Time for Listing Agents To Earn Their Money

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One of the most common things I'm seeing as I roam about the East County looking for bargains: Agents not doing their jobs.

Now single family detached homes that are priced appropriately are selling, and for appropriate prices, even at forty plus sellers per buyer. Condominiums aren't moving unless they are brand new with lots of glitter, but appropriately priced detached homes are selling. I can find all of the evidence of this you would care to see, because I've already seen it. Willing buyers and willing sellers. It's just that what an appropriate price is has shifted.

Let's change mental gears here for a moment. Here's the real differences between sellers markets and buyers market: Competition. Specifically, which side of the sale is competing. In seller's markets, which is the mindset most sellers and most listing agents are still in, buyers are competing to buy the properties that are for sale. Because of this it is the buyers who have to compete to look attractive - highest offer, quickest offer, fewest contingencies. They have to offer more money or a bigger deposit or something else that the seller needs and nobody else wants to do. With the buyers market we have now, it's the sellers who have to compete, and most of them are not doing it very well.

I want to make very clear that sellers are always competing against other sellers, even in the strongest seller's market possible. But in a buyer's market, it's not enough to have your property "out there." In a seller's market, the prices will often catch up to unrealistic asking prices, given time. In a buyer's market, prices are not increasing, and in this strong of a buyer's market, they are going down. In other words, the longer it takes, the worse you look. You have to have some stand out aspect to your property. It can be physical attractiveness, or it can be low price. Price will get buyers in the door, but it takes a strong agent to sell a fixer to the average buyer, no matter how attractively priced, because the scumbag with the office down the street will show them something a more attractive that they really cannot afford, but with a negative amortization loan, done stated income, they can make it look like they can afford the payments, and a buyer who hasn't had this explained to them ahead of time will think they've just gotten the Taj Mahal for the price of a dirt floor shack, except of course, they haven't. And the other way to stand out is to be priced the same, but more attractive. Don't tell buyers you'll give them a carpet allowance, replace the carpet. Don't tell buyers that all they have to do is spend two months and $20,000 fixing it and they'll have a property worth $20,000 more. That won't wash in a buyer's market, if it ever does. The party who does the work, even of engaging a contractor, gets the payoff. Why should your buyers take the risk and do all that work and spend $20,000 cash that most buyers don't have (and cannot be part of the purchase money loan) when they can go down the street and find all of that work already done for maybe $10,000 more - or even the same price? I assure you it's happening all over San Diego County right now. Some seller just out-competed you for that buyer's business. The only good news for sellers is that most of your competition isn't trying very hard yet, so small bits of competition can look very attractive.

Even lenders are still in denial for their owned properties, and they are the ones with the hardest issues of all. They must get rid of the property. They don't have any choice. Even if it was in the same shape as surrounding properties - which it rarely is - they have a deadline to get rid of that property, and everyone knows it. They also have other constraints that other sellers do not. These make the property worth less, as they rule out certain buyers and make others less willing. In a buyer's market, every buyer counts. I had two clients putting in offers on different lender owned fixers in the last two weeks. One might comp out at the asking price of $450,000 if it wasn't lender owned - which automatically makes it worth about ten percent less than the comps. Add the fact that it's an ugly fixer that would be worth maybe $400,000 at most if it wasn't lender owned, and they will be extremely lucky to see $360,000 out of it. Not supposition, not guesswork, fact. The fact is that there's a beautiful owner occupied comparable on the same block asking $459,000. It's even a bit larger. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the beautiful comparable would take $450,000. Actually, I just checked again and the beautiful comparable is in escrow now. One owner that competed well, one that is not competing well. I told the agent for the lender's fixer this, and she said, "I've been in this business forty years and I know what I can get for that property!" I offered to bet her $10 she couldn't close escrow on it within ninety days for over $390,000 net - essentially a zero risk bet from my point of view. From hers also, if she thought the property was really worth more. She wouldn't take me up on it. Furthermore, she's violating her fiduciary duty by not explaining this to her client. Doesn't matter how long she's been in the business. What matters is whether she reacts well to this market.

