Buyer's Agency, Due Diligence, and the Illusion of Comity

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Somebody sent me this story via e-mail: Feeling Misled on Home Price, Buyers Sue Agent

Marty Ummel feels she paid too much for her house. So do millions of other people who bought at the peak of the housing boom.

Knowing only this, I would have no sympathy. This is part of the risk you undertake with any investment - that it may decline in value. There are no guarantees that any investment is a good one. I worked hard to inform potential buyer clients about the state of the market when it was in the danger zone, and it cost me a lot of money. Quarter million dollars, absolute minimum. Most of them just went over to other agents who pretended that we could continue to gain 20 percent plus per year indefinitely, or were too ignorant to know better. Not precisely the most ringing endorsement possible, but it was hard to get people to hold off when the market was going crazy. Fear and Greed.

The situation now in my local market (San Diego) is 180 degrees reversed from that. This is the best buying opportunity in at least fifteen years, and probably the best we'll ever have from this point forward. I've done everything except promise free beer to try and get buyers off the sidelines now, but they're looking back at what the market has done, not where it is going. Fear and Greed has another side.

Getting back to the subject at hand, however, here's the deadly piece of information:

Ms. Ummel claims that the agent hid the information that similar homes in the neighborhood were selling for less because he feared she would back out and he would lose his $30,000 commission.

The question I want to ask is did the buyer's agent actively hide it or was he unaware of it? Not that being unaware is any excuse. If you have a fiduciary duty to someone who's buying a property, how can you not check out what sales there have been in the immediate area in the last few months, at least on MLS? This was a million dollar property, for crying out loud, but it would apply just as strongly to a "cheap" condo. If you're not willing to do the work, you shouldn't take the client. If you're never willing to do the work, why are you in the business?

If the agent was aware of these sales but actively hid them, that leaves the realm of negligence and into the realm of active malfeasance. He deserves to lose his license as well as the case, and this would be the wedge that might do it.

Now we get to the crux of the matter:

"We have seen so much misrepresentation over the last five years," he said. "So I appreciate where these buyers might be coming from: 'I'm a lowly consumer, you're certified by the state of California, you didn't do X, you didn't do Y, and I got hurt.' "

This is exactly what an agent is agreeing to when they accept the task of agency, real estate or otherwise. This isn't some pick-up game of softball where you pick your friends. Buyer or seller, you're not just picking someone who's going to get a check for thousands of dollars. If that were the case, real estate agency would have died by now. You're picking someone whom you believe is both capable of everything necessary to guard your interests, and willing to speak up even though it may cost them a commission. I get at least one e-email a week complaining about what a rotten job one agent or another did. When I respond back and ask them how and why they chose that agent, the response is always something along the lines of, "I met him and thought he was a good guy."

This isn't about who you're going to have a good time with at the football game this afternoon, which that means of choosing might suffice for. You're not choosing a date for the ball, you're picking an alleged professional who's supposed to competently guard your interests on a transaction that's probably several years worth of your earnings. Whether you pay for the property with cash or with a loan, it's still the same number of dollars, and you're still going to have to pay that loan off if something goes wrong. Treat buying real estate like what it is: putting enough money on the line to quite literally beggar you for life if you make a mistake.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago titled Which Makes More Difference - Buyer's Agent or Listing Agent? The answer was and is resoundingly that a buyer's agent makes more difference. Yet many people who would never pick a listing agent in such a casual manner will choose somebody they meet at an open house or go without representation, trusting the listing agent to look after their interests. But the listing agent has a contractual obligation to get the seller the highest possible price - not to negotiate it as low as possible. If something is in the seller's interest but against yours, you can bet the seller's interests are going to win. It's a win for listing agents if the buyer doesn't have an agent of their own - for perhaps an hour of extra work, they get paid double, and without taking on any new liability if they're even moderately intelligent.

Picking someone you meet at an open house is nearly as bad. HELLO! Earth to prospective buyer! They're a LISTING AGENT with a contractual obligation on behalf of that seller and who knows how many others. If they're not trying their best to sell you that property, they're violating their contract with the seller - but you want an agent who's not only going to tell you about the problems, but also about what it really means to you. There is an irreconcilable conflict of interest there. A good - by which I mean competent as well as ethical - agent will not put themselves or their clients into that kind of situation. I write it into every contract that I will not represent both sides in the same transaction, and make it clear to prospective listings exactly where the line is. If I bring someone I've contracted to represent as a buyer to one of my own listings, I am breaking that fiduciary duty to one or the other of them - perhaps both. It's one thing if someone calls me out of the blue asking to see a property I have listed. It's something completely different to bring someone I already have a buyer's representation agreement with to that listing with an eye towards possibly buying. The same objection applies if I try and get that prospective buyer who called out of the blue to agree to let me represent them in buying. Who gets less than my best efforts, and is that something you want as a consumer with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line? That's what you're volunteering for when you pick a buyer's agent in either one of these fashions.

It goes back to the illusion of comity. Agents are salespersons, and it's much easier to get a sale, and particularly a better price, if you pretend everybody here is everybody else's friend. In fact, that's pretty much the only way to make Dual Agency fly. Give someone an obvious path of least resistance. But let's consider the nature of the item at issue: A middle of the line detached single family residence is $500,000. How many people would you trust not to try to finagle an extra 2%, when it means they make an extra $10,000 - two months gross wages - whether they are buyer or seller? To very politely and non-confrontationally slip away with an extra ten percent that means $50,000? I've seen people finagled out of forty percent of the purchase price by a sharp or lucky listing agent, and they never did figure it out. I went out and interviewed a few on purpose not too long ago on the subject of their recent purchases. Whether out of ego defense or just sheer ignorance, every single one of them was very happy with the purchase, and they told me they would do the same thing again.

