On the morning of Dec. 4, Alexandria, Virginia-based Realtor Abraham Walker received an email from the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors (NVAR) stating that Walker had violated the National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) Standards of Practice for advertising.
Those standards, 12-5 and 12-9 of the NAR Code of Ethics, require agents to clearly disclose brokerage associations in all advertising and licensure information on their webpage and other marketing platforms. The notice came with screenshots of Walker’s Facebook page and website, provided by the anonymous tipster who reported him, along with a notification of that the violation would cost him $450 — $150 of which would go toward administrative fees.
Walker immediately renamed his Facebook page from “Ask A Walker A Northern Virginia Real Estate Company” to “Ask A Walker powered by Keller Williams Realty Kingstowne” to highlight the brokerage affiliation and added his and his wife’s licensure information to the footer of their webpage.
Walker says although he didn’t have the brokerage name included in his original Facebook page name, he’s always listed his brokerage affiliation in the story section of the about page.
“I don’t think I knew where to put it at,” said Walker, noting that his brokerage affiliation is also listed on his webpage. “They sent me a screenshot of a specific place, so that’s when I changed my business name to have my broker’s name included in it, which it still isn’t clear if that’s what I needed to do.”
Walker paid the fine, and he then decided to share his story on Raise the Bar in Real Estate, hoping to prevent other agents from making the same mistake.
“I recently received a fine from my board for an Article 12 ethics violation. It cost me $450,” wrote Walker. “If you’re a Realtor, you could get hit with the same ethics violation in your market. Be sure to have the proper disclosures on your website and Facebook business page.”
“Learn from my mistake,” he concluded.
Walker shared before and after photos of his Facebook page and website to show the changes he made.
Many commenters thanked Walker for his transparency, saying they weren’t aware of the advertising requirements and planned to immediately update their Facebook pages and websites.
Other commenters focused on the $450 fine, which they felt was unfair — especially since Walker didn’t receive a compliance warning first.
“Did they waive the fine after you made the correction?” wrote Dawn Pfaff. “I’m sure you didn’t do this intentionally.”
“Man. Not even a warning first of noncompliance,” added Aaron Hoffman. “That sucks.”
Walker responded by saying whoever reported his Facebook profile and website were simply doing what they were supposed to, which keeps “this profession honorable.”
“Let us not waste energy focusing on the individual who followed the rules by anonymously reporting an obvious error. Instead, use this opportunity to review your advertisements for compliance issues,” he wrote. “Do not pity me. I’ve made a few $450 in my nine years as an agent.”
To cite or not to cite
NVAR caught wind of the conversation on Raise the Bar in Real Estate and held a Facebook Live event that explained how the NVAR citation system works.
Two grievance committee members — Dallison Veach and Frank Llosa — explained that consumers and Realtors alike can file a complaint, and the validity of that complaint will be examined based on the NAR Code of Ethics as well as Virginia’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR)’s advertisement requirements.
They also made it clear that committee members are not eligible to file complaints, responding to conversations in a private Facebook page for Northern Virginia-area Realtors that implied NVAR board members were filing complaints and doling out fees to increase NVAR’s revenue.
“The grievance committee’s job is to look at the data and look at the information (assuming that it is true), whether it qualifies for a specific citation or qualifies for a specific violation of the Code of Ethics,” explained Llosa. “Then we move it onto professional standards to make the next level decision.”
When it comes to Code of Ethics violations and the subsequent fines, Veach and Llosa explained the system “isn’t set up to give a warning,” but rather to determine if there’s been a violation and fine Realtors on the first offense.
Furthermore, NVAR says the current citation system was voted upon and approved by the Board of Directors for the six local Northern Virginia associations, which include Dulles, Greater Piedmont, Fredericksburg, Prin
In order for the current system to be changed, members would need to make a request that would “work its way up” to the Professional Standards Committee as a recommendation to the Board of Directors.
Lastly, Llosa says that switching to a warning system would disproportionately shift the cost burden to the association considering the man-hours it would require for the complaint to travel through the grievance process and for committee members to decide to give a warning or charge a fine.
Llosa and Veach also said members always have the option to keep one another accountable by quickly pointing out violations rather than filing a formal complaint.
“We’d prefer that you take the extra effort to warn a fellow Realtor about a violation,” he added. “That would make everything so much nicer. I think everyone would rather get the warning [from a colleague].”
Rely on your common sense
NVAR also noted that brokers must bear some of the onus for educating their agents about proper advertising practices.
“We look to the brokers, and say, ‘Hey, you should be educating your agents and monitoring the advertising in your office,'” said Veach before listing the array of educational tools NVAR provides to agents and brokers. She also suggested that agents, especially new agents, reach out to their brokers to get guidance about advertising standards.
But according to commenters on Walker’s post, brokerages and associations alike could be doing more to educate their agents on advertising standards and provide specific examples of what compliance looks like.
“NAR and state associations want us to include both brokerage and state licensure on all media, then frankly they should spend more time and effort educating us on it than the [stuff] we’re subjected to on an annual basis,” wrote Bo Bromhal.
“Your original page, which lists you as a KW agent, in VA, is either sufficient or someone should — without any violation — explain to us all what they want.”
NAR general acting counsel Ralph Holmen says the association doesn’t provide “explicit, articulated guidance on how exactly [advertisements] have to be done.” Instead, NAR relies on agents and brokers’ ability to properly interpret and execute what “reasonable and readily apparent manner” means for their advertising materials on all platforms.
“If it’s in a tiny two-point type at the very bottom corner of the page where it wouldn’t be easily visible, then it obviously wouldn’t satisfy that standard (12-5 and 12-9),” he said.
When it comes to some NVAR members calling to give a warning citation rather than fine on the first offense, Holmen says he doesn’t believe associations have an “obligation” to provide a warning, and that it’s ultimately up to the association to decide the best method for handling violations.
NVAR senior director of communications Ann Gutkin says the association is doing all it can to ensure members are in compliance with NAR and DPOR advertising standards, such as offering digital and print articles as well as subject-specific videos on the NVAR site and YouTube channel.
Furthermore, Gutkin says members are encouraged to call the online legal hotline to get advice from staff attorneys.
Although Walker believes NVAR needs to provide “more clarification” on how to meet standards, he says his brokerage has tried to be proactive.
On the day he received the fine, his brokerage sent reminders on NAR and DPOR advertising standards and has helped revise everyone’s Facebook pages, websites and other marketing materials, changes he hopes will prevent another $450 fine from coming his, or his colleagues’, way.