A seller received an offer on her listed home and, curious, she Googled the prospective buyers, a couple. What she found gave her more leverage than the buyers probably would have preferred. The seller pulled up the wife’s Facebook page, where she’d posted photos of the house and told her network that it was her new home.

  • Although some believe it's a potential Fair Housing Act violation, learning more about the party on the other end of the transaction has never been easier.

A seller received an offer on her listed home and, curious, she Googled the prospective buyers, a couple. What she found gave her more leverage than the buyers probably would have preferred.

The seller pulled up the wife’s Facebook page, where she’d posted photos of the house and told her network that it was her new home.

“The seller knew then that the buyer was committed” said Chandler, Arizona, agent Mary McIntosh, who represented the seller in this situation. “So she countered the buyer’s offer full-price and removed things she’d hinted she might leave the buyers.

“She totally used what she found to her benefit; there was no way I could have stopped her,” McIntosh added. “What she found online was amazing.”

Although some believe it’s a potential Fair Housing Act violation, the internet age is here, we all have Facebook pages — and learning more about the party on the other side of the transaction has never been easier.

So how should real estate agents handle this brave new world of internet discovery?

‘Google away — it’s the smart thing to do’

Many real estate professionals do background research on clients before they will start working with them, and that includes an internet search.

“I Google everyone and everything,” said Nina Hewitt from Berkeley, Massachusetts. “I’d congratulate them on being astute.”

“Every buyer, every seller, every time,” agreed Nancy Levine, a broker in Denver. “Knowledge is power.”

“My agents google our leads. It is a smart thing to do,” said Bryn Kaufman, a broker/owner in Kailua, Hawaii.

He added that his brokerage started doing this after working with one buyer who “turned out to be a fraud” — and then looked her up after the fact. “Sure enough, other Realtors had been defrauded by her, too, so we could have saved a lot of time and money by Googling her from the start,” he said.

Fayetteville, North Carolina-based agent Esther Lian said she started looking up clients after a tenant faked her identity to rent a house that Lian was managing. “I looked up the fake name. Saw a different woman. Was four months of a hot mess I won’t go through again,” she remembered.

Michael McClure, a broker-owner in Plymouth, Michigan, agrees. “I can’t believe everyone doesn’t do it,” he said. “Shortly, everyone will. Just one more reason to actively manage your online persona.”

Sometimes, it can even seal a deal.

Sacramento, California-based agent Jeff Grenz remembers one seller (a flipper) who was “dragging his feet” because he wasn’t sure about the international bank prequalification that the buyer was bringing to the table.

So Grenz invited the seller to look up his client on Google. “‘Google my buyer’ helped them get through,” he said.

Buyers searching sellers

Bangor, Michigan, agent Melannie Hay noted that the client research can also go both ways. She had a buyer client who was keen on finding a deal — so she started using the internet to find sellers going through a divorce.

Hay’s response: “Imagine that!

“I’ve been thinking about making T-shirts, I say it so often,” she added. “I don’t want to discuss anything that does not relate to the house, its condition and the comps.”

Mary Coonradt, an agent in the greater New York area, remembers a scenario where her buyer looked up a seller and found out he was an attorney who’d had his license suspended by the state bar.

“They learned that the powers that be were going to re-investigate the situation,” Coonradt said. “We knew he had to sell everything fast. We got a very good deal.”

“Buyers particularly are very curious about what the seller’s situation is and what is causing them to sell,” noted Houston agent Nicole Lopez. “I think that it is human nature to be curious.”

Lopez added that buyers and sellers should still comply with Fair Housing guidelines (more on that later), but she said that “as readily available as information is nowadays, they are going to do it whether you like it or not.”

‘Beware of making decisions based on internet research — or sharing too much’

Havertown, Pennsylvania-based broker Andrew Wetzel wondered about the motivations for sellers who look up buyers. “Are they selecting someone who can get them to settlement or trying to find someone of pure character?” he asked.

“Of course, we all know how reliable information on the internet is, don’t we?” he added.

Adam Willis, an agent in South Jordan, Utah, had to caution his seller against sharing too much on social media.

“The seller posted every detail about the transaction,” Willis said. “Like: ‘Two offers today! Yay! Both were less than asking. Ugh.’ If the buyers were watching, they’d know our every move.”

