Realtor and Loan Officer Responsibility: Can the Client Afford The Property?

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Every so often, I write about professional responsibility.

Every month I get a couple of magazines because I'm a Realtor. In one of this months, was a letter from someone who was proud of the fact that he had never asked someone if they could afford the property, despite having been in the business for decades. Essentially, this reduces to, "I'm in this for the commission check, and what happens after that is none of my business."

Contrast this with investing in the stock and bond markets, where the SEC and NASD have mandated an entire slew of regulations and practices. Before any financial licensee accepts your money, he or she is obligated to ask enough questions about your situation to have a reasonable basis to believe the investment they recommend is appropriate. A large proportion of financial licensees breach this, but the requirements are there, and upon those occasions where the investment turns out not to have been so well advised, they are both civilly and criminally liable. They are supposed to question you about reserves, and a will, and life insurance. Occupation, income, necessary expenses. They're supposed to encourage disability insurance and long term care insurance, where appropriate. The list of questions goes on and on, and if the questions don't get asked, those advisers who fail to ask are going to hear about it. The penalties start with fines that are larger than whatever loss the client may have taken, and include permanent loss of license, jail time, and being a convicted felon for the rest of your life. Among the regulations is a very stiff requirement that the money being invested cannot be borrowed except under strictly circumscribed situations (Margin accounts being the only example I'm aware of).

The idea that you can encourage someone to make a half million dollar investment with borrowed money, get paid thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for it, and have less responsibility than the guy who makes $1.25 signing someone up for mutual funds with $100 they saved out of their pay this month, is preposterous. It's wishful thinking, and lying to the The Guy In The Glass. It is completely unacceptable if those in my profession want to be treated as anything other than snake oil salespersons. Every time someone makes an easy property sale, or an easy loan sale, without ascertaining that they are, in fact, putting the person into a better situation, the fall-out down the line hurts every single one of us in the profession. In fact, the prevalence of discount solutions in real estate can largely be attributed to those unethical members of the profession who have failed to take the real interests of the consumer into account. When someone figures that they likely won't get the sort of real advantages that accrue from using someone knowledgeable and ethical anyway, they don't see themselves as having given up anything when they go the cheaper route.

The absolute worst case from someone investing $1000 in mutual funds is they lose that $1000, which hurts their ego and their pocketbook, but if they had to have that money to live on, they shouldn't have invested it, and the person who solicited that investment will need to answer to the SEC, the NASD, and the criminal prosecutors for their area. As many people are finding out first hand now, that isn't close to the worst case for someone put into a property they couldn't afford. Those people are finding themselves with their credit ruined, owing thousands of dollars in taxes, in many cases homeless, and without anyone willing to rent from them. Life savings may have been completely depleted in a vain attempt to keep the property, and in many cases, there are deficiency judgments against them. In some cases, where a Realtor or loan officer had to exaggerate income in order to qualify them for the loan, they may even face criminal prosecution for fraud. It's like the difference between having your TV stolen, and having your life ruined.

Thirty years or so in the past, the listing services were reserved to Realtors, and so if you wanted access to MLS, you had to hire a Realtor. These days, due to restraint of trade suits, that's not the case. Not only are those days gone, they're not coming back (and that's a good thing, in my opinion). If all you are is MLS access and transaction facilitator, prospects are correct to pass you by in favor of the discount options that accomplish those same services far more cheaply. Every time some Realtor pleads that they're only a transaction coordinator, everyone who hears about that is driven straight into the office of the discount service providers. It's only by being more than that, and being willing to stand up in court and say that you're responsible for more than that, that you earn the additional money over what a discounter will charge. Most lawyers and all of the big chains tell their member agents not to be present for the inspection. My question is, "If you're claiming to provide knowledge or experience that the average person does not have, how can that possibly be anything other than gross and intentional negligence?" I'm there with a notepad, every time - lawyers be damned. As I have said, I'm perfectly willing to do discounter work for discounter pay - I make more money, more quickly, by limiting my responsibility and involvement to running the paperwork, even if I only make half or less of a full service commission. I never try to "upsell" those people who want discounter service. Truth be told, it's easy for someone is used to providing full service to provide better discount service than the discounters. But if you want a client to happily pay a full service commission, you've got to convince them you've earned that money, by providing something real that they would not otherwise have.

