Beginner's Information: April 2007 Archives


When we sold our home just over a year ago we were talked into selling for a bit more than the original offer so the person could get money back to do renovations... I objected based on percentages and stuff and my realtor and the other realtor agreed to commissions based only on the original agreed to asking price. Then I could not find any other reason to object, after all, if the loan officer was willing to loan that much money, what reason was it for me to say nay?

But now I hear it is illegal to do this? Yikes? Have you heard of this?

What should I do now?

The same thing anyone should do when they discover they may have inadvertently violated the law: Talk to a lawyer.

For all of this article, please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer. I don't even play one on TV. Not in California nor in any other state, and the laws and precedents can be different from place to place. So please double check everything with someone who is a lawyer, and if there is a conflict, follow their advice.

That said, my understanding is that it is not illegal per se for a seller to give a buyer cash back. If I hand you $500,000 cash - or something worth $500,000 to you - and you hand me back title to the property and $50,000 cash, or something worth $50,000 to me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's a free exchange, willingly agreed to by competent legal adults. No harm is done.

Where illegality does come into it is when there is another party to the transaction to whom it is not disclosed. In most transactions, there is a lender involved. That lender is loaning what is usually a very large sum of money based upon the representations which were submitted to them. To intentionally and materially falsify those representations in order to persuade a lender to make a loan they would not otherwise make is a textbook case of FRAUD. Loan fraud is, literally, a federal offense. Go to jail for a while, and be a convicted felon for the rest of your life. Whether it's done by lying (stating something that isn't true) or by omission (failure to inform the lender of relevant facts) does not matter. Furthermore, due to the fact that fraud is a felony, there's a good likelihood of adding conspiracy in there - another federal offense felony.

The potential offense here is in failing to disclose the cash back to all parties in the transaction. If the lender knows about it and issues the loan anyway, there is neither a criminal offense nor a civil tort, at least according to my best understanding.

The reason this happens is because if the cash back is disclosed to the lender, then they will treat the purchase price as being the purchase price less the cash back amount. If the purchase contract says $400,000, but the seller is giving the buyer $20,000 back, it isn't really a $400,000 purchase price, is it? Net to the seller is only $380,000. Net cost to the buyer is only $380,000. That looks like a $380,000 piece of property to me, not a $400,000 one. The lender will take the same point of view, and base all of their calculations off of a $380,000 purchase price.

What that means is that if the buyers are not putting at least $20,000 down, they are over 100 percent of the value of the property. Which means the borrowers loan amount will be reduced accordingly. In fact, as I have said elsewhere, it's better for both the buyer and the seller if they don't do this, because it is in both of their interests to use the lower purchase price.

In short, this whole charade is self-defeating if it is disclosed to the lender, as they will only lend based upon the net purchase price. If it's disclosed to the lender, I cannot think of a reason to do it, because whatever purpose you wanted to achieve with the cash back will be defeated. If the buyer wanted the cash to fix the property, they're either going to have to take it out of their down payment or, dollar for dollar, out of the cash they got back. $400,000 minus $20,000 is $380,000. So if they put $20,000 down, it's doable, but it's a 100% loan, and the net benefit they got out of their down payment is zero. Alternatively, they can just take the $20,000 cash and apply it to the purchase price, over and above the $380,000 the lender will base their loan calculations on. Net benefit to doing all of this: Zero. Furthermore, there are drawbacks for both the seller and the buyer. It actually hurts them to do this if they disclose it to the lender.

What was the purpose of that $20,000 again? If it wasn't a down payment, the buyers will need to come up with $20,000 from somewhere else. If it was a down payment, well, why not do 100% financing in the first place? I assure you that a lender to whom this is disclosed will see it this way. Why not just reduce the official sales price by $20,000, pay less in commissions, lower fees, less capital gains, and have the buyer have a lower sales price, which translates into lower property taxes in a lot of places?

Which is precisely the reason this whole thing does not get disclosed to the lender. The buyers are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They only want to pay $380,000 for the property, and have the lenders think that they paid $400,000. In other words, a material misrepresentation of the situation in order to induce the lender to make a loan they would not otherwise have made.
In short, FRAUD.

It is mostly the buyers, their agents, and loan officers who pull this kind of nonsense. Some of them are thoroughly blatant about soliciting this kind of crime. I don't know what they're thinking, but this is not harmless, this is not minor, and it has been explained to licensees. I can only presume a willful disregard of the rules. It can be difficult for sellers to even know who the buyer's lender is going to be, and it really isn't any of their business. Nonetheless, if the lender can show that sellers were a party to the deception (side agreements aside from the main contract are pretty much proof on the face of it), they can be dragged into the mess. Actually, sellers and their agents can be dragged in quite easily, side agreement or no, but side agreements are the equivalent of a smoking gun still in your hand. So if you're going to insist upon a side agreement, also insist that it be disclosed to the lender and proof that it was disclosed to the lender. Better still to make it all a part of the main contract. Optimum is not to give or ask for cash back in the first place. It sets you up for a criminal fraud investigation, and no matter how innocent you may be in fact, I have it on good authority that they are no fun to endure. If you're a professional, it shows up in records as a complaint against your license, and I'm not even certain it comes off when you're found not culpable.

