- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

"Buyer beware" is a common expression that goes back to Roman times, but this warning has a current urgency for consumers shopping for a new home. If you are a buyer, what can you expect the real estate agent to tell you?

What about the history of the home? For example, what if the property is in a high-crime area and a violent crime previously occurred in the home? What about the home's future? Are potential projects slated for the area that might adversely affect the property? Plans for a new highway or shopping mall nearby could affect your decision to purchase the home.

Should you, as a buyer, expect the agent to share these details?

The simple answer is "no," unless you have specifically employed a Realtor to be your buyer's agent. If you have not hired an accredited buyer's representative, or buyer's agent, the Realtor represents the seller, not you.

According to Jesse Dennehy, director of professional services for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, a Virginia real estate agent is required only to disclose known material defects to the property, such as a leaking roof or a problem with the foundation.

In addition, under their code of ethics, Virginia Realtors determine the details they are obliged to disclose by weighing whether the facts are "pertinent" to the buyer. This can vary in each situation. For example, if a buyer tells the Realtor that he is interested in building a swimming pool on the property and the agent knows that local zoning laws prohibit pools, the agent must divulge this fact. If the buyer never mentions an interest in pools, the prohibition is irrelevant, and the Realtor will not volunteer the information.

In the case of a property where a brutal crime was committed, Mr. Dennehy explains that a murder in the master bedroom is considered a "stigmatizing" event. Virginia rules consider this fact "nonmaterial," so Realtors cannot divulge this information, he says.

Disclosure rules in Maryland and the District are similar, but there are subtle distinctions. While Realtors in Virginia and the District are required only to disclose known material defects to the property, Realtors in Maryland need to disclose "all defects that are known or should have been known about the property or the transaction," explains Valerie Huffman, vice president of education for Weichert Realtors for the Capital Region. If a seller in Maryland has just filed for bankruptcy, for example, a Realtor should be aware of this fact and should share it with the buyer, she says, because it affects the transaction.

Dale Mattison, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors and an associate broker with Long & Foster, says District Realtors are not required to disclose instances of crimes on properties "but are not prohibited from doing so because that is a moral decision."

Ms. Huffman says agents often struggle with these ethical dilemmas.

For example, this issue arose in Maryland when Weichert was employed to sell an Annapolis property in which two attorneys were murdered. When asked if the home was the site of this vicious crime, agents could not disclose the unsettling details. "We have an obligation to not disclose," Ms. Huffman says.

To avoid confusion, all of the Realtors agreed that it is best to consult a buyer's agent about what can and can't be disclosed in your area.

When answering questions about crime or the local zoning plans, Mr. Dennehy says good agents wouldn't give out this information because "they may be accused of steering people out of the area or of volunteering information which is beyond their area of expertise" in advising buyers of potential problems.

So, with this in mind, how do buyers get the real scoop on a property, where it has been and what its future may hold without hiring an accredited buyer representative?

Esther Pryor, licensed broker and sales manager at Avery & Hess Realtors in Tysons Corner, advises potential buyers to do their homework and ask lots of questions.

Buyers can research news accounts and visit local police departments to get crime statistics. In some areas, they can go online and determine whether any sex offenders live nearby.

Ms. Pryor says she believes Realtors should educate potential buyers about extraneous issues to the extent they can, but she points out that "everyone's perspective is different."

She recalls selling homes when the Fairfax County Parkway was just on the drawing board. Buyers often would ask if the properties they were considering would be close to the parkway. Ms. Pryor says she advised buyers to call the appropriate county offices to inquire directly.

"It's not wise for me to do it on your behalf," she recalls telling them. "I can call the county, but you may call and get a different answer."

Ms. Huffman points out that the amount of information the Realtor can disclose depends on the agent's client. She recommends that the buyer hire his or her own agent because the buyer's agent can share details that a seller's agent might not.

She gives an example: Many Realtors aren't aware that as a result of a class-action lawsuit over mold in buildings, a number of home inspectors conduct mold inspections. A buyer's agent should tell you this and probably would recommend a mold inspection. A seller's agent might not, she says.

When trying to get the lowdown on plans for surrounding areas, you should not rely on your Realtor for such details, Ms. Huffman cautions.

"Laws and regulations change on a daily basis. What an agent has heard may or may not be reality today," she says.

Ms. Huffman remembers advising one of her friends to call the county zoning office when considering a local property. It turned out to be a good tip: Her friend discovered that a highway had been approved that would have taken a 35-foot strip of land off the lot she was considering.

Ms. Huffman stresses that all unrepresented buyers need to dig deep and conduct their own research. To assist them in this endeavor, she gives buyers a list that includes the phone numbers of area agencies and offices that can answer inquiries on everything from school demographics to zoning laws and local crime statistics.

Realtors always have the responsibility of care and concern in dealing with any customer and ensuring that his needs are met, Mr. Mattison says.

He argues that "agents should have an overview of what is happening in the area and should determine what issues are important to the buyer" by conducting a needs assessment.

He points out, however, that Realtors have to offer a house solely based on the actual property and the financial needs of the buyer, not other issues. "We don't want to be in a position where we are givers of information that we are accountable to," he says.

There is so much data available today via the Internet, Mr. Mattison says, that buyers easily can go online to get assistance to point them in the right direction and ensure they are asking all the right questions.

"Sixty percent of the buyers in our region do this research before going out and shopping for a home," he says.

Mr. Mattison recommends that buyers visit Web sites such as www.realtor.com or www.homeadvisor.msn.com for advice.

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