Inman

Is it a real estate agent’s ethical duty to authenticate buyers?

By October 12, 2017 No Comments
Is it a real estate agent’s ethical duty to authenticate buyers?

Sometimes, it takes a nanny cam to hit home. Picture the scene that took place last week in Woodinville, Washington. It might as well be your hometown.

Two people walk into a master bedroom. They appear to be in their early 30s and well-dressed. As the woman begins to rifle through the dresser draws, the man takes to the nightstand.

They are alone.

A quick check at the door by the female is followed by dad’s watch, mom’s ring and grandma’s heirloom necklace pinched and pocketed. Anonymous criminals do as they please in the most private of living spaces, and only the nanny cam is watching.

They leave. No one has gathered identification from the thieves. Only the nanny cam images provide clues. Sharing them through social media is the only hope of finding the culprits.

It’s unsurprising. It’s a shame.

Anonymous buyers in homes are a glaring security gap in real estate.

Of course, there are some professionals who go over and above to promote safer ways of doing business. Experienced real estate agents, though, know too well that these protocols are regularly ignored in practice. Allowing unvetted consumers access to properties is commonplace and widespread.

Tech to the rescue?

The temptation agents feel to take the easy route is magnified by today’s business atmosphere. Pressure to maximize exposure, respond immediately to internet leads and sign calls and provide on-demand, hassle-free access to any consumer who raises a digital hand has created a bit of a doormat persona. “You want it? You’ve got it.”

The company across town is promising showings in 15 minutes. “If I don’t do it, this buyer will just call another agent who will do it for them,” is a pervasive worry among agent ranks, even if it’s not often spoken publicly.

New technology is providing an opportunity to flip this rudderless mindset on its head. Brad Inman’s piece on authentication of real estate clients is timely and necessary reading material. Identifying potential homebuyers will improve agents’ safety, their clients’ well-being and the industry’s efficiency.

None of these things will happen, though, unless authentication becomes a mandatory standard of practice.

Rules of the road

Working with unauthenticated clients is a bit like texting and driving. You can explain the dangers to drivers, but for many, when an endorphin-laced “ding” hits their ears, only a $200 fine is going to prevent them from accepting that instant mobile gratification.

Consumers want faster services with less friction. Agents want to make consumers happy. Authenticating consumers sounds like more work on the surface.

The potential benefits of fewer, more qualified showings is likely to be overridden by the immediate fear: authentication creating an early hurdle in the process of forming a client relationship. No one wants to release the bird in hand.

If authentication is to become a ubiquitous practice, it will require more than tools. To reach a critical mass of adoption and change consumers’ expectations of their interactions with the industry, it will need a structured mandate.

The Code of Ethics would be a good place to start.

Mandating better business

The National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics isn’t merely a suggestion. It is a set of guidelines and standards of professional practice that Realtor members are required to abide by.

Realtors can be subject to fines and penalties for not practicing real estate according to the ethical standards set forth in the code.

Although some of the code’s standards may indirectly address the authentication issue, adding a specific protocol to the code could require Realtors to know the identity of every customer, whether through traditional or digital means, before ever allowing them access to a property.

It can be as simple as asking to take a photo of a picture ID and emailing it to the office or using a more robust digital identification tool.

Penalties for noncompliance would be a means to supports the greater benefit. An authentication standard of practice would create a safety net for agents, a platform of confidence that allows them to tell a consumer:

“I can’t show you this home without verifying your identity. Neither can any other Realtor. Verifying your identity is an industry requirement.“

While many in the industry are up in arms about new business models with on-demand, agent-free showings, those companies are at least identifying the individuals involved prior to the event. The same should be expected as a minimum standard for all business models.

Is authentication an ethical issue?

Answer a few questions that a consumer might ask the organized real estate industry:

  • Is it ethical to let a complete stranger go unsupervised through a client’s home?
  • Is it ethical to let that same person tour another agent’s listing?
  • Is it ethical to put agents into unnecessarily dangerous situations?
  • Is it ethical to allow clients’ personal property to be unnecessarily violated?
  • Is it ethical to put homeowners through significant hassle with showings and open houses for people of unverified identity or qualification just because the authentication process is a bother to the agent or that a big open house with lots of potential for meeting other clients is more attractive?

NAR has taken a first step in the right direction with its investment in Trust Stamp, which provides digital authentication of consumers in a number of ways. There’s no better group than the trade organization to raise the bar and improve this professional standard of practice. So far, though, it’s just an informative suggestion.

Agents are well-aware of the potential pitfalls of working with unauthenticated consumers. But many will continue to be attracted to ease and short-term gratification until our own texting and driving law is established. It’s not meant to punish. It’s meant to empower.

We have the knowledge and the tools. Authentication will create value for real estate consumers and professionals. Do we have the willpower to raise this bar for our clients and our associates?

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group, VP of Strategic Growth for Coldwell Banker Danforth, President of Seattle King County Realtors, and 2018 Vice Chair of the National Association of Realtors’ MLS Policy Committee. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com

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