Advertising Real Estate-Related Products and Services
Article 6, Part 3
REALTOR® X, a principal broker in the ﬁrm XY&Z, prided himself on his state of the art website that he used both to publicize his ﬁrm and to serve the ﬁrm’s clients and customers electronically. REALTOR® X maintained positive business relationships with providers of real estate-related products and services including financial institutions, title insurance companies, home inspectors, mortgage brokers, insurance agencies, appraisers, exterminators, decorators, landscapers, moving companies and others. Given the volume of business REALTOR® X’s firm handled, several of these companies advertised on the XY&Z home page and some of them, including the Third National Bank, included links to their own websites.
Buyer B, who had earlier entered into an exclusive buyer representation agreement with XY&Z, received frequent, automated reports from REALTOR® X about new properties coming onto the market. Hoping to purchase a home in the near future, he took advantage of REALTOR® X’s rich website to familiarize himself with the real estate-related products and services advertised there. Hoping to expedite his purchase experience by pre-qualifying for a mortgage loan, Buyer B went to REALTOR® X’s website and clicked on the Third National Bank’s link. Once at the bank’s website, he found a mortgage to his liking, completed the online application process and learned in a matter of days that he was qualiﬁed for a mortgage loan.
In the meantime, Buyer B’s property search, guided both by REALTOR® X personally and through periodic updates from REALTOR® X’s website, proved fruitful. REALTOR® X and Buyer B visited a new listing on Hickory Street several times. Buyer B decided it met his needs and made an offer which was accepted by the seller.
A few weeks after the closing, Buyer B hosted a housewarming attended by his friend D, a website designer who had, coincidentally, been instrumental in developing REALTOR® X’s website. Buyer B told D how helpful the information from REALTOR® X’s website had been. “You know, don’t you, that each time a visitor to REALTOR® X’s website clicks on some of those links, REALTOR® X is paid a fee?”, asked D. “I didn’t know that,” said Buyer B, “I thought the links were to products and services REALTOR® X was recommending.”
Buyer B ﬁled an ethics complaint against REALTOR® X alleging a violation of Article 6 for having recommended real estate products and services without disclosing the ﬁnancial beneﬁt or fee that REALTOR® X would receive for making the recommendation.
The Hearing:At the hearing, REALTOR® X defended himself and his website, indicating that the advertisements for real estate-related products and services on his website were simply that, advertisements, and not recommendations or endorsements. He acknowledged that he collected a fee each time a visitor to his website clicked on certain links, regardless of whether the visitor chose to do business with the “linked to” entity or not. “In some instances I do recommend products and services to clients and to customers. In some instances I receive a ﬁnancial beneﬁt; in others I don’t. But in any instance where I recommend a real estate-related product or service, I go out of my way to make it absolutely clear I am making a recommendation, and I spell out the basis for my recommendation. I also disclose, as required by the Code, the financial benefit or fee that I might receive. Those advertisements on my website are simply that, advertisements, no different than classiﬁed ads run in the local newspaper.”
The hearing panel agreed with REALTOR® X’s rationale, concluding that the mere presence of real estate-related advertisements on REALTOR® X’s website did not constitute a “recommendation” or “endorsement” of those products or services, and that the “click through” fee that REALTOR® X earned when visitors to his website linked to certain advertisers’ sites was not the type of ﬁnancial beneﬁt or fee that must be disclosed under Article 6.