If you’re a child of the 80’s and 90’s like I am, you may remember the song by Rockwell “Somebody’s Watching Me”. It’s notable because Rockwell, the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy, had his childhood friend Michael Jackson sing the hook throughout the song.
Every time I walk into a listing with a Buyer, this song plays in my head because like it or not, Sellers are watching and illegally listening to you. This is really nothing new. For years, nervous Sellers would rig up recording devices around their homes to spy on potential clients for “security”. Some builder sites use cameras as a way to monitor for theft. Today, having a camera in your home is much more commonplace than the nanny cams in the 90’s. Video doorbells, stick up cams, even alarm security systems now prominently feature in-home cameras to capture and communicate with a potential intruder. The side benefit is that they can become spying tools for Sellers.
This has become such a pervasive issue that in the latest North Carolina Exclusive Right to Sell listing agreement, dated July 2017, Sellers receive a prominent warning that it may be a Federal and State Crime to “record an oral communication through the use of any electronic… device without the consent of a party to that communication.” That sounds nice but is it practical? Is it even possible? If you’re a home buyer, how would you know?
The answer is that, in most cases, you wouldn’t know and that should concern you. Personally, I have outdoor cameras around my property as a means of security. I’m not a crazy person but I like knowing when Amazon is dropping a package off so I can rush home and grab it. I know for a fact that my outdoor cameras, made by Ring, do not allow users to suppress audio when recording. I would think Nest and other similar cameras do not as well, as two-way communication is one of the main selling features of these products.
Don’t Forget about Smart Speakers
Smart Speakers, like the Google Home and Amazon Echo, have the ability to record as well as the ability to listen in as a communication device. That’s essentially what they’re designed to do. A Seller could use their Alexa app on their phone to “Drop In” (that’s the term Amazon uses to initiate two-way voice communication) in any of their home devices while they are away for a showing. When this occurs, the Echo speakers glow green noting that they’re in use. However, a well-hidden Echo Dot or battery-powered Amazon Tap could be hidden out of the way to still allow for interior monitoring.
Buyer Beware yet again. My recommendation is to never have an expectation of privacy anywhere on the property that you are viewing. Buyers should not discuss anything that could compromise their negotiating position such as desire, price or terms. You should treat every listing as if the Seller is sitting right in the living room while you are walking through. Other agents I’ve spoken with make it a routine to yell “Alexa Off” when they walk into a listing – but that assumes the Seller is using a monitoring device using that specific keyword and may lead to false sense of privacy.
Aside from keeping your mouth shut, your agent should say loudly “let’s to write all cash offer over asking price right now!” as they’re leaving the house and again near the front door, especially if the Seller has a front door camera. If the Seller was listening, they will contact their agent to ask where the all cash, over asking offer is and that agent will reach out to the Buyer’s agent inquiring about the offer. At that point, you will know that you’ve been spied on without your consent.