Sex Offender Disclosure

Is it a boon to buyers or brokers' bane?

October 1, 1997

ARLINGTON, Texas--For buyer’s agent Tom Davey, offering buyers a report listing locally registered sex offenders before the buyers make an offer on a home is just like doing research on potential environmental hazards. His service, though unusual, may be a portent of things to come in the marketing of buyer’s agent services.

“The service we provide is no different from checking records to find out whether a lot has been a toxic waste dump,” says Davey, of Buyers Voice, a 10-year-old exclusive buyer’s brokerage with three offices and 20 salespeople. “It’s no different from an extensive market value assessment done by listing salespeople before pricing a home. We treat buyers the same way so that they can make their own judgment on a home. We hope we’re saving them a trip.”

But what about the policy statement the National Association of REALTORS® sent to the U.S. Department of Justice last February? It says that “all public disclosures should emanate directly from the appropriate law enforcement agency, and no affirmative disclosure duty regarding the location of released sex offenders should be placed on real estate licensees as a result of state public notification programs.”

“The registry is one more thing we can check to provide as much service for our clients as we can,” says Davey in response. He tells buyers that they can verify the information or do the search themselves and that the information isn’t all-inclusive. But he says they appreciate the extra service.

Like New Jersey and some other states, Texas requires convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies. The information has been available to the public since 1995.

The 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey by Jesse Timmendequas, a twice-convicted sex offender who, apparently unknown to Megan’s parents, lived across the street, led to a national movement to notify communities when sex offenders move in. The New Jersey Megan’s Law serves as a model for sex offender disclosure laws, including the federal statute passed earlier this year requiring all states to enact disclosure measures. Timmendequas was convicted of the crimes in May 1997 and has been sentenced to die.

Critics of Davey’s policy, like Mike Cade, president of the Arlington Board of REALTORS®, say that the registry lists a variety of people, not just child molesters, as sex offenders. “My concern is that the term sex offender could be applied to an 18-year-old man who’s having sex with a 17-year-old girl or to someone who urinates on a public highway,” Cade says.

Davey claims that although the registry isn’t foolproof, it provides information such as ages and type of offense, so people can make their own judgments. “We’re not being judgmental--we’re just gathering and providing information for our clients,” he says of the service, which his company started July 2. “It’s a service that makes them comfortable.”

But Cade, of Prospect Realty Inc., a property management company, is concerned about inadvertently wrong disclosure. “What if during the contract phase, after you’ve run the check, an offender moves next door to the house?” he says. “If customers ask me about sex offenders, I’ll tell them where they can get the information. But I don’t see the point of being proactive.”

Curtis V. Hall,ABR®, associate broker, RE/MAX--Anasazi Realty, Tempe, Ariz., believes in being proactive up to a point. “The sex offender service is an excellent marketing opportunity for Buyers Voice,” he says. “However, I’d encourage the broker not to inform the buyers personally but just direct them to the source of the information.”

In fact, when Hall holds counseling sessions with buyers, he asks whether they’re familiar with Megan’s Law and gives them a list of city agencies, with phone numbers, that’ll perform a registry search for them. He doesn’t want the potential liability of being the purveyor of possibly erroneous information: “The consumer should speak directly to the city department.”

Hall also includes an addendum in his contract to sellers requiring that “if they’re aware of the presence or pending presence of registered sex offenders in the area, prior to escrow, they’ll disclose this in writing. We reserve the right to cancel the contract without penalty.”

Why is Hall so vocal about the issue? He’s upset about a new Arizona law that he says categorizes registered sex offenders under stigmatized property laws, “so landlords, sellers, and salespeople don’t have to disclose a sex offender even if the person lives across the street.”

Cade says: “What if every practitioner did this? If a sex offender moved next door to me, I couldn’t sell my house, and the price would go in the dumper.”

“If Megan Kanka’s parents had known that their house was across the street from Jesse Timmendequas, she might still be alive,” Davey notes. “If property values fall . . . well, little girls’ lives are more important.” Anyway, Davey doesn’t believe other practitioners will adopt his policy. “When you call yourself a buyer’s agent, you’ve raised the bar. So we feel our bar is raised. This isn’t an anti-seller program; it’s a pro-buyer program.”

An unanswered question for Cade is whether this policy could subject cooperating salespeople and other members to libel claims if the information turns out to be wrong. “If this affects the membership, we’ll have to address it,” he says.

Davey believes Buyers Voice won’t have that kind of impact. “We’re a small company that prides itself on service,” he says. "We’re not going to impact the market. We’re not going to impact the business.”

But Hall doesn’t believe this “subject will go quietly in the night. There’s a marketing opportunity in this.

“If I show buyers my seller contract addendum, and they compare my services to those of other buyer’s agents, who never even talk about Megan’s Law, whom do you think they’ll do business with?”

Christina Hoffmann
Senior Speech Writer

Christina Hoffmann has covered real estate and homeownership for two decades, including as REALTOR® Magazine managing editor and HouseLogic.com’s content manager, with added expertise as owner of a demanding 100-year-old house. She is currently a senior speech writer at NAR.

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