Caveat Emptor

I've found several of your mortgage articles very helpful, and wondered if you could help me find a way to solve the dilemma I've been presented with by a loan officer at my bank. My husband is Active Duty DELETED, and is getting out in August of this year. We've found a house we want to buy in the state we'll be moving to, but when I went to the bank I was told no lender would touch him with less than a year in the service and no promise in writing of a job in DELETED. He doesn't have any credit history, but mine is fair (I haven't seen my FICO score recently but I do believe it to be over or around 620). I can provide w2s, income tax records, rental history (never a late payment), etc, but I cannot provide proof of the future. Is it true that we're simply out of luck? Where should I turn from here? I'd be very grateful for any information you can provide to me or post on your website, so far this seems to be a unique dilemma...


You have run smack into the question at the heart of every loan: How are you going to pay the money back?

This is understandably a cause for concern for the lenders. They don't want to make loans that aren't going to be paid back, and in order to pay them back, you've got to have or be able to get money from somewhere

What they are looking for is a regular source of income, and you don't apparently have one. You're not going to keep the one you have, and you haven't got a new one.

Now there are loans for people in such situations. They're called NINA or No Ratio loans, because there is no income stated or verified, and no debt to income ratio. However, these loans have lower allowable loan to value ratios (100% financing is tough to find for NINA loans, especially now, and I always did think it was a little over the top) and the rates are higher than full documentation or stated income. Full documentation shows that you have had and are likely to keep a good stable source of income, and documents that you've made enough in the last two years. Stated Income shows that you at least have had the same stable source of income for two years, and usually that you have some money in the bank. NINA loans are driven purely off the Loan to Value situation and your credit score. You are essentially telling the bank, "Here I am! Gotta love me!" You are not providing any kind of documentation that you are able to repay the loan.

Your husband's lack of credit history and the fact that your score is only about 620 do not help. There is no evidence in your email that you are working outside the home.

Now I understand how tempting it is, especially right now, to buy a home. The two of you are getting out and looking to start your post-military life together, and you want to move right in to your new home, and start your new lives all at once.

This is, unfortunately, the kind of desire that quite often leads to disaster. Have you considered what happens if you don't get work? What if you do get it, but delayed several months? Or what if they keep promising to hire you in a few months but it just never quite happens? Meanwhile, that mortgage have to be paid, and you're not likely to be able to pay them working fast food. Meanwhile, the fact that you have this house is tying you to that location and its commuting area, where maybe you could find something that would support your family if you were able to move.

The fact is that buying real estate is something to do when you're certain you are stable enough to make those payments - as in you already have the money coming in, or solid reason to believe it will be coming in. A written offer of employment might be such reason - it isn't always. Cousin Bob saying, "Sure, we'll take you on!" isn't. Even though he's family, Cousin Bob needs to feed his own kids before he feeds you. Friends, old military buddies, former employers - I've seen more than enough examples of people who thought they had a job but didn't than you'd care to know about. You might have a job when they're willing to promise it in writing - they can be held responsible for that in court if they fail to follow through. If they haven't given you such a written guarantee, there is a reason why they haven't.

The one thing that messes up your entire financial situation, for now and for the next several years, worse than anything else is failing to pay a real estate loan on time. I have seen credit scores drop by 150 points for one thirty day late payment. If it gets to the point of a notice of default, or foreclosure, the consequences last for years. Plus you still owe the money, even though you haven't got it.

Once upon a time I wrote an article called, "When You Should Not Buy Real Estate." You fall into the third category I mention, those without a sufficiently stable income. You might also fall into the insufficient time to benefit category. As much as I like putting people into houses and such, the fact of the matter is that you buying a property right now would be very likely to mess you up financially for a very long time. Move into a rental for a little while, unpleasant as it may be. That way, if you have to change your plan, you are free to pick and leave if you need to. Having a property ties you to it and it to your wallet until it is satisfactorily disposed of, something hard to arrange on good terms right now in large portions of the country. On a $500,000 property like most around here, you are risking $500,000. With purchase money loans, there are limits on your liability and the lender's ability to get a deficiency judgment in most states. Nonetheless, to go into a house purchase with the idea of sticking the lender for the difference if it doesn't work out is at least a close cousin to fraud - and it might be fraud itself. This sort of thinking is one of the primary reasons behind the bubble in many parts of the country - and is false to boot. One way or another, you will almost certainly pay for a lender's loss. Since I'm presuming you don't want to do that, better to just not do this until you are a little more stable.

