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posted: 6/8/2012 5:26 AM

About real estate: More agents ask prospects for personal information as safety concerns grows

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Some agents are asking potential buyers and even sellers lots of personal questions before accepting them as clients, hoping to avoid becoming crime victims.

Q. We recently began looking for a new home, and were really shocked when we met the agent we chose at her office for the first time and she asked us to sign a "Prospect Identification Form." The form asked us for all sorts of personal information, including the make and model of our cars, copies of our driver's licenses, and even the names and phone numbers of our employers. We think this is a terrible invasion of our privacy! What gives?

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A. A growing number of real estate agents are asking their clients to provide such information largely because crimes against realty representatives are on the rise. Just two weeks ago, a saleswoman in Pennsylvania was carjacked, kidnapped and robbed at knife point after showing a property to a man who was posing as a potential buyer.

Fortunately, the agent was unharmed and the suspect was captured. But the terrifying incident helps to illustrate the risks that salespeople face while doing their everyday jobs.

Hundreds of agents are robbed, assaulted and sometimes even killed each year, often by criminals posing as clients. Could you imagine having a total stranger walk into your office or home, let them immediately jump into your car with you, and then start driving them around to visit various properties -- many of them vacant?

As a safeguard, many agents now are asking for more information from prospective buyers and sellers before they'll take them on as a client. Some will simply ask for a copy of the prospect's driver's license and for a few other basic pieces of information so they can keep it on file in their office, a reasonable request that will send all but the most brazen crooks running for the door.

Others ask potential clients to fill out the National Association of Realtors' "Prospect Identification Form," which requests more detailed information and includes the names and phone numbers of the person's emergency contacts and employer. Many agents won't work with those who refuse to complete the form, figuring that it's better to be safe than sorry.

Q. We have lived in a neighborhood that is nearly all-white for almost 20 years, but now we are selling. Easily the best offer we have received is from a Spanish-speaking couple from Mexico, but we don't think they would feel comfortable here and our neighbors probably would never forgive us if we sold it to them just to make more money. What do you think we should do?

A. I understand your concerns, but I believe they are misguided.

For starters, it's not up to you to determine whether the Spanish-speaking buyers would "feel comfortable" living in your neighborhood -- that's their decision. And assuming that they looked at other homes in the area before making an offer on yours, they are probably already aware that most local homeowners are white.

In addition, if your longtime neighbors would no longer speak to you if you sold to the couple, they're probably not the kind of acquaintances that you would want to stay in contact with after you move away. There's no reason to sacrifice thousands of dollars in additional profit by selling to a white couple that offers less just to appease a bunch of bigots.

Most importantly, though, is that refusing to sell to the couple based solely on the fact that they are Spanish speakers from Mexico would violate the anti-discrimination protection provided to buyers by the federal Fair Housing Act. That would leave you open to lawsuits filed by the buyers, the agents who would have collected commissions from the transaction and the federal government itself.

You could also face stiff fines, and even a jail sentence.

Q. You piqued my interest with an answer you provided about living trusts, and how forming a trust can save money and time by allowing heirs to avoid probate court. I did some more research on the Internet, and it sounds like a good idea to me. My question is, Are "living trusts" the same thing as "inter vivos" trusts?

A. Yes, they are the same. The English term "living trust" comes from the Latin term "inter vivos," which roughly translates to "between living persons."

By forming a basic living trust now and putting your home and other assets into it, you can help to ensure that your heirs will inherit your property quickly after you die instead of having them suffer through the additional emotional pain of the long and costly probate process.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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