PRESIDENT'S CORNER: Municipal Building Files—What Gives!

PRESIDENT'S CORNER: Municipal Building Files—What Gives!
Crystal Hawkins Syska, HGAR President 2021

One of the random calls I get from our members has to do with information being inaccurately reported on the MLS by agents. Whether it is the square footage, a finished basement being legal and more. Although this is not within the scope of my role, there is a process for that and HGAR staff, namely Gary Connolly, to address that. However, could this be a symptom of a bigger problem. Getting building department files from the municipalities in Westchester County?

Each town and village have their own rules and regulations when it comes to responding to a Freedom of Information law request, commonly referred to as a FOIL. Some can take up to 60 days, while others will reply within 24 hours. There are towns that charge fees and others do not. At times, instructions are not clear, while others seem to require your firstborn to get access.

Although the focus of this article is going to be on Westchester County towns and villages, I know it happens in some of our other geographic areas who don’t have an online option. And why is that really? Why isn’t all the information online?

One of the lessons of the pandemic is that technology is key to functionality and commerce of the entire nation. Being in a country labeled as the strongest leader in the free world, we still have to wait 30 days to get documents. Doesn’t this seem a bit strange?

I have heard agents comment to leave it to the title companies to get the data well after the ink has dried on the contract. So, what is our value? Especially when we can only advertise what is legally there? Here is my idea that maybe we can work together on helping bring about:

What if Westchester County towns and villages worked just like New York City? An online platform where you can get information on properties. Now, the pushback may be that the records are an income source for the municipalities. I offer this suggestion—the building department online records could work just like the Westchester County Clerk site. You pay for access. There could be a daily access fee, and an annual subscriber fee access. I would gladly pay for that!

The challenge now becomes, how do we get all those records scanned if they are not in digital format? Well don’t most high schools in Westchester County require that its students fulfill a community service requirement? Well maybe this could be it. Does any of this sound feasible to you?

We as Realtors can affect positive change. This is an idea that could gain traction by reaching out to our town supervisors, mayors and boards. Perhaps even getting on the town board, going to town meetings. Ultimately, getting involved. What I am herein suggesting is something that can help us in being more efficient as agents, but ultimately is better for the community.

I am pretty sure that many of you have practical ideas that impact real estate. We want to hear from you and we need your aid. A non-Realtor staff member at one real estate association talked to me about how overwhelmed they were by how much work and liability we actually carry. They continued that the TV shows about real estate don’t come close to telling the story. They also confided that they had believed that most agents are out for themselves. That is right, we work hard. On top of that, it’s not always about “looking out for number one.” I think that as agents we can be practical in taking steps that help our industry, while simultaneously assisting and prompting the betterment of the towns we serve.

On Monday, October 25th our Members Day will be held at the hotel formerly known as the DoubleTree. I will definitely be there, and have a table for you to come talk to me. If you have an idea that you would like to share, bring it. And if you want to talk about what I am suggesting in this article, that would be great too! But seriously, 30 days to get building department files…we can do better than this.

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