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If a Realtor Violates the Code of Ethics

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the public (and Realtors) can check for Real Estate Board violations with the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation , ( not the Realtor Board) but the public has no access to ethics violations. … Like the back of a baseball card, agent profiles on the brokerage website would include stats detailing every single, double triple, HR and RBI by that agent along with any error (complaint to DRE), placing each agent into a very real, truthful and transparent context for the consumer This is a great idea in concept – I can see it now – # of listings taken every year, % of listings sold, % of asking price, % of business provided by Buyer-Brokerage, Ethics complaints won/lost, Real Estate Board fines …

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the public (and Realtors) can check for Real Estate Board violations with the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation , ( not the Realtor Board) but the public has no access to ethics violations. ... Like the back of a baseball card, agent profiles on the brokerage website would include stats detailing every single, double triple, HR and RBI by that agent along with any error (complaint to DRE), placing each agent into a very real, truthful and transparent context for the consumer This is a great idea in concept - I can see it now - # of listings taken every year, % of listings sold, % of asking price, % of business provided by Buyer-Brokerage, Ethics complaints won/lost, Real Estate Board fines ...


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Does it matter? What good are Realtor ethics “convictions” if the public (and even fellow Realtors) do not know about them? So far as I can tell, the public do not have access to ethics complaints. Where is the benefit to the consumer if violations are kept behind closed doors?

One Realtor association member told me that –

The information regarding hearings, including any sanctions, is not accessible to the public or to the members. It is used more as an education process. That said, before a hearing panel sets the sanction, the member’s file is checked to see if there were previous violations. In cases where the person has had multiple case violations they could face suspension or termination of membership.

Who is being educated? Do education programs prevent recidivism?

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the public (and Realtors) can check for Real Estate Board violations with the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, (not the Realtor Board) but the public has no access to ethics violations.

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One (big) caveat – Context. If Ethics violations were to be opened to daylight, they would need to be to be presented in proper context; often times the nuances are what grey the line between black and white. Without context, transparency could be more damaging than helpful – to both the Realtor profession and the public’s perception of same.

Mark Davison suggests an:

Agent scorecard. Like the back of a baseball card, agent profiles on the brokerage website would include stats detailing every single, double triple, HR and RBI by that agent along with any error (complaint to DRE), placing each agent into a very real, truthful and transparent context for the consumer

This is a great idea in concept – I can see it now – # of listings taken every year, % of listings sold, % of asking price, % of business provided by Buyer-Brokerage, Ethics complaints won/lost, Real Estate Board fines …

However, I was speaking to a fellow Realtor last week and she related to me one of the most egregious stories of Realtor behavior I have heard in my seven years in the business. When asked if she had filed an Ethics Complaint, she said, “no.”

What good is the system if no one uses it and no one knows about it?

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Written By

Dad, Husband, Charlottesville Realtor, real estate Blogger, occasional speaker - Inman Connects, NAR Conferences - based in Charlottesville, Virginia. A native Virginian, I graduated from VMI in 1998, am a third generation Realtor (since 2001) and have been "publishing" as a real estate blogger since January 2005. I've chosen to get involved in Realtor Associations on the local, state & national levels, having served on the NAR's RPR & MLS groups. Find me in Charlottesville, Crozet and Twitter.



  1. Daniel Bates

    August 8, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I just dealt with my fifth major case of plagairism from a fellow Realtor today, so I can really relate with where you’re coming from. The agent copied the entire description of the property and used 5 pictures from a website that I created about the neighborhood in her listing. Having experienced this before I knew that unless I wanted to fill out a 10 page report and then take a day (or more) off of work to show up to a hearing against this agent, which would only result in a slap on the wrist. I called them and told them that it needed to be removed and it was, but your point about recidivism is my worry as well. I know this agent won’t try doing me like that again, but If our local and national AR’s aren’t going to police us, what’s stopping him/her from doing it to someone else and someone else doing it to me again. It seems to me like 5% of the agents out there are doing the work for the other 95% who are stealing it from them. The public needs to be made aware or nothing will ever change.

