We Google that new restaurant down the block, that handyman we're thinking of hiring, and certainly our prospective dates. These days, we don’t think twice about Googling virtually everyone we meet. So it stands to reason that if you're hoping to buy a home, you'd Google the seller—or, if you're selling, that you'd Google your prospective buyer, right?
Well, maybe … or maybe not.
As tempting as it may be to gather Internet intel on the person who'll be sitting across from you at the closing table, this practice has its good and bad points. Here are the pros, cons, and pitfalls to watch out for when Googling a home buyer or seller.
Why home buyers should Google sellers
Knowledge is power, and the information you can find through public records or social profiles can give you a negotiating edge, says Bruce Ailion, a real estate agent and attorney at Re/Max Town and Country in Atlanta.
For example, you might find out that the buyer just got married or earned a major promotion, or that the sellers are going through a divorce or itching to move to another house they have already bought. Maybe they already have children in the school system or are jonesing for a shorter commute. Any of this background could clue you in to a buyer’s or seller’s pain points, timeline, or financial realities.
What to watch out for: Don't automatically believe everything you read on social media. We know, it’s hard not to, but that can backfire, says Flavia Berys, real estate broker and attorney with DLA Piper in San Diego: "You can make a lot of guesses based on what you find in social media, but a lot of those guesses might be wrong.”
Let's say you find out the seller is getting a divorce; you assume that means they’re desperate to sell, so you can totally lowball them, right? Wrong. What if they are independently wealthy and not in a hurry? Or, what if another non-nosy buyer who doesn’t know about the potential divorce offers market value, leaving your bid looking paltry by comparison?
A lot of what you find online would be relevant if, say, you were interviewing someone for a job or considering dating them, but between sellers and buyers, there are few things on social media and web searches that will be pertinent to the home-buying process, Berys says.
Why home sellers should Google buyers
Odds are, you want to leave your house in good hands, right? And if you like your neighbors, you'll want to find someone nice for them to live next to, rather than saddling them with a new neighbor who loves to host his heavy metal band for late-night practice.
“If you’re a seller with multiple attractive offers, you might tell yourself that you’ll feel more comfortable with the transaction by poking around on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn to see what you can find out about the various potential buyers," notes Scott Reidenbach, founding principal of Reidenbach & Associates in Wayne, PA.
What to watch out for: It’s a bit of a gray area, but making a decision about a prospective buyer based on social media “research” may get close to the line of discrimination, warns Reidenbach. “The buyer’s alma mater, vacation habits, club affiliations, or employment with a rival company," he says, are "immaterial to whether they have met all of their contractual obligations, and should not be a reason to decide not to accept an offer on your house.”
Buyers and renters are protected by the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or the presence of children.
Granted, discrimination would be exceedingly difficult to prove, says Jeff Rohde, president and designated broker at J. Scott & Company in Phoenix. But it’s a consideration.
Let's say you’re selling in a closely knit condominium community, and the other owners do not want X as a neighbor. “They might decide to work together to 'protect' their association, investments, etc. — however they rationalize their actions — and a pattern might emerge,” Rohde says. And that’s illegal.
Bottom line? Look your best online
All this Google talk might have gotten you thinking about how you can use your online footprint to boost your own appeal as a buyer or seller. The golden rule? The less you say the better.
Scrubbing your social media pages of any information that could be used against you in negotiations is a good idea, says real estate agent Liane Jamason of Smith & Associates Real Estate in St. Petersburg, FL. So don’t vent about what a hassle it is to have your house on the market, or mention how desperate you are to buy in a certain school district. As is the case with all info you share online, what you say can—and will—be used against you!