Screen, Screen, Screen: The Real Estate Professional’s Protection Against Scammers & Time Wasters

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Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual luxury wives, persons living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Location, location, location? If you’re a buyer yes. If you’re a real estate agent, due diligence might be your mantra. There have been stories in the news for decades about real estate agents setting up their final appointments unbeknownst to them. There are some very sick and dangerous people out there. I’ve seen cold and/or vintage cases on Investigation Discovery just like I’ve seen modern cases play out in real time on the news. Fortunately, I find that agents are becoming more aware of the importance of not doing blind showings. Furthermore, access to technology has given us the resources required to separate our personal lives from our professional lives. We can use email to get acquainted (and leave a paper trail), have a google voice number, use a PO Box or use office sharing (for smaller operations) to avoid linking any of our activities to our primary residences. Some agents have even begun to arm themselves to various degrees (mace, guns, knives) and the team model is becoming more popular, giving us strength in numbers. But not every dishonest inquiry will lead to physical harm. How do we protect ourselves against scammers?

With real estate being an appointment-based business, it means that efficiency is the key to success. We cannot afford to waste time on buyers who are unrealistic about their purchasing power. Or worse, waste time on those with no purchasing power at all, but simply seek photo-ops for social media attention where likes feed their egos but not their empty lives. I’ve had my fair share of time wasted and I will tell you it is incredibly painful. You can’t help but think of all the serious clients you missed talking & spending time with those who did not buy anything or bought elsewhere. However it can also be a liability to both your overall livelihood and your short term income.

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I was recently made aware that our resident dollar store Kardashians were claiming to be renovating a recently acquired multimillion-dollar mansion that was at some point the residence of actor/comedian Katt Williams. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to discredit my previous post about their true socio-economic status as routinely evicted squatters, they reached an apex in the web of lies they spun aggressively and without much foresight. They posted pictures and videos of the property online, including showing children playing in the pool. This would normally be very convincing, because, how many people get to hang out by a pool on 10 acres of land near prime real estate if we don’t have access to the upper echelon? Except, the pictures combined with the knowledge that the home was the residence of a celebrity, only made it easier for people to track down. The issue is that the home in question is still for sale. It was for sale at the time this post was written and it was definitely for sale when the pictures were being shared online last week showing children in the pool, while they claimed that they were settling in and renovating.

A perturbed individual with some superb detective skills (not me) was able to unravel the entire story within 24 hours. It turned out that the husband has a real estate acquaintance who was able to give them access to the property and allowed them to get a little too comfortable in someone else’s home. It has yet to be determined whether or not the showing agent was another victim of their scamming ways or a wiling participant but he was certainly instrumental in the (attempted) trickery. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt for the sake of this post & show how his lack of screening may have opened him up to liability.

Listing Agent: Within reason, the listing agent is responsible for securing the property & protecting their client’s privacy. That is why many sellers demand accompanied showings for properties over a certain price point. A listing agreement is a contract with the seller. While your primary duty is to actively market & subsequently sell for the highest price, there is a certain expectation from the seller that you will do what you can to protect their most valuable asset when they hand you the keys. After all, the house has not yet been sold, which makes it still the property of the seller & often times, their homes. Many people still reside in houses that are on the market until 24-48 hours before closing. This stunt could have cost the agent the listing, which at over $3 million, would have been quite the payday. As a seller, there is no way that I would be comfortable with continuing a business relationship with someone who failed to protect my asset. What would have happened if they began squatting & had to be evicted?

Showing Agent: Within reason, a showing agent should take responsibility for the potential buyers they bring in. While you’re not responsible for an unruly child who bumps into an expensive lamp, I cannot imagine the lack of ethics & professionalism it takes to allow 2 children in a pool at a house that is actively being marketed for sale. While the showing agent cannot control where the footage subsequently ends up, it is a clear indication that at the very least, there were no boundaries established, and at worst, he might have been a willing participant. He runs the risk of being reprimanded by his managing broker or worse, be reported to the licensing board.

This had the potential of being a PR nightmare for both brokerage firms. Rogue showing agents giving known grifters access to high end properties & listing agents perceived as careless for not keeping an eye on the foot traffic. But, could this have been avoided? Absolutely. A little bit of screening could have prevented this egregious violation of  privacy.

