Forums, fora, call them what you will, but there’s hardly a person with access to a computer that hasn’t visited a forum of some description for one reason or another. If you’re not in the know about what an online forum is (and I doubt there are very many of you in that position) it is essentially just that – a forum where all-comers can post their thoughts on whatever topics that forum is set up to facilitate.
I’ve pictured Ireland’s most famous forum, Boards.ie, which covers a wide range of topics and has many thousands of users, but there are thousands of other forums around the world, some of which deal with specific areas and others which, like Boards, try to hit as many bases as possible.
The question is, are online forums any good for sourcing information on overseas property and what, if any, store should be placed on the information found on them?
It’s a big and multi-faceted question and, if you’re looking for a simple answer it would be ‘they can be useful in some cases and totally useless in others’. Non-committal I know, but I’ll try to explain further.
Essentially, forums’ biggest attribute is also their largest problem – they are, in the main, anonymous. This means that there is no opportunity to qualify the information being presented on the basis of who is delivering it. For instance, a typically effusive post about a particular property development on a forum could very easily be posted by the developer, even though it is being presented as an independent view. Equally, a damning indictment of an agent could very easily be presented by a former employee with an axe to grind. This lack of objectivity is a huge problem with forums. You simply don’t know who is presenting the information and for what purposes. Even worse, even if someone reveals their identity, there is no way of verifying that the poster is actually that person rather than an imposter.
Of course the big advantage offered is the freedom to present information in a public arena that might otherwise remain unpublicised. This has been most evident in the number of forums popping up to aid investors that have run into trouble for one reason or another – for instance the Bulgarian and Cyprus Property Action Groups, the French Leaseback Forum and the Misled Realty Investors Support Group. On such forums it is imperative that members keep their identities hidden because of the threat of legal action on a personal capacity by the companies against which the groups are being organised. A number of overseas property companies have shown that they have no scruples when it comes to threatening clients, forums, newspapers and even members of the public if they seek to bring to light their nefarious activities. Unfortunately, the law in Ireland and the UK makes it very easy for such companies avoid negative publicity as it comes down very much on the side of the plaintiff when such cases do make it to court. It is a very different proposition in the US, for instance, where far more protection is afforded the publisher. Consequently you will find that most of the more controversial forums are physically hosted in the US.
You also need to be wary of the biases and knowledge levels of the forum moderators. A lack of knowledge on the subject matter or very biased moderators, can lead to topics and discussions becoming very skewed. It can take some reading of a forum to figure out the knowledge levels and prevalent biases – and, of course, you don’t get to view posts that moderators delete for whatever reason.
In essence, forums can be a good way to get an idea on the general ‘flow’ of information on a topic, but not wonderful when it comes to getting specific irrefutable facts. For instance, if you see a lot of negative posts about a particular development, agent or even country, then there is probably an issue or issues of some description of which you should be aware. A lot of posters don’t go to the trouble of putting their thoughts online unless there is a problem of some description. On the other hand, a post telling you that a developer has filed for bankruptcy would need some serious legal proof from somewhere other than an internet forum before you could consider it to be factual.