What Agents Need to Know about Showing a Home with a Security System

Somerville, Massachusetts: the birthplace of the burglar alarm. When Rev. Augustus Russell Pope won his patent for the electric burglar alarm in 1853, he somehow failed to include any guidance for Realtors. We’re left wondering the best way to navigate the thorny issues involved with showing a home equipped with a surveillance system. We’ll forgive him, since he had an awesome mustache.

The burglar alarms you find in Somerville today are slightly more advanced than the original design: bells have been replaced by hidden smart cameras that record both sound and video, and can live-stream to your client’s cell phone. Seller clients will be tempted to snoop on potential buyers to see who they’re dealing with and what they really think of the house.

Most importantly, you’ll want to prevent your client from violating the law. In Massachusetts, the law draws a distinction between video and audio recording. All parties to a conversation must consent before the conversation can be recorded. This means that security systems that record sound should be shut off, or at least have the microphone shut off, before any showings (yes, Nest systems do record sound, but they have a microphone toggle). Video surveillance is lawful in any place where one does not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” This means the bathroom should not have a camera in it, but it’s probably okay to have one in the living room.

Still, just because your client isn’t violating that particular law by having video cameras set up, doesn’t make it a good idea. Having video footage of a showing could open your client up to fair housing complaints; even if the seller isn’t practicing unlawful discrimination, a heart-broken buyer whose offer was not accepted could be tempted to conclude that it was the result of less-than-innocent decision making. The best choice for a seller is to just turn off the cameras.

Even if they are turned off, the smart move for the Realtor is to disclose the existence of the security system in the “remarks” section of the listing, and perhaps display a sign in a conspicuous location for each showing, alerting buyers to the presence of the security system. It’s good to keep in mind that many sellers will be tempted to turn the cameras on (which they can, remotely) during a showing, just out of curiosity, or out of concern for their home security. Therefore, always assume they are on and rolling. They could also be motivated by a genuine concern for the security of their home.

Finally, from a practical standpoint, buyers should refrain from having conversations about specific features, price considerations, and overall feeling about a property while inside the house. It’s best to assume that the seller will ultimately hear anything you say, and use it to their benefit during negotiations.