How To Keep Listing Agents From Filtering Out Offers

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This is a real, major and pervasive problem in the industry. For a while, it mostly went away as listing agents were desperate for any offer, but it has come back. At least two properties my buyer clients have made offers on in the last few months have sold for substantially less than my clients offered and were both willing and able to pay for the property. I can tell you this because I have copies of the offer paperwork and have since obtained the final sales price from public records.

This happens for two reasons: The listing agent wants both halves of the commission, and control issues having to do with kickbacks of one sort or another from other sources.

The first is by far the worse. Even if the property sells for ten percent off the price it could have gotten (which may be most or all of your possible equity), your listing agent representing both sides gets paid eighty percent more than if the property sold for the highest possible price to an offer represented by someone else. There are many agencies and brokerages out there that do one thing very well: Getting signatures on listing agreements. Everything else, not so much, but they really are great at getting access to property owners. No matter what city you live in, you've seen the advertising of this type of brokerage. They claim they're great so you should do business with them. However, anyone can claim they are great, especially in non-specific ways.

The goal of all of this is to get you to take the easy way and come to them first, because if they're that successful to afford all that advertising they must be doing a pretty good job for their clients, right? As a result, they can get listing agreements out of property owners who don't understand what's really going on. I hope regular readers know better, because I've gone over why you don't want a "top producer" listing your property before. However, because that signature on the listing agreement gives them control over the property, control over access to the owner of the property, control over what information the owners have access to, and control over who can so much as see the property, there isn't much anyone except the owner can do about it. Indeed, once they sign the listing agreement, there's not much even the owner can do about it.

There are also control issues with kickbacks. Illegal though it may be, many brokerages mandate that all of their transactions go to a certain title company, a certain escrow provider, etcetera, because they somehow make more money (either through kickbacks, common ownership, special services, or reciprocal referrals). However, if the listing agent controls both sides of the transaction, who's going to tell the principals involved that the agent is breaking the law?

Quite often, they even restrict showings of other people's clients, because one of their agenda items is using the property to get buyer clients. Rather than actually working to sell that property (which is what they are obligated to do), they dangle it out there as bait so they can make contact with the foolish sort of buyer who calls the listing agent to see the property and force them into a buyer's agency contract. I was out of town for two days one weekend, and one set of my clients called a listing agent about seeing a property. First, the listing agent told them that "Sure, no problem to see it today!" even though the MLS listing which all other agents see said "48 hour advance notice - by appointment only" There might have been a special circumstance of which the listing agent was aware, but I kind of doubt it because they also wanted my clients to sign an Exclusive Buyer's Agency Agreement in order to see that property. Since I make it a point to educate my clients on this point, they knew to refuse.

Here's the real sticking point: When that agent signed the listing agreement, they accepted a fiduciary responsibility to that seller. It is their responsibility to get it sold for the highest possible price in the quickest time with the fewest problems. It is a violation of that fiduciary duty to their listing client to act as that agent did towards my clients. Their duty is to get that house sold. If someone doesn't see it, they're certainly not going to make a good purchase offer. Anything unnecessary that causes or might cause a buyer to balk about making an offer on that property is a violation of their contractual and legal fiduciary duties. By conditioning prospective buyers seeing the property upon anything other than being there at the first mutually reasonable time, they are in violation of that fiduciary duty to their listing client. However, I must once again ask: If they control all access to that owner, who's going to point this out to the owner?

Here's one person who definitely can't: Any prospective buyer's agent. Both agency law and MLS rules everywhere that I am aware of make it an punishable offense for buyer's agents to contact that owner directly. A buyer's agent could lose their license, MLS access, or both for doing so. It doesn't matter if I "only" lose one - I can't stay in business without both. In other words, the one group of people who have the professional knowledge and interest to possibly inform that property owner that they are being hosed is legally and professionally constrained from doing so. Yes, Virginia, real estate law is structured to protect the major chains and brokerages that advertise constantly (and control the National Association of Realtors and state associations, so they control the vast majority of real estate lobbying).

