What is Value?
Believe it or not, this site is not anti-traditional real estate or anti-discount real estate. We are simply pro-value. We often talk about the Price/Service-Level Proposition, but this is just another way of saying 'value'. We believe that the overarching problem with real estate today is the customer perception of 'lack of value'. Sadly, we also believe that this perception is often based on reality.
Value = Service/Price
Therefore, like Nordstrom and Walmart, value can be found at any price point and at any service-level. The point is not whether you are a traditional, full service agent, charging six percent, or a new-breed, flat-fee discounter. The point is: Do you offer your clients value?
60 Minutes, Redfin, and Realtors in 2007
Well the buzz in local Realtor circles is the outlandish 60 Minutes story that aired over the weekend on Redfin Real Estate, operating out of Seattle and a handful of other very expensive markets. We have had quite a bit to say about Redfin ever since the New York Times ran a rather lengthy piece on them in September of last year.
For those of you up-in-arms, a few things spring to mind. One, you guys had better get with the program. Many of you are still practicing real estate the way you were five years ago, or even ten years ago. Quit whining about new business models and find a way to compete. And, if you are afraid to compete, go work for the government. Two, do not expect much from the NAR. They are stuck in number one, singing their theme song: "We're gonna party like it's 1999". Now, to be fair, here is the NAR response. But, if the NAR wanted to do something truly useful, they would launch a nationwide campaign promoting tiered buyer agency compensation. Three, stop kidding yourself and your clients about your Price/Service-Level Proposition. It stinks! And more and more customers and potential clients know it.
For all you traditional six-percenters out there, I think the worst thing about the 60 Minutes piece is that the story is finally making its way to your bread-and-butter market segment. I mean, Lesley Stahl was adamant that all of us Realtors are steadfastly charging six percent. What planet does she live on? And I bet, many of her viewers thought the same thing (after all, they get their "news" from 60 Minutes). What are the odds that the average 60 Minutes viewer uses a traditional six-percenter? I'm guessing pretty high.
Let me quickly add that six percent is NOT always a bad deal. Our firm sets commission rates on a case-by-case basis. And, depending on the situation and client-needs, we may very well charge that much or more. But agents need to understand this: Potential clients do not care about the structural problems in the real estate business. They do not care about your outdated business model. They do not care about your antiquated marketing strategies. They hate that you spend more money marketing yourself than you do marketing property. And, more time "prospecting" than brokering real estate. Fact is, many agents must charge six percent because they have to spend so much time and money looking for new clients. More and more, potential clients are on to you! They are certainly not going to pay for this nonsense. Charge six percent? Fine. Just deliver that much in your Price/Service-Level Proposition.
Now, for all of you shaking your heads saying, "Yes, yes, I do", let me tell you: Nine-out-of-ten of you, no, no, you DO NOT. Let me make a simple suggestion. Make a list of everything you do as a real estate agent. Then, eliminate all the stuff you do to market yourself (time and money). And, don't cheat, we all know that that newspaper ad with those teeny-tiny house pictures is just self-promotion. Same for most mailings. And that expensive coach you are paying? That's not real estate! That's the worst kind of self-promotion. So, what's left? What's it worth?
Self-Promotion Posing as Property Marketing Look, there is a marketing component in almost all products and services. Everyone expects that. In the real estate business, in addition to marketing property, new client procurement is a legitimate marketing expense. The problem with many real estate agents is that they take new client procurement marketing (self-promotion and "prospecting") to an obscene level, in terms of time and money. They have to - their service-level is not high enough to count on referrals or repeat business. If they would hang-up on that sales coach, they would have more time for genuine customer service, but I digress.... Then, they pass this ridiculously high expense on to their clients. And finally, the agents have the audacity to defend this pricing scheme (yes, it's a scheme), often by pointing to all their marketing efforts. All the while, carefully leaving aside just what exactly is getting marketed. Today, customers and potential clients know better. The client just wants value. The client just wants his/her house sold! Enter the discounters. Less self-promotion, more real estate!
So, the game's up: No more self-promotion posing as property marketing. Want to compete with Redfin? You might consider actually spending more time brokering real estate. You must increase your Price/Service-Level Proposition. If not, Redfin is going to eat you alive. This site is no friend of Redfin and their ilk. We dislike their business model and have explained our rational in several previous posts. But rest assured, our firm is not afraid of new competition.
Triangle Real Estate Blogs
We again invite you to check out some other local real estate blogs:
On Hiring a "Name" Agent
So, you are thinking about hiring a "name" agent to sell your house. What is a "name" agent? Like Donald Trump, these are the guys who vastly over-promote themselves. Mostly by telling anyone and everyone how successful they are. It's all about the agent and self-promotion, and very little about, well, real estate. We've written before about these high style, low substance agents. For many of these "name" agents, real estate is a one-dimensional business: Self-promotion. Agent-centered marketing is blatantly self-serving, and from a client-goal perspective, almost totally ineffective. And yet, it is the client who ultimately pays for this subterfuge.
