I have an unusual hobby. I like to lurk on real estate Web sites like Trulia and Zillow. I lurk on the forums pages, where agents give advice and answer questions.

I rarely participate in the conversation, because I am not interested in chatting with people who don’t use their real names online and who use the sites for a second opinion when they don’t like what their Realtor told them. I just don’t want to get directly involved.

The sites are a great place to get ideas for blog posts. Chances are, if one buyer has a general question, others are wondering about the same thing. And that is the main reason I hang out on the sites and monitor them.

It also helps me get into the heads of sellers so I can better answer their questions and objections.

The real estate agents who answer questions on the sites or participate in forums scramble to get there first and try to build a relationship, even if it means providing answers to questions that they are not qualified to answer, or contradicting another agent.

On one site, a consumer asked about the price of a home. Six agents looked it up in the multiple listing service and gave almost identical answers. Now that is what I call service.

As I lurk, I can see that someone needs to educate agents on some important rules. There can be violations of fair housing laws as agents tell prospective buyers which neighborhood is best.

Sometimes agents give advice to potential homebuyers that looks to me like legal advice. I am not sure if it is just a local thing but I cannot give legal advice or tax advice to clients or potential clients.

There are agents on the real estate forums who blatantly solicit business from consumers who are already under contract with another agent. Some real estate agents seldom ask a buyer or seller if they are under contract. …CONTINUED

It goes against our Realtor Code of Ethics to solicit people who are under contract with another Realtor. It is also against this code to publicly criticize another Realtor, and I see that all the time.

Realtors need to understand that the Code of Ethics and fair housing laws apply on the Internet, too.

The online communities have taken it upon themselves to educate agents and to be self-policing, but I think real estate companies and brokers need to get involved. Brokers are responsible for their agents — the social network managers are only responsible for the site.

The Internet gives us a great deal of credibility, and Realtors don’t always use it responsibly. I saw a question submitted by a consumer in Minnesota asking about the foreclosure process.

The question was answered by an agent from the West Coast who apparently didn’t know that real estate is highly regulated at the state level and that the foreclosure process is different here in Minnesota than it is on the West Coast.

We are not experts on everything, and having a real estate license doesn’t make us all-knowing or give us superpowers. Consumers ask all sorts of questions that are outside of our areas of expertise, and they get answers every time.

Each time a real estate agent acts inappropriately on public forums it makes us all look bad and we all lose credibility and trust. It is not up to Realtors to monitor our peers on the online forums and report inappropriate activity to the owners of the sites.

There is a need for more education, and that education should be coming from the brokerages or the associations. We shouldn’t leave it up to companies that build Web sites and social communities. They can’t do this alone.

Teresa Boardman is a broker in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the St. Paul Real Estate blog.


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