One of the most basic of those services is as a check of their ability to afford the property. This is a major psychological stumbling block for a lot of property purchasers. Many very qualified buyers don't understand that they are qualified. Part of this is simple anxiety, part of it is so many loan officers telling people what difficult loans they are to discourage them shopping around to different providers. If you're willing to go over the numbers and tell them what kind of property they can and cannot afford, many people may buy who otherwise would not trust their ability to afford the property. If they tell me to butt out when I ask, that's their prerogative - I tried to do my duty and they absolved me of that portion of it. It's not acceptable if they want me to do the loan (a loan officer has to have the information to do the loan), but I can't force anyone to do their loan with me. Nonetheless, even the most jealous guardian of personal information will concede it was a professional necessity for me to ask. What actually reassures a lot of people, particularly in this market environment, about what they can afford is being told what they cannot afford - information I cover with everyone who'll let me. This information has lost me more than one prospect, but it reassures and solidifies the commitments of most.

If you cannot agree to find them something they want within a certain budget - purchase price budget, not monthly payment - you need to sit down and have a frank discussion about where the market is, and what their budget will actually buy. If their budget won't stretch to what they want, where they want to live, it's part of earning that full service commission to inform them of that fact. If they're going to have to settle for a fixer, a lesser property, or whatever in order to live within that budget, well, managing client expectations is part of every job that has clients. Unless you're personally going to extend them a loan they can really afford in order to buy the property, this means working within what they can afford with a sustainable loans at current market rates that they can actually qualify for, and explaining what they can afford if their eyes are bigger than their wallet. If I ask and they tell me that they don't want to share the information with me, it's a free country and that is their right. It may be hurting themselves by dismantling one of the checkpoints which is there to keep them out of trouble, but it remains their right. I'm fine with them refusing because it means I don't have to do some of the work I have to do for other clients, and have less legal responsibility, to boot. It still doesn't completely absolve me - I've still got to pay attention to any other clues that may be present - but it greatly lessens what I'm responsible for. Failure to ask about their budget and financial situation is prima facie evidence of gross negligence.

Putting clients into property you know they cannot afford, or can afford only with the aid of temporary and unsustainable financing arrangements, is a violation of fiduciary duty, and willful ignorance is not an excuse. If you don't want to be responsible to a client's best interest, find another line of work, like cell phone sales, where you'll fit in just fine.

As far as being a loan officer goes, the question is rarely "Can I get this loan through?" Much more often, it's "Should I? Am I really helping these people if I do this?" Not to mention whether or not I'm likely to end up buying the loan back from the lender. It doesn't benefit me to get a $1500 check if I were to end up paying out potentially $400,000 for a loan that went bad, any more than it benefits the client to be put into a loan where they can afford the payments now, but sure as gravity they won't be able to two or three years down the line.

You cannot provide service or expertise, and be compensated for it, without the associated liability. I'm not a lawyer, but that's my understanding of the law in a nutshell. You can try and duck out, sabotaging your business, your career, and your profession as a whole, or you can stand up and say in a loud clear voice that you are worthy of every penny of what you make, because you accept the challenge of that responsibility. Our profession is better off without the former sort, and they are unworthy of our protection. We should gladly cooperate in hounding those sorts out of the business. Not only is the profession better off without them, we'll be better off without them. On the other hand, there's room for as many of the latter sort as want to practice real estate.

Caveat Emptor

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on September 17, 2007 7:00 AM.

Should Lenders Be Permitted to Sell Real Estate? was the previous entry in this blog.

Will Agents List My Property if I Owe More Than It's Worth? is the next entry in this blog.

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