- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

Real estate law is pretty strict when it comes to what agents are allowed and not allowed to do. Buyers and sellers sometimes write to me complaining about their agents but it turns out that the agents simply were obeying the law and acting ethically.

Though you may think some practices and limitations are "stupid," usually they are designed to protect the consumer and enforce fair practices in the field. Here are some things you cannot ask your agent to do when it comes to buying or selling a house:

Break fair housing laws. Agents can look up houses that meet your criteria a three-bedroom, two-bath Colonial for less than $200,000, for example. They cannot, however, talk to you about, give their opinion on or research for you the racial, ethnic or religious mix of the community. In fact, a licensed practitioner cannot even tell you if it's a community "great for families." All of the above could be considered steering or redlining or could be viewed as discriminatory in many other senses of the word.

When helping a client shop for real estate, licensed agents must concentrate on the property, not the human makeup of the community. If the buyers want to base their purchasing decision on the human factor, that's their business. Don't ask agents to slip down that slope with you.

Go around the listing agent. Buyer agents can talk with listing agents about submitting a contract to a seller; they cannot take the contract straight to the property owner.

If the listing agent is out of the area or unreachable, the appropriate backup contact is the agent's office, broker or partner not the homeowner.

List your house twice. If you're tired of your listing agent and want to move on to another company, you can do that, but first, the listing company must release you from the listing agreement. In addition, just because the home seller wants to get out of the listing agreement, that doesn't mean it's going to happen right away.

If you signed a 90-day agreement, you have a 90-day agreement. Some sellers just wait out the period and then go with another company, but I have seen some have such a breakdown in confidence with the listing agent that they start pursuing other companies long before the agreement is terminated. You're violating the agreement when you do that, and you're trying to get another company to violate ethical business practices when you try to list before the original agreement is fulfilled.

Block buyer contracts. If for some reason a seller doesn't like a particular qualified buyer, that is not reason enough to reject that buyer's contract. Unless the offer is unacceptable on financial grounds, the buyer must be careful about rejecting it. An agent is required to show all viable offers to the home seller. If the seller doesn't want to sell to a particular buyer because of something other than financial reasons, that seller is treading on thin ice. Some sellers may have set ideas about whom they want in the neighborhood when they leave. They may not want to sell to single or childless adults, ethnic families or people who belong to a certain religion. These are not reasons to reject a contract.

Not disclose required information. You may know you have a leak in the basement or mold in the attic or that a four-lane highway is coming through your neighborhood, and depending on laws in your state, you may or may not have to disclose or disclaim that knowledge. Thirty-three states require disclosure or disclaimer of some sort. However, the agent who knows about certain things on the property such as planning for the four-lane highway may be required by law to disclose them.

In some states, agency law holds an agent responsible not only for what he or she knows about a property or community, but also what he or she should have known.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Contact him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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