Q. What do we need to know about providing access to properties in a way that is safe for Realtors®, their clients, and members of the general public?
A. Realtors® and other real estate professionals must understand that they have a superpower – the ability to access other people’s property without supervision. If members of the general public access a property without supervision, that would be called criminal trespass! To paraphrase a famous superhero comic book: with great power comes even greater responsibility.
Realtors® have a responsibility to their seller clients to provide access to a property under the terms permitted by the seller. They also have a responsibility when representing buyers to provide access under the terms permitted by the seller. The primary reason for this, of course, is similar to the Golden Rule – treat other people’s property as you would want your property to be treated. Another significant reason for these rules is the safety of all people involved.
There are two separate sets of rules governing how Northern Virginia Realtors® access a property: The National Association of Realtors® Code of Ethics (the “Code”) and the Regional Rules and Regulations for the SentriLock Lockbox System (the “Rules”).
Article 1, Standard of Practice 1-16 of the Code clarifies that Realtors® representing sellers or landlords “shall not access or use, or permit or enable others to access or use, listed or managed property on terms or conditions other than those authorized by the owner or seller.” Article 3, Standard of Practice 3-9 of the Code also states that Realtors® representing buyers or tenants “shall not provide access to listed property on terms other than those established by the owner or the listing broker.”
While there are many requirements of the SentriLock Rules, the foundational principle to keep in mind when accessing a property with a SentriCard or SentriSmart app is to use them “only for the purposes of gaining authorized entry into real property.”
Sellers may put restrictions on accessing property for personal reasons. For example, if a seller restricts or prohibits showings from 2 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, they might be doing so because there is an unsupervised minor in the property who has been instructed to call the police if someone tries to come in. Many people also own guns for personal protection, and the last thing you want is to put you or your client at risk.
In the interest of your safety, the safety of your clients and protecting the public perception of Realtors®, here are some guiding principles:
- When representing a seller, discuss showing instructions when signing the listing agreement and ensure that the seller’s instructions are in writing.
- When representing a seller, make sure the showing instructions are clear and easy to follow.
- Have a signed buyer brokerage agreement before showing buyers a property. It is Virginia law, and the brokerage agreement contains important disclosures for the buyer and protections for the brokerage.
- When representing a buyer, always follow the showing instructions.
- If the showing instructions are not clear to you as a buyer’s agent, contact the listing agent to clarify before accessing the property.
- Be present when providing property access to your clients, inspectors, contractors, appraisers, etc. unless the seller or listing agent has consented in writing.
- Meet with prospective buyers at your office or a public place before taking them to a property.
- Ensure that you can observe clients throughout the tour when showing a property.
- Return the key to the lockbox (if any) at the end of the showing.
- When representing a seller, don’t provide access in a manner inconsistent with the seller’s written instructions.
- When representing a buyer, don’t access a property before reviewing the showing instructions – even if the property is vacant.
- Don’t provide, lend or give a SentriCard, SentriSmart app, mobile access code, call before showing code or combination code to anyone without seller or listing agent permission – including customers, clients, inspectors, contractors and appraisers.
- Don’t leave your SentriCard or smartphone unattended in public or with clients.
- When touring a property with clients, don’t allow clients to come between you and the exit.
Q. A Realtor® accessed one of my listings without my permission. What options are available to me through NVAR to address this issue?
A. Many violations are a result of misunderstanding or ignorance of the rules. If you find that unauthorized access has occurred, start by picking up the phone. Reaching out to the agent or his or her broker could play an important role in educating the agent about proper access rules and eliminate future violations by that agent.
If you do not wish to file an official complaint, and do not feel comfortable speaking to the agent or broker directly, the NVAR Ombudsman Program is a great option. One of our trained Ombudsmen (a fellow NVAR Realtor®) will reach out to you to discuss what happened. The Ombudsman will then contact the agent and his or her broker to determine if all parties can reach a resolution. For example, sometimes a homeowner only wants an apology and a promise that the agent will discontinue that behavior.
If these suggestions are not successful, you do have the option to file an ethics complaint. Unlike the Ombudsman Program, which allows for negotiated agreements between the parties, filing an ethics complaint is part of an established disciplinary process. NVAR has an online filing system where a Complainant alleges violations of the Code, SentriLock Rules or NVAR Bylaws. The Complainant must cite the specific rule that has been violated, provide an explanation as to the alleged behavior, and provide any supporting documentation believed to show that the violation occurred.
Once received by NVAR, the complaint will be sent to both the Complainant and Respondent. Next, the NVAR Grievance Committee will review the complaint to determine if there is a possible violation of the Code or SentriLock Rules.
Many SentriLock violations fall under the NVAR Citation System. If the Grievance Committee determines that a citable offense has occurred, the Committee has the ability to issue a citation to the Respondent. If the Respondent acknowledges the unethical behavior did occur and pays the citation, the case will be closed. Alternatively, the Respondent has the option to request a Professional Standards Hearing where both the Complainant and the Respondent will have an opportunity to present their case. A panel comprised of members of the NVAR Professional Standards Committee will determine if a violation, as alleged in the complaint, has occurred. If a violation is found, the panel will issue sanctions, which could include a letter of warning, monetary fine, and/or education.
Unauthorized access is a serious issue that demands serious attention. If you are unsure whether you have authorization to access a property, contact the listing agent. It is better to avoid accessing a property without permission than risk receiving an ethics complaint filed against you. If someone has accessed your listing without permission, consider being a positive influence on the agent and the Realtor® brand by sharing your knowledge and contacting that person. Remember your responsibility to your fellow Realtors® and the clients you serve!
If you have questions or wish to discuss a specific situation, please contact the Legal Hotline at NVAR.com/legalhotline. If you have any questions about the Ombudsman Program or complaint process, please contact NVAR Professional Services at 703-207-3212.