Guest post by Matthew Rathbun:

The Real Estate Board’s Regulatory Review Committee met last week to discuss how Virginia’s real estate regulations affect agents’ and brokers’ use of online media to advertise.  When I learned of this meeting, my first thought was ‘How does one create regulations to protect consumers from the media that the consumer is still creating?’. 

As one of a few instructors teaching risk management classes for technology, most of my experience has been convincing Brokers that they shouldn’t be afraid of these tools.  If you can’t trust your agents enough to use online tools, you most likely shouldn’t be trusting them off-line either. Over the years, I also learned that some of Virginia’s online advertising regulations are outdated and that better guidance is needed.

I worked with VAR members Jim Duncan and Nathan Hughes as well VAR staff members Blake Hegeman (Associate Counsel) and Ben Martin (VP for Marketing & Communications) to take a look at the current regs and come up with recommendations. 

Even on the ride to the meeting Ben, Jim and I were on the phone discussing regulations that could be better defined to safeguard consumers.  I knew this was a critically important meeting: The Real Estate Board would consider laws to defend consumers against misuse of tools that haven’t even been created yet.

On the day of the meeting, I worried about what policy or regulations may be changed.  I didn’t actually know any of the Regulatory Review Committee members and how familiar they were with online marketing. But as the meeting started, it was clear that the committee members had done research and were open to hearing about new ideas.  Even better, they understood that some regulations were already outdated. 

As Blake and the committee engaged in ideas about new media, I found they were very welcoming and I’m thankful that they allowed me to participate. 

I was impressed with how prepared Blake was and how open the Committee was to hearing from him.  The Committee praised VAR for being proactive in educating members about technology and it’s application to real estate.  I’m sure that this was just the first of many meetings on this topic, but the Committee did consider some promising revisions.  I want to be clear that these are only preliminary ideas and after the Board decides on the regulatory changes, they could take 18 months or more to go into effect.

Below is just a sampling of some of the ideas that were discussed:

  • Instead of defining all the different types of media, the term “electronic media” was made a consideration, which would encompass all online and mobile media that would be used for engaging or working with potential or current clients.
  • The consideration was made to eliminate the requirement to show the last date of update to advertising, as most systems don’t support this and it may be detrimental to the Seller.  Keeping information accurate and truthful should provided the desired protection of the consumer.
  • All marketing and online media should be available for Broker review.  (This is important as some agents who are using Facebook, etc… to engage clients, are blocking their Brokers.)
  • One of the considerations was the way that required brokerage disclosures should occur.  Currently agents must disclose Brokerage Name, City and State of main office and their license status.  The suggestions varied but included a requirement for the agent to list their license number on all online web pages where disclosures exist so that anyone could go to the DPOR webpage and search by license to find the agent’s brokerage.  Additionally a link to the Broker’s web site or a phone number to the main office should be available.  This makes it pretty easy to just hyperlink the Brokerage name to the company and meet this recommended regulatory change.
  • Because many of the online tools allow for very little room to make all the required disclosures, a link from profile pages, going to the agent or Brokerage webpage may be a future requirement.  This “One Click Away” rule is currently applied to banner ads, but needs to be expanded to other electronic media. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Just a reminder that these were only a sampling of ideas that were discussed and that this meeting was only the beginning of process.  From the time that the Real Estate Board proposes new regulations, it can take 18 months for them to become effective.  As the Committee considers changes to the rules affecting online advertising, what recommendations do you have?

(photo credit)