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Are You Misleading Clients? The Answer May Be Surprising

by | Dec 6, 2023

It’s a bit unsettling when the County Tax Assessor reaches out to ask what kind of property you own… like, did they forget? The email I received from my county government asking what each member of our condominium owned was mildly disturbing, because it seems like they have far more official and reliable means of finding this information than a quick personal email from my iPhone. 

Since I’m on the board of my HOA, the County Tax Assessor emailed me to say that our parking spaces had likely been miscategorized for years on tax records, and wanted me to clarify the nature of the parking spaces that are deeded to each unit; did we own them as individual unit owners, and did we own them at all? The question “Does this unit have a parking space?” seems like a pretty basic question that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” However, the most truthful answer to this question may be “Who’s asking?”

For example, one of our units was not given a parking space on the county’s plat map. However, for 20 years, the HOA has allowed the owner of this unit to have a space assigned to them in our guest parking area. Thus, while all other units have parking spaces recorded in the plat map that cannot be taken away, this one particular unit has a parking space temporarily assigned at the pleasure of the HOA. The HOA could change or take away this unit’s parking space at any moment. So, in a certain way, this unit currently has a parking space assigned to it. But, if the person asking about this parking space were a potential buyer, the best answer would be that this unit does not have a parking space, though the HOA allows it to use one on an ongoing, but temporary, basis.

To be honest, I’m not sure if the unit owner associated with this strange parking space in my building even remembers or understands that they do not actually own it, and I’m definitely not looking forward to any chats with them on this topic.

This complex parking issue is an interesting reminder of why the role of a real estate agent can be so delicate; is the real estate agent responsible if the owner believes false information, and the agent relies on this information and communicates this false information to the buyer?

If I knew less about real estate, I could easily see myself emailing the County Tax Assessor and falsely saying “Omg yeah totally, all units own parking spaces.” If the county then relies on this information, the public county tax records would show that all units in my building have parking spaces, even though one of them does not.

If you are a real estate agent trying to verify the property’s basic details, and you contact the HOA and look at county tax records, you could reasonably–and falsely–conclude that this one unit owns a parking space. At this point, the blame for the false parking information is so widely distributed that it would be very difficult to legally hold a single party responsible if the buyer purchases a unit under the erroneous belief that it has a parking space. The even more confusing part is that this mistake might not be discovered until decades later, if the new owner continued to be treated by the HOA as if they owned the space.

So, how should a real estate agent find out the truth, and are they even responsible for doing so if multiple, official sources are misrepresenting the facts? A good real estate agent should make a sincere attempt to verify all information, and reaching out to the HOA and other authorities can help in this process. If you have documented evidence that you verified essential information, it’s much harder to be accused of misrepresentation. It’s essential, though, that you don’t go too far with this. Do not ever provide information that is outside of your expertise. Since you are not a property surveyor, you should never measure the property yourself to determine its size or boundaries. If you have any doubts about the true square footage, recommend that a professional be hired to survey the property. In a way, being a real estate agent requires you to both know everything and nothing at the same time.

By reaching out to experts, there are several people taking responsibility for the accuracy of the information. Gaining the opinions of multiple experts is actually the most professional and honest thing you can do, since you are not an appraiser, a property surveyor, or a lawyer. Recommending the appropriate experts is the expertise of a real estate agent. If the square footage of the property seems reasonable, there’s not necessarily a reason to question it. But, if a two room house is listed as 20,000 square feet, and you do not recommend getting an outside professional to verify this, you could be held responsible.

A problem real estate agents run into frequently is that the average buyer tends to assume that property law is simple–you either own the property, or you don’t. However, something as insignificant as one weird parking space can involve a shocking amount of laws and decades-long misimpressions.




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