Sex, Lies and the MLS: Why What You See is Not Always What You Get
I believe most people, and even most Realtors, are fundamentally honest. Not only are there moral reasons for telling the truth, but these days, given the number of lawsuits that arise from real estate transactions gone wrong, it is simply good business to be honest. Thus, I am continually amazed by what I find under the secret "agent's" section of the MLS called the "private remarks." What, you didn't know that there was a secret "agent's" section of the MLS? Well, there is, and it is a repository for all kinds of information that, for whatever reason, the listing agent thought the buyer's agent should know about the property but did not want to reveal to the general public.
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Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for keeping information from every member of the unwashed public that is browsing Realtor.com or some other site. Perhaps the old lady who lives in the house keeps a lot of cats, and you need to call in advance to make sure they are put out before a showing. You should not advertise that fact – some burglars might take advantage of it. Same for the code to the lock box. So it is fair enough to keep that kind of information in the private remarks.
But, I frequently find information that is material (i.e., significant) to the value of the property being offered hidden in the agent's section of the MLS. Thus, anyone without access to the secret part of the MLS (i.e., who did not have a full MLS subscription or did not have their own agent reading the full description of the property) would be blissfully ignorant of the disclosures made in the secret section. Thus, any offer presented to the listing agent (without the benefit of this information) would not be able to price in the information in the opening offer. While I would presume that the listing agent in a double-agency situation (i.e., representing the buyer and the seller at the same time) would eventually get around to disclosing the material information listed on the secret part of the MLS, it still strikes me as unfair that such information is not disclosed from the outset, so that the potential buyer can decide whether the property is one that meets his or her criteria before making an offer and investing time in the property.
A classic example of this is the agent that puts "total fixer" in the private remarks, but does not disclose that elsewhere in the listing. I'm sorry, but this is the kind of tactic which gives Realtors a bad name. If a client comes to me and is interested in a listing (but not a fixer) and then I have to inform them that the property that looks like a creampuff on the MLS is, in fact, a total fixer, then I have to the be the one to explain why the listing agent thought that the information should be kept from the potential buyer.
I saw one property listed on the MLS which seemed like a great deal from the public section. The private remarks, however, were another story entirely. The private remarks disclosed a sorry tale involving numerous building code citations and even had a long letter from the city attorney to the property owner (by that point, a bank) detailing the serious and possibly irremediable defects in the property. By the time I was done reading it, the property seemed to be a tear down from any reasonable perspective, and not much of a bargain.
The bottom line is that the MLS should be a tool to exchange pertinent information about properties offered for sale – not a tool to “hide the ball” from the unwary and unrepresented potential buyer. But, agents persist in these tactics: as Mark Twain cynically revised the old proverb, “honesty is the best policy – when there is money in it.”