Hourly Pay Instead of Commission For Agents

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This was a comment on an article on my other site, Real Estate Sellers Giving A Buyer Cash Back. The interesting thing is proposing hourly pay instead of commission for agents.





That makes a lot of sense. Disclosing (net) cash back to the lender changes the purchase price, which also changes the buyer's basis in the property - sorting out the tax situation nicely as well. And when a buyer is bringing a down payment to the table, they should be able to vary it as necessary to keep the LTV where they want it.



Speaking of choosing buyer's agents, though, I wonder what your opinion is of paying one by the hour (instead of via commission)? In the future day when I might be in a position to buy, there's a local buyer agency (who actually maintains a reasonably informative blog about the local market) that has the option to work that way and I'd welcome a third-party perspective on the pros and cons.



My view of them is -



Pro:

1. For buyers is willing to do their own research and self-direct their search, they can get the specific parts of the buyer's agent package they want a-la-carte, without having to buy the whole package.



2. Since the agent's compensation isn't driven by the price of the property selected (or the commission a seller is offering) there's significantly greater incentive alignment between a buyer and their agent.



Con:

1. If the buyer/agent relationship doesn't work out for whatever reason, a buyer still ends up spending cash for the hours used.





He's got some good points. Here are some more that I see:



First off, when do you fork over the money? Up front? Is the up-front money refundable? How easily? This could quite easily be a tool for locking up exclusive business. They do a rotten job, but you've already got $5000 on deposit with them, so you figure you might as well get what good you can out of what you've got spent. Commissions are contingent upon an actual finished transaction. In other words, I've got to get the job done in order to get paid a commission. I don't have to get it done to get paid an hourly rate.



Second, it occurs to me that this may be something aimed at getting more money: The hourly pay on top of the commission. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who don't realize that buyer's agents get paid out of the listing agents commission. What happens to the buyer's agent part of the commission? Is it used as an offset, is it refunded point-blank (running squarely into the issue of fraud if there's a loan), or what? The most likely way would be as an offset against outstanding hourly, and the remainder rebated for closing costs only. However, 2.5 to 3% of the purchase price can be an awful lot for a buyer to pay in closing costs, even with seeding an impound account in California. The buyer is likely to end up basically using the money to buy the rate down further than is really beneficial, simply because there's no other benefit they can legally get out of that money. So I tell you not to waste your money buying the rate down too far, then I give you the choice of that or forfeiting the rest of it to no good purpose. Does anyone else see the contradiction here?



Third, what is the basis for billable hours? Is it time actually spent with the client, or is it time spent working on the client's file? If the client isn't present, how does the client verify the figures?



The time I actually spend with clients is a fairly small proportion of all the work I spend on them. Maybe 20 percent, at the very most. Consider the parable of the iceberg: What you get is a lot more than what you see at first glance. Last week, I spent six hours looking for one set of clients, and another couple hours on-line winnowing before that. It took us less than two hours to view the properties I decided were worth showing them. Do I charge based upon my time spent, or based upon actual face time?



Now ask yourself, does the basis for billable hours constitute a hindrance to effective job performance? I have thought about it, and "face time" billing would cause most agents - and their supervising brokers - to be a lot less generous with their "file time". But "File time" is what makes a good agent. If I bill based upon "file time", I've got to be able to show what I did with that time, and I'm going to be running head on into clients who won't believe I spend the time I've spent, or at least say they don't, no matter how good the documentation. But does billing by "file time" give agents incentive to pad their time sheets? It seems likely to me that it would. Does billing by "face time" give agents an incentive to go as slowly as possible? Seems likely to me that it would, when the clients incentives are directly opposite. Not all agents would abuse either one of these, but enough would.



Here's another issue: Agents don't get every penny of what they "make". Brokerages have expenses, and they're entitled to make a profit on what they provide. Agents individually have expenses, some of which are fixed, and some of which are variable. If we work on an hourly basis, how much do we add for overhead? Are the clients going to be receptive to it? Even if I bill by "file time" there's a lot of stuff I couldn't bill for, but is nonetheless essential to the proficient practice of real estate. Nonetheless, as any accountant or business school graduate will tell you, you have to recover the costs somehow in order to stay in business, and the way they generally do it is by building an overhead allowance into billing. I occasionally do consulting work at $150 per hour. Even with the more efficient, longer relationship of finding a client a property, I'd need to bill at least $70 per hour to end up with a middle class living at the end of the month. I strongly suspect most folks wouldn't be inclined to pay those kind of wages without evidence of value provided in advance. This would discourage clients from signing up with newer agents or brokerages who might very well do a better job than someone long established who has gotten lazy. Without a proven track record (as in "known to them"), how are you going to persuade the average schmoe who has only been told that, "Real Estate agents don't even need any college!" to fork over $70 per hour before they've seen the work? Commissioned salespersons have to get the job done before they get paid. Not so hourly workers. I realize business people do it all the time, as I've been on both ends of that, but most folks aren't business people, and even the ones who are tend to take a different approach to their personal affairs. Finally, can I really justify billing my consulting work $150/hour while only billing actual buyer clients at half that rate? I'm not going to reduce the consulting rate. If my time is worth $150 per hour (as my consulting clients have told me it is), it's worth $150 per hour. You willing to pay $150 per hour for my expertise, sight unseen? Other people have and will again, but that enlisted military man that walked into our office this afternoon might have some difficulty. I suspect most people would rather let me keep the buyer's agent commission. What if we're billing by "face time"? I'd have to charge a much higher number of dollars per hour to pay for my preparation time. Fact.



