Last night, I received this email from Steven Spinola, the President of REBNY:
Last Sunday the New York Times Real Estate section printed an article, Agents of Angst, which heavily criticized the residential real estate industry in its opening paragraphs. Detailing the experiences of one woman whose search for an apartment left a bad taste in her mouth, the article led the reader to believe that these occurrences are not the exception in real estate dealings but the norm.
I have written a letter to the editor, attached below, expressing my frustration in the paper’s perpetuating these myths and cited the Department of State’s handful of complaints as well as our own stringent Code of Ethics as examples of how seriously we take our roles. While we are all too aware of the stereotypes real estate brokers face, we also know how hard you work to satisfy your clients. An article suggesting otherwise is disrespectful to you, the real estate industry as a whole and just plain irresponsible.
After reading your recent article Agents of Angst, I was very disappointed to see that your article took one or two bad experiences from two people and misrepresented them as common occurrences in the real estate industry. While I’m not suggesting these unfortunate events didn’t occur, they are certainly not the norm in real estate practice as your article suggests. In 2006, there were only 206 complaints brought to the Department of State by real estate clients in the entire borough of Manhattan. And as noted, the Department has received fewer and fewer complaints statewide each year. In addition, REBNY puts forth its own strict code of ethics, which clarifies licensees’ responsibilities to both their colleagues and to the public. If an alleged violation occurs, REBNY immediately handles it by voluntary mediation or binding arbitration. However few and far between, stories of unethical brokers are disappointing – disappointing to the public, disappointing to me and most importantly disappointing to my members, who have to work even harder to clean up the reputation of their industry. New York City real estate agents know the false stereotypes they must overcome, but if the Department’s dwindling list of complaints is any indication, they’re doing a good job of it.
Real Estate Board of New York
Now I absolutely appreciate Mr. Spinola’s efforts on behalf of his organization’s members. I am actually one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I think REBNY does some wonderful things for the industry and although they are in essence a "self-policing" organization, they do mostly succeed in getting their members to "play nice." Their code of ethics is also an excellent benchmark to keep members "ethical." And for the most part, the quality of agents who are REBNY members is superior to those who aren’t.
That said, I would bet that it wasn’t incredibly difficult for Vivian S. Toy of The New York Times to find examples of unethical behavior in the real estate industry. I think it’s a larger problem than Mr. Spinola wants to admit. Perhaps he actually believes that because only 206 people filed complaints with the Department of State, the "problem" is insignificant? I happen to think 206 complaints are significant primarily because I am of the opinion (I stress opinion here) that most people who feel duped don’t report the incident because they are embarrassed or feel that nothing will be done to "make things right." Furthermore, the "false stereotypes" that Mr. Spinola refers to aren’t necessarily "false" at all. There are indeed some bad seeds out there as I have encountered them myself. I know one person in particular who has changed his name 3 times because of licensing violations, not the least of which was steering. He is still a practicing agent with a very large firm. The very structure of the industry fosters opportunities for unethical behavior as I have written about before. It is imperative that I state here that the majority of people I have met in this industry are seemingly honest and well-intentioned professionals who make every effort to maintain integrity. And I think the article that Ms. Toy penned elucidates just that by describing the successes that the duped customer had when they found a better agent.
In closing, I believe that articles such as these are imperative in keeping the industry on its toes in remaining accountable for the actions of its "members." And let’s not forget that as good of a job as REBNY does in overseeing its members, a very large percentage of licensed agents aren’t members of REBNY and therefore aren’t obligated to follow any of its rules. I would agree with Mr. Spinola that the industry is improving its reputation but I think the Department of State has to play a larger role in policing the industry and holding unethical agents accountable for their actions.