Remove Information About Listings from Websites Once Authority to Advertise Ends

Article 12, Part 6

The Complaint

REALTOR® A, a residential specialist in a major metropolitan area, spent several weeks each year in a cabin in the north woods he had inherited from a distant relative. Always on the lookout for investment opportunities, he paid careful attention to “for sale” signs, newspaper ads, and local brokerage websites in the area.
Returning from the golf course one afternoon, REALTOR® A spotted a dilapidated “for sale” sign on an otherwise-attractive wooded lot. Getting out of his car, he was able to discern REALTOR® Z’s name. Returning to his cabin, he used the Internet to locate REALTOR® Z and REALTOR® Z’s company website. Visiting REALTOR® Z’s website, he found detailed information about the lot he’d seen that afternoon. Using REALTOR® Z’s e-mail address function, he asked for information about the lot, including its dimensions and asking price. Several days later REALTOR® Z responded, advising simply, “That listing expired.”
The following day REALTOR® A, hoping to learn whether the lot was still available, contacted REALTOR® X, another area real estate broker. “As it turns out, we have an exclusive listing on the property you’re interested in,” said REALTOR® X. In response to REALTOR® A’s questions, REALTOR® X advised that he had had an exclusive listing on the property for almost six months. “That’s funny,” responded REALTOR® A, “REALTOR® Z has a ‘for sale’ sign on the property and information about it on her website. Looking at her website, I got the clear impression that she still had that property listed.”
While the wooded lot proved to be out of REALTOR® A’s price range, REALTOR® Z’s “for sale” sign and website were still on his mind when he returned home. Ultimately, he contacted the local association of REALTORS® and filed an ethics complaint alleging that REALTOR® Z’s “for sale” sign, coupled with her offering information on her website made it appear as if the wooded parcel was still listed with her firm, when that had not been the case for over six months. REALTOR® A noted that this conduct, in his opinion, violated Article 12 since REALTOR® Z was not presenting a “true picture” in her public representations and was, in fact, advertising without authority, a practice prohibited by Article 12, as interpreted by Standard of Practice 12-4.

The Hearing

At the hearing, REALTOR® Z claimed that failure to remove the “for sale” sign was simply an oversight, and if anyone was to blame, it was her personal assistant who was responsible for removing signs and lockboxes from expired and sold listings. “If you want to blame anyone, blame my assistant since he’s supposed to bring back our ‘for sale’ and ‘sold’ signs.” Turning to the stale listing information on her website, REALTOR® Z acknowledged that information about her former listing had continued to appear for more than six months after the listing had expired. REALTOR® Z analogized the continued presence of that information to an old newspaper advertisement. “It’s possible someone might come across a six month old newspaper with my listings in it. Those ads were true when I ran them but how could I ever control when and where someone will come across them, possibly months or even years later?” she asked. “Besides,” she added, “REALTORS® have better things to do than constantly inspect their websites to make sure everything is absolutely, positively up-to-the-minute.” “If we did that, none of us would have time to list or sell,” she concluded.

The Conclusion

The hearing panel disagreed with REALTOR® Z’s reasoning. While reasonable consumers can expect newspaper advertisements to be current and accurate on the date of publication, they also understand that information in months or even years old newspapers will be obsolete. Information on REALTORS® ’ websites is clearly different from newspaper ads since it can be updated on a regular basis, and corrected if mistakes occur. The panel concluded that the continued presence of information about REALTOR® Z’s former listing six months after expiration on her website, coupled with the continued presence of her “for sale” sign on the wooded lot, did not present the true picture required by Article 12, and was inconsistent with the obligation to have authority to advertise contemplated by Article 12 as interpreted by Standard of Practice 12-4. REALTOR® Z was found in violation of Article 12.