The method by which a real estate agent is compensated undermines the agent’s ability to represent his clients, particularly clients who are buying property. Before I get into the substance, though, I need to define the term “represent.”
Yes, the term is used in the “brokerage relationships” statute, RCW Chapter 18.86. However, I am unwilling to conclude that EVERY agent “represents” his clients simply because that’s what the statute says. In my book, “representation” requires more than the legislature’s decision to use that term in the statute as shorthand for acting as a real estate agent. Rather, I use the term to mean “to manage the legal and business affairs” of the client.
With that preliminary matter out of the way… Representation requires a high degree of loyalty to the client. Loyalty to the client is undermined by any interest that competes with the client’s interest, including self-interest of the person providing the representation (i.e., a conflict of intererst). Agents are paid by a seller, not by the client/buyer, and clearly there is a conflict of interest between the seller and the buyer. Moreover, the agent has no obligation to inform the buyer/client of the compensation paid by any particular seller. This system creates a serious conflict of interest that undermines an agent’s ability to represent a buyer.
Want proof? There is a general consensus that a seller should offer the “full” SOC of 3%. Correct me if I’m wrong in that regard. Assuming I am correct, this “general consensus” is de facto recognition of the reality that a substantial portion of agents put their own interests — getting paid a 3% commission versus something lower — above those of their client. If anybody believes otherwise I’d love to hear the argument, as this seems like a “slam dunk” point to me. There is simply no other explanation other than that an increased fee to a buyer’s agent will influence the agent to convince his client to buy the subject property versus some other. This influence over the buyer derives entirely from the agent’s self-interest to make as much money as possible, regardless of what may be best for the buyer.
The same logic is at work for a “bonus” SOC for a full-priced offer, which is permissible and not that uncommon. How on earth is it in the buyer’s interest to make a full price offer in this market? And in a situation where a full price offer is merited, it is merited because of the needs of the buyer, not the interests of the agent — or at least it should be if the agent is providing “representation.”
Want more proof? It is common for some listing brokerages to send a letter to the Selling Agent when a property is placed under contract. I recently received such a letter that reads as follows:
Knowing that selling a house at competitive market value can be a challenging process, I want to take this opportunity for professionally selling the subject property.
Wow! What an emphasis on “selling”! If an agent is truly “representing” a buyer, how is that agent “selling” the home? Those two terms are mutually inconsistent. A “salesperson” does NOT look out for the interests of the buyer. To the extent a “salesperson” claims to do so, it is — to a degree at a minimum, if not entirely — subterfuge to build a relationship of trust between the buyer and the salesperson, which in turn facilitates the sale. Does anyone really believe a salesperson when they say, “As a favor to you, I’ll…”. Salespeople sell, they don’t represent. Representatives in contrast look out for the interests of the client, they don’t work to convince the buyer to buy. Any decision to spend several hundred thousand dollars should be made by the client uninfluenced by the representative.
These are built-in conflicts of interest that undermine an agent’s ability to represent buyers. But even worse, these conflicts of interest are concealed from the client! The MLS refuses to reveal to consumers the SOC being offered on any property. Thus the buyer has no way of knowing that his “representative” may have a powerful self-intererst that is counter to the buyer’s.
Finally, I must note again one other example of how the system is inconsistent with an agent’s “representation” of a client. The client/buyer should have the right to select his/her own “representative.” After all, “representation” must arise out of a relationship built on trust. However, the seller’s SOC can be paid to ANYONE who sold the home, regardless of whether that person provided any representation at all. In other words, the fee paid is totally disconnected from the service ostensibly provided. Indeed, the fee is paid for a service — selling the home — that is INCONSISTENT with the service that the agent claims to provide.
In the final analysis, this state managed to get halfway to “buyer representation.” RCW 18.86 was a big step forward for buyers because agents now have at least some limited legal duties to their buyer clients (in the “good old days” EVERY agent worked for and had a duty ONLY to the seller, even if they only worked with a buyer). But they didn’t fix the underlying system. And that system seriously undermines the ability of agents to “represent” buyers.
* Following “competing” posts by me and Ardell, Seattle Bubble asked its readers to weigh in, framing the issue as “Real Estate Agents: Advocates, or Dead Weight?” Both Ardell’s “rebuttal” and SB’s “poll” muddied my point significantly. I recognize that there are really great agents out there who do fantastic work for their clients and who hold themselves to an ethical standard that far exceeds what is required of them by law. My point is that there are substantial flaws in the system in which agents operate, and these flaws undercut an agent’s ability to truly “represent” his clients, particularly on the buyer side. Consumers should be able to rely on a fair SYSTEM and should not be charged with responsibility for finding one of the “good” agents. Similarly, its unfair and inaccurate — and overly inflammatory — to suggest that agents are EITHER an advocate or dead weight. That’s hyperbole, not a fair comparison, and serves only to inflame the passions of the audience, which again obscures my point. So from here on out, its “clinical” titles for me only.