If you could afford to pay cash, this would not be a concern. But if you could afford to pay cash, the loan would not be a stumbling point. Also, some folks might ask, "what if I can make the payments off of a minimum wage job?" which is not the case anywhere in California. To be fair, this does change matters, but be careful that minimum wage jobs are obtainable in your area. If there's 26% unemployment except for four weeks per year, you may not be able to get a minimum wage job, even if you've got the time for it. Furthermore, be careful that you're not biting off more in property taxes than you can chew. California's property taxes are comparatively low. ratewise, which is one reason why clueless renters come here from other states and think, "Wow, they're only paying $4000 per year on a $400,000 property!" and think there's plenty of room to raise property taxes. But somebody making California's minimum wage of $7.25 makes $14,500 - and $4000 is over 27% of that person's gross wages. Senior citizens will lose their homes in droves if the tax rates ever rise - not to mention property values would drop like a rock, thus turning it into a self-defeating measure. Nonetheless, other states do have much lower property values - and much higher property tax rates.

Caveat Emptor

On a regular basis, I see advertisements for real estate offices that say "discount broker - full service".



This is nonsense.



A discount broker has consciously chosen a business model whose economics do not permit them to give the same service provided by a full service provider. Here's the rundown.



A discount broker's listing agreement typically calls for them to receive 1 percent of the sales price, and the "selling broker" to receive the area standard, whether it's 2.5 or 3 percent (perhaps higher in some areas). Some few will reduce the selling broker's commission if it's them.



A Full Service broker's listing agreement typically calls for both sides to get the same 2.5 to 3 percent.



So a discount broker is saving you 1.5 to 2 percent of the cost of selling your home.



But what does a selling broker or agent do?



They put your property on MLS and put a sign in the yard, of course. And when there is an offer, they serve as "go between" on the negotiations.



This is all a discount broker can afford to do. They have expenses of being in business. Rent, machinery, assistant's salary, etcetera. It's not like they get to freely spend every dollar they are paid, and you're not paying them enough that they can do more. Furthermore, their business model requires them to sell more properties than a full service broker, just to stay in service. The difference in their compensation between a $450,000 sale and a $470,000 sale is only $200. Which would you rather have - the high likelihood of a $4500 paycheck in a couple weeks, or the hope of a $4700 paycheck eventually? They're human too. They are much more likely to advise you to take the sale in the hand now even when you would likely do better to wait. Even though it would make a difference of nearly $20,000 to you (and that may double the money you actually get from the sale in many cases), it's not important to them. Full service brokers are hardly perfect either, but they tend to be at least somewhat stronger negotiators on your behalf. At least the $20,000 difference it makes to you means $500 or 600 to them.



A Full Service broker can afford not only the Multiple Listing Service and the sign in the yard, but also ads in the papers and other places that people actually see. MLS is the single best way to sell a house, but hardly the only one. Signs in the yard help me find clients and keep my fellow agents from bugging you for the listing, but rarely actually sell that house. Ads in the correct papers at the correct time are the second best way to sell the property, and full service brokers can not only afford them, but they are motivated to do them by the "carrot" of the doubled commission if they also find the buyer. Open houses also help significantly, and full service brokers and their agents have a business model which makes holding frequent open houses worthwhile and advertising them correctly a paying proposition. Furthermore, you're likely to see better offers off of these sale sources. MLS offers are more likely to be people looking to buy on the cheap, whereas advertisements and open houses target people who want to live in your neighborhood. Once you have an offer, full service types tend to be tougher negotiators. Finally, once you accept an offer, the prospect of getting a larger paycheck motivates them to work harder getting the sale consummated, including being at the property for inspectors so that you don't have to. Some discount houses do a decent job of this last, but full service do better.



Which of these alternatives is better? Well that depends upon the state of the market and your situation. In a white hot market where everything that gets listed gets four offers within three days and bidding wars break out between prospective buyers, a discount broker or agent is likely to be the way to go. If, on the other hand, the market is a much cooler one like most of the country nowadays, and it takes considerable effort to bring in any offer, or if your property has issues that make it undesirable (less 'curb appeal' than average), you're likely to want a full service broker or agent.



Your situation also plays a part. If you don't care if the property sells tomorrow, next year, or at all, a discount broker is more likely to meet your needs. After all, if you don't get a good offer, you'll just keep the property. On the other hand, if you need the property to sell fast, or if you need the offer to meet certain criteria, and most especially if it would be difficult for you to accommodate inspections yourself (for example, if you're now hundreds of miles away), a full service broker or agent is likely to be the choice for you.