Let's ask if most people are likely to be adult enough to pay for something everyone else is offering "free", or at least where they don't have to write a check for money they have painstakingly saved? If the abomination that is Internet Explorer doesn't persuade you on that score, I've got my experience with Upfront Mortgage Brokers to fall back upon, and I can tell you that the answer is most emphatically no, at least in the aggregate. Every time I've had somebody ask about doing a loan on the UMB mandated basis of known fixed compensation, they've ended up canceling the loan. The UMB actually lets me offer cheaper loans than my normal "fixed loan type - known rate - guaranteed costs" because the client bears the risk of late loans, somehow mis-adding adjustments, etcetera. With UMB, I agree to get the loan done for a fixed amount of total compensation - but the clients know what that number is, and it isn't what most people think of as "cheap". With my normal guarantee, I assume the pricing risks, but I have to include the costs of those risks in my retail pricing. Upshot: The loans are slightly more expensive, but people like them much better. The only possible reason I can find for this difference is that they don't have an explicit figure for how much I and my company are making (gross - the net is much lower). Now choosing or not choosing a loan based upon the fact that it seems the loan company is making a lot of money is a great way to shoot yourself in the wallet. People tell themselves that the loan company is "making way too much money" off their loan and end up choosing the lender who offers something at a higher rate that costs thousands of dollars more - but doesn't have to disclose how much they make. I've not only seen it in action - I read a research paper documenting precisely this about two years ago (I went looking for it again about six months ago and couldn't find it. If anyone has a link, it would be appreciated).



All of the preceding are not reasons to refuse to offer hourly compensation. They are simply reasons why I wouldn't expect a lot of it. The final consideration is this: Most agents are independent contractors, not hourly employees. Would hourly compensation create a situation where the Labor Board would rule that this hourly pay pushes agents over the line into an employer-employee relationship? Given how most brokerages require their agents to do other things that are on the list of bullet points of statutory employees (regular required meetings, etcetera), it seems likely to me that it would be enough extra that FLRB might well rule that the agents involved are now statutory employees. This would change everything about the broker-agent relationship from its long-established norm (Brokerages would have to pay overtime, Social Security taxes, minimum wage. Holidays. Minimum time off. Etcetera. They might even have to deal with agent's unions). I don't say that agents couldn't work on an employee basis, but all of these added costs to the brokerage would certainly tend to make the wall of getting started higher for new agents, and harder to negotiate, thereby artificially restricting the number of agents. This would have the effect of limiting competition. I don't think that's a good idea for consumers, although the big chains would certainly love it, as it would make it harder for independents to compete.



If you think paying by the hour a way to get superior real estate services cheaper, I have some land in Florida. Who's going to charge low hourly rates? Unprepared, less qualified agents. It might work out to be a little less, and people who have the intestinal fortitude to move quickly without being goosed on the biggest transaction of their lives might save a little bit in that the agent or brokerage's total compensation is a little less than it otherwise would have been, but where is the level of the value they provided in order to earn that money likely to be? I submit to you that I have reason to believe it would be considerably lower in the aggregate. More than enough lower to place their patrons in the unenviable position of buying the real estate equivalent of the Yugo.



In short, I see a whole lot of drawbacks, many of which are fairly well buried, while only a few advantages, which may be obvious but are outweighed for the vast majority of the population by the drawbacks. I might be willing to do it for the right client who asks, but I'm certainly not going to advertise it.



Caveat Emptor



UPDATE: Thanks to Russell Martin of http://www.smartmortgageadvice.com, here's the link to the FTC study: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2004/01/030123mortgagefullrpt.pdf

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on May 1, 2007 10:00 AM.

Hot Bargain Property April 30, 2007 was the previous entry in this blog.

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