You Want an Agency That Can Pay ENOUGH Attention to YOU

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A lot of advice gets given to choose a "top producing" agent. These highly corporate offices may have the name of an individual agent attached to them, but they are in fact transaction mills. They have done pretty well for themselves through the downturn by securing a lot of listings and waiting for something to happen. All they have to do is wait long enough, cut the price enough, and they will eventually get an offer on a property. If yours takes six months to sell, in the meantime they have sold 18 others that finally decided to cut the price enough to move. It's not that they did any work besides "sign in the yard, entry in MLS" to move the property, but their production makes it look like they're good to the consumer who asks the easy question, "How much real estate did you sell?" rather than "How well did you do for your individual clients?"

These agencies did well through the downturn by marketing themselves to lenders for selling property or advertising themselves as "short sale specialists." It's not like they did anything hard. Lender gets tired enough of carrying the property or close to the regulatory triggers for selling a property, they'll start taking ridiculously low offers. And their "short sale specialist" is more in the nature of "throw 100 transactions at the lenders. We'll close some of them." In case you didn't understand me, this is the old "Throw enough mud, and some will stick." Statistics on failed listings are not generally kept, and where they are, they usually excuse the agent for "lender wouldn't approve short sale". Sometimes the lender isn't realistic when they refuse the short sale - but more often it's that these nitwits wouldn't do the real work involved. Nor are there any readily available statistics on how well they did for individuals, rather than how many sales they produced or what dollar volume.

I have had more experience than I would like in dealing with these offices. Let me tell some experiences I've had very recently. I represent far more buyers than sellers, so they're going to be from a buyer's agent prospective:

I got to one property to show it, and the lockbox was open and the key was gone. I called the listing agent's number - just a courtesy call of the sort I'd like to have if this happened to one of my listings. I got their office phone tree instead - and no ability to get a live person on the line. Yes, it was still available, but all I could do was leave a message and hope. Actually, something similar has happened at least six times in the last couple of months: A problem making it difficult to show the property, or something that was a real issue with the property that had happened, and no way to get in touch with a live person to fix it. Once, I got there and the door was standing open and there was no way to lock it without the key that wasn't there, and neither the agent nor their office answered (I called the police switchboard after them). Okay, no problem seeing the property, but the ability to secure it afterwards was completely missing. You want this to happen to your property?

Upon several occasions in the last couple of months, I and my clients have made very good, strong offers - and the response we got was like dropping them into a black hole. In other words, none. I tried calling - phone tree of doom again. Leave messages every day for a week - no callback. I tried emailing several times - no response. I tried another fax asking if they'd gotten the offer - nothing there either. At least two of these properties have since had a closed sale for less than the amount my clients offered, both of them curiously enough with the listing agency representing the buyer as well, resulting in them getting both halves of the commission. Great for those buyers; not so great for the sellers whose fiduciary duty that agency failed in. I strongly advise against allowing your listing agent to represent the buyer as well, or at least no paying them both halves of the commission when they do. It's a fundamental conflict of interest to have a dual agency situation, disclosed or not. Nonetheless, the real point of this is that all of these agencies were too busy to respond to good, strong offers.

On several occasions, I've been told it was a multiple offer situation. That's fine. But rather than individual negotiation and counter-offers, I and my clients are given the incredibly weak line to "Send your best and highest offer" That is to save the agent and their assistant working time, not to get their client the best deal. To get the best results, you negotiate individually with at least the strongest three to five offers. For the others, who are way below market, the minimum response is a generic counter that tells them where the market for this property really is. Sure, some of them are likely to be low-balling with every intention of walking away if they can't get the property for that offer. But there's always the possibility that they will return a competitive offer if they're given more guidance. An agent who won't or can't spend fifteen minutes generating such a counter is not doing the whole job, let alone the agent who doesn't do individual negotiations. Yeah, the property will likely sell. But not for the best possible price. And it's amazing how many of these lazy agent "best and highest offer" deals fall through, putting the owner right back to square one with sixty days on market - which sixty days means that property will fetch less.