I have seen many sales where paying a full service commission would have caused the seller to end up with more money in their pocket. See my article Production Metrics versus Consumer Metrics for more.



Discount Real Estate Brokers should also not be confused with Discount Mortgage Brokers. The "discount" part of a real estate broker's name usually refers only to listing agreements - people who want to sell a property. For customers who approach them as property buyers, these places usually receive the same full commission that anyone else does. There are exceptions where they rebate part or all of their commission for buyers, which should be disclosed and committed to in writing. But typically if you use them to buy, if it's 3% for the full service folks, it'll be 3% for them. Furthermore, I have directly encountered several of them who benefit from the presumption that any loans they provide will be as low cost as their real estate services, and this is far from the case. I've had direct dealings with very well known discount real estate brokerages, and their margin on the loan they got their borrower was much higher than mine - from triple to more than four times what mine would have been. My responsibility was to my clients, so I kept my mouth shut and got my clients their money for the sale of the property. But inwardly I was definitely wincing.



Caveat Emptor


Every day I pass by another real estate office where the agent has a big banner outside "I SOLD 101 HOMES IN 2004!"



This is what is called a production metric, and this one sounds fairly impressive at first glance, right?



The question I want to ask is how good the price was for the seller. Anybody can sell homes quickly by pricing them 10% under the market. Last year's market was a hot seller's market. In some neighborhoods, a monkey could have sold it for $20,000 over the asking price.



Is there a general "did you sell it for a good price?" metric? Not really. The best I can come up with is whether the appraiser has difficulty getting value to support the sales price so the loan can fund. If the appraisal comes in less than the sale price, the loan will be based off of the appraised value, rather than sale value, and so whereas this is always a difficult situation to be in, that your sale in in this situation says that your agent really did get you a good price. It's comparatively rare, and with the buyer's market we have now, practically non-existent.



Production metrics of this nature are easy to game. When I worked in the financial planning business, the metric used was GDC - Gross Dealer Compensation. How much your firm got paid because of your work. Problem was, it always has two components: how much business you really brought in, and how much turnover there is in your clients accounts. I know people who work at the "no load" fund houses, also. That's their metric as well.



It's a good metric to have. Firms that don't get paid enough, don't stay in business. But, as a consumer, it's not precisely the sort of metric you want your financial planner to be judged on, and neither of these components measures anything important to you. Actually, I take that back. If there's a high ratio of turnover in the client account, it's always bad. There's always the temptation to call an existing client and sell them the "hot new investment" than it is to generate new business. If I was shopping for a planner, I'd look for a low ratio of Gross Dealer Compensation to total assets under management.



Matter of fact, there really isn't a metric in the investment world to measure how good an investment person is on any objective scale. What I'd really like to know is something like the return on investment of their lowest 25 percent of clients and highest 25 percent of clients, and compare that market averages and each other. This would tell me things like "How much (of any gain or loss) is the environment of the market, and how much is them?" and "Are they giving consistent advice?" (Low spread = yes, high spread = no). And not one firm I'm aware of computes this information. Not to pull any punches, what they are all set up to reward is sales ability, not investment genius.



The same can be found in real estate. There are any number of production metrics, but none of "Did Agent A's clients get the best price?", or on the purchase side "Did Agent B's clients pay no more than they needed to?"



Nonetheless, here are a couple of other ideas. If everything I sell is bought by real estate agents acting for themselves, it's not a good sign. The average real estate agent is buying property because the price is below market. They think they can re-sell for a profit, and it's usually not a little one. They're probably not interested in the property that doesn't have immediate equity built in.



If everything I sell is back on the market within a few months for a higher price, that's also not a good sign. That also means it was probably priced below the market.



The agent I talked about at the beginning of this article? I picked up a flyer listing about a third of those sales (thirty-two). Then I went to Multiple Listing Service and did a little search. Over half (18) were back on the market within 6 months for much higher prices. Almost forty percent (12) of total number of new owners identified themselves as being owned by licensed real estate agents on the listing. Seven been subsequently resold for at least a 10% profit, closing within three months of the original sale, even in what became a softening market. Only three are still active. The rest have sold, all at a significant profit, even in this market.



So now tell me, does this agent's "101 houses sold" seem like something that would cause you to want to do business with them?



Didn't think so.



Caveat Emptor.

From an email:



I was in the process of buying and selling the house when we saw a FSBO house we liked was for sale. But sale fell through, which is a good thing anyway because of contigency on our house. But I also suspected it failed ecause the seller refuses to pay commission to our buyer agent.



