Matt Laricy was showing a home with a remodeled kitchen, and, as he talked about the upgrades, his phone buzzed. It was a text from the sellers, who were watching Laricy live through their in-home cameras, reminding him of the year the remodel was completed.
“I think some people think this is reality TV, so they want to make sure you’re doing exactly what they want you to be doing,” said Laricy, a Realtor and managing partner for Americorp Real Estate in Chicago. “I think it takes you off your game as a salesperson.”
More and more, agents are navigating the thorny issues of audio and visual recorders in homes. Nest cameras, security systems, Ring doorbells and nanny cams are changing how real estate agents do their jobs. That includes reminding buyers not to say anything in or near a home that could hurt their negotiating leverage. It also means clients may be watching open houses and sometimes micromanaging how their agent is talking about their home.
Depending on the state, there may be legal issues involved, too, especially if sellers are recording buyers without their knowledge.
“The minute you walk in, the camera lights go on, and it keeps following you,” Laricy said. “It’s uncomfortable. I know I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of Realtors talking about it.”
Cameras are doing more than just making some real estate professionals feel uncomfortable. In some cases, recording devices can cost a client negotiating leverage. In the worst cases, they can block a home sale.
Butch Leiber, a managing broker with Realty Executives in Scottsdale, Arizona, recalled a seller who had cameras in their home about five years ago. A potential buyer loved the house and started talking with their agent about details of an offer while they were still in the home, and the cameras recorded it all, unbeknownst to the buyer and their agent. “The buyer said how much they loved it and to offer this and how much they would be willing to go up to (in subsequent offers),” Leiber said. “The seller heard it and knew exactly how much to counter.”
Hearing what potential buyers are saying about a home can backfire on owners, too. No one wants to hear negative comments about their home, especially if they are emotionally invested in the property.
Suzanne Fortune, a broker at Windermere Real Estate in Washington, recalled one seller was so offended by what they heard a potential buyer saying about their home, they halted the sale.
“Homeowners get offended with little tiny things,” Fortune said. “I had a buyer talking about changes he wanted to make to the house. The seller was so offended, they wouldn’t sell him the house. It ruined the sale.
“Owners/sellers are very invested in their house,” he went on. “They’ve put a lot of effort into it. Generally speaking, 98% of them have emotional ties there.”
Even when clients leave the home, they need to be careful, Leiber said. Ring doorbells can catch snippets of conversation that could hurt a buyer at negotiation time.
“Once (buyers are) outside, they start talking,” Leiber said. “That’s where agents get into trouble. They start talking right in front of the home. And these Ring cameras can pick up audio, even from the sidewalk.”
Even if the cameras don’t influence negotiating leverage, they do introduce a level of micromanaging that can be challenging for agents.
Joelle Oiknine, senior global real estate advisor for ONE Sotheby’s International Realty in Miami, said just last month she got into hot water with a client who was watching via camera as she showed the client’s home.
“We got to the unit, and I forgot to take off my shoes, and I forgot to tell them (the potential buyers) to take off their shoes,” Oiknine said. “I immediately got a phone call. He was furious.”
After the showing, Oiknine called her client, and he reviewed her performance based on what he had seen on camera. The client said she did a great job but then reminded her of a few points she could have mentioned, like heated toilets.
“It’s a little weird, but it’s their home,” she said. “I can’t tell a seller not to have a camera. I can’t. It’s his home.”
Fortune said she once arrived at the front door of a home and heard an audio message prompted by motion sensor cameras.
“You’re being recorded,” it said.
The cameras tracked Fortune as she walked through the empty home, shifting left or right as she moved through the property, like an eye tracking her in each room.
“That moving eye was, like, the creepiest thing I’ve seen,” Fortune said. “It’s a great deterrent (for crime), but when you’re trying to sell a house, you don’t want to deter people from buying.”
Sellers who try to micromanage their agents and brokers are, ultimately, hurting their own cause, some agents said, because the seller is not the real estate expert, the agent is. But it can be a challenge for agents to gently remind their clients of that without offending.
Sellers watch through their cameras, and then “they argue with their listing broker as if we’re not doing our job,” Fortune said. “They’re overstepping and putting their foot into a process they don’t really understand.”
What should agents do?
First, the law varies from state to state about whether people can be recorded on audio or video and whether consent is required from both parties. What muddies the waters on in-home recordings is that the law generally allows homeowners to make those recordings, even secretly. But again, it varies by state and by circumstance. If there are questions about legalities, it’s best to consult your brokerage manager or an attorney.
There are some clear best practices for agents and their clients with regard to cameras, for both buyers and sellers. It’s also clear that not every agent is following those practices.
Buyers’ agents should remind their clients to assume they will be recorded when touring a home, and not to discuss terms of an offer or call a property their dream home or say or do anything else that could cost them negotiating leverage. Save those comments and discussions for later, after clients and their agent have left the property.
“Even when I go into a home where it doesn’t look like there’s any video or audio devices, I pretend that there is one,” Fortune said.
Sellers’ agents should remind clients with cameras to put up a sign to inform visitors they are being recorded. A conversation may be needed about whether the cameras are a good idea in the first place.
“There’s no standard yet,” Leiber said. “If you’re a listing agent, remind your seller to disclose (that they’re using cameras). If you’re a buyer agent, remind your buyers not to talk about the house until you leave.”
Oiknine said one seller asked to copy her thumbprint to use for her to gain access to the seller’s home. Oiknine refused. She described cameras watching an agent’s every move as “freaky” and “scary,” but a thumbprint was taking things too far.
“There’s cameras in every elevator. There’s cameras in the hallway. There’s cameras in the lobby. There’s cameras outside. We’re not gonna get away from that,” she said. “I would just hope people don’t start wearing body cameras.”
Laricy estimated that cameras decrease the odds of selling a home by as much as 25% to 30%.
“You can sense the tension and uncomfortability when buyers are in there (and sellers are watching),” he said. “It just puts people in a bad mood.”
Laricy said he noticed a surge in home cameras during the pandemic. Now, it seems they’re here to stay. Embrace them and deal with them, he suggested, or risk being left behind.
“We can’t go back to act like they’re not listening or recording devices anymore,” Fortune said. “That would be sticking your head in the sand. You have to look at it and say, ‘Hey, this is a problem. Things are evolving. How do we work with this?’ You can’t keep doing business the way you did 30 years ago.”