Confidential information

confidential information
Keeping your information confidential (infographic from larealtors.org)

A real estate agent, who allegedly represented Paul Manafort’s family, recently asserted his fiduciary privilege to avoid appearing in front of a grand jury.  However, as Politico reported, his efforts were thwarted by a judicial opinion, and subsequently reported to the grand jury.  But can confidential information be disclosed?

A fiduciary is generally described as someone who acts as a custodian of their client’s rights and/or assets.  The fiduciary has a responsibility to act with honesty and integrity, as well as act in their client’s best interest and not exert influence or pressure on their client for their own or others interests.

Both the National Association of Realtors and the Annotated Code of Maryland (COMAR) reference directly and indirectly a real estate agent’s fiduciary obligation and handling confidential information.  The NAR Code of Ethics Standard of Practice 11-2 states that a Realtor (when acting as an agent or subagent) has “the obligations of a fiduciary.”  COMAR states about the brokerage relationship (MD BUSINESS OCCUPATIONS AND PROFESSIONS Code Ann. § 17-534):

Except as otherwise provided by this title or another law, keep confidential all personal and financial information received from the client during the course of the brokerage relationship and any other information that the client requests during the brokerage relationship to be kept confidential, unless (i) the client consents in writing to the disclosure of the information; or (ii) ) the information becomes public from a source other than the licensee.

Of course, all jurisdictions are different, having their own laws and customs that govern the actions of real estate agents.  Manafort’s alleged real estate agent claimed a fiduciary privilege under the DC and VA real estate statutes, which is similar to Maryland’s.  However, in a recently unsealed Memorandum Opinion (www.dcd.uscourts.gov/unsealed-opinions-sealed-cases), Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the US District Court for DC believes that real estate agents don’t have an “absolute duty of confidentiality.”  She opined that a real estate agent is not excused from complying with an obligation to respond to a grand jury.  But what about confidential information?

Judge Howell wrote:

The respondents take the position that a court order compelling compliance with federal grand jury subpoena is required to overcome the confidentiality protection afforded to real estate brokerage records under District of Columbia and Virginia law. They rely on identical provisions of District of Columbia and Virginia statutes that require a real estate licensee engaged by a buyer, such as the Clients, to ‘[m]aintain confidentiality of all personal and financial information received from the client during the brokerage relationship and any other information that the client requests during the brokerage relationship be maintained confidential unless otherwise provided by law or the buyer consents in writing to the release of such information.’ D.C. Code § 42-1703(b)(1)(C); Va. Code § 54.1-2132(A)(3) (emphasis added). The government does not dispute that these statutes extend confidential treatment to the subpoenaed information, but argues that ‘the laws do not impose an absolute duty of confidentiality on real estate agents’ or excuse compliance with ‘a legal obligation—enforceable by a federal court—to respond to the grand jury’s request for documents, testimony, or both.’”

A real estate agent’s fiduciary obligation and handling confidential information is not taken lightly.  Thankfully, most real estate agents don’t face a grand jury subpoena.  However, during the course of daily business, a real estate agent does have an obligation (whether by NAR Code of Ethics, their local statute, or both) of keeping their client’s personal and financial information confidential.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Real estate BS detector

real estate BS detector
Become a real estate BS detector (infographic from visual.ly)

DARPA issued a recent request for information seeking ideas about how to create automated capabilities to assign “Confidence Levels” to scientific studies, claims, hypotheses, conclusions, models, and/or theories.  In other words, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to create a BS detector.  First reported by Adam Rogers for WIRED (Darpa Wants to Build a BS Detector for Science; wired.com; July 30, 2017), DARPA doesn’t look at it as rooting out “BS” but rather establishing the what, why, and how scientists know stuff. Imagine how this could be applied as a real estate BS detector!

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s stated mission on their website is “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.”  So, chances are that if they are able to devise a real working BS detector, you won’t know about it.

When it comes to real estate, people sometimes bend the truth.  Additionally, real estate agents are known for “puffery” and are generally not trusted because of the salesy techniques they employ.  But having a real estate BS detector would be huge breakthrough!  Imagine being able to weed through the BS and nonsense that many real estate agents spout when they are clearly trying to sell.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to check your real estate BS detector, when an agent is pontificating about a house or themselves, to know if the agent is wasting your time?  Unfortunately, the real estate BS detector is not a real device.  However, there are strategies to help you detect real estate BS.