First, interview your prospective buyers. An 30-minute long conversation might save you many hours of driving around people with no ability to buy or those whose tastes far exceed their financial capacity. Not to mention, lies are not very hard to detect. The more outrageous the story, the harder it is to keep it from unraveling. Ask questions and if you have any doubts, ask follow up questions.

Second, request documented proof. For anyone who will be financing their purchase, ask for a pre-qualification letter. Do not accept anything older than 3 months. The most important function is to make sure that you show them homes in their price range. If someone is qualified for up to $500k, there is no point in showing homes in the $650-700k range. The secondary purpose is to discourage any window shoppers or scammers for wasting your time. The people in question have been known to forge wedding dress receipts so this might not have deterred them, but the vast majority of con artists aren’t that committed to a scam and will likely move on to someone else who isn’t going to ask those questions. You can further protect yourself by requesting a letter with a phone number on it & the name of the loan officer who issued it. The possibility that you might call the financial institution to verify, should put forgers on ice.

Third, be ready for cash buyers. Not everyone finances a home purchase. Some really well-off people buy houses cash. Scammers might try and use that to try and circumvent the pre-qualification request. In that case, demand proof of funds. If it’s true, the seller will demand it anyway when they get an offer. If they aren’t comfortable enough to provide you with that information, perhaps, they should look to hire an agent they trust.

Fourth, sign a contract. In a previous post, I discussed my unwillingness to work for free & I presume you feel the same way. A buyer’s contract is your sole protection from someone making you do the leg work, picking your brain but buying from their cousin Deedee who’s efforts did not extend beyond completing the offer contract. That particular safeguard will not protect against scammers, but the hope is that all the other barriers will prevent you from getting to that point with a scammer anyway.

Finally, don’t be gullible. Discernment is a great asset and it is time we use it to its full capacity. You are a professional handling the most expensive transaction most people will ever make in their lives. You are not a follower of a fantasy social media account desperate for a fairy tale story. You are therefore held to a higher standard and it is unacceptable for you to see and yet ignore a multitude of red flags. Question the statements and behaviors you find suspicious.

It might seem difficult to implement these rules, especially when we are eager for business, but most clients will gladly provide the required information to ensure maximum efficiency. You just have to explain that it is for your protection as well as theirs. They are more likely to respect your professionalism & your time as you’ve demonstrated the value you place on your schedule.

 

 

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Solar Update – April 2017

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My favorite time of year has come! The days are longer, the snow seems to be gone for good, and birds are chirping on my way to work. Spring is upon us. I’ve always loved spring and summer, but now I have even more reasons to embrace the seasons. No, not just because the kids are out of school and there will be less traffic. Because it’s sun season! As you know, we got some solar panels last summer and we enjoyed many months of free electricity. It was truly a sad day when I had to pay for my first electric bill in months after the start of a frigid winter. These things will spoil you…

But the sun always shine eventually and, boy is it shining! My March 2017 electric bill was $38. We are retiring the heating for the season and thus expecting a much lower utility usage, until late June when we have to kick on the AC. Even then, I’m thinking that the 12-13 hours of sunlight that summers in New England graces us with should be sufficient to offset the worse of the damage. I might have reached the electric bill break even point. If so, I am looking forward to negative balances (I don’t say that very often) for many months to come so I can run my heat for free in November.

Let’s raise our glasses to sunny days, tax credits, and free electricity.

It takes Luck to be Successful

Don’t mind me; I’m just practicing my click-bait titles…

It is often said that if hard work was the only way to success, day laborers, farmers, etc. would all be millionaires. Hard work is a key to success. No one (except maybe lottery winners) has ever achieved anything in life by sitting around the house doing nothing. Whether it’s Harriet Tubman freeing slaves, Mark Zuckerberg founding Facebook or Obama becoming president, you won’t hear about high achievers sitting on the couch with a lot of free time on their hands.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be insinuating that anyone who didn’t find great professional or financial success failed to do so because they lacked discipline. Many of those people lacked opportunity, money and some were lazy and poor planners, but some lacked good fortune.

I say luck because many of my peers who came from similar backgrounds as myself are doing very well while others, who didn’t work any less hard are doing terribly or did so terribly that even after being back on their feet are playing catch up.