    PS – I work a second full time job and average only a few sales and listings a year until the market picks back up. I provide my clients with better service than most agents out there, but according to your baseball card stats I’d be a “bad agent” because I have to put food on my table.

  2. Jennifer in Louisville

    August 9, 2008 at 9:16 am

    While the “baseball card stats” might be interesting, it would be too easy to bogus the stats. Lots of teams run their sales through 1 or 2 individuals – so while they may have 5 licensed (buyer/seller) agents and 3 non-licensed assistants, the production gets dumped into the 1 person’s portfolio.

    Now, if it got broke down into a “man-for-man” accountability that would include all persons on the team – that would actually provide more interesting/useful information. (But even then you’d have persons that would try to beat the system by setting up secondary companies that they control/own to put their assistants, etc into – to increase their statistics per person in house for their team.)

  3. Matt Thomson

    August 9, 2008 at 9:36 am

    We were discussing this on tour this past week. A fellow agent filed a complaint against another agent for soliciting their listing, and I had filed a complaint when another broker published my “Agent Only Remarks” on a public blog site.
    Neither of us has even received acknowledgement that the complaints have been received. Despite repeated calls and emails, we get nowhere.

  4. Lani Anglin-Rosales

    August 9, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Jim, you address two things here, (1) public accountability via scorecard or some public forum of transparency and (2) defining the process of complaints.

    (1) I think Daniel and Jennifer made some great points about the subjectivity of public scorecards. My amazing hair stylist takes limited appointments and doesn’t deal in volume but is highly sought after- publicly noting her number of appointments per month as opposed to the Supercuts chick, she would appear to be lacking but reality notes she’s not. There are several silly “agent ranking” sites online but haven’t caught on as people anticipated and if any board was to release publicly the stats of each agent, it would come without context as you noted. This is all about production and because of the lack of context and the subjectivity of the content, it is unfortunately a solution-less problem as it stands.

    (2) As for the complaints process, this is independent of an agent scorecard because production has nothing to do with ethics. That said, there HAS to be a way to access this information. Matt noted that he lodged a complaint and basically threw it into a bottomless well. It is up to the local boards to properly manage this process.

    I have some suggestions:
    (a) treat it the way the police do- make *convictions* not accusations public. In a public system, anyone can go lodge a complaint today on a competitor because they hate them and that info being public could cause them damage. This isn’t like a lawsuit where there’s viability involved, it seems easily abused. I think this is probably why it’s private and ends in a fine or a license removal.

    (b) local boards *must* make this process easy to track online. If you lodge a complaint or one has been lodged against you, you should be able to log in and look at it at any time, the same way you would your cable bill. Nothing’s hard about that, it’s just data entry.

    (c) allow anonymous complaints like a tip line. This would cause more work for the boards, but many complaints are not made because of the hassle it takes a great deal of time for the person filing the complaint to devote to the process. Besides time, they make themselves vulnerable and despite it being the right thing to do, I believe people shy away from saying anything because of retribution.

    I’m not an agent, so this is all observation from the outside.

  5. Matthew Rathbun

    August 9, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I (here’s a surprise) am going to take a unpopular position here. My background is from that of an instructor, several years of service on professional standards work groups and currently moving into the role as Association staff Pro Standards administrator. (all of which required special training for each level)

    1. Sorry Lani, but if a person isn’t willing to be a witness or put their name on the complaint then they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Everyone should have a right to face their accuser. Anonymous complaints could be a great way for agents from several companies to come out and “gang up” on a competitor just to hassle them.

    2. It’s important to remember that Realtor Associations do not investigate complaints, nor are them currently empowered to take a Realtor to task absent a valid and written complaint.

    3. Unlike court cases that are public knowledge, Code of Ethic violations are based on “preponderance of the evidence” and not (like a court) “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    4. Over the past five years of involvement and MANY cases, I can honestly tell you that with very, very few exceptions most violations are based on lack of knowledge or a mistake by an agent and very few are truly malicious intent toward another agent or consumer. The point of Professional Standards should be looking toward discipline that corrects behavior.

