Real Estate: Giving Someone a Monopoly Does Not Encourage Top Performance
From an e-mail
I've been talking to agents lately and I ask them about the things I've learned about from your site. I thought I would say things like "I want to apply for a backup loan" and they would say "Good idea!" instead of "Why would you do that?" I try to answer the why and next thing you know none of my why's make sense anymore. Here is a summary of that conversation:
Me: Okay, so I need to get a "pre-approval" or "pre-whatever" from a lender so I can put an offer on this house . . . that sounds fair . . . but I want to shop my loan around and in fact, I want to get a backup loan.
Agent: Backup loan? What for?
Me: Because from what I understand what you are told at first isn't what gets delivered and you are at the mercy of the loan officer if you don't have a backup plan
Agent: They have to fill out the form and give you what they promise so you are protected.
Me: So it's the law that they deliver what they fill out on this form?
Agent: No, it's not the law but they wouldn't dare change the terms or I wouldn't recommend them.
Me: Well, most people don't know they're getting screwed until later and most of the ones that notice don't do anything about it.
Agent: Well, if you hire me to be your agent then you should trust my advice . . . otherwise why would you hire me?
A similar conversation ensued when I talked about a "exclusive" vs "non-exclusive" buyer's agent agreement. "There is no such thing as "non-exclusive"". What is the benefit to you? If I have multiple agents then they all work to find me the perfect house and the one that finds me the one I like is the one that get's rewarded. Nope! If you tell an agent you have other agents he won't work with you. Okay, well, I wouldn't tell the other agents. But any good agent is going to make you sign an exclusive agreement.
Anyway, the sales techniques here are right up there with car salesman.
Let me ask you about your experience with monopolies? Your electric provider, mass transit provider, cable provider - do they furnish top notch customer service? Do you think someone might be able to do better, cheaper? Quite likely, because monopoly situations encourage rent seeking behavior. Monopolies are the classic example of rent seeking - do business with them, or not at all, meaning you're stuck with whatever service they choose to give you at whatever price. Why in the world would you do that to yourself?
Only two possible reasons: You don't have a choice or you don't know any better. You do have a choice, no matter how much various people may choose to pretend you don't. I certainly haven't noticed any shortage of real estate agents or loan officers. There's something like 7500 licensees in San Diego County alone. That leaves you don't know any better. It doesn't matter whether it's through ignorance or not following through on the knowledge.
In fact, if you think about it, someone who insists upon exclusive rights to your business is telling you they're worried about comparisons to other professionals. They're telling you they're afraid they can't compete and they're not willing to try. Does this sound like someone who's likely to give you the best service? Someone who's not willing to compete?
Just because an exclusive agreement isn't in the consumer's interest doesn't mean that it isn't very desirable for agents. In fact, most agents take a lot of classes in learning how to lock your business up and cut out the competition before anyone else gets to the starting line - several times more training than the average agent ever takes in learning how to actually give good service and good value to their clients. Look at the average agent symposium sometime. There will be easily ten times more offerings in how to cut out the competition than there will be in how to get your clients the best value. If the average agent doesn't offer a non-exclusve buyer's agency contract, they can pretend such a thing doesn't exist. It does exist; it's available in every state. In California, it's form BBNE in WinForms, the standard computerized package. But if they can persuade you to sign an exclusive contract, they're guaranteed to get whatever buyer's agency commission is due - before they've done any real work, before they've demonstrated that they are really going to guard your interests at all. I've written about the drawbacks of an exclusive agreement before, and even given examples in shopping for an agent, and the games that get played with consumers by agents. If you've signed an exclusive agreement, you're stuck. If you don't, you're not - indeed you keep far more control in your own hands.
