Beginner's Information: March 2008 Archives

One of the things that sticks out about buyer's markets is that there are two sorts of listings: Those who are willing to do whatever it takes, anything it takes, to get the property sold, and the other who apparently just likes having the property in MLS.

Many listing agents have made a habit of telling people that they can get more for the property than the next person over. Well, some can. But there really is no secret as to how they do it. They have the discussion to price the property correctly in the first place, and if the listing price isn't appropriate, they will not take the listing. I don't list many, but if someone is insistent upon a listing price that is too high for the market, I am better off not being part of that listing. Even if it does sell after two major price reductions for less than I likely would have gotten straight off, that client is going to be angry, not happy, and tell everyone it's my fault.

Indeed, if there ever is a market where listing agents can reliably get more than the value of the property, something I am pretty sure doesn't exist, the buyer's market is the furthest thing from it. What a good listing agent can get you is the full value of the property, but that's a very different value, and a very different mindset, in a buyer's market than it is in the seller's market San Diego had for most of the last decade.

Now, you need to ask yourself, "Why is this a buyer's market?" The answer is as simple as supply and demand. High supply and Low demand. Many people who want to sell, not very many at all who want to buy. Result: Those few buyers who are willing to be out there have all of the power. If this particular seller won't take the offer they make, the next one over, or the one after that, will.

Now most sellers would agree that this is a challenge. Buyers think it's great. This last week, sellers still outnumbered buyers almost thirty to one. Inventory is off from peak and buyer numbers are up, but the statistics are still not favorable to sellers.

What's a seller to do about this? Quite simply, ask yourself if you have to sell or if you have other options. If you have to sell, make up your mind that you are going to do whatever is required to make a transaction happen. This can be a lot: cleaning your house up, making it attractive, pricing it better than the competition, and not kidding yourself. The offer you are going to get still won't be anything like what you might have gotten three years ago, but three years ago the ratio of sellers to buyers was about three to one, often less. You will be much more likely to get an offer, and remember, you decided that you need to sell.

Lest you think you aren't competing with other sellers, go find a real expert in your area to help you right now. In the entire history of the United States real estate market, no buyer ever bought a property because it was that seller's "turn." You are always competing against other sellers, but this market makes it far more obvious. Buyers make offers on your property because something is attractive to them where other properties are not. This can be features, this can be location, this can be willingness to do what other sellers are not, or this can be price. Usually it's a mixture. In this current market - remember that ratio of sellers to buyers - it's likely to be all four in great heaping gobs.

If you don't need to sell, get it off the market! If you are not going to accept a much lower price than it might have gotten even eighteen months ago, you are wasting your time. Those few buyers who are willing to get off the sidelines are bottom feeding and bargain hunting. If you have a better choice than feeding the bargain hunting and bottom feeding buyers, take it. If your property sits on the market, then when the market does turn back, the fact it sat on the market is going to count heavily against you. The agents in the area know that it sat, believe me.

If you are not willing to do what it takes to sell, get it off the market. Not only are you sabotaging your own future plans, you are adding to all of the excess inventory that's out there as a glut on the market. Indeed, for every additional property for sale in the neighborhood, people who are willing to do what it takes to sell the property are going to have to do a little bit more. Most often, this means "settle for a lower price than they might have gotten otherwise." Just the fact that there are 238 three bedroom houses listed in the same zip code gives buyers substantially more leverage than if there were fifty, or twenty. This drops the market that you are hoping you can use to sell the property two or five years from now, and gives it further to come back, which means that the pricing level will be lower when you go to sell yours for real. Individually, they may not make much of a difference, but collectively, they certainly do.

If you do need to sell, get all traces of the seller's market we had for most of the last ten years out of your head. This isn't about pride, this isn't about profit, this isn't even about breaking even or paying off the lender completely. This is about stopping the damage. We have established that if you do not need to sell, you shouldn't have your property on the market in this environment. But you do need to sell, which makes the alternative of taking less than you think the property might be worth better than the alternative of losing it completely. And make no mistake, for as long as this market lasts, that is the attitude I (or any good buyer's agent) am cultivating in my buyer clients. If you won't sell, I'll talk to your lender after the foreclosure - if someone else has not already sold to me by then. Right now in San Diego, the only power sellers really have is the power to say, "no," and if your alternative is losing the property to foreclosure, a rational, informed person will pay thousands of dollars out of their own pocket instead, accepting offers way below what they owe on the property. And if that or something similar is not your alternative, then why in the heck is your property on the market? Why are you contributing to the apparent glut of supply to no good purpose?

