"Three bedroom, one badroom."
– Local MLS listing
One misplaced letter in your entry in the local multiple listing service can be comical, as is the one above that Jane Peters of Power Brokers International in Pasadena, Calif., discovered. Or it can be fatal.
For example, if your house is listed on Polar Lane when it is actually on Poplar, your place may never be found, even if it is the cream puff everyone is looking for. The same holds true if the school district is incorrect, the ZIP code is wrong, the number of bedrooms is misstated, or the map coordinates are inaccurate.
"It's not always the price that prevents a sale," says Jim Crawford, an agent with RE/MAX Paramount Properties in Atlanta, who specialized in expired listings in the early 1990s. "Sometimes the listing is so totally flawed -- incorrect data, price, directions -- that no one can find it."
"Open Hose With Cheese and Wine"
Even worse, perhaps, is that buyers often rely on information contained in the listing, and if it's not correct -- perhaps the listing said 30 acres when it was actually 20, or that zoning allowed for an in-law suite when it really didn't -- they go to court.
As counsel to the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors and an attorney representing numerous brokers and agents, James Goldsmith has defended hundreds of lawsuits over inaccuracies in MLS descriptions. Plaintiffs usually don't prevail, Goldsmith says, but both sides spend a lot of time and money litigating who's right and who's wrong.
Some MLS errors are simple typos, such as "bring us your fuzziest buyers," when the agent surely meant "fussiest." But a simple transposed number, such as when an agent enters 2,300 square feet instead of 3,200, can be a huge mistake.
Or when the house is listed with four upstairs bedrooms and one bathroom instead of two. "Nobody in their right mind will show a house with just one bathroom feeding four bedrooms," says Crawford, the Atlanta agent.
Sometimes the gaffe may not be a mistake at all, but rather a purposeful entry by a less-than-honorable agent who is trying to drive traffic to the property. After all, once a would-be buyer shows up, the error can be corrected. No harm, no foul. Right?
That's why it's always a good idea for sellers to review their listings for errors and omissions before they are posted.
If you don't, your castle may not sell, no matter how grand, especially in this day when would-be buyers scour the Internet for properties before hopping in the car for a personal visit. Or you could find yourself as the defendant in an unwanted lawsuit.
"If a buyer gets his first tax bill and it is much higher than what was stated in the listing, the first thing he does is go to a lawyer," says Goldsmith, the Pennsylvania attorney.
"First Peeview Sunday"
It would be wrong to say listings are riddled with miscues. Indeed, many agents are surprised there are so few mistakes, especially considering the huge volume of data that makes its way into local listings every day.
But once an error is made, it is compounded almost instantly, because listings these days are propagated immediately to regional, national and even international aggregators such as Zillow, Realtor.com and dozens of others.
Almost any error can blow up a sale. If the address is incorrect, the house becomes nonexistent. It could be a wrong house number, wrong street, wrong ZIP code or wrong MLS area.
Sometimes the directions are incorrect. Even in this age of GPS, a prospect may not be able to find your place, especially if the map coordinates are wrong or missing, or if a particularly sloppy agent made other mistakes.
The list of possible errors is as detailed as the listing form itself. If the agent lists the wrong school district, or perhaps doesn't list the district at all, a buyer may pass on your place without giving it a second look. Or, worse, he might buy your house thinking it's in the better school system and sue you when he finds out it's not.
Maybe the house is so close to the county line that in an attempt to draw interest, the agent "inadvertently" puts down that it's in what's perceived as the better county. Again, a lawsuit in the making.
Then there are errors of fact. The wrong room dimensions, square footage, acreage and age of the house also can -- and do -- get people in hot water, especially if the buyer relies on the misinformation to be truthful.
"Call for Privates Showing"
On the buyer's side, there's simply no substitute for your own due diligence.
"The smart buyer checks everything that's important to him," advises Goldsmith. He points out that not only are transcription errors "not infrequent," but that information entered into the MLS often is taken directly from inaccurate public records.
He advises buyers who depend on MLS information to add a proviso to the sales contract stating that the decision to purchase the property is based on specific seller representations -- such as acreage or square footage -- which the seller represents and warrants to be accurate. And it wouldn't hurt to add a sentence that states: "This warranty to survive settlement."
Such a clause "shifts the risk of accuracy squarely on to the seller's shoulders," Goldsmith says.