The Tollbooth Model of Real Estate Agency

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Over the last couple of decades, there's been a rising movement, mostly on the part of those who want a piece of real estate agents business, to sell agents as a toll booth. Tollbooths sit there, guarding the entry to the road you want to travel on. Once you've paid, you get access to the wonderful world of MLS and making offers on real estate - or having offers made upon your real estate. This movement has accelerated in the last ten years or so, with the universal advent of broadband internet connections and ungated sites with all of the listings for sale in a particular area.

Even a large number of allegedly "full service" agents and brokerages have sold themselves based upon the tollbooth model. "Sign up with me, and you get access to all of these wonderful things along this road to where you want to go."

Unfortunately for these agents, there's always someone willing to provide a cheaper tollbooth.

The bar to get into the real estate business, when you really look at it, is absurdly low. I've seen good arguments with valid points for either making it much more difficult or eliminating licensing requirements altogether. Score seventy percent or above on a multiple choice test that doesn't have math any more complex than multiplication and without any practical applications whatsoever, pay a toll of $100 or so to the state of your choice for licensing, and another $100 or so for MLS access, and you're in business! They even let you use a four function calculator for the math!

It shouldn't be any great surprise that we have large numbers of agents who think that's all there is, let alone members of the general public. Therefore, agents who pretend to be agents - and look like they might be, on paper - can cut the toll to access MLS and the world of making and receiving offers on real estate. They pretend that they do something important, sitting in their offices with a fax machine and WINForms. It even looks impressive enough, on the surface. "I went into this lady's office, and she fired up a computer and it spit out this contract for me to sign, and she faxed it off to the other agent and now I'm in escrow! Best of all, she's going to give me 2% of the purchase price for doing business with her!" So all of the friends and relatives, who according to the way they think are making $5000 or $10,000 by using this person, drop by, and she makes $2500 to $5000 on every single one of them, by pretending to do something valuable, that can really be done by any high school graduate capable of using a word processor. Alternatively, "I went to this guy's office, signed a listing contract that pays him 1% up front instead of 6% when it sells, to put my house on the MLS, He even let me pick the price I wanted to sell it for!" Now every agent worth their license knows what's wrong with both of these scenarios (and if you don't, you should learn), but the average person who doesn't know what they're getting into. They don't even know what they don't know, and they think they're getting a real bargain.

Lest it be said that I'm being all holier-than-thou, I'm perfectly willing to make $2500 to $5000 acting like a high school graduate with a word processor and fax machine. And a license, can't forget that license! I'm even happy to do this work! And if all you need is someone to grant you that access, like paying toll to access that road, I'm perfectly happy to collect my little toll and send you on your way. Instead of one double to triple size toll that takes me dozens to hundreds of hours to earn, I can earn one of these single size tolls every couple hours. People who come to me for this level of service may wonder why I never try to "upsell" them on the more expensive package, or at least the majority who don't understand what's really going on do. Furthermore, the probability of such tolls coming back to bite me, legally, is practically non-existent. I made no representations as to the state of the property - I didn't even go visit! I advised them of their responsibilities ("get an inspection!", "fill out this TDS!") and have their signature on documents that say I did. And I never promised their property would sell, or that the property they're buying was worth what they were offering. Whether or not they realized that's what they were doing, they were saying they were perfectly capable of handling all those aspects for themselves, and they signed that piece of paper that says what I am and am not going to do for them.

But once again, there's always someone who's willing to build a cheaper tollbooth. That's not the future of a successful real estate agent, to get paid less and less for doing nothing, anymore than that's the future of a successful software company, a successful health insurance plan, or a successful anything. And for those people who think they're getting a some kind of bargain, would you be happy paying a word processor that kind of money for a couple of hours of work? There's always someone willing to operate a cheaper tollbooth, but unless you really understand what you're up to, a tollbooth is not what what you are really looking for.