“Luke, trust your feelings.”  Ok, there’s no such thing as a Jedi, but empirical research has demonstrated that intuition can be used to weed out lies.  Many say they rely on their gut instincts to protect themselves.  But the truth is that many ignore or don’t trust their intuition because the rational mind takes over and dominates.  Increasing your intuition could help you detect the real estate BS and prepare for (and maybe prevent) regretful situations.  Becoming more aware about your “gut feeling” can increase your intuition.

Being cynical can also help detect real estate BS.  Don’t be rude of course, but questioning what others say helps you clarify and understand them at a higher level.  It can also reveal untruths.  Question all claims and over-the-top statements.  For example, if you’re dealing with a real estate agent, ask for support to any assertion they make about themselves or their services.  Ask to speak to their references.  Also, ask for additional information that support their opinions on the housing market and deciding on a price to sell or buy a home.

Do your due diligence to discover real estate BS.  After asking questions, take what others say or do during the real estate transaction at face value and take it upon yourself to verify it.  It can save you a headache down the road.  It’s easy to verify many aspects of the real estate transaction, because many local jurisdictions have their databases online.  However, making a call or two to a helpful government employee is straightforward and can provide bonus information.  Verify licenses of real estate agents, loan officers, and even home contractors.  Verify permits of home improvements.  Verify the local schools and the home’s zoning.

Finally, don’t feel pressured to do anything.  The BS artist will make it seem as if you have to act immediately.  But if you are not comfortable with the situation or are not yet ready, take a pause.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Home listing syndication is big business

home listing syndication
Home listing syndication (infographic via trendmls.com)

Your home listing is a hot commodity!  Not just to home buyers looking to buy, but to those who buy and sell information on the internet.  MLS home listing information syndication is big business.

Much of what you see, hear, and read on TV, radio, and the internet is syndicated and distributed through a broad network of affiliated outlets.  The purpose is to have as large of an audience as possible.  The larger the audience, the larger the advertising revenue.  Syndicating and distributing media content has been around for a very long time, and has been very a lucrative industry for those involved.

Internet syndication is no different and has become sophisticated, such that websites will pay for licensed content.  The content attracts visitors and generates revenue via ads and/or pay-per-click.  Needless to say, internet syndication has developed to become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

When you think about making money in real estate, you probably think about buying and selling property, not the internet.  Most people don’t realize that real estate information generates $billions on the internet.  Real estate portals generate revenue by publishing content that attracts home buyers and sellers.  The sought after content, of course, is your home’s MLS listing.  Websites generate income by selling real estate and other professionals access to consumers who visit their sites to view your MLS listing.

You may not know this, but your home’s listing is copyright-protected by your agent’s Multiple Listing Service.  The content is licensed and syndicated to internet real estate portals and other publishers for a fee.  How much do websites pay for MLS licensed content?  Heck, you’d be hard pressed to find that information, much less acknowledgement that there is a fee paid at all!  And I suspect that information is not readily disclosed because consumers would be up in arms if they knew.

However, an article by Natalie Sherman appeared in the Baltimore Sun on January 27, 2015 (MRIS looks to partner with Zillow) gives a hint about the monetary relationship between MLS boards, syndicators and publishers.  Ms. Sherman wrote:

“Under the current system, Zillow pays to receive listings from Listhub.com, which has agreements with hundreds of multiple listing services, including MRIS, to provide syndication services to sites such as Zillow. Earlier this month, Zillow and Listhub said their existing deal would not be renewed.

A representative for Zillow, which has been working to establish more direct relationships with brokers and listing services for years, said a new deal would help keep the site more up to date.”

The article refers to the 2015 shakeup of real estate listing feeds to specific websites, such as Zillow.  At that time, Zillow sought direct deals with individual MLS boards, such as our local MRIS (now part of Bright MLS), to get MLS home listing feeds.

Chances are that you are unaware that the information about your home that is uploaded to the local MLS (including pictures of your home) become the property of the MLS.  Much less, you may not know that the information is licensed to others for a fee to be used on other websites.

