What Do Buyer's Agents Do?

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Got this search:
"should I get a buyer's agent if I've already found a house"

The answer is almost certainly yes, but I am going to examine both the pros and cons. Full disclosure: This is what I do for a living.

The con is fairly simple. If the seller isn't paying a buyer's agent, they may be willing to sell more cheaply. Then again, they may not. One of the reasons people sell For Sale By Owner is that they're a little too greedy. Even if they have a seller's agent, their listing contract may call for them to keep the buyer's agent's commission if the selling agent sells the property without a buyer's agent involved, and this may cause them to be willing to sell more cheaply. They are under no obligation to do so, however.

Many think the buyer's agent's job is to say, "Here is the living room." That's like saying the president's job is to look impressive. Sure, most presidents do look impressive and I do say "here is the living room," where it's applicable and my buyer may not have figured it out for themselves. Nor is it about looking in the MLS and my connections to find my buyer a property they like. It's not even about making showing appointments with listing agents and occupants.

My real job as a buyer's agent is to find you the best property for your needs under your constraints and get you the best possible bargain on it while making certain that the seller and their agent aren't hiding anything.

Many folks call the seller's agents and use them as their agent. This is what is known as a mistake. That seller's agent has a listing agreement telling them and the seller what the responsibilities of the agent are to the seller. They may or may not sign a representation agreement with the buyer. If they don't sign one, all of their explicit legal responsibilities are to the seller. They are working for the seller, not for you, and they have a contractual obligation to sell that property at the highest possible price. The buyer's interests do not enter into it. Perhaps they do an excellent job of representing your interests anyway, but the odds are against it. Their legal responsibilities are essentially limited to "don't tell any lies and don't practice law without a license." While I was working for the FAA, we found out about an agent who had made a real good living for a while as a seller's agent and how he had done it: By telling everybody he showed a house in the area to that the airport was going to close. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, that airport land was dedicated solely to aviation usages by an Act of Congress, and if the county had wanted to close the airport (they didn't; they were making enough money to pay for every airport in the county there, and socking up a huge fund if they ever figured out something else aviation related to spend it on), they would have had to have paid back tens of billions of dollars to the federal government. We got a call from one of his victims one busy Saturday, who asked, "When is this airport scheduled to close?" We advised him that any proposed closure was news to us, and explained the preceding to the gentleman.

Even if the seller's agent does sign a representation agreement with you, in approximately thirty percent of transactions (from my experience) a situation other than price arises where the best interests of the buyer and the best interests of the seller collide. When this happens, no matter what they do, an agent representing both sides is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. If they do A for the seller, they are violating the best interests of the buyer. If they do B for the buyer, they are violating the best interests of the seller. Here's a hint as to which way they are going to jump in the event of conflicting interests: If they violate the seller's interests, they don't have a transaction at all. If you don't buy, they can always sell it to someone else, but if they lose the listing agreement, they are completely out in the cold.

Price conflicts of interest happen on every single transaction. The buyer's interests are to get the property as cheaply as possible. The seller's are to get as much money as practical. This is a fundamental conflict of interest, and the entire business of real estate is set up to camouflage this conflict, especially from the buyer. It is quite likely not in the best interests of buyers to buy a particular property at all, but if you're contacting a listing agent to make an offer, you are asking the professional opinion of someone who has a legal and ethical obligation to not only sell it to you, but to get you to pay as much money as you possibly can.

Before I even point a property out to you, or if you find it surf the internet and ask, "What do you think?" I am evaluating the property for fitness, suitability, affordability, how it stacks up to other properties on offer, how many other properties are on offer, and what the details of the property likely mean in the way of potential problem issues. Just a for minor example, a property built in 1975 has to be concerned about both lead-based paint and asbestos; a property built in 1990 still has those worries but to a far lesser extent, as most building stocks with those concerns were long gone, and a property built in 2005 is more likely built over Jimmy Hoffa's final resting place than a repository for asbestos and lead based paint (it could happen, but the odds are long against it). I am not an inspector or a tester, but I can and do alert my clients to safety and environmental issues, potential repair bills, and all sorts of other items before we've made an initial offer. "Best thing you could do with this building is 'accidentally' run a bulldozer through it," is something I told a client in a few weeks ago, in the context of telling him the value, if any, was the land less the cost of demolition and haul-away. Initially built almost 100 years ago and haphazardly added to as well as obviously not in compliance with code, my client would have been facing the possibility of the county condemning the building as unsafe, and quite frankly, I didn't think anyone would insure it outside FAIR requirements. You're not likely to get that kind of talk from a seller's agent. If you do, they're working against the best interests of their clients. Do you really want an agent who will do that? Instead you get words like "charming," "funky!" and the ever popular phrase "needs a little TLC!"