What's going on, of course, is people who don't understand what they're not getting are just thinking in terms of cost. If you don't understand what you need to, if you don't even understand that there is more to what a good agent does than MLS access, a word processor and a fax machine, if you've dealt with agents who expected full pay for being MLS access, a word processor and a fax machine, then you think you're getting a deal when someone offers you a discount. But if you're an agent, you have to ask yourself why people should be willing to pay you that much money when people are willing to take less. If you're one of those discounters, you should be asking yourself why people should continue to be willing to pay you 1% when there are people who will do it for 1/2%. And if you're one of the latest wave of internet based super discounters, making money hand over fist, you should be wondering why they should continue to pay your half a percent when someone starts offering it for 4 tenths of a percent, 3 tenths, or less than one tenth. They can still make money at that level, but anyone can do nothing just as well as anyone else, and with a little more time, we get down to the economically stable point where you have people in a sweatshop in Bangladesh typing on a telephone line for $10 per transaction, all working on one license that the owner of the company got 15 years ago, even though they haven't been inside a listing since. Or completely automated, without human interface at all. No service, no knowledge, no liability, and no protection for the consumer, but they certainly are cheap. That's the endpoint of the tollbooth model of business, and it's visible from here.

If you want to know how this shortchanges the consumers, check out any one of dozens to hundreds of domestic real estate forums. Every day, you see people talking about having already made a mistake that is going to cost them a dozen times what a good agent would. These people generally want to know how to get out of the situation unscathed, but you know and I know that's not likely to happen. You've got to be ahead of the curve and not make the mistake in the first place. There are sharks out there for whom such people are nothing more than their lawful prey. Some of them are the agent sitting on the other side of the transaction. Others are investors, hoping to snare someone who doesn't understand everything they're doing. It's a beautiful house, they love it - what could go wrong? The list of tricks that get played on sellers is, I believe, probably longer than the list that gets played on buyers. More tricks, smaller market shares.

One of the things I keep harping on is the fact that real estate deals are for large amounts of money. Numbers big enough so that 10% is more than a lot of people make in a year, and I've seen at least a gross of 10% coups - or bigger - pulled off in properties I have actually been in and compared to others on the market within the last year. What does this mean? If you're a shark who can pull off one 10% coup per month, you're in Fat City. You've got the Manhattan Penthouse, the private jet, and the rock star lifestyle - more and more so as your deals get bigger and more frequent. If you pull off one 10% coup per year, instead of making $60,000 per year, you're making $100,000 per year immediately, and with just a few years like that, you're living the rock star lifestyle also! And you know the best part of all? Most of the suckers think they got a bargain! I went and talked to the guy that got taken worse than anyone else I was sure of a while back, who paid over 40% more than he could have had a basically identical property for a quarter mile up the road, and he's happy as a clam, because he likes the property and he got 2% of that 40% back in the form of cash! Even if you can consistently pull off 5% coups, or 2%, you're in the money.

When I'm acting for buyers, my business model is that of a big game hunting guide. For this, you need to know the lay of the land (market), where the most desirable game is, the tricks to spotting its trail, the ruses it may use to escape, etcetera, etcetera - and all before some other big game guide leads their client to bag my client's trophy. My goal is to make a 10% net difference to my client's final position, Either 10% cheaper, or a property comparable to one that might legitimately fetch 10% more. Buddha forbid my clients don't end up with anything, but that's preferable to shooting some farmer's prize cow, or the farmer themselves! Meanwhile, the people who don't understand this are singing Tom Lehrer's Hunting Song (here's a third party performance), whether they realize it or not. Considering appraised value, the lowest difference I've made thus far this year was a little over 15%, and that's just negotiating capability and market knowledge. I've got a couple of strictly honest appraisers, and not one of those purchase appraisals came in lower than 115% of purchase price. To change the independent element (me negotiating purchase prices for the right property), those same appraisers have torpedoed almost 30% of the refinances I was hoping to do. Add the number of traps I've kept those same clients out of by spotting problems before we made on offer, and it adds up to quite a chunk of change they've got in their pocket, or that they don't owe some lender, because I my job as an agent, not the least of which is that I take responsibility for not selling them something they can't really afford.

