Real Estate Agent Commissions: Why They Aren’t Discussed, and the Sherman Antitrust Act

Craig is the founder and Managing Broker of Added Equity Real Estate.  Added Equity charges a 1% fee to list and sell a home, total. Not 1% plus another 3%. Added Equity is different than any other firm. This is Craig’s blog series exploring why and how most realtors don’t talk openly and frankly about the actual fees they charge, keeping real estate agent commissions at their longstanding level.

First Installment: Real estate agents – intentionally or not – hide behind the law to avoid revealing their commissions.

Real Estate Broker Commissions Kept High with Secrecy

It goes without saying that real estate brokers benefit by high commissions. It also need not be said that those commissions will go down only when the prices are effectively communicated to consumers so that they can make informed decisions. By keeping commissions secret, real estate agents can keep them artificially high. How will consumers know of a better deal? They won’t. As a result, real estate agents have a strong personal incentive to “go along” with the system, charge the same high commission as anyone else, and keep it all from the public’s view.

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Not showing a less-than-3% SOC commission? That's unethical and illegal

This is not legal advice. For legal advice, consult an attorney directly, not a blog.

It’s common knowledge (based on those comments, at least) that some buyer’s agents will not show properties with an SOC of less than 3%. Is that a problem? In a word, Yes.

First, the ethics: The term “ethics” in this context refers to the code of conduct by which a professional is expected to perform his or her duties. “Ethics” in this sense usually — but not always — correlates with what a layperson would consider “right” and “wrong.” Generally speaking, “ethics” in the professional sense imposes an obligation to perform a professional duty in a fair and reasonable matter.

Admittedly, I am not up to speed on the rules of ethics that would apply to a real estate agent. Many agents are also Realtors, and I know that they are thus subject to a particular code of ethics. Attorneys are subject by law to the Rules of Professional Conduct, rules of ethics formulated by the State Supreme Court. I am unaware of any similar rules that apply to agents.

With that disclaimer, it certainly seems like this conduct SHOULD be considered unethical. Surely an agent has an ethical duty to diligently work for the client, including the identification and showing of any property that is or may be suitable for the client. From an ethical perspective, I would even argue that this applies to properties with no SOC whatsoever. Admittedly, in that circumstance, the agent has every right to and should discuss this with the client, as the agent need not work for free. Thus, the agent should, either at the initiation of the representation or when the issue arises, discuss with the client whether and how the agent will be compensated if the agent finds a house that does not offer an SOC. The parties may agree that, in that instance, the client does not expect and has no right to receive information from the agent about that property. Regardless, with this conversation, whatever its outcome, the client can knowingly consent to any limited scope of representation, and consent is the key when dealing with an ethical issue.

Now, the legality: This conduct is almost certainly illegal (at least where there is something more than a 0% SOC), but there is very little chance that it will give rise to liability. How is it illegal? RCW 18.86.050 is the relevant statute. It requires a buyer’s agent to “make a good faith and continuous effort to find a property for the buyer,” except that the agent need not “show properties as to which there is no written agreement to pay compensation to the buyer’s agent.” In addition, the agent is relieved of this obligation entirely IF the buyer agrees otherwise in writing after receiving the required “Laws of Agency” pamphlet. So, assuming the property offers a commission in some amount (i.e., greater than zero), I believe the agent has a legal duty to bring that property to the client’s attention.

So why no liability if the agent fails to do so? That turns on general legal principles applicable to wrongful conduct. Where such conduct causes an injury, the wrongdoer is liable for the harm caused. Here, assume an agent fails to show a “dream house” to the client because of a 2% SOC. The client subsequently buys another house for the same price. The client then finds out that he was denied an opportunity to buy his dream house because his agent did not tell him about it. What is the injury? Given that they are the same price, there is no way to quantify the client’s injury. Under those circumstances, it will be difficult to find the agent liable. Note, however, that if the house actually purchased cost MORE than the dream house, the client may be able to recover the difference.

From a practical perspective, too, there is little chance of the agent being held liable. The whole claim turns on what the client did not know. So, in order to even raise the claim, the client has to learn that his agent failed to inform him of his dream house. Needless to say, it is hard to even fathom a situation where the client would learn of this information after the fact.

So, it ends up being one of those unfortunate facts of life where — as of today, given the laws as they exist — there is no real remedy for the injured party. Unethical? Yes. Illegal? Probably? Any way to stop the behavior? Unfortunately, probably not.