Short sales are even worse than that. You make an offer for a short sale to corporate agents, and they usually intentionally don't respond. The last four I've made were all intentionally not responded to. Instead they just forward all of the offers to the lender. The black hole situation again, even worse because there's not going to be a response for six to twelve weeks. By that time, those buyers are going to have something else and the offers will be useless. Particularly the good offers. They want a property. You can negotiate with these potential buyers, choose one and give them a reason to stay with your property, or you can throw mud at the wall. Actually, it's more like throwing "no stick" mud at a Teflon wall - because it's not going to stick. Furthermore, the back and forth of negotiations with multiple prospective buyers is highly useful and likely to help result in an acceptance. This makes both the seller and the buyer happy. Yes, the chosen buyer can still walk away in the meantime - but you've still got the contact information on all the others. In other words, you're no worse off by picking one particular offer, and you're likely to be better because there's a much higher probability of that best offer sticking around. Of course, not accepting any particular offer means that the property isn't marked "pending" and it isn't marked "offer accepted pending lender approval of short sale" which means the listing brokerage can still use it to troll for buyer clients and a way to make themselves more money by selling those clients something else. Amazing how and why that that works, isn't it? But the listing agent has the responsibility to do what is best for the clients, not themselves. I think this trick violates the fair and honest dealing duty to those buyers as well, but there isn't any real way to argue it doesn't violate fiduciary responsibility to the listing client.

The point I'm making is that while these corporate agents do sell a lot of real estate, and they certainly make an awful lot of money, they're pathetically bad choices for getting the best possible price, let alone quickest sale, and you can kiss actual good service right off your list. There are equivalent issues on the buyer's agency side as well - agents too busy to show property, poor negotiators, high pressure tactics where they are never appropriate. How can you know the agent isn't too busy to give you enough attention.

Personally, I use a points system. A loan is four points from application to funding, a buyer client is fifteen from when they start looking to close of escrow, a listing is twenty points in preparation for market, ten once the initial work is done and the property actually hits MLS through close of escrow. Negotiating multiple offers is two points per offer while negotiations are in process, and is the only thing that can possibly send me "over the limit" involuntarily. I'm only allowed 100 total points; I don't accept business that would drive me over that total (Yes, I've done 100 loans in one month. But loans have become progressively more complicated since then, especially in the last few months, and it's not fair to prospective clients to pretend otherwise). I'm not claiming there's anything perfect or sacred about my system, and agents with more people working in their unit can certainly handle more business than I can with just a contract loan processor and transaction coordinator, neither of which are allowed to talk to my clients. The point is that I have such a limiting system in place; I can and have told people "I cannot work with you right now because it would mean I cannot devote enough attention to everyone else I'm already working with." I also offer them a choice of referrals or waiting.

Talk to most agents and brokerages about such a system or threshold, and they look at you like you're from another planet. Asking prospective agents and loan officers about whether they have such a system and how it works is a good test. Not that the existence of such a system means they're a great agent, but the absence is a real red flag. They can keep hiring office people all they want, but the office is not where the real work takes place. The real work all involves the agent themselves, and there are only so many hours in the day. And if they try and fob you off on some "associate agent" of theirs (in other words, they take a big cut of what that agent makes in return for feeding them business) consider that "associate agent" as if they were who is going to be responsible for your transaction - because they are. That "big name agent" has already done everything they're likely to when they introduce you to their associate.

What else can consumers do? Call their prospective listing agent and deal with their phone tree as if you were an agent with an offer, or even just an agent calling with a concern about the property. If you can't get through to a live person, that's a problem. If you leave a message and nobody calls you back within one business day at the most; that's grounds enough to remove them consideration totally. Pretend you're an agent, at least until you get someone on the phone. For buyer's agents, it's hard to see evidence of their responsiveness ahead of time, but so long as you limit yourself to non-exclusive buyer's agency contracts, you can fire agents who don't measure up at any time - making it a situation where you literally can't lose. Listing contracts, however, by their nature, need to be exclusive right to sell to get the best results. This means you can give any buyer's agent a chance and lose nothing except a little time; for a listing agent you need to be careful about due diligence ahead of time.

As this article should make very clear, there is a major difference between asking the question "Who sells the most real estate?" and "Who sells real estate for the best possible price, in the quickest time, and deals with issues promptly so I get the best results?" You want to make certain you're asking the right question, because if you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer.

Caveat Emptor

Article UPDATED here


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on May 11, 2009 7:00 AM.

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