Some agents will try to sidetrack you with an exclusive agreement "but you can fire me any time you want!" The first question is where is that written into the agreement? Show me please. In fact, the standard exclusive contract is written to be very difficult to break for any reason. The second question is that even if it is written in, how is that not functionally equivalent to a non-exclusive contract? The answer to that is they've still got your business locked up until and unless they make an obvious blunder. As long as they don't make that obvious blunder, they're still in the driver's seat. But this doesn't mean that they're a good agent - you have no standards for comparison. Indeed, you are agreeing not to acquire any standards for comparison. Matter of fact, they can be the worst excuse for an agent ever and still not make any mistakes that most people are going to fire them for. Plead for one more chance, and most people will give it - dozens of times. The bottom line is that they still avoid any chance at having to compete.
Now just because your agreement is non-exclusive doesn't mean you have to go find other agents. At least half of my clients never talk to another agent. But they have the option of doing so, and that knowledge is one of the things that motivates me to do the best job I can for my clients, and why I keep the list of clients I'm working with at any time short enough so that I'm certain I can handle them all with no deterioration of service. If I don't, they can fire me and find another agent as easy as crossing the street. That motivation just isn't there if you give someone an exclusive agreement. Do you want the agent whose motivation is to concentrate on giving a few clients the best job they can possibly give, or do you want the agent who's a half-notch above getting fired, whose motivations are to lock up as many clients as possible, secure in the knowledge that none of those clients are likely to actually fire them? And if they're confident they can give you such a terrific job, why are they requiring an exclusive agreement? If they're really that good, they should be eager to compete. That;s the best confirmation of their abilities possible - the fact that someone else tried and couldn't do it! As I've said, most of my clients see the job I do and never talk to another agent, and most of those who do end up telling me how much I shine by comparison. But it takes confidence in my own ability to offer that non-exclusive agreement. The ones who won't are telling you that they don't have that confidence. Do you think there might possibly be a reason for that lack of confidence?
Probably the largest number of agents and loan officers compete by being what I call "Social predators" Involved in Boy Scouts, Soccer, Little League, the church, PTA, whatever. They try to make those they come into contact feel obligated to do business with them, because they are after all, a good guy (or girl), they help the cause, etcetera. Surely such a person is worthy of trust? Surely they will treat you right? They lock up the business with an exclusive agreement or a large deposit, raising the barrier to competition as high as they can. This effectively sets you up for the kill. My personal experience leads me to believe that such agents and loan officers are responsible for a truly outsized proportion of the people who are losing their property to foreclosure in the current crisis. It seems like everyone I come across who's in the process of foreclosure has a "social predator" story to tell. Most of them have no clue what happened until I dissect the entire process and show them that their "little boy's wonderful scoutmaster" bent them over and took advantage. The thought process is natural, but the conclusion does not follow from the premise - a thing most people don't understand until how it bit them (past tense) is plainer than the nose on their face.
Ronald Reagan loved a very applicable phrase: Trust but Verify. It's not accident that this principle, which he applied as President, served him and the country very well. On a more personal level, you are willing to trust agents with your business (otherwise you wouldn't be talking to them), but you want to verify that they're earning it. You're not willing to take trust to the level of the spouse who's clueless about their spouse telling them they worked late when they come home at 3AM six nights in a row smelling like someone else's perfume or cologne. This is the best function of a non-exclusive buyer's agency agreement. This means you still have the right to go out and get the only valid standard of comparison: Another agent who has the same opportunity to do the same job as them.
In your situation, I'd be very blunt: "What you're telling me about requiring an exclusive contract makes me believe that you know very well you don't measure up to a good standard. In fact, the harder you argue for an exclusive agreement, the less willing I am to believe you are worthy of one. I'll willingly give you a chance to earn my business with a non-exclusive agreement, but I'm not going to sign any exclusive agreements with anyone. Since you're not willing to sign a non-exclusive agreement, I am wasting my time. Good-bye." They have as long as it takes you to get to the door to change their mind. Walk out and never look back - find someone else who will offer non-exclusive agreement. In fact, taking this stand in your self defense is the first and most critical point of Shopping for a good buyer's agent. The standard non-exclusive contract is truly a bet you cannot lose as a consumer. There literally is no risk. Doesn't matter if they're a freshly minted licensee who's never done a transaction in their life (How often do you hear that from someone who actually has significant experience?). Go ahead and sign a non-exclusive agreement, and the worst that can happen is they don't get the job done. You're still free to use anyone else who does. You have lost exactly nothing - as a matter of fact, both you and that agent are mathematically, provably ahead for having signed that non-exclusive contract! Hiring them thus can only increase the probability function in your favor! This improvement may be marginal or even zero, but so long as you do your due diligence it cannot be negative.
