New York real estate agents better check their business cards.
Four years after banning fanciful titles, state regulators are auditing licensees to make sure agents and firms aren’t playing fast and loose with honorifics. That means no “vice president” or “director” title for those who aren’t officers of the firm.
A spokesperson for the Department of State confirmed the audit on Monday, but provided no further details regarding the scope of the inquiry. “Licensees found in violation of the advertising regulations will face disciplinary sanctions,” the agency said in a statement.
Until 2014, firms routinely bestowed honorary titles on agents to acknowledge their top producers. The DOS, however, said many agents were arbitrarily adopting grandiose titles, a practice they called “dishonest” and “misleading” to consumers. New regulations enacted that year stated that brokers can only use titles that correspond to their license — such as broker, associate broker or salesperson.
“Many firms are adhering to DOS rules but many are not,” said Steven James, Douglas Elliman’s CEO of New York City brokerage. “The only way to have a level playing field for all is to have extensive fines against the violating firms.”
It’s unclear how deep the DOS is digging. Some agents, for example, use their email signature to describe themselves as the CEO of their team. Following the 2014 regulations, Sotheby’s International Realty adopted the use of “senior global real estate advisor” for experienced agents.
The Real Estate Board of New York alerted its members to the audit in an email Tuesday, and urged firms to make sure their marketing materials comply with state law. “Moreover, we further advise all REBNY members to review the marketing and promotional materials, as well as the websites, e-mails and other materials utilized by licensees under their supervision,” the email said.
Although the 2014 regulations leveled the playing field for novices, it upended the hierarchy for some experienced agents. The rules also contained specific guidelines for digital advertising and for defining teams.
Bess Freedman, co-president of Brown Harris Stevens, said her firm is “vigilant” about complying with the DOS rules, to the disappointment of some agents. In a competitive market, for example, agents want to distinguish themselves — not be thrown into a heap with everyone else.
“If they can say they’re senior something,” she said, “they feel it gives them a leg up.”