Consumer Due Diligence on Real Estate and Mortgage Loans

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Or: Please don't believe everything you read on the internet!

Rarely a week passes by that I don't get a request from someone to link to their website or article. I'm happy to link to good sites and good articles with real consumer information. Unfortunately, this is not the majority of what's out there.

I got three requests in the last day. Two were obvious spam sites, one didn't even address me by name. The third was a little harder, an article that claimed to be written for consumer benefit. Unfortunately, its five main paragraphs were wrong on every point of substance, and so vague as to be useless on everything else. But when I sent them an e-mail suggesting they improve it, I got a three letter response: LOL.

For those of you who may not understand geek speak, this stands for "Laugh Out Loud." In other words, my request was laughable to them. They wanted free links to the site, and were willing to research email addresses and such, but weren't willing to produce actually informative correct content. My primary hypothesis, which I'm not going to bother to test as it involves motivations I don't care about, is what they did write fit their own agenda better than something closer to verifiably correct. I see people writing - or who have written and are flogging - articles with similar points to that one every day.

Unfortunately, this attitude is far too common. People build these websites to optimize their chances of getting a relevant search term hit. None of the search engines tests any site for reliability of the information it contains. A search engine referral is not a guarantee or even indicator of reliability - it means they found the relevant search terms there. Testing the veracity, correctness, completeness, and usefulness of the information contained is left as an exercise for the potential reader.

I also get e-mail from consumers. One recently thanked me, saying it's easy to find real estate information, but it's difficult to find good loan information. Actually, it's just as difficult to find correct real estate information. More of what's out there is somewhere in the general vicinity, but just because it's apparently closer to the truth does not mean it doesn't contain deadly traps, made all the more plausible by association. When you're talking about real estate and mortgage loans, there's a lot of money at stake. This is all the reason necessary for some people to say whatever it takes. Remember, none of the search engines tests for reliability of the information, and failure to examine everything you read - particularly in an area where few people have competence but many people think they do - can often lead to a situation which appears to be successful until years later. Real Estate is one of those fields. I'm going through a transaction right now where it's becoming more and more challenging not to speak ill of the listing brokerage as a whole. I've got the buyer's end done and there's no termite clearance, no zone disclosure report, none of the other required disclosures, they took the lockbox off without informing me or my clients (itself a violation of MLS rules) so we couldn't do our walk-through yesterday, and that's not all by any means. That seller is sitting fat dumb and happy - and liable for basically everything in the known universe. Yes, it's a discounter. Why do you ask? Oh, right. Because I've got to do their work so that my client is aware of what they need to know before we actually consummate the transaction. But I don't have any legal liability to do so as the buyer's agent. It's simply my desire to prevent my client from unknowingly walking into a bad situation, and if I didn't, it could be ten years from now when my client discovers something, and goes to court for a fat settlement from sellers and listing agency, or even forcing them to buy the property back. Apparently successful for years, but in the end a disaster. Not to mention a couple of things that I can't talk about until the transaction records.

People have various reasons for building websites. In some cases, they're trying to sell advertisements. In fact, there's a lot of those sites, where the entire purpose of the website is to collect money from people clicking off of the site to one of their paid advertising links. I've got some of those; One direct, a couple more through AdSense and BlogAds. It pays my bandwidth charges, and usually some of my domain renewal. I'm far pickier than most about my ads, and I'd like to get to the point where I can tell AdSense to take a hike, because they don't allow me any ability to reject individual ads that may be objectionable.

Other people build their website with the explicit intent of selling something specific. I'd like to sell something specific: My services as a real estate agent and loan officer. However, I'm nonetheless doing my best not to write anything that I could not defend in an academic thesis if I were a professor and tenure was at stake. I don't get offended when people question what I write unless it's in an obvious shill way. Furthermore, I'd like to think I'm as evenhanded and complete as possible in dealing with the pluses and minuses of everything. Everything I write is designed to be tested for its veracity. In other words, if you check out what I say, whether in an actual transaction or by checking with knowledgeable neutral parties, I would be very surprised if there were substantial points of disagreement. This isn't to say I can't make mistakes (Brian, you were right about 45 day locks in January. I blew a thirty day lock for the first time since 2003, and had to pay the 5 day extension out of my own pocket). But that I try very hard to make everything I say verifiable by independent test makes me highly unusual on the internet. Some people are every bit as careful as I try to be. Others are somewhat less careful. Probably the majority do not care so long as it enables them to sell more of whatever they're selling.

