Most of you have (or should have) read the recent article by STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT (Freakonomics) in the NY Times. As may be expected, there were plenty comments on the Freakonomics Blog. As I was reading the comments, one struck me. It was from a very sincere sounding broker who, in defending the broker’s role in the transaction, said:
“As an agent on the buyer side or the seller side, I have a fiduciary responsibility to prosecute the interests and goals of my clients……If you want to succeed in this business, become a fierce advocate for your clients, give them all the data they can handle, use your sales, negotiating, and analysis skills to their advantage.”
I pondered this a bit as it sounded like a legitimate strategy for success. I then recalled an article on Inman the other day about a company called RealtyLegacy. The company promotes a program where it will connect buyers and sellers with agents from other companies and those agents will agree to rebate a portion of their commission to their client after closing. The story was interesting from several angles but it surprised me that one such agent did not want to disclose her name because of fear of reprisal to her and to her clients (i.e. other agents would not show her listings if they knew she was discounting).
I then thought back to the NY Times story and the analogy of the real estate brokerage world to stock brokers and travel agents and the author’s forecast of the impending doom to the industry. The real estate brokerage industry has a major advantage that the stock traders and travel agents did not have. To buy a stock for a client or to purchase an airline ticket, there is no need to cooperate with another stock broker or travel agent. Those brokers deal with the principal to put the deal together. In real estate, cooperation is at the heart of the industry (some (the DOJ?) would say that this cooperation has artificially upheld commission rates and traditional business models).
I then remembered the above quote from the broker. He believes that diligent representation of his buyer will preserve his relevance. What happens, however, when he comes to a home that he knows his buyer client will love and he looks at the SOC (selling office commission) in the MLS and sees 1%. If I understand the theory, do what is best for your client and you will have value. It is without argument that this buyer client will value this “perfect” home over and above the amount of commission that the broker will receive? However, it is commonly understood in the industry that if a seller wants their home shown, they will pay the “going rate.” They are told that if they don’t, other agents will not show it. If this was not an issue, why did the RealtyLegacy agent have to hide her identity? Why was she so scared to let people know that she was discounting? If buyer agents in fact act this way, what does this have to do with “prosecuting the interests and goals of the client.” Why should a buyer get short-changed on seeing available inventory when the seller has refused to pay the standard SOC?
It then hit me like a brick upside the head: A major strength of the real estate brokerage industry is at its core a major weakness.