Caveat Emptor

Pro-rated Property Taxes

| | Comments (0)
my prorated property taxes came were paid at closing but now I'm getting a delinquent tax bill

You mean they were supposed to be paid at closing.

There are two major possibilities:<

1) They were not, in fact, paid

2) They were paid, but were miscredited, or they were properly credited, but your county goofed anyway.

Look at your HUD 1 form. Lines 106 and 107 are for buyers reimbursing sellers for taxes. Lines 210 and 211 are for tax liabilities incurred but not yet paid. Line 1004 is taxes and assessment reserves, and I've also seen extra lines in section 900 used. If it is listed as paid, contact your escrow company to determine if it was paid in truth. Sometimes the escrow company messes up. If the escrow company tells you that taxes were paid, double check with the county. Sometimes the payment was misapplied to the wrong parcel, sometimes it was correctly credited, but due to the fact that government bureaucrats get paid the same whether the job is correctly done or not, they just aren't up to date. Sometimes time will repair the problem, but it's not something to count on. Get a statement from the escrow officer that it was paid, receipt number this or in conjunction with escrow number so and so, thus and such date, in the amount of $X. In some cases, you may have to get a copy of the canceled check to prove that it was paid to the county's satisfaction.

Do not allow this problem to sit. It will only get worse, and you could find yourself facing tax liens, tax foreclosure, or a situation where the lender then pays the taxes to protect their interest, and follows up by presenting a bill to you. They'll charge you interest for any amount they pay in defense of your interests and theirs, plus a fee for the trouble they were put to. I've never had it happen to me or a client, so I don't know how high the interest is, but it's not cheap.

Property tax liens take first priority over basically everything. It takes a while - potentially years in California - before they can condemn the property for unpaid property taxes, but once they do start the process, all of the protections you have against lender foreclosure are much weaker against property tax foreclosures. Lenders are therefore understandably nervous about delinquent property taxes, and they typically want to take action pretty quickly. Don't let it get to that stage. If you have to, you're better off paying them a second time and applying for a refund than letting it get to the point where the lender feels obliged to step in to protect their interests.

Caveat Emptor

I just picked a random ZIP code in my local MLS, and out of the first twenty listings I came to, ten had explicit violations of one or more of the sections of RESPA regarding steering right there in the listing. This did not include lender-owned real estate, which has its own set of issues in this regard. All I did was count two common violations.

The first was "Buyer must be prequalified by X", where X was some loan originator. In a way, I understand this. Forty percent plus of all escrows locally are falling out, and the vast majority of them because of unqualified buyers who cannot qualify for the loan. This wastes a minimum of about a month, plus when it goes Active again, it looks like it's been on the market for longer than it really has. Bad thing all around for the seller. The justification used is that for some reason, the agent trusts that particular loan officer to render a real opinion. Perhaps occasionally, a lender owned property will even try to require prospective buyers to prequalify through them. While it might seem reasonable, here's some relevant law from RESPA

Business referrals

No person shall give and no person shall accept any fee, kickback, or thing of value pursuant to any agreement or understanding, oral or otherwise, that business incident to or a part of a real estate settlement service involving a federally related mortgage loan shall be referred to any person.

