Words Matter: Why Integrity Is Essential In The Real Estate Business (And Everywhere Else)

In real estate, the facts are the facts. As the country watched the drama unfold over the past week, first at the Capitol Building and now, perhaps, at state capitals all over the country, legislators on both sides of the aisle (and members of the press) made claims about the truth or falsehood of their perspective, while vilifying that of their opponents. In our business, we cannot do that.

As real estate agents licensed by the New York Department of State, we need to know the difference between the truth and a lie. The laws about steering and the issues surrounding Fair Housing aren’t fundamentally fungible. When real estate agents make decisions about which neighborhoods to promote based on skin color, or religion, or sexual identification, that’s against the law. It’s wrong. There are not “good people on both sides.”

Similarly, the Department of State monitors real estate agents to determine that the ads we place accurately describe the property we are listing. We cannot describe the one bedroom we are listing as “the biggest apartment anyone has ever seen. It’s HUUUGE” if it is in fact only 500 square feet. We cannot describe an apartment as a four-bedroom if two of those bedrooms don’t have windows – without windows, they are not legal rooms.

Numbers don’t lie. If we promote a property of 2,000 square feet as containing 3,000 square feet, that is not an alternative fact. It’s simply false, and the law doesn’t permit us to do it. The modes for calculation of square footage vary (most condominiums measure exterior wall to exterior wall, which gives a considerably higher square footage number than simply calculating interior space), but they vary within reason. A New York firm, many years ago, lost a lawsuit for this very reason: a disgruntled buyer was able to prove that the real estate agent had inflated the square footage of the unit beyond a reasonable measure. Square feet, like inauguration crowds or electoral votes, can only be pushed so far.

Individual preference and decision-making play a primary role in consumers’ choices about real estate and real estate agents. Buyer and sellers so often select their agents based on personal recommendations because they believe their friends and family won’t mislead them about which professional offers the highest standard of knowledge, the deepest understanding of local conditions, and the most honest reflection on the pros and cons of the various alternatives. These consumers depend on real estate agents to act as fiduciaries, putting their clients’ interests above monetary or personal gain.

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Opinions will always be a grey area and slide along a spectrum; any agent who has worked with a buyer whose final purchase bears little resemblance to their original criteria knows that. Facts are different. In our business, as in most businesses, we need to be able to trust what others say, and others need the same from us. We need to believe that their business interactions with us are executed in good faith and that their representations are truthful. Words matter, and in business as in the rest of our lives, we must deploy them with care. Nothing can change the importance of always taking the correct and honest action.

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