The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: As a real estate instructor, I teach many programs on ethics and disclosure to agents and people preparing to become agents. These same subjects are often addressed in your column. From your perspective, what can we Realtors do to enhance our ethical approach to real estate disclosure? Janice
Dear Janice: Realtors are often advised, in seminars and trade journals, to disclose defects and recommend home inspections to clients. The reason given for this advice is to reduce liability and avoid lawsuits. That recommendation has merit, but it offers a narrow view of the issue. Reduced liability is a fringe benefit of disclosure. It is not the primary motive to disclose.
The best reason to disclose property defects is simple: It is the right thing to do. It is the way each of us wants to be treated in business. The focus, instead of liability, should be promoting the best interests of clients. Agents who pursue that approach, rather than a legalistic one, enjoy three primary rewards: They build a lifetime reputation for honest, ethical business practice; they receive the repeat business and referrals engendered by a solid gold reputation; and they reduce the likelihood of claims and lawsuits for undisclosed defects. From that perspective, here are some simple ways to put this into practice.
Agents should determine which home inspectors are the most experienced and most thorough, and they should provide a list of those inspectors to all of their clients. Articles and seminars often advise agents to provide inspector lists as a way to avoid liability, but the competence of the inspectors who appear on such lists is rarely mentioned. The problem here is obvious. If the list contains mediocre inspectors, then it fails on the ethics scale, while increasing the agent’s liability. If the client chooses an inexperienced home inspector from the agent’s list, disclosure will be incomplete, and disputes may occur after the sale.
Real estate brokers should be proactive about disclosure, even when they are not directly involved in transactions. Many brokers are laissez faire in their approach, uninvolved in the home inspector choices made by agents. This lack of oversight increases a broker’s liability. When a lawsuit for a faulty home inspection is filed against an agent, the broker is usually named in the suit. To avoid this liability, brokers should influence the inspector referrals made by their agents. The message should be, “This brokerage cannot afford disclosure related lawsuits. If you work for this company, you must recommend only the most thorough home inspectors available. Here is the list of inspectors we have found to be the most qualified.”
Brokers who wish to maximize this approach can test local inspectors to see who qualifies for the referral list. Inspectors can be hired to inspect a representative home, and the findings can be compared to see which inspectors provide the most complete disclosure.
Real estate professionals are in a service business. Success in any service business comes from treating customers the way you want to be treated. Homebuyers want to know what they are buying before they buy it, not after the sale is closed. Agents and brokers who approach their profession from this perspective will build reservoirs of repeat business for years to come and will simultaneously reduce their liability.