You’re a lover, not a lawyer, which means you rely on the expertise of your buying team to walk you through real estate legalese when you’re trying to score that home for sale in Columbia, SC. But given that there are hundreds of real estate injunctions on the books, it’s practically inevitable that you’ll occasionally find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Consider this common real estate practice that lands in a legal gray area: submitting a “sweetheart” letter with your offer. Technically, it’s not illegal to write (or submit) one. However, the sellers of your dream house may choose not to read it, because selecting an offer based on who the buyers are could be discriminatory — and therefore a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Here are five real estate and real estate–adjacent regulations you might have already violated without even realizing it — but shouldn’t worry about (for the most part).
Grilling your agent for certain neighborhood info
Who better to fill you in on the ins and outs of a potential new neighborhood than your agent? Who better to pass along thoughts about the nearest church or the economic makeup of your potential new street? Well, actually, if you pried any of that info out of your agent — maybe a glass of wine sweetened the deal — you helped them break real estate law.
The FHA disallows discussions of a neighborhood’s religious makeup, schools, median household income, and crime rates, to name just a few no-nos. The reason is a good one: The law was created in part to prevent discrimination against homebuyers. So to keep everything aboveboard, you’re best off gathering most neighborhood data on your own.
Visiting a property by yourself
You signed the purchase and sale, and everything is going along swimmingly. The mortgage process is continuing along without a hitch, the inspection didn’t turn up anything major, and the sellers have already vacated the premises and cleaned up the place, so it’s just waiting for you to move in. Which means you can swing by some night, get the key out of the lockbox, and start measuring rooms to figure out a moving day strategy, right?
Whoops — that’s trespassing. It’s easy to start feeling like a house is your home when it’s about to be yours, but until the paperwork is signed (and the keys are in your possession), you can’t access the property without permission. And the last thing you want is for your almost-neighbors to call the police on you.
Taking photos at an open house
You headed to an open house and were blown away by what you saw. You whipped out your phone and started snapping away, wanting to capture what the online listing didn’t. Except you photographed the seller too (what were they doing there anyway?), and now you’re in trouble. Well, not necessarily, but in theory, yes.
The First Amendment includes a right to privacy, and photographing someone in their own home without their permission is a violation of that right. No harm, no foul, and they will probably never know, but you might as well delete that particular shot to keep things completely copacetic.
Conducting an online real estate search with unsecured Wi-Fi
Maybe you’re sitting on a park bench with your tablet and decide to take a quick look at the newest neighborhood listings. And, hey, the Wi-Fi from the Starbucks down the street is available, so you jump on it. Oops — you just committed a felony.
Most states have established regulations about using someone else’s unsecured wireless, and though these regulations are rarely enforced, you’ll occasionally read a story about some poor person who was arrested and slapped with a large fine for stealing Wi-Fi. This one isn’t a real estate law per se, and the chances of getting caught and/or penalized are pretty much zero anyway. But, hey, you read this far — clearly the law matters to you.
Signing for your S.O.
OK, so this one is a little bit of a bigger deal. If you’ve bought a house or condo before, you know that the volume of paperwork is completely overwhelming. And it can be supertricky finding a time when both you and your partner can sit down and sign yet another ream of documents. So you went ahead and swiped “his” signature across a couple of dotted lines, thinking his verbal permission was enough.
But it’s not. To sign on someone’s behalf, you need to obtain power of attorney, and even then it might not be enough. So as tempting as it might be to approximate your partner’s John Hancock on everything going forward, just don’t. It’s fraud, which is technically a felony, which is technically punishable by prison and large fines. Instead, talk to your real estate lawyer about the power-of-attorney possibility, and don’t sign anything on anybody’s behalf in the meantime.
Have you committed any of the above faux pas? Do you agree these actions should be against the law? Share in the comments!