Still, folks hire these guys everyday. Well....
Where is John Galt today?
Discount Brokerage: Duty Shifting as a Third-Leg Strategy
We support new and different business models in the real estate business. Some of these will work over time and some will surely fade. We are free market champions, so go forth and conquer!
I would, however, like to discuss a model that we are starting to see, and will likely see more of, going forward. This is the discount brokerage business model supported by a three-leg strategy. Note, not all discount brokerages employ this strategy, but most of them do.
Let me summarize their business model:
1. Be more efficient (Decreased overhead, increased internet presence, etc).
2. Ask their clients to take a greater role in the process (for a discounted fee).
3. Duty shift
Now, one and two are fairly obvious. Go to any of their websites and they will tell you all about these strategies. And, if that was the end of it, they would have our full support. But the fact is, their business models rely on three legs, not two. And, the third leg is problematic.
Duty Shifting: Moving agent duties and responsibilities from one side of the real estate transaction to the other, without a concomitant fee restructuring.
Now, both discount listing firms and the newer discount buyer agencies (like Redfin) employ duty shifting. You have to understand, that a real estate transaction is not like buying 100 shares of stock or an airline ticket. Well, it can be - if the buyer immediately offers the list price without previewing the property, does not seek inspections or appraisals, and pays cash right away, well you get the point. But overwhelmingly, real estate transactions are NOT friction-free. They involve time and effort. And, it is for this time and effort (and experience) that many people hire a real estate agent to shepherd the transaction to closing.
Of course, if the buyer or seller want to take this on without a real estate agent, they can. But if you engage an agent to represent you in the process, you can hardly expect the agent on the other side of the transaction to work for free (or, to do the work of the agent you hired).
In any real estate transaction, there are responsibilities traditionally performed by the listing agent and others traditionally performed by the buyer's agent. I am NOT saying that it has to be this way. What I am saying is that if the work load is altered, then the fee-arrangement needs to be altered to match the new responsibilities. And, herein lies the problem. The discount brokerages are altering the work load but are leaving intact the fee arrangement. As listing agents, they shift duties to the buy side and pay the exact same buy-side payout (if that). As discount buyer agents, they shift duties to the list side and expect (demand) the same payment.
It's a strong third leg and profitable strategy so long as the agent/firm on the other side (the "cooperating" side) tolerates it. Don't.
Redfin meet Brick & Garden
Redfin tells their buyers to contact the listing agent to view properties (see Three Ways to See a Property). If the listing agent is uncooperative, Redfin threatens to simply bypass the listing agent and go directly to the sellers. Redfin's thinking is that the listing agent is not going to like this because the sellers hired the listing agent to sell the property and they (the sellers) will be hopping mad when they discover that the listing agent is refusing to show their property.
So Redfin meet Brick & Garden:
Buyer: Hi, we'd like to see your listing at 101 Main Street.
B&G Listing Agent: Hey, that's Great! Are you working with an agent?
Buyer: Yes, we hired Redfin to represent us as our buyer's agent.
B&G Listing Agent: Excellent! All of our properties are MLS listed, and as MLS members, Redfin can show it to you.
Buyer: But that is not the way Redfin works, we need you to show it to us.
B&G Listing Agent: Nah, my own clients keep me pretty busy. And besides, the game's about to start.
Buyer: Hello, Mr. Seller? I am a potential buyer interested in seeing your property for sale.
Seller: Great! Call my real estate agent.
Buyer: You know, I did that. And, he would not show it to me! Can you believe that?
Seller: Well...are, you already working with a real estate agent?
Buyer: Yes, we are working with Redfin.
Seller: Well, I am not familiar with that firm, but no doubt, they would be delighted to show you the property.
Buyer: Well, no Mr. Seller, that is not how Redfin works. You see, when we use Redfin, the listing agent or the seller must show us the property.
Seller: I see, well I hired a real estate agent to sell my property because I don't have time to deal with it myself. That's the whole reason I agreed to pay them a commission.
Buyer: Well exactly! And, can you believe that that listing agent you hired is not willing to do what you are paying them for?!?
Seller: How's that?
Buyer: Well, he won't show me the property!
Seller: You know, as I recall, the majority of the real estate commission I am paying is actually turned over to the buyer's agent.
Buyer: Well, you see, Redfin rebates two-thirds of their commission to me, as the buyer.
Seller: Well, okay, I guess. I mean, I really do not care what they do with the commission so long as my property gets sold. Nevertheless, I am paying them to show the property.
