"Don't get scammed".. I know you might be tempted to file that advice under "OBVIOUS" or "No Kidding", but I've been in the real estate business long enough to be able to tell you that the scammers are out there. And they wouldn't be if they didn't think they could get away with it.
Not all "scams" are illegal either - there are plenty of things I have seen which I feel are morally questionable but would never result in criminal charges.
Now, just to be clear, I'm not talking real estate agents. I know the public perception of our profession is sometimes not good and there certainly are bad apples just like in any business, but licensed real estate professionals really are often your best option.
For one thing, licensed agents are held to higher standards legally - we're expected to know more than the average Joe and we're expected to maintain stricter ethics when it comes to disclosure and advising our clients.
Professionals also invest a great deal of time and money in their business on an ongoing basis, and the long term rewards usually far outweigh the risk of cutting corners for a little short term profit that could lose you your license.
I can't tell you that you absolutely won't get scammed if there is a REALTOR(r) involved with the deal. Even the best of us don't have crystal balls or magical lie detectors, and sometimes sellers and buyers can pull a fast one on us too. But the chances are drastically reduced.
On the other hand, as soon as you start getting involved with unlicensed or un-certified sellers and service providers of any kind, whether it is a renovating-and-flipping company, a rent-to-own seller, untrained home inspectors, or people providing private mortgages, you have no guarantees about their standards. Some of them can be quite good, both ethically and technically, but there is no standardized qualification, so it's impossible to know.
If you're looking at any opportunity in real estate and licensed professionals are not involved, whether buying or investing (or "investing" in quotation marks), my advice would be to do everything you can to make sure they're legitimate. Obviously, word of mouth referral from someone you know AND who has actually done business with them is ideal.
Failing that, at least make sure you are doing your research on the internet, checking for both the individual's name and the company name. There still won't be any guarantees, but you'll be better off doing something than nothing.
And if your gut ever tells you something isn't right, consider listening to it.
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