion. [00:20:00] As you were saying that, I think about, you know when you look at platform like Zillow for example, or realtor.com and you look at a resale home. Quite often, there's 20 plus, 30 plus images. Home builders, you look at some of these homes and they have like two. And I'm not quite sure why the people do homes all the time, don't take as many photos.
Especially sometimes you can reuse these photos because it's the same home on a different lot, right? You can potentially reuse it. The interiors at least, and yet we don't. But pictures are so important to narrowing in on those small details like you said, 'cause we can't visit every home. And frankly, there's people that don't even want to anymore. They just want to do it all online and see it. So, those are some great insights.
Mert Karakus: Yeah. And for all the technical stuff, we are now here to fix them, so they don't even need to worry about it. So, what matters is really the composition and being able to capture those details.
Greg Bray: So, I've been pondering this and I don't know if this is the right forum or not, but [00:21:00] in today's world, we can fix and edit and enhance so much about images, right? We can take things out of the background, we can add things in. Is there ever a point where we go too far and it's like misrepresenting and like even unethical to overedit some of these images? Again, maybe that's beyond the scope of our conversation, but I don't know, Mert. Have you ever seen an image where it's like so much has changed, it's not even the real thing anymore?
Mert Karakus: Yeah, I mean, if you look at examples online or some of the work done by some other service providers. Like, it could feel like this house is getting sun like it is 9:00 AM every morning. There are some elements that if they're overstated, that can really be disappointing to the home buyer.
Lighting is definitely a big one, right? If you overstate the lighting and then the person shows up and it's actually a dark place that hardly gets in the light, that's not good. If you end up playing with the colors of the walls or the finishes, that's not good, right? Like, you come home and then all of a sudden you realize your cabinet color was [00:22:00] totally different than what you saw in the image.
And these are like simpler things more on the editing side. I'm not even getting into more the virtual staging or design part. One should definitely not change the structural elements of the interior. Like that would be even worse.
Kevin Weitzel: I for one, think it should be a crime on exterior photos where you turn a dirt, nasty brown dead lawn into lush green golf course grass with lush landscaping everywhere when it's really just a sparsely placed lot. Yeah, I think that that should be an absolute crime, but it happens all the time, especially in the resale market. I see those getting touched up more often than not.
Mert Karakus: It needs to be made clear to the home buyer that, hey, these are for representative purposes. I mean, this is not the current shape, but if you spend the money then maybe you can make it look this way. Right.
Kevin Weitzel: Yeah. If you buy this home and you wanna spend another 20 grand on landscaping, then yours could look just like this too.
Mert Karakus: That's right. Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
Greg Bray: It's just an interesting thought of do we go too far sometimes with that [00:23:00] editing and enhancement, trying to make that connection, and is everybody a little suspicious sometimes of what we see in images to some point.
Mert Karakus: And I think it works against the agent or the salesperson at the end. So, in our experience, it's better to keep it as real as possible so that you don't then have an unhappy prospect that is complaining about how bad it looks compared to the photo.
Greg Bray: I'll accept that. Yeah. It's better, better, to be honest. I believe that. Well, Mert, we appreciate your time that you've spent with us today and just kind of be respectful of that, but do you have any last words of advice that you wanted to share with folks today before we wrap up?
Mert Karakus: Well, pictures are important. Images are definitely very important in selling homes, and especially given the market conditions that we have now with inventory homes rising. I would definitely encourage home builders to look into their images and utilize the images as well as possible. If they are worried that their quality isn't there if they are worried that they don't have a [00:24:00] design team to come in and design a model home to make available good pictures. They shouldn't be worried. There are services like us that can make it very quick for home builders to create amazing images that are going to be inspiring and exciting to potential home buyers. So, I would definitely encourage everyone to invest more in that.
Kevin Weitzel: So, if a home builder wants to get in touch with you to do the absolute best staging that I've seen in our industry, period, virtual staging on a photograph, how'd they get in touch with you?
Mert Karakus: They should come to odaportal.com. So, it is O D A P O R T A L, odaportal.com, and all our services are listed there. It's super easy to create an account, by the way. It takes literally like 30 seconds to create an account and start trying things out. So, I recommend everyone to definitely give the shot.
Greg Bray: We'll put a link to that in our show notes as well, to that URL, so folks can find it there too. Well, Mert, thank you so much for spending time with us today and, and it's [00:25:00] been really interesting to learn more about your background and, and the tools you guys are providing. So, thank you.
Mert Karakus: Thank you, Greg. Thank you, Kevin.
Greg Bray: And thank you everybody for listening to The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast.
I'm Greg Bray with Blue Tangerine.
Kevin Weitzel: And I'm Kevin Weitzel with OutHouse. Thank you.