Willis handled it by talking to his clients and pointing out that they weren’t doing themselves any favors by giving away this information on social media.

“I always tell my clients (buyers and sellers) to refrain from social media posts regarding their real estate endeavors throughout the process,” says Josh Tucker, an agent in Mooresville, North Carolina. “Little things can be picked up and used against you if you’re not careful.”

Cary, North Carolina-based Mike Jaquish says that “sometimes people want information so they can use it for a sharp stick in their own eyes.”

He gives the example of a seller who looked up qualified buyers who were interested in his property — and then decided based on his search that the buyers couldn’t afford it.

“So that eminently qualified couple went right down the street and bought another house,” Jaquish said.

Meanwhile, his seller’s house lingered on the market for months before selling (for a lower price) to a different buyer. Oops.

‘I take steps to prevent sellers from doing this’

“People often can relate to others who are like them, and that shouldn’t be a factor in offer decisions,” noted Denver broker Greg Eckler.

So Eckler rejects any buyer “love letters” with protected class information. “It’s all about the green, not the black and white,” he said.

“I just heard about a seller who took a buyer’s offer because they had an Italian name,” he added. “I doubt the lender considered that in their decision.”

“When presenting multiple offers, I break it down into offer no. 1, offer no. 2, and take names out of it to avoid any appearance of bias,” said Erica Boisvert, an agent in Fullerton, California. And she says she doesn’t share any buyer “love letters” until sellers “have looked at the merits of the offer.”

Another South Jordan, Utah, agent, Becky Schiess, says that she shows sellers a spreadsheet with figures and information about the offer — but no names. “They don’t see the offers [’til] they pick one and sign it,” she explained.

And South Jordan agent Willis says that he estimates the sellers’ net profit from the get-go. “We use columns showing worst-case and best-case scenarios that break down all our fees,” he said. “Then as offers come in, we break down the offers in new column. When we counter, a new column is created. It’s visual and the sellers love the timeline it creates.”

‘I don’t want to know how you know that’

Steve Weiss, a broker-owner in San Luis Obispo, California, says that he’s had a client go too far.

“I’ve had sellers not only Google their buyers, but one seller was an insurance agent,” he said, “and was able to pull records of his buyer through his agency. To me, that was crossing the line.”

E.J. Footer, an agent in Denver, says that he also withholds buyer names from sellers — with a few exceptions.

“If a ‘pity’ letter was submitted with the offer disclosing the names; if the buyers are active military or veterans (something that resonates with sellers who are also the same); or if I am asked directly by the sellers” are the circumstances under which Footer will disclose buyer names to sellers.

If asked directly, Footer says he will give clients the information — but he also tells them “that I do not want to be informed about the reasons why they wish to know.”

‘I see potential Fair Housing violations all over this practice’

Some agents won’t even go there because of the potential of violating the Fair Housing Act.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying, or securing financing for any housing. The prohibitions specifically cover discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children.”

In the past, Fair Housing laws meant that sellers were kept (intentionally) more or less in the dark about the people behind the offers — whether they had kids or what race they were, for example — but now that you can look up just about everything online with a full name, sellers are clearly doing just that, sometimes without informing their agents.

“Sellers should be concerned with nothing more than the purchase agreement and buyer qualifications,” said Calabasas, California-based Carolyn Clark. “I would not want my seller to be accused of discrimination.”

“Let’s take this a step further,” invited Southbridge, Massachusetts-based Wendy McFarland. “How would you handle a seller who Googles multiple buyers and chooses the buyer/offer because that particular person is most ‘like’ the seller? Even though another offer might have had better terms or net profit to the seller?

“Slippery slope,” she warned. “Be very careful.”

“I see potential Fair Housing violations all over this,” said Glen Sutcliffe, an agent in Bethesda, Maryland. “I would advise any agent in this situation to go to their broker/manager for consult,” he said, adding that local Fair Housing authorities can also be good sources of information for agents.

“To be caught in a Fair Housing violation is definitely at the top of the list of reputation-killers,” he added.

“The law has not caught up with the times we live in,” suggested Dawn McNary, an agent in Lyme, Connecticut. “Until it is adjudicated all the way up … it is just the new reality.”

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