The same thing applies to the loan officer an agent recommends. The reason they're choosing that loan officer has nothing to do with the best choice for you and everything to do with the best choice for them. That's a loan officer they trust not to screw up the transaction by telling you, "You know, I'm not certain you can really afford this property." That's the loan officer they trust, by hook or by crook, to have a loan ready at the close of escrow, no matter what it takes, so that that agent can get paid. Has nothing to do with how good their loans are, how competitive they are, or any other advantage to you - only that they trust that loan officer to insure their paycheck. That's what the agent is really telling you. The loan officer may be really good, and very competitive on price. Then again, they may not, and the one thing I'd bet significant money on, sight unseen, is that they will never tell you that maybe you're stretching beyond your means - that agent will never send them another client if they do! The only agents I'm certain could tell the difference between good loans and loan officers and bad ones if it bit them are the ones who are also loan officers themselves.
If an agent is recommending a loan officer on the basis of "This person wouldn't dare cheat my clients!", ask sk them for a copy of the initial MLDS (California) or Good Faith Estimate (the other 49 states) and a copy of the final HUD 1 for that loan officer's last five transactions with their client. (sarcasm on) What, they don't have them? What a surprise (end sarcasm). But if they don't, how can they possibly know whether that loan officer does or does not quote accurately? You've just asked for the only possible evidence, and they don't have it! Nor does this cover how well they compete on price, and as long as the terms are the same and the rate/cost tradeoff is better, a loan is a loan is a loan. There is no reason not to apply for multiple loans and see which loan officer actually has the best loan ready to go at signing time. In fact, to do anything else is trusting someone without verifying - you have no effective control upon their behavior at the end of the transaction. Maybe they'll treat you right, even without such. But loan officers can make more money very easily by adding a few hundred dollars here, a half a point there, and if you're the only loan you signed up for, your choice is sign their paperwork and take what they offer you or don't. As I said in Getting a Loan Provider to Agree to be a Backup Loan, if you apply for two or more loans, you can explain to both providers how they shouldn't be worried about the other one if they're telling the truth, so the only reason for them not to cooperate is if they're not telling the truth. "Trust but verify". It really is a simple, powerful formula, but to use it effectively you've got to understand that it's not words that are important, but actions.
You're right that these sales techniques have a lot in common with used-car sales. Everybody in any sales business wants to avoid competing if they can - it means they don't have to work as hard, and get higher profit margins. Consumers, for their part, need to learn to understand what actions mean, and that actions are important, not words. That's part of the reason why I'm writing this article.
Sales persons, properly handled, are your best friends in the whole world. Nobody solves your problems as well as an expert with the motivation of getting paid for their trouble, and there always seem to be problems that lay people don't realize exist until they're bitten, which is almost always far too late to avoid all the damage that's coming down the pike. Kind of like having a Terminator after you. If you don't have your own very special protector, they're going to get you. I don't like having my clients bitten - not tomorrow, not next year, not ever. One bad transaction can ruin you as an agent or a loan officer, and I intend to be doing this for the rest of my life. So I'll do everything I can to keep it from happening before it happens, and you want someone just as dedicated working for you. The only way to be certain is to watch them in action over time. But if they're asking you to sign that Exclusive Agreement beforehand, how in the heck can you possibly have the knowledge of their business practices to give it to them?
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