I want to tell the tales of 3 of my peers, all of whom graduated college within a year of  each other and a year of the Great Recession, eliminating the disparity that graduating during prosperous times would create.

All 3 are women of color, giving them the same likelihood of facing sex and race discrimination in academia and the workforce.

All 3 were traditional students with parental support (albeit to various degrees), no teen pregnancies, criminal past, etc.

While they remain anecdotes, I wanted to provide that small glimpse of their backgrounds to demonstrate that some of the major things that tend to create inequalities were not factors or were the same for all women.

I’ll start with the one that graduated in 2007. That was pre-recession but her lack of meaningful experience limited her opportunity to find full-time employment in time before Sallie Mae came calling. She was a little stubborn about getting internships in her field because they paid less than the temp-jobs she got that were completely unrelated to her major. She eventually found a job a year later after she began managing her salary expectations a little better. She built her savings and got her own apartment. She was no longer living on whatever allowance her parents could spare but she wasn’t living a life of prosperity either. For example, she couldn’t afford a car in any state (new or used) because the added cost of fuel and insurance was too much for her tight budget to bear. Some days she didn’t run the heat to keep utility costs manageable.

A year later, Peer #2 graduates. All is well.  At least for a few months until the market crashes and Lehman goes out of business on a humid august day. It’s pandemonium and lay offs start rolling in. She got to keep her job but it was only a matter of time before she too was offered a severance  package. She takes it, finds a job in retail and applies to graduate school, but she falls behind on her bills. Shortly there after, she lands another, better paying job which offers to pay for her to finish her degree. She says goodbye to retail for good as she graduates, gets promoted and gets married. Her now-husband who also has a good paying job brings in solid additional income that allows them to move to a really nice part of town and she keeps thriving. 8 years after undergrad, she has a happy family life, has a successful career and is financially stable.

Peer #3 is also a 2008 graduate. She’s an outgoing creative woman with a heart of gold. She’s generous to a fault. She’s active and participates in any and all activities that could enrich her undergraduate experience. She had lofty aspirations so she travels internationally and tries to get internships at various prominent organizations. Unfortunately her field of study is narrow and doors are closing fast. Her field is in demand but only for the most seasoned workers. There’s no desire to invest scarce resources into building inexperienced people. She bounces from paid internship to paid internship until things get so bad that she ends up working at the mall, focusing on just making a living since building her resume has done little for her career prospects. As a result of her basic costs (which are relatively low given that she still lives at home), she is unable to make her student loan payments which go into default and double in size after capitalized interest and late fees. 8 years after graduation, she is still making minimum wage and owes more on her student loans than she borrowed.

Next time you see someone struggling, don’t assume that they’ve done everything wrong. It could very well be that the necessary opportunities for success didn’t present themselves.

Living out here has me thinking like a crazy survivalist

I’m a city girl through and through. I can navigate any mass transit system, I have extre road rage, I can walk 2 miles in 45 minutes flat and I’m rude. It doesn’t get any more Boston than that.

But since moving out here to the ‘burbs and living on more than an acre of land, I’ve been harassing my husband about teaching me how to survive in the wilderness, increasing our dry food supply, and getting me in shape in case there is a war. Whatever is in that well water is not agreeing with me and has me talking all kinds of nonsense. I think the fluoride in city water killed all the crazy, so it might pay to move back where my biggest concern can once again go back  to being which side of the road won’t be affected by street cleaning this week.

No One Tells You How They Do It

They will only tell you that they did it.

We all have that secretive side. We grow up valuing privacy & learning not to tip our hand. We are also raised to be ashamed of our mistakes and failures. Letting them define us, damage our self esteem, and allowing people, who were too gutless to even try something new, to be our judges.

This usually means that by the time we hear of a leadership or entrepreneurial  story, it has achieved great success and the less glamorous early history of struggle, rejection, and bad decisions is swept under the rug. This unfortunately sets impossible expectations of instant easy success to observers, and by the time anyone notices, the misleading version  has been told for so long that no one knows the truth anymore. Either that, or the person behind the story likes the version being told and makes no real attempt at correction.