As a listing agent, the process has a lot more lead time. I can interview buyers in the morning, and if they're as ready to buy as they think they are, get an understanding of their situation in an hour or so, be looking at properties myself that afternoon and showing the ones that pass my muster to them the next day. Listings are tougher, and more like a fishing expedition. First, you have to know what kind of fish you're able to catch with the bait you have available. You're not going to hook a sperm whale with krill. You've got to know where these target fish hang out. Then you've got to figure out how to make the bait look attractive to the target fish, how to get them to notice this bait, how to get them to hit it hard enough that you can set the hook and haul them in. Among the factors you have to understand is how much patience the client has. Just like in fishing it doesn't do any good for the fishermen to keep hauling the line out of the water before the right fish is willing to hit it. Sometimes the situation isn't right - usually because the bait won't catch what the fisherman wants, no matter how much you do. A lot of the people I counsel to wait, or who don't like the asking price I want to set on a property will go sign up with someone else who's willing to promise the moon to get that signature on the listing agreement. I've never had one of them call me up to gloat that I was wrong.

You may have noticed that both of these analogies are pretty violent, and the better known activities they emulate tend to end up very badly for the big game, or the fish, at least on a successful mission. Nor is there any kind of "catch and release" program. Whether you realize it or not, that's the way the game is played. The language is normally civil, not something out of pro wrestling trash talk, but it's no less deadly for being played with offers and contracts instead of rifles and gaffes. Military men who intend to kill the enemy if they can are very careful and very respectful of capable opponents - they live longer that way. They know somebody's going home in a body bag, and they don't want it to be them. With the amount of money at stake in real estate, the incentives are there. Look at some of the reality shows on TV, and what the contestants go through for much smaller prizes. The tollbooth model of agency seems to be producing an ever larger number of willing fish and game. Actually, they're eager!

Real estate may be the largest transaction of most people's lives, but most people don't do it very often, particularly not in the same area. People will move cross country to a new city they've never been in before, and expect to buy real estate within a month. They'll expect the rules for sellers now are the same as the rules for buyers ten years ago when they bought - if they even understood the market then. They have been led so far astray by the popularly pushed tollbooth model of real estate, that they have no idea what they're doing wrong - or what they're not doing that they should be.

There's not only marketing to consider on the listing side, and search on the buyer's. There's knowledge of laws, of procedures. There's negotiating tricks that put you into a better position, or prevent someone from disadvantaging you. There's sucker bait, and being able to recognize it - or far more than someone who doesn't do this for a living can. There's buyer qualification issues and property maintenance issues. Do you know how to spot them? Here's a couple free hints: The answer to the first has nothing to do with prequalification letters, and the answer to the second should not be, "Get an inspection!" The former are a waste of paper and the latter is leaving an issue to be resolved at the final point of no return and hoping it gets caught there, and hoping the other side is willing to renegotiate the agreement in accordance with your views as to what reasonable is. There are location issues, condition issues, amenities issues, price issues, market issues, financing issues, and issues that mix several of these.

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch in the real world or in real estate. You can be careful, do your own due diligence, pay the fees for superior service, and get someone who acts as an effective guide to big game, or an effective charter sportfisher, or you can pay your little toll and likely end up as the fish or venison on the table. Yes, it's work. No, it's not easy. If it was, anyone could do it just as well as anyone else. Since that is not the case, then we need to consider alternative hypotheses, and using the one that best fits the facts.

The people who habitually dine well on fish and big game? Either they buy and sell enough real estate in that area that they are effectively agents themselves, or they've learned what a fantastic investment paying a good guide is. Yes, the good guides can also eat very well off their profession. That doesn't change the fact that you end up with a better dinner, even considering the chunk of meat you paid them, and if it keeps you from being the meat on the table, well, you make your own call how much not having your financial antlers nailed to a wall somewhere is worth to you. Think of it as financial evolution in action.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on October 22, 2007 7:00 AM.

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