Even though the MLS boards charge subscription fees to agents for the privilege of uploading and viewing content, they might argue that the fees generated by licensing and selling your information helps maintain the MLS system.  However, not disclosing this aspect of the real estate listing poses some ethical questions that must be addressed.

Of course, there are real estate brokers who have opted-out of syndication of their MLS listings.  These brokers want to retain control of  home listing information to ensure accuracy and maintain professionalism when presenting your home to the public.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Listing agent secrets you need to know

Listing agent Secrets

There are a number of topics that your listing agent probably won’t discuss with you, or can’t properly explain.  Here are several listing agent secrets that you need to know:

Your agent won’t sell your home

home for saleYour home will likely sell to a home buyer who is represented by a buyer agent. This notion is supported the 2016 National Association of REALTORS® Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers (nar.realtor), which reported that 88 percent of home buyers used an agent to buy a home.  The remaining 12 percent of home buyers purchased through other means, including with the help of the listing agent, or even a FSBO.  Although your listing agent may claim to have sold the most homes in the neighborhood, the truth may actually be that they are only facilitators.  The buyer agent who actually “sells” the home is labelled the “selling agent” by the industry.

Buyers are not finding homes in print

listing agent secrets
Agent secrets (infographic from nar.realtor)

Print advertising no longer is the means of selling a home. More information from the 2016 National Association of REALTORS® Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers indicate that having a nice spread in a magazine, or posting open houses in the local paper is probably a sales ploy to get your listing.  The Profile reported that home buyers reported how they found their home as follows (nar.realtor):

  • Internet: 51%
  • Real estate agent: 34%
  • Yard sign/open house sign: 8%
  • Friend, relative or neighbor: 4%
  • Home builder or their agent: 2%
  • Directly from sellers/Knew the sellers: 1%
  • Print newspaper advertisement: 1%

Bigger is not better

Another one of your listing agent secrets is that the larger your agent’s brokerage or team, and having a high number of homes actively listed may actually be detrimental to your home sale!  An empirical study by Shiawee X. Yang and Abdullah Yavaş (Bigger is Not Better: Brokerage and Time on the Market; The Journal of Real Estate Research; 1995, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 23-33) reported the following results:

  1. The amount of agent’s commission is not indicative of your home’s time on market;
  2. The size of the listing firm does not affect your home’s time on market;
  3. Homes listed and sold by the same firm (i.e., dual agency) does not reduce time on market;
  4. The more active listings your agent has, the longer your home may sit on the market because they do not devote to the time to your sale.

Yang and Yavaş suggest that the larger the listing firm, the more incentive to “cheat” days on market by circulating new listings within the firm before entering it in the MLS, which also increases the chances of a dual agency situation.  “Private placement,” or pocket listings can have similar dual agency results.

Dual agency could cost you

Chances are that your listing agent doesn’t totally understand dual agency, and therefor may not be able to explain how it affects your sale and potentially your sale price.  The Maryland Real Estate Commission’s “Understanding Whom Real Estate Agents Represent” disclosure states:

The possibility of dual agency arises when the buyer’s agent and the seller’s agent both work for the same real estate company…The real estate broker or the broker’s designee, is called the “dual agent.” Dual agents do not act exclusively in the interests of either the seller or buyer, and therefore cannot give undivided loyalty to either party. There may be a conflict of interest because the interests of the seller and buyer may be different or adverse.

One of the listing agent secrets is that dual agency may not be beneficial to you, and can even lower your home sale price.  There are a number of empirical studies that indicate conflicts of interest and other issues that arise out of dual agency.  But a study by Joachim Zietz and Bobby Newsome (Agency Representation and the Sale Price of Houses; Journal of Real Estate Research; 2002, Vol 24, No 2 pp. 165-91) found that a home’s sale price drops about 3.7 percent when the listing and buyer agents are from the same firm.  They stated:

the fact that buyers may obtain a lower price by engaging a buyer’s agent from the same firm as the listing agent raises the issue of whether or not the listing firm is shortchanging the seller. The evidence appears to suggest that the agency relationship between seller and listing agent may be compromised.

