Next to car salesman, they're probably the least-trusted middle-men out there. And for good reason. Here's why.
1. "Your open house is really a party for me."
Hire a real estate broker to sell your home and one of the first things he'll likely suggest is hosting an open house, so potential buyers can casually check out your property on a weekend afternoon. While open houses are promoted as a great way of finding a buyer, a National Association of Realtors study found that their success rate is a mere 2%.
No matter. Having an open house serves another important purpose — for the broker. "It gives him a database of clients," says Sean McNeill, an independent real estate broker based in New York City who says that he doesn't like open houses, preferring to match clients with appropriate buyers. "At open houses, you get all kinds of people walking in. Some are (trying) to see how much they should sell their own places for; others just want to get a look at what's out there." All are perfect pickings for a broker looking to increase his roster of buyers and sellers. "Think about it," McNeill says. "The broker is devoting a couple hours of a weekend. He won't do that unless it helps him in a big way."
2. "My fees are negotiable."
Brokers like to make it sound as if their fees are engraved in stone, but that's rarely the case — especially in a brisk market, when brokers fiercely compete for properties they can unload fast. This past summer one broker in the Midwest says he lowered his fee by a full percentage point because there was so much demand for good properties that he needed leverage. Indeed, says the broker, who asked not to be named, sellers should shop around for broker's fees. He suggests these negotiating tactics: "If somebody's willing to commit to me for selling one place and buying another, I give a discount. If you're in a particularly desirable neighborhood with a house that will bring a lot of traffic" — say, at an open house — "that can be used, because the broker will use the flow of people to get potential customers. And with some (smaller) brokers, all you need to do is ask and they'll lower the commission."
3. "Think you've had no offers? Actually, there've been several."
Legally, the broker you hire to sell your home is obligated to tell you about all offers that come in. In reality, some don't. Perhaps he thinks the offer is insultingly low for you, but more likely, "the broker thinks it's too low for his own purposes. He wants to hold out for a bigger commission," says McNeill. Or else there's an outside broker (or "co-broker") circling your house, and the primary broker is waiting for one of his own clients to make an offer so he can keep the full 6% to himself.
"You must be clear with your broker that you want to be informed of all offers," McNeill says. "Otherwise, you may be leaving him to make decisions that you should be making." Check the listing agreement drawn up when you hire the broker; if the promise to disclose all offers isn't listed explicitly, insist that it be added.
4. "I talk about you behind your back."
You spot your dream house as you're driving through a neighborhood and call the broker listed on the For Sale sign. That's how a lot of buyers stumble on a broker — who, in turn, happily shows you other houses, asking about your needs, laughing at your jokes. It's easy to get loose-lipped and forget whom you're dealing with: someone else's agent. "Legally, brokers are obligated to provide their sellers with any information that can help them get the best prices for their homes," says Stephen Israel, president of Buyer's Edge, a Bethesda, Md.-based company that represents homebuyers. "If you tell the broker that you're willing to pay $500,000 but want to offer $450,000, they'll pass that on to the seller. They have to."
Also, some brokerage companies encourage prospective buyers to get preapproved for loans. While that can make a buyer more attractive to a lender, it also tells a broker whether a buyer can afford a $600,000 house when he's trying to haggle on a $400,000 property. "When somebody asks for (a preapproval), find out who they're representing," says Israel, acknowledging that such details can short-circuit your negotiating leverage. "If they represent a seller — or someone in their office does — they shouldn't have it. The broker may tell you she will be impartial, but how can she be?"
5. "Sometimes I forget whose side I'm on."
The past 10 years have seen the proliferation of the buyer broker, agents who are supposed to work strictly in the buyer's interest, helping him get a fair price on a home as well as avoid pitfalls along the way. Unfortunately, things don't always unfold so nicely. While buyers may think they're getting a broker who isn't commission-hungry, many buyer agents are just that: They usually get about 3%, the same amount any broker typically earns when he gets involved with another agent's listing. "Buyer brokers are sometimes too focused on closing the sale and getting that commission," says Max Gordon, an Overland Park, Kan.-based real estate broker and attorney, so it's often in their best interest to see you pay as high a price as possible.
Even worse, some brokers who call themselves buyer advocates are actually working for companies that also represent sellers. "Brokerages offer bonuses to buyer agents if they sell an in-house listing," says Israel. A good way to get a broker who has no such conflicts of interest: The National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents, whose Web site (www.naeba.com) can help you find a buyer agent near you who pledges to help you get the best deal possible and has no ties to sellers' agents; many even work on a fee structure rather than on commission.
6. "I know zilch about zoning."
Real estate agents love to suggest big ideas to prospective buyers — say, removing trees to enhance a view, or even squeezing a rental unit out of a roomy garage — meant to happen once the deal is done and they're out of the picture.