Nonetheless, if you want to sell your property quickly for the best possible price and without it coming back to bite you, you really do want an agent. The pitfalls and ways that the real estate sharks trap you into their own private feeding frenzy really are enough to make you want an agent even if you couldn't do anything to protect yourself from the bad ones.

So what is a self-interested consumer to do to protect themselves?

Two things: Eliminate the motivation to do this, and eliminate their control over access to you, the property owner.

Both are easy if you know how before you sign the listing contract. Afterwards, they are considerably more difficult if not impossible. Since most consumers don't know enough or don't care enough to do the research beforehand, this is why the vast majority of people who want to sell their property aren't protected. Some listing agents do a very creditable job even though you're not legally protected, but many others don't. Nor is there any real way of gauging their personality for certain ahead of time. It's easy to say the right things before that listing agreement is signed, then go off and do something completely different. Do you want to bet the return on a half million dollar investment on how they will really handle it?

The easy one first: eliminating control of listing agents. There is one exception to the rule about other agents having no permission to contact you: If they are instructed to. Most of the time, you (as the seller) don't want to talk to other agents. But there are two exceptions: If they're having difficulty seeing the property, and if they're making an actual offer. If the listing contract is silent about these two issues, then the listing agent controls these absolutely. Actually, it's their broker, which amounts to the same thing at best, and could be much worse. So if you don't negotiate this in advance, know that you're committing complete control over these two issues to that agent or their brokerage, and there literally is no way for you to find out about any difficulties they don't want you to know about.

What you, as a consumer want, is to get at least duplicates of any offers sent to you directly, and you want to be the one people come to with access issues. You want there to be explicit instructions in MLS to call you directly with any access issues, and to send at least copies of all offers to some facsimile number or email address that you control - not the agent. Put this right into the listing contract. You are entitled to check this on the listing at any time, and you should wander into your listing office at least once during the first week the property is on the market (without telling them you're coming) and demand a copy of your property's full MLS printout - the one that other agents see. You are permitted this on your property and your property only, so be prepared to prove you are who you say you are (Photo ID and copy of listing contract). You should also do this every couple of weeks the property is on the market. Check that the instructions stay what you want them to say in this regard.

Note that even if prospective buyers and their agents don't comply with this instruction, the listing agent has no real way of knowing they didn't. Especially if you wait for that agent to contact you instead of calling them the second you get the fax or email. If they don't contact you within 24 hours, that's everything you need to know about that agent and brokerage. As a buyer's agent, I would be happy to send such duplicates - it means I have some real assurance my client's offer doesn't disappear into the trash can, as I'm pretty certain the ones at the start of the article did. As a listing agent, even if I'm working with the buyers to get me more information (like whether they are qualified) before presenting the offer, I'm going to make sure my seller client knows we've got an offer right away. For me, this happens whether there are instructions to send offer duplicates directly to you or not, but if it didn't, how would you know? I won't get offended by such requests. No good agent who will work for their clients best interests should get offended. It's a legitimate control you are exercising upon the situation, just like any other contractor-contractee relationship. The old maxim about "trust but verify" applies. The agents who get offended or don't want to do this are the ones you should avoid at all costs.

Eliminating the monetary motivation for agents to filter out offers submitted by other agents is harder, but even more important. You as the seller do not want your agent also representing the buyer. Whose side would they really be on? In most cases, all but the worst crooks will be on the side of the seller, but there isn't any way to be certain you aren't one of the exceptions. There are tricks and things that one agent can do that you really can't guard against in general, but it is much less likely that two agents each representing different parties will collude upon. Anything shady, no matter what that might be, and at least one of them can be held legally responsible in a court of law! Nobody wants to be representing the mark in a con when the mark can come after them with an attack lawyer and expect to win a major damage award plus court costs and in many cases jail time.

