Aly J. Yale
Homebuyers have more to worry about than just rising home prices and higher interest rates. Apparently, older brother is also a problem.
In a recent survey, 30% of sellers admitted to using a hidden camera to promote buyers when their home was on the market. That’s double the share just three years ago.
“It’s becoming increasingly more common,” says Haley Jones, a real estate agent with eXp Realty in Knoxville, Tennessee.
With the widespread adoption of home audio and video technology, the leap is not a surprise.
About 9.4 million homes across the country now have some type of Wi-Fi-enabled camera on site. In 2020 alone, Americans bought 8 million visible doorbells. Another 53% of households have a smart speaker, which allows them to easily listen to conversations around the house – often using just their smartphone.
To be clear, most sellers don’t install cameras or listening devices just to keep an eye on buyers. In most cases, they already have them—often for added convenience or security around the home, but agents say they present a legal and ethical minefield once the property is on the market.
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“It’s not really ethical for sellers to listen, and in some states, I’m sure I’m not legal either,” says Brian Chen, an agent for Newberry Real Estate in Tyler, Texas. “I tell my clients that they are not allowed to listen to those conversations. They are private, and imagine if we were looking at a house: would you like that?”
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Mining for information
Most of the sellers who attended the shows said they did so to see what buyers liked or disliked about the house. Another third said they wanted the information to be used in negotiations.
“How can you not?” asks Bianca Di Alessio, director of new development for real estate firm Nest Sears International in New York. D’Alessio has had several clients listen to offers and say they use their findings to negotiate ‘all the time’. They also use any negative feedback to pay for repairs or improve the presentation of their property to the next buyer.
“If buyers keep saying the space seems too crowded or too small, hearing it straight from the buyer’s mouth will be more impactful and can help me put the argument into why we need to staging,” she says.
Other sellers use cameras to make sure their homes are safe during the show or to monitor when buyers leave so they can go home. Agents say that in some cases, sellers may be too attached to the home.
“Some of the sellers really like to get involved — especially if the property has a lot of emotional meaning,” Salem says.
Maggie Sutherland, a family photographer born with Sutherland Photography in St. Louis, is one of the many new sellers who have listened to buyers. When her Knoxville, Tennessee, home was on the market last fall, she used the Ring doorbell and Ring add-on camera to monitor four shows and inspect the finished home. For her, it was more out of curiosity.
“I just wanted to hear what people think,” says Sutherland, who notes that both cameras were clearly visible and that the Ring sticker on its front window revealed the presence of both devices. “If we didn’t get an offer right away, I think the feedback would have been helpful.”
Is it legal?
Regardless of the seller’s reasoning, there are often legal concerns when it comes to hearing or viewing a buyer’s presentation.
Exact laws vary by state, but in most places, video surveillance – without audio – is allowed as long as it is in an area where one does not usually expect privacy.
As Peter Zenkowitzky, managing partner at Avenue Law Firm in New York, explains, “The state considers surveillance illegal when it is installed in an area such as a bedroom, dressing room, locker room, bathroom or shower—places where someone expects privacy and no He gives her consent or knowledge that the recording was taking place.”
Audio recording, however, is a different story. The legal aspects here depend on whether your state is a one-party or a bipartisan state. If both parties agree, all parties involved in the interaction must agree to the recording. If one party agrees, only one party does so.
However, there is a problem. To be considered a “party”, the seller must be present and involved in the conversation being recorded.
“As long as the person recording is part of the conversation, they may record without the consent of the other party. Otherwise, they would need consent,” says Zenkowitzky. “Listening to the conversation without being a part of it or having consent is considered eavesdropping.”
Zinkovetsky says sellers who don’t comply with these laws can file a civil lawsuit from buyers or even face criminal charges. In New York, wiretapping is considered a fifth-degree felony, with a penalty of up to four years in prison. (Even sellers whose devices mistakenly record buyers can also be liable—that is, if they listen to the recordings.)
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Skip the spy
Agents tend to dissuade sellers from listening to or registering buyers — and not just because of legal concerns.
In some cases, registration may stop the buyer completely. According to LendingTree’s survey of hidden cameras, 44% of buyers said they would skip their dream home if they knew the seller had taped their tour. Another 56% said this practice is unfair and violates privacy.
“Another thing to keep in mind is that when sellers are in person for a show, buyers don’t feel free to see and inspect the entire property,” Jones says. “The same goes here. At the very least, knowing that sellers are listening to is uncomfortable. When a buyer doesn’t feel comfortable during the show, they probably won’t buy the house.”
However, with smart speakers, doorbells and cameras proliferating — not to mention baby monitors and other potential listening devices, the temptation to spy persists. For sellers who listen, the key to legal protection is disclosure.
“If the seller is going to listen, he has to get approval from all parties involved,” Zinkovetsky says. This may mean simply notifying buyers that they will be recorded when they enter the property or, like Sutherland, posting a clearly visible indication that a video or audio surveillance system is in use.
In some cases, multiple listing services—the local databases that agents use to list homes—require security device detection and on-site registration. For those who don’t, agents can include notes about these devices in the “Agent Notes” field, so that the buyer’s agent can alert them before scheduling a tour.
Are you an observer?
If you’re on the buying side of the bargain, ask your agent about potential cameras or listening devices before entering the home, and be on the lookout for any as you enter and tour the property. Although some devices are obvious (Ring doorbells are often the easiest to detect), others may be hidden or completely hidden.
“The only obvious people are the ones standing at the front door,” Jones says. “Mostly everything else was hidden. Once I was walking around a house with customer buyers, and we opened a closet only to find that the entire closet was full of video monitors from security cameras in and around the house. I never saw a single camera.”
Even if you don’t detect a device, agents say you should assume you’re being watched or listened to at all times — and act and speak accordingly.
“The best practice with technology right now is to treat the house as if someone is listening,” says Brian Chinn, an agent at Newberry Real Estate in Tyler, Texas. “As the cost continues to fall, the use will only increase.”
Every Saturday, Money’s real estate editor Sam Scharf dives deeper into the real estate world, providing a fresh look at the latest housing news for homeowners, buyers and daydreamers alike.
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