Agents fall into the trap of "go along to get along" as well. It's one thing to be collegial. Two boxers each out to pummel the other into senselessness can be polite. The formality of the old code duello, governing two gentlemen so angry at each other that they're going to shed blood to settle the matter, was faultlessly polite. Often, though, agents go too far and get into you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours mode "You don't beat me up with your buyer, I don't beat you up with mine, and only the buyers get hosed, which we'll make good when they want to sell it with a whole new set of suckers buyers." The whole thing turns into a repeating cycle of suckers who don't know any better.

Well pardon me for not believing that just because you were taken advantage of in the purchase of the property does not entitle you to take advantage of someone else when you sell. Two wrongs still don't make a right, and they never have. The property is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay - if you don't like what is offered, you need to persuade me and them it's worth more - and to do that, you have to risk that I will persuade you it's worth less, because that's what negotiation is. Neither side gets to bully the other, and there are always other properties on the market. The other alternative for the seller is to find a buyer willing to offer more, which brings us back to the illusion of comity again. In this market, that's the real trick, isn't it? It's no coincidence that people find out about issues like this primarily during buyer's markets. When fear and greed are driving prices crazy, a bigger fool is very likely to materialize. When it takes something on the order of a divine command to get someone to be willing to buy, those who are willing to buy have thing much more to their liking.

To give the mass media credit where credit is due, they have managed to cover the basic point that listing agents represent sellers, and have a responsibility to the sellers, not the buyers. Thirty years ago, it's my understanding that Dual Agency was far more common, and the illusion of comity less likely to be dispelled, where now, roughly two-thirds of all transactions at least do have a buyer's agent involved.

But what if that buyer's agent doesn't understand the difference between comity and collegiality? That seems to be the most likely explanation for the situation illustrated in the NY Times article I linked at the beginning of this piece. To be fair, many agents on the listing side suffer this fault as well. The illusion seems to be essentially that as long as we keep it all in the family, nothing will go wrong. Furthermore, the buyers in the article were in exactly the same situation as the ones I interviewed on their overpriced purchases. Fat, dumb, happy - and ignorant, until something went obviously wrong. When prices fell, they went looking for someone else to fix their bad situation upon. And if prices falling was the only concern, neither I nor anyone else should have any sympathy whatsoever for them. But it wasn't just the bad luck of a down market, forseeable or not. This agent not only did a horrible job of discharging his fiduciary duty, he didn't tell his victims about relevant facts which would have made that failure obvious before the transaction was consummated. It's interesting to note that had he admitted his failure, he probably still would have gotten paid, because even if the buyers had moved on, they probably would have kept him - people do the silliest things. However, this was a real estate transaction, where pretty much everything is a matter of public records that are kept forever. The buyers or their lawyer did the work and dug into the records, and predictably, hit paydirt. The agent undertook the duty, should have understood the duty, and basically decided to act like a minimum wage worker with a fax machine despite the fact he was paid $30,000 to guard the buyer's interest. Hello! That commission check is not a reward for a winning personality! Well, I suppose in a market rising 20% per year where it's hard to do anyone lasting damage, it can be, much to the eventual distress of their client. Because no market can sustain that kind of increase over time unless the income of those able to buy the property keeps pace. I don't need to ask for a judge's ruling on that one.

People want their daily routine to be without confrontation, violence, or real argument. It's a temptation to just go along. The little stuff - a dime missing out of your change, having to sit through an extra cycle of the traffic signal - just isn't worth making a big deal out of. It's a path of least resistance thing. But when you accept the responsibility for someone else's interests, it's not your call to make, and we're usually talking months worth of wages, occasionally years. I may advise someone that the deal is about as good as I think we're going to get, but I still have to spell it all out. That's why I make the money I do for the work I do when I'm working on a full service basis - it really is reliably worth several times what I make to my buyer clients. And that's why the agent that just sits in the office with a fax machine can rebate half or two-thirds of that co-operating broker's percentage, and why I am perfectly happy to work on that basis if that's what a particular buyer wants - if my only liability is passing along faxes, I'm making ten times more per hour for less liability. I've written about this before, but pay attention to what you're getting in services as well as what you're spending for them.

The divine only knows how many other people bought property and are now in this situation, and how many lawsuits we're going to see because of it. I have zero sympathy for the agents and brokerages involved. They have richly earned whatever judgments are rendered against them and any license action under taken by the Department of Real Estate. But the consumers involved assisted their own downfall for just taking the obvious, apparently easy path to a transaction, by not taking the time to shop for a good buyer's agent in the first place. If you were getting ready to buy a property, which situation would you rather be in this time next year? Find a dedicated buyer's agent who will guard your interests while explaining what you need to know, or just take the path of least resistance? As of this moment, the folks the New York Times wrote about are out $75,000 in legal fees, and who knows how much in property value, their own time, and the quality of their lives, because they chose the latter path. Nor does anyone know at this point how much of that they're going to get back. But speaking as someone who knows intimately the endpoints and results of both paths, I know which path I'd choose.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on January 24, 2008 7:00 AM.

Real Loans for Real People January 23rd, 2008 was the previous entry in this blog.

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