They mean that "any thing of value" bit, if you peruse down the the definitions. It's defined very literally by about a paragraph of text that boils down to four words: ANY thing of value. You refer business to them, they give you approvals you can count on. It doesn't matter if you require "only" a prequalification - they now have the prospective borrowers information, including credit information and home telephone number. This means that even if there's no application fee, no deposit, not even a credit report fee, you have still given that loan originator a "business relationship" with the borrower. That makes for legal consideration on both sides of the equation, and both the originator and agent are guilty. This is just as hard a violation of RESPA as a fraudulent HUD 1 form. It hasn't been enforced much of late, but I believe that the State of California could probably put over half the brokerages and lenders in the state out of business over loan steering. I only counted four out of twenty actual explicit requirements to pre-qualify with a specific lender this time, while the last time I conducted the exercise it was eight. Maybe it's getting better, maybe it's not, but twenty percent of a representative sample of listings having an explicit violation of the law right there for everyone to see is not something agents should be proud of. When it comes to holding someone responsible for their representations, pre-approval doesn't mean anything. If you're a real estate agent who doesn't do loans, talk to a lender you trust about necessary information to determine whether a loan is doable. I've created a special form that I send to agents making offers on my listings. Nothing in the way of personally identifiable information except the borrower's name - no social, no contact information - but it does have credit score, late payment history, income information, etcetera, to the point where I can tell whether or not I could do the loan on the terms necessary to make the transaction fly. Furthermore, it does require the loan officer to sign a representation that they aware that a decision as to whether or not to grant credit - in the form of agreeing to enter escrow - will be made based upon this information. They don't need to make representations of opinion - all I'm asking for is verified facts. Armed with those facts, I have a pretty darned good idea if this borrower is capable of consummating the transaction. Doesn't tell me whether they will or not, but that's not what wanting a prequalification or preapproval is about.

But when I'm a buyer's agent, which is most often, I simply ignore these requests that violate the law. Furthermore, this puts me in rather a strong negotiating position if the listing agent repeats the request or brings it to my attention. Now they've compromised their client's interests, by giving the other side (me) a concrete legal issue to aim at them. Game, set, match. As I said, four out of the first twenty listings in a random ZIP code explicitly violated RESPA right in the listing, without counting the ones that say "Contact us prior to making an offer," where that's usually what they want. Four out of twenty where there is precisely zero doubt that they're violating the law.

Actually, that wasn't the most common violation, either. That goes to "Seller to select all services," at six out of twenty - thirty percent. Also from RESPA:

Sec. 2608. Title companies; liability of seller

(a) No seller of property that will be purchased with the assistance of a federally related mortgage loan shall require directly or indirectly, as a condition to selling the property, that title insurance covering the property be purchased by the buyer from any particular title company.

(b) Any seller who violates the provisions of subsection (a) of this section shall be liable to the buyer in an amount equal to three times all charges made for such title insurance.

Even though in California the seller usually buys the title insurance for the buyer, I've had more than one lawyer tell me that failure to negotiate is construed as a violation of RESPA by the courts. It works like this: In the case of simultaneous owner's and lender's policies from the same company, there's a discount for the lender's policy, essentially requiring the lender's title insurer to be the same as the owner's title insurer. Since this happens on every purchase transaction where there's a loan, you have the requirement to negotiate. Seller and buyer negotiate until they come to a mutually acceptable compromise. Neither one of them gets to dictate to the other. Furthermore, failure to consider the best bargain for the client is a violation of fiduciary duty for the agent. It's not the sellers who want to choose services. Other than corporate owned property - lender owned and corporate relocation properties - there just isn't a reason for many sellers to care. The only reason is if they're employed by a title or escrow company, and their fringe benefits include free title or a free escrow. I've seen that once in the last four years.

What's really going on here is title insurance companies providing free farms, or subsidized mailings, or any number of other freebies they use to attract real estate agent business. Or the brokerage has a captive escrow company they're required by the broker to use, despite the fact that failing to negotiate this point is a violation of the law. I've had agents or their idiot assistants tell me that they get "discounted service" even when I've got a lower quote from the competition. Furthermore, the interplay of title company and escrow company is important. If there's no common ownership between the two, the title company will charge a "subescrow fee" that I've seen be anywhere from $100 to $450 (usually about $350) because they're the ones who are actually set up to accomplish some things that are legally the escrow company's responsibility. For instance, recording. What this means is that even if the actual quote is lower from unaffiliated companies, the clients are quite likely better off choosing escrow and title companies where there is common ownership, even if the quote is a little higher - because there won't be subescrow fees, and quite likely not messenger fees between title and escrow. To paraphrase an common saying, $350 is $350, even when there's a half million dollar deal happening. Make certain you get a guaranteed total fee for services quote based upon the actual escrow and title relationship to each other. I'm quite sorry for independent escrow companies - I have no reason to believe they're any less competent or charge anything more than title company affiliated ones - but they're competing at a disadvantage because the title company wants to charge more to work with them, and this is quite reasonable given that they will be performing services that are the escrow company's responsibility. They waive subescrow for their own affiliated companies simply because, one way or another, they're responsible for the work.