My question is that this real estate agent that would represent us as a listing agent is also a buyers agent. However, I had another friend look into the contract and the buyer's agent agreement is valid until December 31, 2005. So that means anytime we find a house, he will be paid? We do the work to find a house and he gets paid? It didn't strike to me as ethical or fair. It will simply takes us off the real estate market until January 1, 2006 when we can start all over with a clean slate. Correct?



We don't think it should've been in effect until December 31. It should be in effect only for that FSBO house we liked, and if the deal falls through, then his job as a buyer's agent also stops.



Am I dealing with a greedy real estate agent or is this typical?



Can I have one agent to sell our house and another agent that represents us to buy a house?





This depends upon the nature of the agreement you signed with him. I use non-exclusive buyer's agreements, which basically say that if I introduce you to the house, then I get paid when you buy it. Others use exclusive buyer's agreements, where they get paid no matter who finds the house.



If I have an exclusive buyer's agreement with you, then I am going to get paid on any house you buy. If I have an non-exclusive agreement, I will only get paid if I introduce you to the house, and you may have any number of non-exclusive agreements in effect as long as you are careful to inform each agent you are working with that you have previously been introduced to a given property, and therefore, any commission that takes place will be paid to the other agent. All of the forms used by California Association of Realtors state that you will pay a commission to the agent if the seller won't, so an agent has comparatively little stake in which house you buy, as long as you buy one through them. This gives them the largest possible incentive to work on your behalf, without binding you to one particular agent who rather be working with another client who came along with a bigger budget, and therefore a bigger commission in the offing. When looking for homes to show, ethical agents won't seek out a For Sale By Owner (FSBO) for reasons I go into near the bottom of this article (basically, protecting your pocketbook), but these do not apply if you, the client, choose to make an offer on a FSBO.



I suspect that you signed an Exclusive Buyer's Agent Contract with him, something I would not do unless he's providing you with lists of foreclosures or something. Once such a thing is signed, that agent is going to get paid no matter what house you buy during the agreed upon period. I would never agree to either a listing or buyer's agents period longer than six months. This gives the agent plenty of time to sell your house or find you one. So if the agreed upon expiration is December 31, 2005, then if you buy before then, that agent will be paid - out of your pocket, if not the seller's.



There are two competing factors here. One is your desire not to pay for services not provided for this particular transaction, versus the agents desire to get paid if they actually do the work anyway. If they serve as your negotiating agent, or help expedite the transaction by providing services, they are ethically entitled to be paid whether or not they introduced you to the property. On the other hand, if all they do is obstruct, there is neither a legal nor an ethical reason why they should be paid. Depending upon the nature of their obstruction and how much it cost you, you may wish to contact an attorney to recover, or your state's Department of Real Estate



Sad to say, there are agents out there looking to line their own pockets in any way they can. A better agent wants to get paid, but realizes they will make an excellent living - better in the long term - by putting your interests first. Without more evidence, I cannot say for certain, but it appears at first glance that this agent had you sign an exclusive buyer's agent agreement in order to represent you in a transaction you found. I am not aware of any regulation prohibiting this, but it does seem like it's excessive from a neutral viewpoint. It is probably not voidable, however.



There are standard California Association of Realtors (CAR) forms for both exclusive and non-exclusive buyer's agents agreements. Look up at the title of your copy. If it says "Exclusive", you are stuck with this person. If it says "Non-exclusive" you may do business with anyone you please, as it applies only to those properties this particular agent works on. Of course, many agents and brokers use non-standard forms for this, as the standard CAR forms are readable and understandable by anybody. If they want to throw curves, non-standard forms are one of the best ways to do it.



As to whether you are dealing with a greedy agent or if this is typical, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As in all sales occupations, the idea of locking up your business creates powerful motivations for them to have you sign exclusive agreements. There are nonetheless, people such as myself who feel that if I am not helping you, I don't deserve to be paid, and let someone else have a shot. But if I've got an exclusive agreement with you, I should be providing daily foreclosure lists, copies of all new listings, or at least something that goes above and beyond sitting on my hands.



Many agents want you to sign an exclusive buyer's agent agreement before they do anything else. Unless you're getting something special out of it, you shouldn't sign one at all. Offer to sign a non-exclusive buyer's agent agreement - that way you have leverage over them, not them over you. They are motivated to work for you and find you a property that is attractive to you at a price you want to pay, because if they don't, someone else will. Even the best agent can't find stuff that doesn't exist, like a 3 bedroom home in La Jolla for $250,000, but if it does exist I'm going to work to find it first, and I will get paid for it because our agreement says I will get paid if I introduce you to it. If you have signed an exclusive agreement, there is no particular hurry for them to help you.



