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Real estate agent should not prevent ‘shady’ customer from buying home

Q: If a real estate agent with a listing in a lovely neighbourhood meets a potential buyer who seems somewhat shady, does the agent have an ethical obligation to homeowners on the street not to sell to this person? Or does a sale trump any responsibility — even if this buyer turns out to be a criminal?

A: Realtors are governed by an incredibly complex code of ethics, in its current form since 2011. If you’ve got a couple of hours and three degrees in law, you can read the code in detail on the website of the Canadian Real Estate Association, which oversees the conduct of real estate professionals.

Among other things, the code states that as part of their personal obligation to the public and their profession, realtors are committed to:

• professional competent service

• absolute honesty and integrity

• co-operation and fairness

• personal accountability

In addition, the code requires realtors to “conduct their business in accordance with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Let’s look at your question in the context of those standards. One could argue that, if the realtor herself lived in your lovely neighbourhood, she might want to know if a “somewhat shady” character was moving in. Using the Golden Rule, therefore, an argument could be built that, yes, she has an obligation to share her concern about this buyer with like-minded neighbours.

But before we leap to that conclusion, let’s look at your question more critically. First, I’m troubled by your description of the neighbourhood as “lovely.” Is it your position that the responsibilities of a realtor are shaped by the quality of the neighbourhood in which she is working? If the neighbourhood were less lovely, would the agent be expected to behave differently than she would in this leafy, tree-lined enclave? Should ethics be different in Lawrence Park than in Lawrence Heights?

Even more troubling, though, is the assumption that a realtor has not only the right, but also the responsibility, to act as judge and jury concerning the character of a homebuyer. The agent in question notices that the buyer “seems somewhat shady.” Seems shady? I don’t even understand what that means. Does he have an Arab name? Brown skin? Perhaps he comes from a country of which you don’t approve? Or is he young, with tattoos? Swears a lot?

Seems shady??? There are “lovely” neighbourhoods in north Toronto where, for much of the last century, being Jewish or black (small “b” — does not include Conrad) was enough to satisfy that criteria.

We live in a country where people are presumed innocent unless proven guilty. We also still believe that even people with a criminal record have the right to return to normal lives, even “lovely” neighbourhoods, once they have paid their debt to society (see “Black, Conrad” above).

The point, for the realtor in your question, may not be that “a sale trumps responsibility.” The point may be that she understands what it means to live in an inclusive and democratic country.

By Gallinger, Ken
Ethics Columnist

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