Buyer: Actually, Mr. Seller, as the buyer, I am the only person bringing money to this transaction.
Seller: That may be true, but as the seller, I am accepting a net less than the market value of the property in order to fund these two real estate agents. So you might say that we are each paying our share, maybe? But okay, for the sake of argument, YOU are paying the buyer's agent to show you the property. So, get them to show it to you....
Buyer: Well, not really, because they are rebating the money back to me.
Seller: So, you are NOT paying them to show you the property?
Seller: Well then, who exactly are you paying to show you the property?
Buyer: Ah, I guess, no one.
Seller: Have a nice day....
Redfin Agent: Mr. Seller, we have a buyer who would like to see your property.
Seller: Well why are you calling me? After all, I did hire a real estate agent to deal with this.
Redfin Agent: I understand, Mr. Seller, but do you know, he is refusing to show your property to our buyer. So, would you mind showing it yourself?
Seller: Well, I am out of the country, on my second honeymoon. I will be back in three weeks. But then, I am off to NYC for a week on business.
Redfin Agent: Well, that’s really too too bad. You know, our buyer might just take their $500,000 and go buy some other property….
Seller: Well geez, let me call my agent….
Seller: Mr. Listing Agent, sorry to bother you, I know the game’s on….
B&G Listing Agent: Don’t be silly, Mr. Client, it’s just a game. How can I help you today?
Seller: Well, some outfit called Redfin called and they want you to show my property to their buyer.
B&G Listing Agent: Hmmm
Seller: If not, they said their buyer might just go buy some other property. Now, Mr. Listing Agent, you know how badly I need to get this property sold, right?
B&G Listing Agent: Yes, Mr. Client, I do. But let me ask you, do you remember when you gave me the listing on this property, the breakout of expenses that I gave you?
Seller: Yes, of course.
B&G Listing Agent: And, do you remember that since we are cooperating with buyer’s agents, we are offering a hefty buy-side payout?
Seller: Yes, I do - $15,000, if I remember correctly.
B&G Listing Agent: And, isn’t that quite a bit more than you are paying me, as the listing agent?
Seller: Yes, absolutely.
B&G Listing Agent: So, for $15,000, don’t you think the buyer’s agent can show the property?
Seller: Well, I see your point. But that nice Mr. Kelman from Redfin explained that they rebate two-thirds of their fee to the buyer….so, they are making a lot less.
B&G Listing Agent: Well, Mr. Client, that is an arrangement between Redfin and their client, the buyer – what does that have to do with us? In fact, how is it relevant at all? They contract to do a job and they are paid for it. What they do with their money is their own business, right?
Seller: Well, Mr. Kelman explained that since the buyer is getting a rebate, he might be more willing to meet my price. That Mr. Kelman is so very nice.
B&G Listing Agent: Yes, he is, in a Ken Lay sort of way. And no doubt, you told him that since your listing agent was making less than you were paying the buyer’s agent, that you might be more willing to accept their offer.
Seller: It is sort of the same, isn’t it? Okay, but now what about losing their buyer to another property?
B&G Listing Agent: Well, you know $500,000 is a lot of money. And any serious buyer is going to want to see all available properties before spending that kind of money. My guess is, if they really are serious they will get their agent to show them your property. If not, I do question how serious they are….
Seller: Well, how can you be sure?
B&G Listing Agent: Look, if they can spend $500,000 on a property, they can surely pay their buyer’s agent – no wait, you are paying their buyer’s agent, right?
Seller: I see your point. Enjoy the rest of the game….
The Relocation Racket
So, you're moving. If you work for a large company, perhaps they offer the services of a "Relocation Firm". Services vary, of course, but odds are when you get to the destination, there will be a smiling real estate agent waiting to "show you around". You don't even have to work for a large company to find a "Relocation Specialist". There are plenty of outfits like HomeGain that will happily refer you to an agent. And, that is the magic word: "Refer". See, whether you are "relocated" by your company hiring a large national real estate firm or you seek out a relocation specialist on your own, odds are almost 100 percent that money will change hands.
In the real estate business, it is common practice to pay for referrals. Some criticize this practice, but when you consider the marketing costs associated with new client procurement, I see nothing inherently wrong with paying a disclosed referral fee. But, this comes with a stern caveat. I only accept and I only pay referral fees to broker colleagues that I have had some personal or business experience. No big deal? HomeGain and their ilk will refer anybody to any agent - and, want a hefty referral fee for the privilege. Same is true for the national real estate firms and franchises. First, they will hire any non-broker agent with a pulse, then they will "refer" a cross-country moving client to that agent, now a "relocation specialist", and then, they will charge their own agent a referral fee. And, these fees can be steep, 20 to 35 percent of the total commission.