The way to do this is actually pretty simple: Write it into the listing contract that you will not accept Dual Agency. Period. You don't really care if the buyer is represented or not - if they choose not to be, that's their problem - but you won't permit your agent to represent them. That agent needs to pick a side of the transaction - yours - and stay on it, or they're not getting the listing. If they show the property to some prospective buyer or some buyer wants them to submit an offer, there is a standard form - the Non-Agency Agreement, that explicitly states that both the buyer and that agent agree that there is no agency relationship being created, and the agent is doing whatever they are doing because their contractual relationship with you, the owner of the property, requires that they do it. Tell that agent you won't even consider offers made without another agent until they show you the Non-Agency Agreement. If they can't give you their absolute and sole loyalty for the sale, do you really want them to have the listing?

Furthermore, write it into the listing agreement that if there isn't another agent involved, your agent won't get to keep the buyer's agency share of the commission. A small amount of additional compensation is in order - there really is extra work and extra costs involved, so I ask for an extra half a percent if the buyer is unrepresented, which might just about pay for the extra my transaction coordinator charges plus the gas for meeting the appraiser, inspector, etcetera. You don't want your agent shooing away unrepresented fools offers, either, as they might do if they had to do extra work for no extra pay. You want to put the listing agent's financial motivation squarely where it belongs - they get paid the most money by getting you the highest price on the quickest sale with the fewest problems, not by getting both halves of the commission and the maximum in referral kickbacks.

I'm not real hot on Designated Agency, either, where two different agents working for the same brokerage are buyers and seller's agent. It can work, but the controls necessary to safeguard consumers on both sides are both complex and opaque to that consumer - not to mention that most brokerages don't have them. As a rule of thumb for buyers, if you're working with a good buyer's agent, had been for a while, and it just happens you like a property one of the other agents that works with them is listing, chances are decent that might be okay (about 8 in 10). If you contact the brokerage because they're the ones listing the property, and they refer you to their in-house buyer's agent, chances are 999+ out of 1000 that you should run, not walk, in the other direction. For sellers, it's worse. Unless your listing agent is unavailable for some reason, or that other agent from the brokerage can show a pre-existing buyer's representation agreement, I wouldn't want that offer. There are too many games that can be played, and it makes collusion to someone's detriment much more likely, as these agents work together constantly and might well have the level of mutual trust and teamwork (and possibly direction from the broker) to make a scam work and get away with it. In the majority of cases, this collusion more likely favors the seller than the buyer, but there just isn't a good way for anyone to be certain. As always, if there's a game being played and you can't prove who the mark is, you should assume it's you. Real estate attracts a lot of sharks because of the potential for high profits, and even the cheapest properties have enough profit potential to attract those sharks and all of the con games they play.

The difficult part about this is that the vast majority of agents, even those who aren't necessarily among the worst, will strenuously object to these provisions. Most agents really want to "double end" their deals - represent both the buyer and seller - simply because they do get paid more. Most have never taken the time to understand all of the ethical and legal issues with "double ending" a transaction. But these provisions against getting both halves of the commission really are necessary to remove the motivation that causes bad agents to throw up barriers to offers not represented by them. You don't want them to even be tempted to filter out offers, restrict or refuse showings, or require that prospective buyers do business with their business associates, all of which are bad for you, but result in that agent eventually receiving more money either directly or indirectly.

One more thing is beneficial: Require a notation in MLS that says you welcome
buyer's agents presenting offers in person. Your agent should also want to present counter-offers in person. This not only gives you another opportunity for outside contact uncontrolled by your listing agent, it humanizes that transaction. It turns a faceless fax machine spewing paper into real live human beings. You'd be amazed how much it helps the probability of the transaction actually closing.

The issue of listing agents acting for their own benefit to the detriment of the clients is real, is common, and is once more increasing in magnitude. If you're a property owner who wants to sell on the best terms possible, you need to protect yourself from the problem before you sign that listing contract.

Caveat Emptor

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on February 1, 2014 8:00 AM.

Can You Cancel After You Sign Mortgage Loan or Purchase Documents? was the previous entry in this blog.

The Loan Shopping Koan is the next entry in this blog.

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