Finally, listing agreements for sale are (in general) individual agreements for a particular piece of property for a particular period of time. As long as there is no more than one listing agreement per property in effect at a time, you can have any number of different agents for sales, even if you have signed an exclusive buyer's agreement for purchases.



Please let me know if this does or does not answer all of your questions.




For Sale By Owner

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I've been taking a long look at the world of For Sale By Owner and similar concepts lately. With the digital revolution, you always want to be watching the tide to figure out if you're in a business that's about to go the way of milk delivery and diaper service - a few left, but only a tiny fraction of the size they were. Since blogs and online magazines replacing or at least greatly supplementing mainstream journalism is one thing I'm constantly reading about, it might be good information to know if my real career is about to go the way of journalism.



At this point, I'm not worried about needing to change professions. The world of For Sale By Owner (FSBO) does seem to be figuring out the legal ramifications fairly well. There are resources available to get most, if not all, of the legally required disclosures for sellers to avoid future liability to the buyers. I'm going to go on record as believing from the things that I have read that they are not as assiduously practiced as they are by people with real estate agents working for them. Reading the groups, I am seeing all kinds of whining about "Do I have to disclose X?" "Do I really have to disclose Y?" Sometimes, the stuff is minor and inconsequential (leaky toilet, drippy faucet), but a lot of times it's pretty major as well (water leak in/under slab, lead based paint, asbestos, "minor" cracks in the slab). Mind you, I've heard similar whining from real estate agents, particularly new ones. But the real estate agents at least want to be in business (and not sued) for a long professional career with many transactions every year, and so have motivation to disclose everything they find out about, lest one transaction cost them their license. Many individual owners, it seems, even the ones who have been made aware of the legal requirement to disclose, are hoping to get through the one transaction unscathed. After all, they hope they're going to be long gone when the problem crops up. To this, I say, don't count on it, and failure to disclose can often make your legal liability worse than it needs to be.



Needless to say, this is a big "let the buyer beware," when dealing with FSBO properties. You're standing across the table from someone with an immediate motivation to not tell you about whatever metaphorical bodies are buried in the property because once told you may not still want to buy, and most particularly you may wish to reduce your offering price. They have only a hazy motivation to tell you - the indefinite threat of perhaps some legal action sometime in the future. If it doesn't make you uneasy, something is wrong.



One area FSBO is falling short in is picking an appropriate asking price. By the evidence, this is not only lack of information but also homeowner ego speaking here. Some people are not aware of what their home is really worth, or if they are aware then they are ignoring the evidence. Speaking from personal experience in the current market, persuading people to put an appropriate asking price on their property is one of the most difficult parts of the listing interview. They are still mentally in the seller's market we had last year, where they could automatically expect to get more than their neighbor got a couple of months ago. Also significantly, in the long seller's market just concluded, many real estate professionals were making a lot of money buying "For Sale By Owner" properties that were under-priced, and immediately "flipping" them for $30,000 to $50,000 profit, often more. Here's the math for a property that sells for $460,000 but should have sold for $500,000: In the latter case, assuming you pay a standard 5%, you paid a $25,000 commission, split between the buying and selling brokers. But you come away with a net that's $15,000 higher. I personally know of several sales where an agent purchasing a FSBO property then sold it again before escrow was even completed for profit of $75,000 or more.



There is still some of that going on, but the problem right now with most FSBO properties seems to be over-pricing the market, rather than under. Their neighbors house sold for $500,000, and by god they are going to get $525,000. Never mind that the neighbor house has an extra bedroom, an extra bathroom, 800 more square feet, sits on a corner lot that's twice the size, and most importantly, sold when demand was high and supply was low. They are going to get that price, come hell or high water. So they put that out as the asking price, and they wonder why the one or two people to express an interest vanish as soon as they've seen it. The reason is simple: They've priced themselves out of the market. There are better homes to be had for less money. In the past few years, this was a survivable defect. When prices are rising as fast as they were, the market would catch up to anything that was vaguely reasonable. That has changed now. It's bad enough with people who have a real estate agent for their listing. Two of the hardest fights with listing clients in this market are keeping the property priced to the market, and getting them to accept what in today's market is a good offer rather than hoping for last year's "bigger fool." Seems that most people who don't have an agent are just in denial. There's a FSBO two doors down the block from a corner listing we had where I held an open house. Even with me drawing the traffic to him, he didn't get a single offer because his asking price was too high. That's fine if you would be happy and able to stay if the property doesn't sell. If you're not in that situation, it's not.