And don't think it is just the large national firms that participate in this racket. The local "independent" firms can join "Relo Networks" that work the same way. And, oh yeah, the local firm gets a cut.
So, should you use one of these services? Well maybe. Some companies require employees to use their relocation firm. After all, they have a contract. Or, perhaps a company offers a relocation benefit or financial incentive that employees simply cannot afford to turn down. So be it. But in any case, don't be fooled into thinking you ended up with any particular agent because they are the most qualified to assist you. No, you only ended up with them because they paid handsomely to ensure you did.
Courtesy of Hugh MacLeod, GapingVoid.com
Wake Up Mr. & Ms. Seller! Two Excellent Articles
Five Biggest Real Estate Myths [Parade Magazine]
Fees Are Negotiable [WSJ]
So, I have a question for those of you who hired Coldwell Banker in 2006 and/or 2007: Did they give you the old line, "We do not take listings for less than six percent"?
What's interesting is that, as a public company, Realogy reported this figure in SEC filing documents. Most of the real estate firms in the Triangle market are private, and to my knowledge, are under no requirement to report comparable figures. Of course, Berkshire Hathaway owns Prudential Carolinas Realty, so maybe their figure is available somewhere.
Full Disclosure: The 2006 Brick and Garden figure: 2.35%
Red Herring Real Estate
Redfin's Real Estate Consumer's Bill of Rights and their entire business model is nothing more than a distraction from the very real structural issues in the real estate business. Their goal is not to address the issues in our industry, but rather, to simply take advantage of them. All under the guise of "Consumer Protection". For a more genuine take on these issues vis-a-vis the Redfin game-playing, see Greg Swann's, A Wolf in Sheepskin Clothing.
Meanwhile, I propose a more honest moniker: Red Herring Real Estate
Tiered Buyer Agent Compensation
The difference between limited service listing agents and limited service buyer agents is that the listing agents set and collect their own fees. The limited service buyer agent typically collects whatever fee is offered in any given transaction. This works out so well for them that they offer to "rebate" some portion of this fee "back" to their buyer clients. Great marketing device. Of course, it comes at the expense of the seller. And the listing agent, if he or she ends up taking on some of the duties and responsibilities of the buyer's agent. See duty shifting, in the entry just below.
What to do? What to do?
First we need a working definition of "Limited Service Buyer Agent". I think this could easily be a couple of pages long. But, to make this point, let me propose the following quick and dirty definition:
Full Service Buyer Agent: No direct interaction between Seller/Agent and Buyer.
Limited Service Buyer Agent: Some direct interaction between Seller/Agent and Buyer.
Now, of course, if the seller or his agent show the property to a given buyer, then by this definition, that particular buyer is represented by a "limited service buyer agent".
So compensation can be based on service provided. You know, like anything else!
Full Service Buyer Agency: 2-3% of Sales Price
Limited Service Buyer Agency: 1% of Sales Price
Perfectly legal, and for once, easy to include in our MLS system without a rules or system change. I might also point out that all this should be thoroughly explained to your seller clients, and in North Carolina, we can even include this strategy in the Listing Agreement. Want to really make the buyer's agents earn their money? Offer your seller client the difference. That is, as listing agents we make a set amount and the total commission rate to the seller client is variable based on the service the buyer's agent provides.
Look, the main thing these guys want to avoid is showing property. And who can blame them? It is a time-consuming and expensive and sometimes frustrating process. What's more, no doubt these guys would argue that they have no duty to show property. And you know what? I do not disagree with that. But, one of the primary reasons that sellers offer to pay buyer's agents is to compensate them for the time and expense invested in showing property. In other words, the seller and the listing agent are paying the buyer's agent to take on this responsibility. And, if they are not going to do this, then they should not be paid for it. Simple as that. What they do with this unearned fee is beside the point. So, they give it back to their buyer client. Well that is like saying it's okay to overcharge because I give some of the money away. In this case, they are not really over-charging. They are simply taking what we offer. So stop it.
Y'all come see us, be happy to show it to you....
Kris Berg writes to tell me that, by Board/MLS rule, variable commissions to buyer's agents are not allowed in her area. This simply enforces payment for non-service. This is tantamount to being forced to fly Southwest Airlines (we cannot control where the buyer comes from) and at the same time, also being forced to pay the first-class Delta Airlines rate.
Luckily, here in Raleigh, we do not have that constraint. I posted the relevant section of our Board/MLS rules above.
Three Ways to See a Property (Redfin Style)
Brick and Garden is an independent real estate and investment firm based in Cary, North Carolina. We operate in the Greater Research Triangle Area of North Carolina.
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Raleigh & Taipei Development Corp.
Galt, Rearden & d'Anconia
Brick and Garden Real Estate
Post Office Box 3882
Cary, NC 27519