The future of commission-based real estate
This morning, the message was sent out via Twitter that Inman News in February will be examining the future of commission-based real estate.
And to that, all I can say is that it’s about time. If ever there is a (non) topic that routinely has been twisted to suit the purposes of whatever particular axe someone wants to grind, it’s the concept of real estate commissions. Knowing the higher standard to which Inman News holds itself, I have every confidence that this won’t be the same years-old rehash that agents make too much money, etc. Not only wouldn’t that be news, it would be a gross mischaracterization of the real estate industry.
Seven Basic Truths
Any objective analysis of real estate commissions undoubtedly will uncover these basic truths:
1) There is no set compensation structure in real estate. Some agents and brokerages work on a commission basis. Others charge only a flat fee (and in some cases, no fee) for entering listings in the MLS. Sellers are free to select the brokerage that most closely aligns with their own perception of value and have the right to negotiate with any agent on any fee. The worst that will happen, as is the case in any negotiation, is one side or the other says no and the seller moves on to the next brokerage down the line.
2) Compensation for buyers’ agents is negotiable. There are many agents and brokerages that negotiate the compensation they will receive at the very beginning of their relationship with a new buyer. So if a buyer has an issue with their agent accepting the compensation offered through the MLS, this can be addressed at the very beginning. And, again, if the two sides can’t come to an agreement there are many alternatives from which the buyer can choose.
3) Commission checks are not pure profit. Let’s say an agent receives a $3,000 check on a $100,000 sale. From that $3,000 the agent then needs to pay a split to their broker, national income tax, state income tax (depending on the state), local income tax (depending on the municipality), fixed costs such as gasoline and automobile payments and maintenance and other operating expenses (office staff, etc.) Whatever is left after all that is paid is what eventually goes toward groceries.
4) Fixed costs accrue regardless of whether a transaction results. Marketing of listings in many cases is paid out of pocket by the listing agent with no up-front fee charged to the seller. When working with buyers, the fixed costs accrue and time is spent whether the buyer purchases or not. Every agent has experienced a situation (if not many situations) where hours and hours have been invested with someone who doesn’t buy a home.
Which is okay, because we knew that side of the bargain when we started working with the person and presumably our own personal business model accounts for that … just as the prices you pay in a store account for expenses such as breakage, which are passed down to the consumers who do purchase.
5) There’s no barrier to entry for alternative models, save for the public’s willingness to embrace them. As has been proven by Redfin, any company can enter the real estate game with an alternative model. To coin a poker phrase, all you need is a chip (if not millions of chips in venture capital) and a chair and you’re in the game. As also has been proven by the various iterations of Redfin’s model for working with buyers, market forces will determine whether any particular model is successful.
This is the very nature of entrepeneurship. A new idea is developed and it fails or succeeds on its own merit, unless we’re talking about the WNBA. Those that fail almost universally complain that The Man held them back or there was some sort of competitive disadvantage (damn McDonald’s and those Golden Arches), but the reality is an idea with sufficient public support – financial support – will succeed.
For instance, as a solution for those buyers who look and look and look and never buy, I could offer a fee structure where I’m compensated either hourly or by the home. Accounts would be settled at the end of the day, my fixed costs would get covered and the buyer would appreciate that there’s a cost associated with the search for a home (not even getting into the actual negotiations.)
What prevents me from doing this? Certainly not an edict from the National Association of REALTORS, whose leadership is too busy planning their next parade float to pay attention to what one member decides to do. No, the reason I don’t adopt that model is I don’t believe there’s a market for it.
We can argue whether there should be but it’s almost as pointless as arguing that there doesn’t need to be an episode of the CSI franchise on television 24 hours a day on one station or another. The public demands CSI and so it’s there. The public isn’t demanding the ability to pay up front for their real estate agent’s time so that niche doesn’t exist.
6) Commissions are more negotiable than many other fees consumers pay. Talk to many real estate agents and you’ll discover that there are many variables in what many charge for their services. Fees are negotiable.
Take this same approach with a different industry … say subscription-based online real estate journalism. I invite you to take a moment and call the folks at Inman News to negotiate what you’re willing to pay to become a premium member. For some, the amount Inman charges has sufficient value to justify the cost. For others, there’s little to be found at Inman News that can’t be found in a hundred other places on the web absolutely free.
It’s absolutely irrelevant what fixed costs Inman News may have, after all. That’s Brad’s problem, not yours. Decide what value you receive from peeking behind the subscription firewall and make your offer based on that amount. Surely they won’t take the same route as the inflexible agents that have been mocked in prior years’ news stories and tell you “this is what we charge, take it or leave it.” That would be hypocritical.
7) What my buyers and/or sellers elect to pay their real estate agent isn’t anyone else’s business. One of the most beautiful things about real estate is the ancillary jobs that have been created that have next to nothing to do with real estate.
For instance, take Inman’s vice president of content and community manager positions (both of which are filled more than capably by friends of mine.) As a member of the general public who may or may not use the Inman product, do you believe that you should have a say in the salaries they receive?
Of course not. Which is why I find it curious that so many people believe that the general public, who may or may not use the services of a real estate professional – any real estate professional – should have a say in the compensation said professional receives from a buyer or seller. If a buyer and seller agrees to compensate an agent in a certain manner, if they’re comfortable in doing so, why is this anyone else’s concern?
Real estate agents aren’t receiving tax dollars … most of us aren’t even receiving the vast quantities of venture capital that have kept some of our competition afloat. So why is it our 1099s are the subject of debate when the W-2′s of others vaguely connected to this industry are not?
Go back to point number 5 (it’s in Chapter 3 of this admittedly lengthy post.) If you don’t believe in any particular compensation model, come up with something different and see if it floats. It’s that simple.
Is there an agenda here?
This has been a rather lengthy post but I believe it’s a mere pittance compared to the length of an objective month-long investigation of the many myths that surround real estate commissions. No doubt, all of the above points not only will be made but will be supported by a number of published articles, or at least enough to offset those that would perpetuate the myths to support their own business model.
Because the basic reality surrounding this entire topic is everyone has an agenda that they’re trying to push, even if it’s simply to push a business model that the free market hasn’t chosen to embrace…
… or if they’re attempting to co-opt a conversation rarely if ever heard outside the online world of real estate journalism and blogging in the name of increased subscription and convention sales. (Though you’d have to think, if at any point the real estate populace gets the feeling that the host of a conference is trying to make a buck by slamming the entity know as “real estate professionals,” maybe they’d finally stop shelling out the dough.)