Another area where FSBO properties are falling short is in marketing. They've got an internet advertisement and a sign in the yard. Maybe they've got an advertisement in the paper (usually the wrong one), and maybe they are holding open houses. All of these are nice. None of these are optimal. First thing is that internet advertisement you have is often on one site where even internet savvy buyers don't necessarily see it. Even if that is free, it's probably worth money to list on a co-operating network of sites. For Sale By Owner signs in the yard are more bait for agents than a prospective buyer. I'll put a sign out there when I get a listing also - it does catch a few people, and a sign with an agent or broker's name on it keeps other agents from bothering you. But it's a long shot at actually selling the property.



There are places to advertise your property to actually sell it, and there are places where agents advertise their business to attract new clients. Most of the FSBO ads I see seem to be in the latter sort of place. I don't think I recall a "For Sale By Owner" ad in the places where I'd expect it to generate significant actual interest in buying that particular property. There are reasons for this. The ones that are likely to generate interest require more lead time. I don't mind spending the money (especially amalgamating my listing with other listings in the office). Even if it sells before then, it helps the office generate more clients we're going to go out and show similar properties with, and I get a certain proportion of those. But For Sale By Owners tend to balk, as they are thinking one transaction. There are also resources that make an Open House effective, but are not cost effective for somebody looking to sell one house.



Number one resource for actually selling the property is the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Put it out there where the agents who the buyers come to will see it. My primary specialty is buyer's agent. I know they are ready, willing and able to buy a property. Do I even take them to look at "For Sale By Owner" properties? Not unless I know ahead of time that the seller will pay my commission. Nor does any other buyer's agent I know of. Before you "For Sale By Owner" types start cursing us, remember first, we've got to make a living so we'll be there for the next buyer. Second, we're actually living up to our fiduciary responsibility when we do this, as I've got their signature on a piece of paper that says they'll pay me if you don't. So unless your property is priced far enough under the market to justify the expense on my client's part, your property is not a contender, and I'd better be prepared to justify the expense on my client's part in court, so your under-pricing the market has got to be by more than my commission. Furthermore, going back to legal requirements, I've got to figure that there is a higher than usual chance that the seller will not make all the necessary disclosures, or perhaps won't tell the complete truth and nothing but the truth on them. This puts my clients, and through them, me in a bind: Sure my clients can and will sue you, but if you don't have the money my insurance is likely going to end up paying out, because even though I've done everything I reasonably could have done, you didn't have an agent.



Given that the Multiple Listing Service is far and away the best tool for selling any given property, if you're not on it, you're missing out on buyers. If you don't have a selling agent's commission listed on Multiple Listing Service that is at least what is specified in the default Buyer's Agent Agreement in your area, you are missing out on buyers. If you don't have an agent at all, you are missing more buyers. Because I, like other buyer's agents, want to be certain we're not wasting our time. I've done a real pre-qualification or even a preapproval on my buyers (if the transaction doesn't actually go through, I don't get paid by anyone). Compare that with Mr. P, whom I sent away the night before I finished this essay. He's out there looking at houses he wants to buy, but the fact is that given the situation he should continue renting. A competent loan officer such as myself who was less ethical could maybe get him the loan anyway, or maybe not. It would certainly be an uphill fight. So he's out low-balling "For Sale By Owner" properties on his own today. The one who's desperate enough to sell at that price needs the transaction done with the first buyer who comes along, and is going to spend at least a month finding out there's only a small chance of the transaction actually going through, a month that they likely don't have to spare. The other For Sale By Owners are likely to get mightily annoyed with him, but he's the customer they're most likely to get.



Caveat Emptor (and Vendor)



Got this search:

"should I get a buyer's agent if I've already found a house"



The answer is almost certainly yes, but I am going to examine both the pros and cons. Full disclosure: This is what I do for a living.



The con is fairly simple. If the seller isn't paying a buyer's agent, they may be willing to sell more cheaply. Then again, they may not. One of the reasons people sell For Sale By Owner is that they're a little too greedy. Even if they have a seller's agent, their listing contract may call for them to keep the buyer's agent's commission if the selling agent sells the property without a buyer's agent involved, and this may cause them to be willing to sell more cheaply. They are under no obligation to do so, however.



Many think the buyer's agent's job is to say, "Here is the living room." That's like saying the president's job is to look impressive. Sure, most presidents do look impressive and I do say "here is the living room," where it's applicable and my buyer may not have figured it out for themselves. Nor is it about looking in the MLS and my connections to find my buyer a property they like. It's not even about making showing appointments with listing agents and occupants.



My real job as a buyer's agent is to find you the best property for your needs under your constraints and get you the best possible bargain on it while making certain that the seller and their agent aren't hiding anything.



