The Ideal Listing Commission and its Structure: Performance Based

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Here's the real issue about commissions: They need to be structured to incentivize good results - rewarding those agents who do good work, penalizing those who don't. The current structure, where the brokerage gets a flat percentage of official sales price - doesn't really motivate agents to perform. It really doesn't make a huge difference to the brokerage whether a property sells for $500,000 or $400,000. Assuming a 3% commission, they get $15,000 in the first case, while getting $12,000 in the second, despite that any monkey should be able to sell a $500k property for $400k. Basically, they get 80% of the reward for doing nothing, but that failure makes a huge difference for the property owners. If they owe $400,000, that's the difference between going on to their next property with about $60,000 in their pocket or coming up short about $30,000 and having to do a Short Payoff, with all of the resultant consequences to that family's future. Nonetheless, at 3% commission, all this means is the difference between $12,000 to the brokerage and $15,000. There is a dissonance between the interests of the owner, who this makes a $90,000 plus difference to, versus the agent who will still get 80% of the same paycheck if they do nothing but persuade the owner to accept the first lowball offer that comes along.

This dichotomy of interests encourages all sorts of games, from "buying a listing" (leading a homeowner to believe the property will sell for more than it will in order to secure the listing) to failing to negotiate hard to accepting too many listings to be properly serviced. If I can really service six listings, and I take ten, the individual selling prices will suffer while I make more money - ten times $12,000 is more than six times $15,000. Most agents - just like most people - will do what aligns with their interests.

The major alternatives - "net listing", where the consumer "nets" a certain amount and money over that goes to the brokerage, and "Flat fee listing" don't really float my boat either. The first has the advantage of pay for performance and severely discourages agents from over-promising on price; nonetheless the homeowner isn't motivated to maintain the property, and the agent is a little too motivated to wait for a better offer that isn't likely to come. As for the "flat fee listing", all that motivates the listing agent to do is get it sold - never mind the price. Whether the owner makes $60,000 by selling for a great price, or loses $30,000 by not getting so great of a price, that's all the same to the agent. But the owner wants it to make a difference to the agent, because they want that agent to get the best possible price, not just the first offer. As for the "flat fee in advance" listing, why should that brokerage want the property to sell at all? They've made their money already! If the property sells, now they have to do all that work and assume all that additional liability!

What we really want is a fee structure where the agent is motivated to get the highest possible price as soon as possible, the latter being more important than is generally recognized, as carrying costs eat profits very quickly, especially if the family vacates so as to show the property to best advantage and get the best price, or if they've already moved to their new home for whatever reason.

There should be several terms in this equation. It should take the form a+b+c+... For every factor the owner and the agent can agree upon having an effect upon consumer benefit, there should be a term in the compensation equation. Note that if the agent doesn't measure up in some way, any of these terms (except the one for doing the base paperwork) should be able to go negative. It's likely that good agents should be making more for listings than they are, while ineffective bozos quickly go bankrupt.

I'm not concerned with getting paid for a listing that fails to sell. In fact, I consider the concept anathema to a good agent - or any other business. If I do not get the job done, I do not deserve to be paid. Nor does any other agent or any other business. The world doesn't pay off on a good try, and my experience is that listings that don't sell aren't likely to have been a good try. I just visited a listing yesterday, a preview for a prospective client. Showing instructions said "vacant -go" Got there, it's a combo lockbox, but no combo anywhere. Spend half an hour in the front yard on the cellphone trying to get a combo from agent, listing office, number listing office referred me to, the number I was referred to from that, and so on. Finally gave up. How many others like me have there done that? Sounds like an agent who wants both halves of the commission to me, discouraging prospective buyers represented by other agents. Sound like someone you want to work with? Sound like someone you want to reward if you do inadvertently sign up with them?

This doesn't change the fact that if it does sell, there's a given amount of work no matter what the price is, and a given amount of liability. That's just part of being in this business. No matter how careful you are, no matter how good you are, eventually something is going to bite you. It's just a fact of life, and is the reason for E&O insurance. The commission structure needs to recognize this fact of life, or it will fail. But this is not how agents should earn most of their money, and most agents don't do this paperwork themselves, but have assistants paid as little as they can get away with to do it. A flat fee of $1000 is probably about right in California. Enough to pay the rent, the utilities, and the receptionist who actually generates the paperwork off WinForms.

Performance pay is a separate issue, and should be a separate term in the equation. I'll happily pay $20 to make $100 ("here's another $20 if you bring me another $100!"). The most central idea of engaging an agent is to get a better price for the property. My client shouldn't be expected to pay me if I'm not performing services of value - enabling them to get higher price for a quicker sale and less. Any twit should be able to get $300,000 for a property that's worth $400,000. That's not a valuable service, and that's not something an agent should get paid for. If the agent can't get a good enough sale price to meet even a minimum test of benefit for the client, they should lose money. If the sale price is low enough, it should eat up even the base transaction fee, or even send the commission negative - the agent pays the consumer for so badly bungling the transaction. This is nothing unusual in other businesses. Even doing mortgages, I'm perfectly prepared to pay money out of my own pocket if I can't deliver a loan on the terms I quote (for reasons other than client not telling me the whole truth, that is!). The goal is complete consumer satisfaction, and taking money when my client doesn't benefit doesn't help my business in the long term either.