Copyright © Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Transforming real estate – whom do agents really represent?

transforming real estate
Real estate transformation over time (infographic from movoto.com)

The continuously transforming real estate industry continues to change because of two forces, consumers and real estate professionals.  It would seem intuitive that the forces should be complimentary, but a deeper analysis might suggest conflicting interests between consumers and real estate agents. Whom do agents really represent?

Efficiency, although not openly stated, is a main goal of both home sellers and real estate agents.  Home sellers want to sell their homes efficiently (as quick as possible and for the most money); while the real estate agent may be focused on collecting the most commission in the least amount of time.  A.W. Jenkins’ ground breaking research looked into why consumers continued to use brokers in a transforming real estate environment as a means of buying and selling a home.  Jenkins determined that the only reason why consumers did not use a more efficient “used house dealer” is because they don’t exist (Home, Sweet Home: Real Estate Brokerage in Canada, Vancouver, Canada: The Fraser Institute, 1989).  Jenkins discussed the incentive for consumers to sign commission based broker agreements, even when there are more efficient means of buying and selling a home; including a used house dealer, sell the house on their own, or even pay a flat listing fee.

Anglin & Arnott furthered Jenkins’ line of questioning and came to the conclusion that although a used house dealership (like the used car dealership) may be the most efficient means of buying and selling a home for the consumer, it is not an efficient business model for residential real estate professionals (Residential real estate brokerage as a principal-agent problem; The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics; 1991, vol 4, no 2, pp 99–125).  The cost of maintaining a used house inventory for the dealer is prohibitive because home resale usually takes longer than reselling an automobile.  Another reason for non-existent used house dealers is government regulation: The sale of residential real estate by individuals other than the owner is highly regulated and sets standards for real estate brokerage.

Furthermore, they hypothesize that there may be broker “collusion” in maintaining existing business models:

…Collusion, we argued, is particularly easy to sustain and enforce in the residential real estate market because transactions require cooperation between the buying and selling broker…

As the transforming real estate industry continues its journey, the notion of efficiency has taken a substantial turn in favor of the real estate agent.  The advent of buyer agency and dual agency has allowed agents to leverage their name and reputation to other agents through a “team.”  Much like the medical office business model of luring patients through someone’s name and reputation, only to see the lower techs; the real estate team has become a popular business mode because an agent can leverage their time by having other agents do their work.  To further the confusion, in some cases there are teams within teams. But to understand the structure of the real estate team concept, think of a Russian nesting doll.  The team is a smaller nesting doll which is embedded in the larger nesting doll (the broker); and the team members are even smaller nesting dolls embedded within the team nesting doll.  To be fair, there are various team models in use today; some are better than others with respect to transparency.  The transforming real estate industry has moved towards real estate teams, which essentially operate as a brokerage within a brokerage.

Real estate team advertising and disclosure have become the focus of regulation in recent years, but has not entirely thwarted unscrupulous advertising that intends to mislead the consumer.  Furthermore, agents who are independent contractors and sub-contractors of brokers and other agents, can not only muddy the waters of agency, but can further distance the agent’s incentive and duty to their client.

In his article about the dual agency controversy (From subagency to non-agency: a history; inman.com; Feb 27, 2012), Matt Carter reminded us about a 1993 treatise by the former National Association of Realtors general counsel William North titled “Agency, Facilitation and the Realtor.”  The essay was written at a time when transforming real estate was about acknowledging buyer agency.  Agency relationships between Realtors and their clients were under scrutiny.  North was questioning whom agents really represent and if agents actually knew their role.  To make it easier for agents to know to whom they have a duty, North made an argument for eliminating the independent contractor status that prevails throughout the industry.  He stated:

An approach more difficult of acceptance by NAR membership would be the abandonment of the independent contractor status…The prevailing independent contractor relationship between broker and salesperson encourages “quantity” over “quality…It is clear from the letters which have been received by Realtor News on the Agency issue that far too many Realtors and Realtor Associations simply have no concept of what an agent is, does or cannot do or that their status as an “independent contractor” vis-à-vis their broker has nothing to do with their obligations, as an agent, to the seller or the buyer.  It only compounds the public confusion as to the status of a Realtor when Realtors themselves do not understand who and what they are.

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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.