    5. The panel that overhears the complaint is typically are local peers and are subject to human nature, which may lead to other preferences or biases.

    6. I don’t know about every board, but I know that ours and others around us have a policy to forward any complaints to the Real Estate Licensing Board if the complaint is also a violation of licensing law (many are). Findings of VA’s RE Board are public knowledge. As much as I think the COE is a good thing, if an agent does something that would warrant the loss of license, go straight to the licensing authority and not the COE. Why delay the inevitable?

    7. With MLS rules, COE, Licensing laws, Respa, local ordinances and other federal regulation all influencing this industry there is not one licensing that has actually worked with agents that haven’t violated, even mistakenly, one of the “rules”. Chances are that you never knew it was a violation. The difference between those found in violations and those who aren’t, is that one “got caught” and others didn’t.

    8. Almost every agent to agent complaint that I’ve ever seen was based on vengeance and not the common good.

    All that being said, the COE process is just not dependable enough to allow it to be put out on a scoring system. It’s the best system we have for now, but I’ve seen really innocent mistakes become a mark against a really good agents because the stars didn’t align for them during the hearing.

    As far as Matt’s situation that’s just a bad association process and not what is mandated by the guidelines. We kill more trees at our association keeping everyone up to date with what’s happening and trying to make the process go thru quickly and efficiently.

    Lastly, I am working a post for AG in regards to an online scorecard that I didn’t know existed and yet has really wrong information about me (who hasn’t been practicing since last November). It shows me with a company I haven’t been with in three years, having 42 active listings and having only sold 3…. NONE of that is correct and if a consumer decided to use it, they would get a very bad impression of me as an agent.

    I do think that education can change behavior – but not nefarious intent by agents – for them, just take away their license… And yes – context is most certainly necessary.

  6. Holly White

    August 9, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Well said Matthew. I agree with everything you said, you are not alone. I believe that most mistakes are made honestly and a lack of education is the culprit. We need more and better education. I never understood how you could take a three week course (TN cited), pass an exam and poof! you’re a real estate “professional”. We hold what is probably the single largest purchase or sale in an individuals life in our hands and all we’re required to do is sit through 3 weeks (90 hours) of classroom study and pass the state exam? There is something wrong with that picture. And no wonder we deal with so many inept real estate agents on a daily basis. When I was getting my license my team leader said “just get through the class and pass the exam, you’ll actually learn everything in the field”. Wow, did that ever leave room for failure. After I passed the exam though I was opened up to hundreds and hundreds of continuing education hours on very specific topics in real estate. Why not be required to have that education PRIOR to needing it in the real world?

    I believe that anyone who should be allowed to hold a real estate license should have to go through more stringent study (as in a college degree in real estate) and even have something like an apprentice type position before being given their license. I’m sure most agents wouldn’t agree with me, but it would surely cut down on these “non-malicious” but still sometimes devastating “mistakes” Realtors make. And before anyone asks, yes, I would be the first in line to go “back to school” and get such a degree if that’s what it took to know that buyers and sellers around the country were getting a higher class of service.

    I realize there are loopholes in my theory, but again, more education is the key here, even if it means that much more accountability.

  7. Mike Taylor

    August 10, 2008 at 4:39 am

    “I believe that anyone who should be allowed to hold a real estate license should have to go through more stringent study (as in a college degree in real estate) and even have something like an apprentice type position before being given their license.”

    I know you think most agent won’t agree with your statement, but I would be all for something like this. Entry into real estate is almost embarrassingly simple and it would only help raise the bar of professionalism to increase the entry standards.

  8. Debra Sinick

    August 10, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Education, definitely! As several of the last few comments mentioned, it’s too easy to become a real estate agent. But education has to be meaningful and real world. The quality and information of real estate classes needs to be vastly improved.

    I just took the mandatory Real Estate Code of Ethics class and, although, well-intentioned, only got to the meat of ethical issues on a real world, day-to- day basis at the end of the class. The last 15 minutes of the class focused on the different ways agents handle multiple offers, etc. Having been at this business for two decades I like to think I know one or two things, but realize I’m still learning with every transaction and every client. An opportunity was missed during this ethics class to share and learn from the people who are in the trenches with me. The focus of the class was a review of The Realtor Code of Ethics. We discussed the important words:wisdom, loyalty, honesty, etc, etc.