This performance pay should be steeper than current standards. Between ten and twenty percent is about what I think will do the most good. Give the agent a good solid incentive to want a higher price if they think its coming, while still reserving the lion's share of the benefit to the client. If I get Joe a price $20,000 higher than he would have gotten without me, Joe should be quite happy paying me a portion of that money by prior negotiated agreement. I would be ecstatically happy to do so in the reverse situation. And if you wouldn't happily pay it, I suggest you need to be confined because you're not sane. You want the agent to have a personal incentive to make that money for you. But it should be 10-20% of the excess or shortage relative to a base amount - whatever the seller and their listing agent think it could be sold without the agent benefit. It should also be based upon the sale price net of all negotiated "seller givebacks" not related to specific later discoveries (i.e. inspections and requests for repairs based upon them). It an inspection shows unsuspected repairs costing $20,000 are needed, the seller would have to pay that anyway, and it's not the agent's fault that need exists. But the idea is that client benefit should translate into agent commission, and client detriment should translate into money out of that agent's pocket.

There should also be a healthy term built into the equation to reward or penalize the agent for a quicker sale or a slower one. This can be based upon a flat duration, or upon average days on market for properties in the same class. More expensive properties take longer to move - that's just a fact. But this component term should be based upon date of sale, and should be based upon a very high percentage of carrying costs for the property - about thirty to fifty percent, maybe even sixty. I'll happily pay fifty bucks if it means I don't have to pay a hundred! Say average days on market in a given market are roughly 120 from listing to close of escrow, and it costs $4000 per month to carry the property. So for every month above or below four months, at fifty percent carrying costs, the agent gets $2000 more or pays $2000. If it's a six month listing with no offers, the agent pays $4000 at the conclusion. This would force agents to learn what are and are not qualified offers, and force agents to live with the same kinds of tradeoffs that our clients do. No more, "Sorry that escrow didn't close. It happens," when it should be part of our business to know that that offer was pie in the sky in the first place. When it's their own pay being docked, agents will do real investigation.

So far, the structure the ideal listing commission formula looks like this. $X basic commission, plus or minus $Y price performance (based upon 10-20% commission for over- or under-performing a certain price mark, plus or minus $Z time performance. Note that all of these are based upon demonstrable good for the client, and the client ends up with more money in their pocket as a result of every penny that agent is paid in incentive.

There should be one more flat component built in, contingent upon events. You don't want agents discouraging other offers, but you don't want them turning away foolish buyers who don't want a buyer's agent either. If someone is foolish enough to come in unrepresented by an agent, you don't want to shoo them away. So a fee for handling the buyer's end of the transaction is in order if there's no buyer's agent is a good idea - roughly half a percent of the sales price seems about right. Not enough that your agent is turning away offers made through other agents or pretending they don't exist, but enough so that they won't shoo any unrepresented buyers away, either.

None of this has any bearing upon the buyer's agency commission. That's a completely separate issue, and a separate article. But there are two issues you don't want happening to you. You don't want the listing agent discouraging buyer's agents so they can get both halves of the commission, and you don't want them shooing away an unrepresented sucker because it's extra work and liability that they won't get paid for.

Here's the really fun part: all of these terms need to get negotiated with every listing. Furthermore, it would tell a consumer quite a bit about whether they can really expect to get that listing price. I certainly wouldn't take a listing on terms which I wouldn't expect to get paid for, and neither would most agents (unless it's a "Hail Mary" to save their business).

As I've said, good agents would probably make more on this scheme, while poor ones will make considerably less, if they don't end up actually paying the client. You'd have agents advertising their average commission - paying a higher commission would do clients demonstrable good, rather than the standard "statistical studies show" argument NAR wants us to make. "Yes, I happily paid Joe $16,000 because because we agreed anyone could sell it for $250,000 in six months, and he closed a sale for $300,000 in thirty-two days." That's an five percent plus listing commission if the agent can pull it off - far more than any percentage I've ever heard of - that the seller was happy to pay because they demonstrably made more money and spent about $10,000 less in carrying costs! If an agent is that good, they can make that kind of money on every listing, and the clients won't be asking "What do you do to earn that money?" They'll be lining up to pay it! But to earn it, the has to deliver something good for the client, and if he can't help the client, he's going to end up owing the client money. Performance becomes the reason why agents are paid, individual performance for individual clients. It completely kills "buying listings", it completely kills "do nothing" agents as well as clueless ones, it discourages accepting more listings than you can service, it discourages working with more clients than you can handle, and it rewards agents who can actually get the job done better by the only universal measures - more money actually in the client's pockets sooner, with fewer carrying costs. The client benefit always leads to the agent reward - and client detriment always leads to agent penalty.

I have no idea whether this is even legal at this point - but I do intend to investigate. If it is legal, I'm going to start offering it for my listings. It wouldn't require any systemic changes - it all can be written into the listing contract, and it has no effect upon anyone other than seller and listing agent, meaning that if it's legal, there are no other interested parties, and a rational consumer would be as happy as a good agent to sign that listing contract, and happy to pay that commission, because it means they made even more money!

Isn't that what clients want? Isn't that what we should get paid for?

Caveat Emptor.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 4, 2008 7:00 AM.

Unpaid Liens After The Sale, and Subrogation was the previous entry in this blog.

Real Loans For Real People April 4, 2008 is the next entry in this blog.

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