Everyone has a blog when they’re a millionaire or once they’ve retired at 30. No one brings you along for the journey so you can see the struggle of coupon clipping, fighting with your spouse about not buying those shoes or taking that trip. No one tells you about the uncertainty they faced taking on some risky ventures, buying a particular stock or quitting their job. They want to be in the public eye only after they’ve achieved enough success to continuously control the narrative & present the version that shows no set backs. The entrepreneurs only talk about the boost in sales after going viral on twitter. No mention of the sleepless nights because they couldn’t make ends meet. The weight loss journeys are of before and after pictures with no actual journey complete with plateaus and weight gain being documented.

No one wants to take money advice from a broke blogger just like you wouldn’t take advice on how to run a bank from the CEO of Wells Fargo. But there is a difference between telling a story of hope and taking a journey. A journey is a path. Not a destination. Don’t tell people about your sales only after you’ve reached a million. Show them the months you were in the red. Let them know some days no one bought anything from you. Tell them because those who come before you need to know that, overspending once isn’t going to completely derail their early retirement dreams. Tell them so they know that the slow start to their internet business is not an mandatory death sentence. Tell them before they start thinking Rome was built in a day.

Know what you don’t know

It takes a while to figure out the things you don’t know. If we’re lucky, we learn them by observing other people and go into our first experience well prepared. If we are not very lucky, we learn the hard way by making stupid costly mistakes. But those mistakes don’t need to be repeated. We just need to do better going forward and I bet that once your ignorance starts costing you some money, you’ll remember the rules just fine.

Here are somethings I didn’t know, wish I knew and now know:

1) When you’re allowed to deduct your mortgage interest from your taxes, that also includes any points and prepaid interests you paid for the year you bought the property. Not just your subsequent monthly payments.

2) You can negotiate everything with any vendor. Not just the local mom & pop’s.

3) YOu don’t need the extended warranty. The only thing that usually breaks is always the one thing they don’t cover.

4) Insurance preys on our worst frears. Be well insured but be insured to your financial capabilities. You will be grateful for insurance when things go wrong, and trust me they will. However, they go wrong rarely (unless you’re very unlucky), so f you have more than 6 months worth of living expenses, don’t pay more per month on a $300-500 deductible if the $1,000 deductible won’t put you in the poor house. You can afford the deductible and the extra payment to the insurance company can be put to better use.

5) If no one depends on you for their livelihood, don’t buy excessive life insurance. Have enough for your family to settle your estate. A single childless person whose parents are self-sufficient doesn’t need $1 million in coverage. Who are you leaving that money for?

6) Be consistent. It is the key to success. Nothing you will ever do in life will happen instantly. Be consistent and be patient. Results take time.

7) Pick your battles. Not every war is worth fight and some wars have repercussions that last for years. The world is a big place but in networking circles, it’s microscopic.

8) Nothing lasts forever. In good times, prepare for rainy days and in bad times know that it is only temporary. I’ve been through some really tough personal times but I pushed ahead because I knew things would get better. At the same time, I’ve spent all my years since college “stacking chips for rainy days”. While I can’t control everything that happens to me personally, I can control my financial situation through adequate insurance, increasing income, saving and planning ahead.

What wisdom have your years brought you?

You’re on Notice

 

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It wasn’t too long ago that I talked about the importance of never getting comfortable with your level or source(s) of income. I’m a big promoter of always seeking different income streams as well as seeing how you can get raises. Your ultimate goal should be to be in control of an amount of income that covers your cost of living. That’s true financial independence. That way, if you continue to work, you are working because you want to and you can stop at any time. Most importantly, if you’re involuntarily out of work, you’re not likely to be homeless in 3 months.

I also talked about my experience using a Bank of America ATM with a remote teller (Teller Asssist), and the potential threat they pose to many retail banking jobs.

Here it is: CNN is reporting that within the next 10 years, 30% of bank jobs could be obsolete. Very alarming.

These are routine repetitive jobs that we could anticipate being replaced. They are customer service jobs that provide an experience as well as a service. Well, I used one of these machines, and I got the experience. The woman on the screen was sufficiently pleasant and helpful for me to not care that we were interacting on camera rather than in person.

Technology has done it: using machines to provide services that could only be delivered in person. If you have a lower skilled job, this should be your wake up call. Save, invest and set yourself free from the bondage of debt. Otherwise, you might find yourself with a negative net worth an no income.