When it comes to the offer, a seller's agent is looking to get the highest possible price. Period. They don't care if you could buy a better property for less elsewhere, their responsibility to the seller and desire for a larger paycheck are in perfect alignment. A buyer's agent is responsible to you, and whereas buyer's agents get paid based upon the sales price, same as the seller's agents, they at least have a legal responsibility to do their best for you. If there are any complaints, a seller's agent can take refuge in the fact that it is their primary duty to get the best possible terms (i.e. highest possible price) for the property. The buyer's agent has no such shelter. Which would you rather have as your representative?

Buyer's Agents do not usually cost you, the buyer, any extra money. Maybe there are exceptions, but I've never run into one. Both the Exclusive and Nonexclusive Buyer's Agent Agreements used by California Association of Realtors state (You want the non-exclusive agreement for a lot of reasons,), in the absence of additional agreement, that any commissions paid out of the "cooperating brokers" amount on the MLS count against the buyer's obligation to the representing agent. This is typically agreed to be two percent in California, and I don't know the last time I saw a residential MLS listing offering less than that to the buyer's agent. The way the transaction is structured is that the selling agent gets the entire commission, but agrees via the listing contract and MLS to share a certain portion with the buyer's agent, if the buyer has one. Good buyer's agents typically beat the price down significantly more than two percent, especially in the current market. I am equipped to do value battle with that seller's agent in ways that members of the general public are not, and whereas it's true they don't have to negotiate with my clients, they've got to sell the property to someone. It's not like the real estate fairy is magically going to convert this property to cash.

Alternatively, if they keep you out of an unproductive bidding war, isn't that also saving you money?

Finally, if there's something you should know about a property, the buyer's agent makes certain the question gets asked and the answer disclosed to you. This eliminates a lot of potential surprises down the road, and gives you the opportunity to have a reason to exercise your contingencies.

In short, buyer's agents are the professional on your side, they typically do not cost you any additional money, they can save you a significant chunk on negotiations, and you're more likely to find out about potential problems with the property if you engage a buyer's agent.

Caveat Emptor

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2 Comments

C├ęcy said:

In your opinion, who is responsible to check that the house has a C.O.: the seller's agent, the buyer's agent or both?
I'm asking because the seller's agent of the house we are buying decided to check that (vital) information 3h before closing, and announced to us two hours before signing the papers that there was none on file.
We're in the State of NC if that makes any difference. And we do have a buyer's agent who requested in the contract that the house should have a C.O.
Thank you.

Dan Melson Author Profile Page said:

A C.O.? The only thing I can think of is a Certificate of Occupancy, which (if needed) is not necessarily a part of the public record or even on file. I can point to large numbers of houses built before permits were needed that have absolutely no Certificate of Occupancy. Furthermore, the law is different from state to state on such matters - I have no idea of North Carolina law regarding such.

Actually, If you're in a situation where one is necessary, it should have been in the "prior to documents" section of your loan commitment because the lender sure as heck isn't going to finance a property that's not habitable with a residential loan.

Please be civil. Avoid profanity - I will delete the vast majority of it, usually by deleting the entire comment. To avoid comment spam, a comments account is required. They are freely available, and you can post comments immediately. Alternatively, you may use your Type Key registration, or sign up for one (They work at most Movable Type sites) All comments made are licensed to the site, but the fact that a comment has been allowed to remain should not be taken as an endorsement from me or the site. There is no point in attempting to foster discussion if only my own viewpoint is to be permitted. If you believe you see something damaging to you or some third party, I will most likely delete it upon request.
Logical failures (straw man, ad hominem, red herring, etcetera) will be pointed out - and I hope you'll point out any such errors I make as well. If there's something you don't understand, ask.
Nonetheless, the idea of comments should be constructive. Aim them at the issue, not the individual. Consider it a challenge to make your criticism constructive. Try to be respectful. Those who make a habit of trollish behavior will be banned.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on December 1, 2013 7:00 AM.

Listing Agents Claiming There Are Multiple Offers was the previous entry in this blog.

When Your Offer is Rejected is the next entry in this blog.

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