Millions of homeowners have installed cheap home security cameras offered by companies such as Amazon, seller of Ring devices – but as their use soars, homebuyers are wary.
In this age of constant surveillance, real estate agents say home buyers should behave as if they are being spied on by sellers.
“It seems like everyone has cameras,” says Janine Acquafredda, associate broker at RE/MAX Real Estate Professionals in Brooklyn, New York. “It just became the norm. People have supervision for nannies, for pets, for dog walkers. So I let the buyers know that there were probably cameras inside and outside the house.
Sellers should also be careful. Each state imposes its own laws governing what owners can register, creating 50 different regulatory regimes around surveillance — and a potential legal minefield (although, to be realistic, the odds of being sued for illegal registration are low ). Sellers who are too assertive with their security systems can also scare off buyers or alienate agents.
Electronic eyes, ears
In this new era – Big Brother on steroids, you might call it – snoopy home sellers have advanced home security systems that allow real-time and delayed remote monitoring via audio and video, and sellers can monitor activity outside and inside their homes. Some systems include motion sensors that can send an alert to the homeowner when a buyer and real estate agent are inside the home.
This technology means that a seller can watch and listen to a buyer’s conversation with their real estate agent. This monitoring can be done with little more than a Wi-Fi enabled camera and a computer connected to a web portal, or a smartphone with an app.
“Before, you played a tape. You could go back, and you could see people walking around and you could say, ‘They didn’t steal anything,'” says Leif Swanson, realtor at Realty One Group in Phoenix. “Now that’s a different story because you have sound.”
Buyers must behave as if they are being watched
For homebuyers, the new rules are strict: Maintain a straight face for the duration of the home visit. Hand out honest ideas as sparingly as Tom Brady at a post-game press conference.
“As a buyer, you should expect to be watched,” says Acquafredda. “Don’t comment on what you like or dislike.”
If you’re too expansive in your praise of the kitchen or bathrooms, for example, the salesperson might decide to make an even tougher deal. Today’s real estate market is characterized by soaring home prices and limited supply, so a seller who thinks you like the place could take advantage of this.
In a twist on the same theme, sellers have many offers to choose from, so if you slam the garish wallpaper or moldy carpet, you might offend a seller who has plenty of other offers on the table.
“If the seller can hear these comments, they may not want to sell to you,” Acquafredda says. “Sellers are in a very strong position now. They can say, ‘I don’t like them renting it out’ or ‘I don’t like them tearing it down; it was our family home’.”
Advice from real estate agents: Stay neutral when inside and around the house. Modulate your physical reactions and modify your spoken comments. Only later, after leaving the property, can you honestly say how much you love the kitchen counters or how much you hate the creepy basement.
For sellers, capturing video only is generally acceptable
As a door-to-door salesperson with a surveillance system, there are also complications for you. While some real estate agents advise clients to disclose the presence of surveillance cameras, either in listing information or on the property, the legality around surveillance remains murky, thanks to a hodgepodge of state-by-state laws. .
In Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, the rule of thumb is that video recording — without audio recording — is legally protected, say legal experts at Edina Realty, a Minnesota-based brokerage.
“For the most part, it’s perfectly legal to have a camera filming what’s going on in your home,” according to the brokerage’s website. “This is true even if the camera captures video of someone without their knowledge. A big caveat to this general rule is that you’re not allowed to place a camera with the intent or likelihood of capturing a person undressing – for example, in a bathroom.
The law is stricter regarding audio recording without the speaker’s consent. Some states require both parties to a conversation to accept audio recordings – this is the case in a dozen states, including California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Other states require only one party to grant permission — and if you record a visit while away from home, you’re not a legal party to the conversation.
Of course, many sellers are unlikely to know the law or their own systems well enough to comply. However, sellers don’t need to be paranoid – local police aren’t exactly rushing to arrest those who break this law. Privately recording audio without consent is technically a crime punishable by jail time, but Bankrate could not find a case where an owner would be prosecuted for violating eavesdropping laws in connection with a house sale.
Housing Discrimination and Common Sense
Another potential minefield for sellers comes in the form of a housing discrimination law.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits sellers from discriminating based on race, color, creed, national origin, sex, marital status or disability. This federal law came into effect in 1968, long before the proliferation of cameras that allowed sellers to see buyers. With or without home cameras, it is illegal for sellers to refuse an offer or refuse to trade based on these protected classes.
Meanwhile, Acquafredda says sellers should use common sense when it comes to oversight. Just as savvy sellers remove clutter and personal photos, it can be a good idea to limit the number of surveillance devices in your home.
“Don’t overdo it,” she says. “Being too intrusive is not a comfortable experience for a buyer. There’s a fine line between security and spying. If someone feels they’re being watched, they’ll run in and out. It’s scary.”