About five miles away, another lender owned fixer asking $480,000 because that's what the lender is on the hook for. And you know, it is a better neighborhood. Unfortunately for them, just because you were silly enough to lend them that much two years ago when the market was peaking doesn't mean someone else will pay you that much for it now when the market is in the tank. What matters is the comparable properties, and there's one just around the corner that anyone would rather have listing for $470,000. Above par house for a below par price. Hasn't gone into escrow yet, but it will go fairly soon, unless someone else lists a better property cheaper, and they might even get a little bit of a bidding feud on it, despite the strong buyer's market. This lender owned fixer is in rotten shape and has several issues that turn the average buyer off. I initially thought my client's offer was lower than it should have been, but the more I thought about, the more I think my client came closer to the mark than I did initially. Horrible floor plan, necessitating major work to make it attractive. Yard not suitable for children, despite the fact that there's a school on the same block that the agent is using as a "come-on". These people will be lucky to get anything over $350,000 for it, but the agent sent me a blanket, "Anything less than $400,000 will be rejected without counter," despite the fact that I explained how much work it will be to bring it up to the neighborhood standard. I left her some messages, and she didn't respond. The implication to me was clear: She is in denial, and doesn't want to hear plain facts explained. She's got dozens of REO listings - maybe because she was a great bargainer in seller's markets, maybe because she knows someone, maybe some other unknown factor. She's not dealing well with this market. I don't know if she doesn't know market conditions or just acts like she doesn't. If nobody puts an offer in good enough to get past the blanket rejection, it doesn't make much difference, does it?

This the times when good listing agents really earn their money, as the gentleman listing the $470,000 comparable is. It may not be the great publicity of getting the highest price ever in the neighborhood, but getting it sold quick and for something like asking price in this market is a real achievement. Especially with as many distress situations as are out there - people that have to sell, for one reason or another. (I'm doing very well for my buyer clients, but it's depth-charging fish in a barrel. You really find out how good someone is when the market favors the other side of the transaction.) There are dozens of FSBO and discounter listed properties in the neighborhood, sitting on the market for months. The last six months of Canceled, Withdrawn, and especially the Expired sections of MLS have all that and more, but that one property is going to sell quickly, and sell for a good price. That agent has already earned every penny he will get paid, and it isn't even in escrow yet.

The person who "buys" listings, telling the people that they can get them more money than anyone else, more money than the market will support, had a nice long run. When prices are moving up strongly and there aren't many houses to be had and everyone wants one, well a monkey could sell that house at that price given enough time, because given a few months the market will catch up to all but the most egregious of overpricing.

That is not the way things are now. Buyers have all the power, and they know it, because buyer's specialists like me have told them if nothing else. Inventory is over nine months worth of sales at the current pace, more properties are coming on the market and the worst time of year for sales is approaching. Given these facts, What do you think is going to happen? Where do you think the market is headed, at least in the short term?

(and incidentally, what kind of bargains do you think those few buyers willing to get off the sidelines can drive?)

The longer listing agents wait to talk some sense into their sellers, the worse it's going to be. The more days on market, the further the market falls, the more the sellers will have to move to meet it - and the more unhappy they will be with their listing agents. The agents I respect will refuse a listing rather than ask for a price they aren't going to get except by freak coincidence. They get the same no transaction either way, but if they refuse the listing, they haven't created unreasonable expectations, they haven't failed to live up to those expectations, and neither party has wasted months finding out what that agent should have known in the first place.

Now, I've seen agents telling people that because interest rates have stabilized or even moved down, that will revive the market. This is complete and utter nonsense. I initially wrote something stronger, but my internal censor really wants to keep this family friendly. Yes, payments drive the market - when it's a seller's market. Buyer's markets are driven by the bottom line, because there are lots of sellers and only a few buyers and if this seller won't cut them a deal, the one down the block who is a little more motivated will. When every listing gets three offers within a week and buyers are getting desperate, they'll bite off on another $1000, $5000, or $10000 because "It's only $10 (or $50 or $100) more on the payment. They shouldn't, but they will. When buyers have the power and they know it, they'll tell the sellers to pay that $10 per month, because they're not paying the extra in the first place. It is the sign of someone who does not understand supply and demand to think otherwise, and I certainly wouldn't want that sort of numbwit as my agent. Your agent is your expert. If they are not an expert, why are you hiring them?