    Oh by the way, to think people can be “taught” ethics at this stage of the game is laughable. Either you’re ethical or you’re not. Three or four hours in a classroom reviewing “the words” is not going to cut it. Education is a powerful resource, but only if it’s meaningful.

  9. Daniel Bates

    August 11, 2008 at 4:39 am

    Matthews 4th point about “lack of knowledge” is probably true, but how can we treat this as an excuse? If you chose to turn a blind eye to furthering your education and do things like plagiarizing others material, getting more money than is due to you or your client by scamming, or soliciting other agents listings than your heart/conscience should at least kick in and tell you that it’s wrong, whether or not you can cite the specific code that says it is. I go back to my plagiarism example because its so common place and at the heart of “ethics”. If you don’t know that copying someone elses pictures and words and not doing any work by yourself is wrong, than you should hold a license, because I hate to see what other decisions you’re making when faced with real ethical delimas. As Realtors, we’re given an often difficult job not to sell homes but to do the right thing. I’ve had to withhold knowledge from a client that I would have liked to be able to discuss with him in a dual agency deal, but I told him “unfortunately, this is one of those cases where I can’t discuss that, that I told you about when you signed the dual agency agreement”. Rules are in place for the greater good, not to hold us back.

    PS – that client understood about the information and I think that it improved our relationship

  10. Jim Duncan

    August 11, 2008 at 6:42 am

    An apprenticeship has been put forth a couple of times in conversations I’ve had on and offline. I wonder how hard it would be to implement this sort of thing. How long should it last? Under whose auspices?

    The college degree thing is one that would keep many from giving their support – something similar perhaps …

    The system we have now is not efficient and is cumbersome – both for the accused and accuser. We need to correct this.

  11. Matthew Rathbun

    August 11, 2008 at 9:23 am


    I think that stealing is inherently known to be wrong. I am referencing some of the more obscure things, such as the fact that offers to purchase aren’t confidential and buyer agents SHALL while disclose to their buyers this fact during drafting. Well, who many agents ALWAYS tell their buyers: “look, this offer belongs to the Seller (absent any other law or agreement) and they can scan the entire offer put it on their website or make copies for all the other agents in their office.”

    Few agents do this yet Standard of Practice 1-13 and 1-15 compel us to make this disclosure. How many agents full understand that when representing two buyers making offers on the same home, they have to make all the expressed (written) disclosures as you do in Dual Agency and they have to submit to giving up the real advantages of having an agent negotiate for them?

    Yes, I know some agents know these things, but many do not. It usually is the failure of the Broker and Instructors. I just don’t think that we should crucify agents who make these types of mistakes. Discipline and re-educate yes, but mock them and allow the overly-gossipy industry to harass them, no.

    Many of the rules of “Ethics” are common-sense moral questions. They have to do with the rules of procedure and I feel we should have stuck with “Standards of Practice” as opposed to Ethics. The Code of Ethics have very little to do with Ethics, per se. And right there we’ve started off on a bad foot with the entire process.

    I agree that stealing another agents materials are wrong; but I also feel very strongly that single agent dual agency SHOULD be “unethical.” Hopefully you understand the difference. My “feelings” regarding dual agency are what I consider a question of ethics; but the Standards of Practice and most state laws permit this practice.

    Typically agents get complaints not because they are morally corrupt, but because they violated a rule. Many times the author of some complaint didn’t know the rule was there themselves until they went digging to find dirt on the respondent.

    These are just my experiences and those of other staff members who oversee such programs during some recent discussions. That’s not to say that my experience is absolute.

  12. Matthew Rathbun

    August 11, 2008 at 9:25 am


    I am full favor of the “apprenticeship” program. Virginia already has it for apprentices – why not for agents? It makes complete sense to me….

  13. Paula Henry

    August 11, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    First – I believe ethics violations should be reported, otherwise, many are out there running rampant, assuming (accurately) they will not get caught. I also agree many times it is a lack of knowledge.

