Lorrie Manganello Guindon, a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway Page, was overseeing a fairly ordinary open house last year when her text messages blew up. They were from her seller, who, as is customary, wasn’t on the scene. But, judging by his missives, it seemed as though he was eavesdropping as she walked prospective buyers through his abode.
“The immediate red flag was that he asked me to redescribe the beautiful sunroom as a ‘solarium.’ He was listening to me describe the room! Then someone had turned on a faulty master bathroom fan that made a ton of noise. He could hear it and asked me to turn it off for the rest of the open house,” she recalled.
She quieted the fan, ushered guests out of the newly christened solarium, and later confronted the seller. Clearly, he had employed some kind of surveillance system in the home (or possessed otherworldly intuition). Though he’d denied it in their initial meetings, he ultimately confessed.
Ideally, any audio or visual equipment is now disclosed in MLS listings, and responsible agents will print cards at open houses alerting buyers if surveillance equipment is in use. According to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, disclosure of these devices on the MLS (even common ones such as Alexa) isn’t legally required, but doing so helps to avoid liability.
Guindon immediately updated the listing.
Though few people are so bold, Guindon believes that these James Bond-like methods are becoming increasingly common.
“Let’s be honest. In this competitive market, everyone is curious as to what buyers are saying and thinking. I believe privacy is an illusion at this point,” she said.
In Massachusetts, it’s a crime to record another individual without their consent; however, it isn’t a crime to leave behind home surveillance equipment after moving — though it could be considered a crime against humanity in the unfortunate case of Sumner Blount, who bought his Greater Boston home with little fanfare more than a decade ago.
“The house had a security system installed. I was being frugal and didn’t want to enable it or subscribe,” he said.
He continued along in happy oblivion until last year when an alarm in his kitchen began to emit a low, chirping noise. He did what any frustrated homeowner might: He began pushing buttons to get it to stop.
“But there was no simple button to turn off the unit. I kept pushing, and all of a sudden it said something like, ‘Home Away Enabled.’ ”
He had unwittingly turned on a motion detector, setting in motion a sorry chain of events. Every time the hapless Blount exited his front door, a piercing alarm would wail.
“Any motion caused the alarm to go off. I went out to get my paper, opened the front door, and a sensor on the bottom let out this screaming noise, literally like a police car,” he said. “It was ear-shattering. Then a recorded voice yelled, ‘Activity detected! Leave the premises immediately!’ I was pulling my hair out.”
The situation was aggravating but harmless, but real estate agents caution that homeowners can get into trouble by covertly monitoring prospective buyers.
Sometimes it’s innocent, as in the case of Nicole Vermillion of Braintree’s Keller Williams Realty. Her South Shore buyer recently went through an open house wearing a Baby Bjorn, and the sellers saw her on their baby monitor — equipment many might not even think to disclose. They wanted to sell to a family, and her buyer got the house.
“We came in with a competitive offer, but it helped, and I don’t know if it should have helped,” Vermillion said.
This can cut both ways: A seller might take a shine to a family with a baby — or overhear a prospective buyer commenting about hideous wallpaper or an unfortunate kitchen color scheme.
“I always tell [buyers] to proceed with caution. You don’t know who’s listening. Wait until you’re off property to talk about stuff you wouldn’t want someone else to hear,” she said.
Still, even the most responsible real estate agent can’t always control an overeager buyer.
“Sometimes, if the listing agent is there, buyers can get so excited and tell the agent they love it, they have cash, they’ll pay $100,000 over asking. I’m like, ‘No! Stop talking!’ said Kerrin LaFrance, with Kinlin Grover Real Estate in Orleans.
In this market, the last thing you want is for a seller to hear desperation.
And while such slips might give a seller a leg up, LaFrance urges clients to disable any equipment to comply with fair housing laws, which prohibit denying someone housing due to race, gender, familial status, sexual orientation, and other demographics.
“It’s in the sellers’ best interest not to have those devices on, because we’re seeing — and I think it’s a great thing — such a resurgence in the issue of fair housing. It’s real and it’s important,” she said. “The less the seller knows [about a buyer], the better.”
Scorned buyers who get passed over time and again could dispute the transaction, she said.
“When the market is ugly and competitive, if you’re a buyer and lost out on your sixth offer, you start asking yourself why. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s money — but if you offer $550, and a house closes at $525, the listing agent has to answer those questions,” she said.
As for Blount, the Boston-area homeowner nearly driven from his domicile by sirens? The next day, he walked out his front door and tripped the alarm again. It rang for 15 “nightmarish” minutes.
He tried to disable the door’s sensor, to no avail. He called the security company but was told that there was nothing they could do because he wasn’t the subscriber. He texted the previous owner, who offered to talk to the security company on his behalf.
Ultimately, in a fit of Clark Griswold-esque inspiration (or desperation), he began unscrewing wires and dismantled the entire security system.
“The whole thing is dead now,” he said, with some measure of satisfaction.