"We had a client who bought a dilapidated house with a beautiful piece of property on a marshland," recalls Manhattan-based architect Mary Langan. "The broker told him that he could fix the house up however he wanted, insisting that this was a sleepy little town where nobody would care what he did. He put up a $15,000 shed in his backyard, pulled down trees, filled in some of the marshland. Now the town is making him put things back because of environmental zoning regulations." The lesson: Before you buy into your broker's creative thinking, check with your local zoning commission.
7. "I won't let termites — or pesky inspectors — kill a deal."
If a broker is selling a house, you figure he knows the place pretty intimately — after all, he talks a good game about the new kitchen, the big closets, the heated garage. What you need to worry about, though, are the home's features that he keeps to himself. Steve Van Grack, chairman of the Maryland Real Estate Commission, says, "We have had cases where (brokers have) been deceptive about termites and flood damage."
You'd figure that the home inspector, who comes to check out the place before you close the sale, might notice those things. And he will — if he's not in cahoots with the broker. "Realtors give potential homebuyers lists of home inspectors," says S. Woody Dawson, a structural inspector in Connecticut. "Those are people who will rubber-stamp the house" in return for repeat business. As one who works outside those lists, Dawson says that he sometimes butts heads with overly controlling brokers. "One time I had a broker tell me that unless I told her the results of my inspection — which is confidential between myself and my client — she wouldn't let me get up on the roof. I got out my ladder and told her that unless she was big enough to stop me, I was going up there. She wasn't big enough."
8. "I'm not a lawyer, but I play one in your house."
Most states strictly regulate the contracts used in real estate transactions, stipulating the use of boilerplate agreements that offer little room for creativity — but some brokers can't keep their clause-adding instincts in check. "I see (brokers) pushing the envelope all the time with amendments and addenda," says Gordon. "They draft language that can have consequences without really understanding it — but they want to keep the sale going."
For example, Gordon points out, it's fairly common for "a transaction to close on one day but possession doesn't happen until a later date, in which case the buyer rents the house back to the seller for those days." Gordon warns that issues of responsibility for the house require more than a couple lines from the broker's pen. If a clause is worded improperly, you as the buyer could end up liable for damage done by your "rental tenant." Same goes for purchases of non-real-estate items (such as patio furniture) and owner carryback (in which the seller provides some of the financing). "In both cases payment terms might not get spelled out clearly," Gordon says, "and can result in one party taking advantage of the other." Whether you're the buyer or the seller, it's worth the legal fees, he says, to get the offer contract reviewed by your lawyer before you sign.
9. "My Web site is a dead end."
Considering that over 50% of house hunters look on the Web, according to the National Association of Realtors, sellers might assume that using a broker with a site can help make a sale happen. But some brokers' sites are better than others, and you need to look beyond a well-designed home page to figure that out.
One common flaw: posting houses that sold long ago. While the mistake can be simple negligence, others think that it's a bait-and-switch-style ploy. "It brings people in, but it gets them upset when they find out that the property's (gone)," says Frank D'Ostilio Jr., president of William Orange Realty in the New Haven, Conn., area. "If a broker has to advertise properties that are already sold, it tells you that he doesn't have enough inventory to keep his (roster of houses) full."
Aside from checking up on a site's prominently placed listings, prospective sellers should also make sure that a site is easy to navigate. Roger Lautt, a Chicago-based broker with Re/max Exclusive Properties, has had his own site up for the past five years. "You want to use a broker who keeps himself relatively high on the search engines," advises Lautt, adding that he pays a Webmaster to make sure this happens for his site, which is linked with Realtor.com, Yahoo! and the Re/max site. "One of the big things a broker should have on his site is community information," Lautt says — schools, recreation facilities, commuting options, maps — "which attracts people who are thinking of moving to the community."
10. "You may not need me at all."
Brokers like to create a lot of mystique about selling homes, insisting that the process is complicated and best left to professionals with multiple listings and loads of house hunters. Not so, say homeowners who have sold their homes themselves (about 20 to 30% do so each year). William Supple, publisher of the sale-by-owner real estate magazine Picket Fence Preview and author of How to Sell Your Own Home, says that "properly priced and advertised, a house sells itself," adding that sellers should plant a yard sign and post online ads with local sites aligned with print publications (call current advertisers to see if the given site is effective). After all, when it comes to the inevitable negotiations between buyers and sellers, Supple figures that brokers and their commissions get in the way: "Usually, the haggling occurs over a 5 to 10% difference, and that is, more or less, the broker's cut of the sale price. You don't need him."
Just be sure you price your home well. The way most self-sellers hurt themselves, Supple says, is in setting either an unreasonably high or tragically low asking price. "Hire an independent appraiser for $200," he suggests, "and he will tell you (the parameters of) what to charge." In a strong market with low interest rates, he adds, the asking price can be 10 or 15% above what the appraiser thinks it will go for; in a weak market it might be wise to price at or below the appraisal.