When Should A Buyer's Agent Ask You To Sign a Contract?
The answer depends upon what they're doing for you.
If you contact them because they're the listing agent for a property, they shouldn't ask you to sign an agreement at all. They have a fiduciary duty to that seller to get the property sold. If the act of asking to sign the agreement causes you not to buy, or not to view the property - something that cannot be known in advance - they have violated fiduciary duty. They've just caused potential buyers to be discouraged. That's as hard a violation as it gets. It doesn't stop a lot of agents, as I've written before about Tina Teaser and Sherrie Shark, but it is a straightforward, no nonsense, no kidding violation of fiduciary duty. You don't want to do Dual Agency anyway, as I've written on many occasions. There are many reasons why you want a buyer's agent representing your interests, especially if it's a new development. There are all sorts of issues that will bite people without buyer's agents ten to a hundred times or more frequently. Issues that arise directly because of Buyer's who don't want buyer's agents are about nine of the top ten reasons why buyers get burned, including the top three or four.
If all an agent is doing is setting up an internet gateway, or search, that's no big deal either. MLS will allow me to have something like 120 client gateways at a time. I've never had half that at any one time. I can't serve that many people. I can only work with an absolute maximum of about six sets of full service buyers at a time - and that's if I don't have any listings. A smart agent will quite happily set up and internet gateway on the speculation of getting a transaction out of it. I'll call or email these folks periodically to see if they want to look at anything, or anything has caught their fancy. I'm not investing any significant time with them; they don't count against my (self-imposed) limit of six clients at a time. In fact, I make a lot more per hour with these clients than any others. Indeed, those of these folk who only want me for the paperwork will ask me for a contract that says I will rebate part of any buyer's agency commission at that point in time. If my liability is less and I'm not putting in anything like the time I need to for a full service client, I'm perfectly willing to work for a lot less money.
If you come to me to put an offer in, I don't need a contract there, either. The purchase contract specifies that I'm the buyer's agent - I don't need another one. Some agents use this moment as an opportunity to "lock up the business" by insisting people who want to make an offer through them sign an exclusive buyer's agency contract, but there is precisely zero need for any kind of agency contract at that point in time. The agency is created for this offer by the purchase contract itself, either explicitly (as in the California standard contract) or implicitly, by agency law. There's absolutely nothing wrong, ever, with an agent who asks you to sign a non-exclusive buyer's agency contract. You can walk away from a non-exclusive agency agreement at any time, but an exclusive agency contract requires that you stick with them even if this one falls apart. Suppose they do something to sabotage the transaction? It happens.
It's a rare client who requires something I have to pay for, but It does happen. Mostly, it's fresh foreclosure lists when it does happen. I haven't been subscribing consistently, as right now the well-aged ones are mostly better, but I know the ones that work for when I do have clients that want them. I can get them starting that day, and going back. I don't charge for this - but that's the only time I ask for an exclusive buyer's agency contract. Not only am I putting out a significant stream of money for their benefit, these people do count against the limit of six clients at a time I can work with - they count double! Working the fresh foreclosure lists is a lot more demanding than anything else I do, because it's all time critical. I can't put it off a day, and often not even an hour, even if there's something else going on with another client - it's got to be done NOW, and there are a lot of misses for every hit. It's kind of like been married to the ultimate high maintenance spouse. If that spouse is not willing to give just as much, nobody rational wants any part of that relationship. If you want an agent to put in that kind of work, you're going to have to commit to that agency relationship.
But the one common time a good agent will ask for a buyer's agency contract is when someone wants a real full service package. Property scouting is far too time intensive to do on speculation that you might want to do the transaction with me after I invest the time to find a real bargain. The agent has to invest usually weeks of time up front, culling out the bad prospects in favor of the better ones. This is, by the way, far and away the hardest work of the transaction, and the work that gets done has most of the liability of the process. A good agent - one who knows how good he or she is - will still only ask for a non-exclusive contract here. I'm perfectly willing to bet that I'm going to find you something you want to buy, and if I don't, then you owe me nothing. I'm eager to make that bet, as a matter of fact. I am not frightened of people who want to work with multiple agents. I know that the vast majority of them won't get out of their offices to go look. But if I do find something you want to buy - I take the time and do the work, and my experience and training spots a superior value - then I'm not going to countenance you then taking the transaction to some other agent. Kind of like a mechanic who gets the problem fixed - and then you decide to take the car to another mechanic. You're still going to have to pay the mechanic who actually solved your problem, and you're still going to have to pay the agent who finds the bargain. You don't think the agent did anything to deserve getting paid? Then don't buy that bargain property they found for you! But if you want to buy the property they found, then there is, by obvious fact, something particularly valuable, both about their property and about their work in finding it! If that were not the case, you wouldn't want to buy it.
So it's reasonable to be asked to sign a non-exclusive buyer's agency contract. As a matter of fact, agents that actually do this work have learned that if they don't get you to sign it, a very large percentage of people will then go to a discounter or rebate house, or even just buy the property without an agent, thinking they'll get a better bargain that way. Not only will you get a better bargain through the agent who understands the property and the market, that agent can then stay in business for the next time you, your friends, or your family wants to buy real estate. That's a win-win. But trying to cut out the agent who found the bargain is a lose-lose. You'll get a cookie cutter transaction from someone who doesn't understand the market and can't bargain as well - you'll end up paying more, and if there comes a point where you should walk away, they won't know it and won't tell you if they do.
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