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Ginni Field was aghast at the tragedy that befell a family friend in the last year and a half. The man, a veteran who fought alongside Field’s father in World War II, died with nothing — no money, no home — after he was taken advantage of by his son. The son had convinced his war-hero father, who was in his 80s, to transfer the deed on his home to the son, who then neglected to pay a single bill on the property. The home went into foreclosure, and the father lost everything. “This poor man, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, had to move to Florida and live with his daughter because he had no money,” says Field, GRI, SRES, a real estate professional with Mike Chiesl Group in Carlsbad, Calif. She contends the emotional toll of the experience led to the death of her family friend. “He died a pauper.”
This type of abuse in real estate, where family members seize on their aging, sick, or incapacitated elders to take control of their property, is happening more and more, says Field, an SRES instructor who works almost exclusively with elderly clients. In the last 18 months, she’s seen about five examples in her community similar to what happened to her family friend. “It’s the most I’ve ever seen or heard of in this kind of time period,” she says, adding that victims of elder abuse in real estate are almost always 80 years old or older.
One in five seniors falls victim to financial abuse, whether that’s by family members or outside sources, and only a fraction of those cases are reported, according to a 2015 Consumer Reports article. Real estate fraud is a part of that abuse. So as a practitioner, what’s your role and what should you do if you sense your elderly client’s family is trying rip them off in a real estate transaction?
First, Get Educated About Elder Abuse
In most cases, real estate professionals are the only ones who see abuse happening in real estate transactions, Field says. Because many elderly people are too embarrassed to report incidents in which family members attempt to take advantage of them to friends or authorities, you’re probably the only witness. So you need to know what to look for.
Field suggests consulting with the elder abuse division of your local police department — before you become involved in an incident with a client — and asking them what signs of abuse to be aware of as it pertains to the elderly in real estate fraud. One thing you’ll learn, Field says, is that if you’re the only witness, filing a complaint anonymously isn’t always the best course of action. You may need to be willing to go on the record if no one else can.
Barbara Fairfield, ABR, SRES, a practitioner at NextHome Gulf to Bay in St. Petersburg, Fla., who also teaches SRES courses, advises contacting other organizations to learn about elder abuse resources:
- ElderCare.gov, run by the U.S. Administration on Aging, will help you find state and local resources for elderly people who need help.
- Elder-AbuseCA.com can help you contact ombudsmen in your community who can give you advice on reporting incidents of elder abuse.
- PreventElderAbuse.org, the website of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, can offer you tips and resources for what to do if you suspect elder abuse.
Spot the Signs of an Abused Client
“We can see if there are issues,” Fairfield says. An elderly person living with clutter, or if they’re unkempt, wearing wrinkled clothes, always have the shades pulled down, or have rodents in the house — those are all red flags that they are in hiding from someone, Fairfield suggests. When she sees someone living in these conditions, she knows it’s time to have a conversation about whether their family is involved in their lives and their real estate decisions — a conversation you should have with any elderly client anyway, she says.
“At this phase of their life, they can’t afford to make a bad financial decision,” Fairfield says. “So I’m going to ask them why they are selling, and I want to make sure isn’t anyone in the background pushing them to sell.”
A surefire sign that intrusive family members may be trying to take advantage of your client is if the client says they don’t want anyone knowing about their decision to sell, Field adds. “My alarms go off when someone says, ‘This is completely my decision.’ That tells me that they don’t trust family members. I don’t pursue that line of questioning any further, but I’m going to ask, ‘If there’s any kind of issue, how do you want me to handle it?’ And then I’m going to confirm that in writing.”
Deal With Suspicious Family Members
You have to remember who your client is. If they have children who are attempting to mettle in the transaction — maybe they request to be present at every showing or by their parent’s side at every meeting with you — and your client has expressed that they don’t want them involved, you have to learn how to politely yet forcefully get them to back off. That’s why it’s helpful to have your client’s wishes in writing.
“I’ve seen agents being accused of interference by the kids, who want to control their parents,” Field says. “You have to be brave enough to be really blunt and tell the family members that they are not the owners of the house. ‘I need you to understand that my job is to protect my client.’”
You also should be prepared to suggest alternative options if your client seems to be being pushed into a sale by family members, Fairfield says. It may be the case that they could stay in their home with a reverse mortgage, which could supply the funds for retrofitting their property with safety features, making repairs they can’t perform on their own, or bring in home healthcare providers. You want to help them remain as independent as possible and reduce their risk of having to depend on a family member who seeks to control them, Fairfield says. “We’re all about options for these individuals, not just about listing their property.”
Know If You’re Right for the Job
Not all agents have the right temperament and personality to work with the elderly, Field says. Many older clients require extra time to make decisions or extra explanation to understand their options. If they’re facing a tough situation with family, they need someone who won’t try to rush them through the process but who will be a guide for them. “Working in the senior market takes someone patience, empathy, and kindness,” Field says. “If you’re not the right person, find another niche.”
Fairfield says that for many older sellers, it could be their last real estate transaction. So that requires that you give it more importance and be willing to help them through difficult personal challenges with family if need be. “If you’re always focusing on your wallet, you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she says.
Stop and ask whether anyone besides the seller has an emotional or financial stake in the sale of their property. That will speak volumes about whether you should be wary of intrusions on the transaction and if you’re prepared to handle them. “There are some people who haven’t spoken to their children in years and aren’t going to start now,” Fairfield says. “You want to know something like that so you can decide both whether you’re willing to deal with that kind of baggage and whether that could pose a problem down the line with the sale.”
Above all else, be prepared to step in on your client’s behalf if their family starts threatening the transaction and their best interests. “If you don’t do anything, you watch someone get everything taken away from them,” Field says.