Many folks call the seller's agents and use them as their agent. This is what is known as a mistake. That seller's agent has a listing agreement telling them and the seller what the responsibilities of the agent are to the seller. They may or may not sign a representation agreement with the buyer. If they don't sign one, all of their explicit legal responsibilities are to the seller. They are working for the seller, not for you, and they have a contractual obligation to sell that property at the highest possible price. The buyer's interests do not enter into it. Perhaps they do an excellent job of representing your interests anyway, but the odds are against it. Their legal responsibilities are essentially limited to "don't tell any lies and don't practice law without a license." While I was working for the FAA, we found out about an agent who had made a real good living for a while as a seller's agent and how he had done it: By telling everybody he showed a house in the area to that the airport was going to close. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, that airport land was dedicated solely to aviation usages by an Act of Congress, and if the county had wanted to close the airport (they didn't; they were making enough money to pay for every airport in the county there, and socking up a huge fund if they ever figured out something else aviation related to spend it on), they would have had to have paid back tens of billions of dollars to the federal government. We got a call from one of his victims one busy Saturday, who asked, "When is this airport scheduled to close?" We advised him that any proposed closure was news to us, and explained the preceding to the gentleman.



Even if the seller's agent does sign a representation agreement with you, in approximately thirty percent of transactions (from my experience) a situation arises where the best interests of the buyer and the best interests of the seller collide. When this happens, no matter what they do, an agent representing both sides is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. If they do A for the seller, they are violating the best interests of the buyer. If they do B for the buyer, they are violating the best interests of the seller. Here's a hint as to which way they are going to jump in the event of conflicting interests: If they violate the seller's interests, they don't have a transaction at all. If you don't buy, they can always sell it to someone else, but if they lose the listing agreement, they are completely out in the cold.



Before I even point a property out to you, or if you find it surf the internet and ask, "What do you think?" I am evaluating the property for fitness, suitability, affordability, how it stacks up to other properties on offer, how many other properties are on offer, and what the details of the property likely mean in the way of potential problem issues. Just a for minor example, a property built in 1975 has to be concerned about both lead-based paint and asbestos; a property built in 1990 still has those worries but to a far lesser extent, as most building stocks with those concerns were long gone, and a property built in 2005 is more likely built over Jimmy Hoffa's final resting place than a repository for asbestos and lead based paint (it could happen, but the odds are long against it). I am not an inspector or a tester, but I can and do alert my clients to safety and environmental issues, potential repair bills, and all sorts of other items before we've made an initial offer. "Best thing you could do with this building is 'accidentally' run a bulldozer through it," is something I told a client in a few weeks ago, in the context of telling him the value, if any, was the land less the cost of demolition and haul-away. Initially built almost 100 years ago and haphazardly added to as well as obviously not in compliance with code, my client would have been facing the possibility of the county condemning the building as unsafe, and quite frankly, I didn't think anyone would insure it outside FAIR requirements. You're not likely to get that kind of talk from a seller's agent. Instead you get words like "charming," "funky!" and the ever popular phrase "needs a little TLC!"



When it comes to the offer, a seller's agent is looking to get the highest possible price. Period. They don't care if you could buy a better property for less elsewhere, their responsibility to the seller and desire for a larger paycheck are in perfect alignment. A buyer's agent is responsible to you, and whereas buyer's agents get paid based upon the sales price, same as the seller's agents, they at least have a legal responsibility to do their best for you. If there are any complaints, a seller's agent can take refuge in the fact that it is their primary duty to get the best possible terms (i.e. highest possible price) for the property. The buyer's agent has no such shelter. Which would you rather have as your representative?



Buyer's Agents do not usually cost you, the buyer, any extra money. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I've never run into one. Both the Exclusive and Nonexclusive Buyer's Agent Agreements used by California Association of Realtors state, in the absence of additional agreement, that any commissions paid out of the "cooperating brokers" amount on the MLS count against the buyer's obligation to the representing agent. This is typically agreed to be two percent in California, and I don't know the last time I saw a residential MLS listing offering less than that to the buyer's agent. The way the transaction is structured is that the selling agent gets the entire commission, but agrees via the listing contract and MLS to share a certain portion with the buyer's agent, if the buyer has one. Good buyer's agents typically beat the price down significantly more than two percent, especially in the current market. I am equipped to do value battle with that seller's agent in ways that members of the general public are not, and whereas it's true they don't have to negotiate with my clients, they've got to sell the property to someone. It's not like the real estate fairy is magically going to convert this property to cash.



Finally, if there's something you should know about a property, the buyer's agent makes certain the question gets asked and the answer disclosed to you. This eliminates a lot of potential surprises down the road.



In short, buyer's agents are the professional on your side, they typically do not cost you any additional money, they can save you a significant chunk on negotiations, and you're more likely to find out about potential problems with the property if you engage a buyer's agent.



Caveat Emptor.

Copyright 2005-2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

 



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This page is a archive of entries in the Beginner's Information category from April 2007.

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