The Importance of ‘Alt text’ In Online Real Estate

Feb 11 2022

The recent boom of the real estate market in the United States has demanded much from those brokers and agents responsible for its success. As the market expanded, so too did the need for accessible entries into the market.

As the market expanded, so too did the need for accessible entries into the market. As COVID-19 ravaged the country and municipalities implemented regional lockdown protocols, individuals found themselves trapped inside their homes. For many, this isolation was a period of reflection: a time to take stock of their lives and make changes moving forward. For those in cities, the endless confinement to the walls of their apartments (or homes) may have seemed unbearable. These urban centers experienced greater rates of infection by the virus due to higher population density. As such, it appears that a temporary exodus from urban areas drove the real estate market in the surrounding suburban and rural areas to flourish. Now, as urban flight has begun to reverse, markets in all areas of the country appear to be in high demand. Throughout much of the regional lockdowns, individuals were prohibited from visiting prospective properties, and thus had to rely on the word of brokers/agents and what little information they might glean from online forums in purchasing real estate. According to the National Association of Realtors, while 95% of prospective buyers use the internet to search real estate, only 70% of brokers and brokers associates have a website.1 Still, this amounts to an overwhelming majority of people who made use of online tools in the process of acquiring new real estate. Such online tools include the use of software for e-signatures, document singing, and comparative market analysis.2

As the internet continues to integrate itself into the process of the acquisition of real estate, many have found themselves limited by the accessibility features of existing online realtors. Many of the leading virtual real estate platforms invite users to interact with their properties in a manner that involves both textual and visual representations of the property in question. Images and video representations of the properties have become a favored mechanism by users to gain information on the properties they are looking to buy.

The Making of an Accessible Page: Alt Text and Its Uses

To ensure that there is equity in access to content for all users navigating a given webpage, the content of the page must be presented in a manner that enables users to interpret the information. For visually impaired users, and for users who may utilize assistive technology such as screen reader software/technology for reasons other than a visual impairment, information presented in a non-textual base format (i.e., images/visual representations, charts, maps, etc.) must be properly outfitted with descriptive alternative text (also referred to as ‘alt text’) that would be detectable to a screen reader. Screen reader technology serves to interpret the information on a page and read it aloud to users who are unable to read it (for whatever reason) and are not auditorily impaired. Alt text is a written description of images or graphics. This alt text provides visually impaired users an alternative mechanism to achieve equality in access to web content. Through various forms of screen readers, alt text allows the visually impaired user to understand and perceive the contents of the images/graphics displayed. Alt text, when not used correctly, inhibits visually impaired individuals from using assistive technology to provide them full access to the information in a manner that is not diminished by their disability status. Without alt text, an individual using such technology is incapable of fully understanding the information provided, and therefore is unable to be properly educated on a given topic.

Alt text, for the purposes of online real estate, is most essential in describing images and documents. Think about it: images are the main vehicle by which a prospective purchaser (at least initially) interacts with the property for which they are looking to buy/rent. Images of the properties are effectively useless to visually impaired users without apt descriptive alternative text. Without a proper description, how would a visually impaired user be able to tell what any of the house looks like? Furthermore, a question remains as to the extent of how descriptive alt text must be. To be accessible, at the bare minimum, brokers/agents/sellers must make it so that there is equity in access to the content they provided. Label the rooms, the major aspects of the rooms, and any defining features. But is that enough? As a realtor there is nuance and value in the minutia that goes into showing a house. Every little detail of the room not only enhances the knowledge of the house/space a buyer is looking for, while also typically (if being a proper representation) serves to entice a prospective buyer. The more details available to an individual, the likelier it is that they will be able to make an informed decision on the property. If a house featured hardwood floors, or floor to ceiling windows, describe that! It’s important for both parties.

Alt Text and Other Features

As previously mentioned, the Digital Age has brought about swift changes to the ways in which people engage with their everyday lives. Each year, more aspects that were once done “off-line” are integrated into the digital world. Online real estate, beyond the use of digital representations of the properties, engages with various other features typical of the real estate process that, when digitized, effectively disenfranchise disabled users. Like images, other aspects of the page need alternative text to provide users the with proper information. Such features may include maps to the property, virtual tours (often encompassing a multitude of images), floor plans, and PDF documentation. In making these features accessible, focus on providing the most relevant and salient details. If you’re using a map, assist with text-based directions and provide descriptive information.3 If you’re providing virtual tours, use the guidance above to help provide the most relevant information. The same goes for any other content that might need alt text.

1 “2021 Highlights From the Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers,” 2021 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers (National Association of Realtors, November 11, 2021), https://cdn.nar.realtor/sites/default/files/documents/2021-highlights-from-the-profile-of-home-buyers-and-sellers-11-11-2021.pdf (opens in a new window), 7. And “2021 Highlights NAR Member Profile,” 2021 Member Profile (National Association of Realtors, May 24, 2021), https://cdn.nar.realtor/sites/default/files/documents/monthly-membership-01-2022.pdf (opens in a new window).

2 “Real Estate in a Digital Age,” Highlights of Real Estate in a Digital Age (National Association of Realtors, August 3, 2021), https://www.nar.realtor/research-and-statistics/research-reports/real-estate-in-a-digital-age (opens in a new window). According to this site, “The software tools most often provided or encouraged by firms are e-signature (83%), comparative market analysis (82%), electronic contracts/forms (80%), and multiple listing (79%).”

3 “Web Accessibility Guidelines v1.0 Foundations - Overview,” Maps | Accessibility Guidelines (STVDIO - Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh), accessed February 4, 2022, http://web-accessibility.carnegiemuseums.org/content/maps/ (opens in a new window). And “Write Good Alt Text to Describe Images,” Digital Accessibility (Harvard University), accessed February 4, 2022, https://accessibility.huit.harvard.edu/describe-content-images (opens in a new window).

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