Now, looking forward. What's going to break the logjam and get the market moving? Well, absent sudden 25% inflation or something else equally unlikely, the current market has the effect of adding to inventory while those who can afford not to sell drop off. We've had over a year of this now, and a lot of would be sellers have discovered that they don't have to sell. They can stay in the home, or they can rent it out or let some family members use it. The ones left are looking an awful lot like a listing interview I helped another agent with today. Negative Amortization loan, darned near a $4500 real monthly cash flow requirement, equity all gone, and they comparable rentals are all around $1800 per month. There is no way on earth these people are coming away with any money, and the longer it goes the worse it will get, but he said another agent told him they could get an amount that's at least $60,000 over market, just by comparable listing prices, never mind what they're actually going to get an offer for. No, he didn't sign up with us, quite predictably. He's been told what he wants to believe, and this other agent is going to put him another $10,000 or $20,000 in the hole, and nobody would be happier than me if that other agent had a liability for what they're going to do to this client.

So with more people that have stronger reasons to sell, very large inventory with more coming onto the market, and buyers quite aware that they have a level of power they haven't seen in over a decade, what's going to have to happen in order to change this? Basically, that inventory is going to have to clear. It can go one of three ways: the owner finds an acceptable alternative (increasingly unlikely), the owner decides to get serious about competing for a buyer's business, or the lender takes it over. I've mentioned that the lenders are evidently still in denial, but they have legal requirements to dispose of those properties within a certain amount of time. The closer they get to that time expiring, the more desperate they'll get. Once the regulators climb onto that lender's back, they don't climb off cheaply, nor easily. Quite frankly, if I were a major lender, I'd take the entire thing as a write off if someone offered me a dollar any time in the last week, and I think some lender's listing agents are going to have rude awakenings before this is all over. I'm strongly considering sending my agent's resume out to some lenders. But my real point is this: Sellers can compete on the individual level any time they want to, and the sooner they want to, the better off that individual is likely to be. Eventually, the seller's aggregate is going to have to compete much harder for the business of the buyers that are out there, and for the buyers they want to lure off the sidelines. It took a long time to sink in, but the fact has sunken in to prospective buyers that the market got overextended. You can ameliorate your expectations and come out as well as possible, you can hope for the bigger fool of a bygone day, or you can take it off the market, if you have a sustainable situation. There aren't a lot of sellers with sustainable situations out there right now.

Now, one word about rapacious buyers before I go. I know I've said you've got the power. But if you or your agent has done your homework, when you settle upon a property that you're going to make an offer on, that usually means it's more attractive to you for the money than anything else. There is a strong temptation, given the current market, to low-ball just a little too hard. Don't do it. Everything I've said about unrealistic sellers ending up with no transaction applies to you also, albeit less strongly. There is a point below which every seller out there will tell you to take a hike, no matter how desperate they are. If they owe $350,000 altogether on a $450,000 property, sure, they could it to you and be out from under at $350,000, but the vast majority of folks will see that you want every last penny of the equity they thought they had, and they're going to tell you to do something rude, vulgar, and otherwise unprintable in a family friendly format. They will lose the house outright, and take major long term hits to their credit, before they do that. In this case, you end up with what the unrealistic seller gets: Nothing. Exactly how much should you bid? Ah, that's part of the Art of Buyer's Agent-Fu. In other words, it varies, and it takes more information - sometimes a lot more information - before I can give a good answer in a specific situation. The answer is never guaranteed, which is why it's an art, not a science. But I can guarantee you'll find out about the downsides of poisoning the well in this fashion if you step over that ill-defined line.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on January 3, 2008 7:00 AM.

Foreclosures - A Good Investment? was the previous entry in this blog.

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