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CALIFORNIA TRENDS

Real Estate Watchdog Is as Close as the Web

July 21, 1996|BRADLEY INMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The California Department of Real Estate has established a home page on the World Wide Web that gives consumers and real estate agents instant access to regulatory information.

With a modem, access to the Internet and a few computer keystrokes, the public can retrieve laws, publications and regulator's phone numbers and e-mail addresses--demonstrating that the Web can play a key role in promoting consumer protection.

The Internet site can be reached by plugging in the Web address http://www.dre.cahwnet.gov/default.htm

Without access to the Internet, consumers must visit one of the agency's six regional offices or call and then wait for the information to arrive by mail.

"We see it is an alternative method of delivering information and a more affordable and quicker way for the public to get it," said Dan Garrett, assistant real estate commissioner.

Now home buyers and sellers can instantly find out about disciplinary action that has been taken against specific real estate agents and mortgage brokers. Consumers can see a list of common regulatory infractions and then scan a list of agents who have been reprimanded by the department.

The new Web site also includes an updated list of real estate license revocations and suspensions.

The department was established 74 years ago as a consumer watchdog over mortgage brokers, real estate agents and mortgage bankers. The department also regulates new subdivisions and the formation of condominium associations.

Although it keeps a low profile, the agency has 300 employees in six offices spread around the state, employing attorneys, auditors and appraisers to regulate an industry that has a licensed real estate agent for every 75 Californians.

The new Web site offers a list of common questions and answers that consumers and realty agents frequently ask.

For example, home buyers and sellers who believe they have been cheated by agents often ask what the department can do to help.

The answer: "We investigate complaints against real estate brokers and salespeople accused of misleading or defrauding consumers. If we can prove a violation of the real estate licensing law, a formal hearing may be held which could result in the revocation or suspension of the agent's license."

What are the rules for advertising real estate on the Internet?

Just as in any other type of advertisement, licensees who advertise on the Internet are required by Business & Professions Code Section 10140.6 to publish their license numbers.

The Web site includes order forms that can be downloaded and printed. These can be used to order special publications, including the department's "Real Estate Law Book," "Real Estate Reference Book," "Guide to Mobilehome Park Purchases" and "Trust Deed Investments."

The Web site also includes forms for realty agents, including license renewal applications and continuing education forms.

In addition, the site also contains stories about real estate scams that the department has investigated.

For example, earlier this year, department officials revoked the license of a real estate broker who claimed he could save borrowers thousands of dollars in mortgage interest and pay off their loans early. This scam began in the mid-1980s, when the broker arranged about 400 mortgages.

The broker had each borrower sign a loan agreement requiring monthly payments to be paid directly to him. These monthly payments were typically $100 to $300 more than required by the conventional loan. The broker told borrowers that the higher monthly payment would result in an early payoff of the mortgage.

Instead of using the funds to pay off the loans, the broker allegedly pocketed the funds. The broker was arrested on multiple counts of grand theft and filing false documents.

The Web site also offers resources for tenants, even though the agency is not charged with regulating these laws. It lists publications and state agencies that offer aid to disgruntled renters.

Bradley Inman is a syndicated real estate columnist based in Oakland.

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