What I'm trying to say is that you should make every attempt to test everything you see on the internet, including my stuff, before you bet large amounts of money on whether we're right by conducting a real estate transaction in accordance with what we say (Although if I'm your agent or loan officer I become responsible for what I say financially and professionally). That's one of the reasons why I'm not hesitant to drag out a calculator or spreadsheet and show you the numbers. If it cannot be expressed in mathematics, it's not fact - it's opinion (Thank You Mr. Heinlein for teaching me that while I was still young enough to absorb it. This isn't to say that if it can be or is expressed in mathematical terms that it is true. You've got to crank the problem and see if everything matches). Try to debunk it if you can. Does the evidence - independently gathered - confirm directly, confirm circumstantially or tangentially, confirm with exceptions, partially confirm, fail to confirm, contradict tangentially, contradict circumstantially, or contradict directly what is said? In the absence of substantial contradiction, is what we say at least internally consistent? If there is contradiction, how far does said contradiction unravel the claims? It's very different if it contradicts the central point or points and causes everything to fall apart, versus if it only contradicts some tossed off side track. Logic and the scientific method are always your friends.

Another trick is to observe whether the source admits things that bolster an opposing case, or something against the point they're trying to make. The more opposing viewpoints or evidence against their point they entertain, the more likely they're honest. Especially if they're scrupulous in the way they handle to evidence against them. None of this helps if the central tenet of what they're telling you is flatly contradicted by a known and verified fact, but in the absence of such, honest treatment of the merits of alternate explanations is a very good sign.

The quality of the confirmation or contradiction - how credible and detailed the piece of information you use to check it - is also important. You could find yourself having to check out many different interpretations before you're certain where the truth really lies.

Absolute truth can be a difficult thing to attain, there is often room for differences of opinion, and there are many logical fallacies to which even people of good intent can fall prey. The difference between a valid and invalid argument or statement can be very fine. Please, do not take anything you read on the internet as gospel truth without thoroughly vetting it for incorrect information, false premises, and false inferences. I don't believe I'm infallible. I do see stuff on the internet every day which is thorough nonsense even though it may appear credible on the surface. Sometimes it's with malice aforethought, sometimes it's an honest mistake, sometimes it's a simple misunderstanding of source material, and sometimes it's even just viewing source material from a viewpoint that distorts the answer. For my part, I try very hard to get it right and to cover information that might disagree with what I'm saying, but there's a reason why I end every single article here with

Caveat Emptor

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Please be civil. Avoid profanity - I will delete the vast majority of it, usually by deleting the entire comment. To avoid comment spam, a comments account is required. They are freely available, and you can post comments immediately. Alternatively, you may use your Type Key registration, or sign up for one (They work at most Movable Type sites). All comments made are licensed to the site, but the fact that a comment has been allowed to remain should not be taken as an endorsement from me or the site. There is no point in attempting to foster discussion if only my own viewpoint is to be permitted. If you believe you see something damaging to you or some third party, I will most likely delete it upon request.
Logical failures (straw man, ad hominem, red herring, etcetera) will be pointed out - and I hope you'll point out any such errors I make as well. If there's something you don't understand, ask.
Nonetheless, the idea of comments should be constructive. Aim them at the issue, not the individual. Consider it a challenge to make your criticism constructive. Try to be respectful. Those who make a habit of trollish behavior will be banned.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 12, 2008 7:02 AM.

Choosing Buyer's Agents By Commission Rebate: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish was the previous entry in this blog.

Buyers Who Don't Want A Buyer's Agent is the next entry in this blog.

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