    It’s easy to say we should have apprenticeships before letting a new agent loose with a client – however, how many of us would have become agents if the process were that long or difficult? I am one of those who knew what I didn;t know and felt the burden of handling another’s largest financial purchase. I took myself to one class after another and still continue to educate myself. I think it depends on the person. Some people will just be unethical and will not care to educate themselves.

    I recently had an agent tell me it’s no problem for the seller to give the buyer money “under the table” and he understood if I didn’t know that, since I am a new agent. HA!! (Although I have only been in Indy for a year and a half, I have been licensed for seven years) I told him, if it’s not disclosed on the HUD-1, then it isn’t done. He still believes it’s okay, because, his broker would never okay something which was not perfectly legal. How much would an apprenticeship help him?

  14. Lori H

    December 3, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    I believe that what I experienced is a violation, my home was listed at 110,000. I was called 10 days later and told there was an offer for 90,000, The day this offer was made, my house was pulled off the website.I rejected it and was told to make a counter-offer-she suggested 95,000. This offer was quickly accepted. I just found out that the agent is related to the buyer. The agent had knowledge that my 17 yr old son had just been killed in an accident and I really wanted to sell this house, she asked how long I could hold on to the house before it would start hurting my finances. How do I go about doing something? I thought the code of ethics was supposed to somehow bind them like my nursing code does. I would appreciate any advise.
    Thank you

  15. Lori Bee

    December 4, 2008 at 6:37 am

    If you “just found out” AFTER you accepted the offer that the agent was related to this buyer, then they clearly violated Article 4 of the REALTOR Code of Ethics.$FILE/R_COE-Pledge-of-Performance.pdf

    I would advise you to contact the Local REALTOR Board to pursue this matter further.

    But the other question is, do you truly believe that you would not have sold this home to anyone else, for this price, and do you at this point, in “THIS” market, want to cancel this sale? In a court of law, you would have to prove that this material fact, caused some type of monetary damage. While it’s clearly an ethics violation, did it truly affect the amount you were willing to sell the home for? It may be worth speaking to any attorney about as well, but proving that there are damages would be a much harder task.

    Good luck and know that most of us, truly care about how we do business and represent our clients.

  16. Lisa Sanderson

    December 4, 2008 at 6:40 am

    Anyone who feels that a REALTOR crossed the ethics line can file a complaint w/the REALTOR Association, agents AND consumers. If you contact the local Association, someone should be able to help you with the paperwork. Despite what you may read here, these situations *are* taken very seriously.

    Sometimes these things are violations of State Agency law too so a call to an attorney and/or the Real Estate Commission, or your state’s equivalent, may be in order as well.

  17. Maureen Francis

    December 4, 2008 at 6:45 am

    I am on the Grievance Committee for my board and we have just started a program where members of our committee are going out to speak in offices about the process. We hope that this education will help agents understand the importance of ethics complaints, and how the system works.

  18. Sarah Stelmok

    December 4, 2008 at 7:13 am

    You should definitely file a complaint with the Real Estate Association that the agent is a member of. I am on my local association’s Professional Standards Committee and we do take these situations very seriously. But we don’t know these things happen unless they get reported.

  19. Todd Tarson

    December 4, 2008 at 10:49 am

    @ Lori H… as others have already stated, contact the local or state Realtor Association office for assistance to lodge a complaint.

    Based on what you have reported, your agent could be in violation of Articles 1 and 4.

    I believe that our Association Members must do a better job at helping folks that have been subject to a violation of the Code. Lori, I live in Arizona and each state or local Association may do things differently… the only standard is the Code. I would be happy to give you some guidance if you need it. Click on my name above this post that should take you to my blog, there you can click on my ’email me’ button. I’ve been on hearing panels for over 5 years now and also serve as a hearing panel chair… I take this stuff very seriously.

    I hope you go through with the proceedings in as far as what you have typed is correct (and I’m not doubting you, but I can’t simply indict your representative without knowing their side of the story).

    I wish you the best, I am sorry for your loss.

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