I've also heard all sorts of nonsense about competence of title and escrow officers. The fact is that most of them are perfectly up to your transaction. Even corporate owned relocation properties, where there may be some complex tax issues, aren't significantly more complex than your garden variety individual buyer - individual seller, and don't get me started about 1031 exchanges. Any good agent's agenda is very simple - competent service providers for the lowest total price. The vast majority of the time, this means a title and escrow company with common ownership. Note that I don't care which title company and affiliated escrow company. I'll do business with anyone that hasn't hosed a client, and even if they have, I'll simply require a different title or escrow officer - just because John has a recto-cranial inversion doesn't mean Jane, another officer at the same company, does. Even lender-owned property will negotiate service providers if you approach it right - which is how it should be. Oh, you'll end up with their choice of providers most of the time, but you can get them to pay for subescrow and messenger fees, and quite likely an allowance to meet your lowest quote elsewhere - meaning your client doesn't really have a reason to care. Essentially the same product at the same price to them. Why would most clients raise a fuss about that? Indeed, the only thing worthy of most clients raising a fuss would be if you didn't negotiate for that. Indeed, explaining the whys and wherefores of the whole service provider quandry has gotten me a seller or two working at cross-purposes to their listing agent, who had someone all picked out without informing their seller. When this happens, my buyer wins. How could I not use every weapon at my disposal?

The intent of Congress on steering is quite clearly spelled out:

TITLE 12--BANKS AND BANKING
CHAPTER 27--REAL ESTATE SETTLEMENT PROCEDURES
Sec. 2601. Congressional findings and purpose
(a) The Congress finds that significant reforms in the real estate settlement process are needed to insure that consumers throughout the Nation are provided with greater and more timely information on the nature and costs of the settlement process and are protected from unnecessarily high settlement charges caused by certain abusive practices that have developed in some areas of the country. The Congress also finds that it has been over two years since the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the Administrator of Veterans' Affairs submitted their joint report to the Congress on ``Mortgage Settlement Costs'' and that the time has come for the recommendations for Federal legislative action made in that report to be implemented.
(b) It is the purpose of this chapter to effect certain changes in the settlement process for residential real estate that will result--
(1) in more effective advance disclosure to home buyers and sellers of settlement costs;
(2) in the elimination of kickbacks or referral fees that tend to increase unnecessarily the costs of certain settlement services...
(emphasis mine)


Whatever forms those kickbacks and referral fees may take, if your agent is violating this, do you really want to do business with them?

Caveat Emptor


There are two sorts of buyer's agency contracts, exclusive and non-exclusive. Note that this has nothing to do with Exclusive Buyer's Agents, who do not accept property for listing. I disagree with their reasoning on the virtues of doing so, but I can see a reasonable person making the arguments that they do. Despite the fact that ninety percent of my business is as a buyer's agent, I have no plans to become an Exclusive Buyer's Agent. The line their organization takes is that agents tend to work on behalf of their listing clients, neglecting buyers even when they're representing them as well. To be fair, I do see that happening in the industry. The solution is quite simply to refuse Dual Agency. I get referral business by making each individual client as happy as I possibly can, not by hosing one class of clients so that I can make another that little bit happier. I'm only on one side of a given transaction, and my clients will tell you I'm not in the least hesitant to advise them if something isn't quite like I would like it to be. Furthermore, I learn things by listing properties - things that I can turn around and use to help my buyer clients - just as I learn things by representing buyers that I can turn around and use to help my next set of listing clients. Without that feedback between the two very different tasks of representing buyers and representing sellers, I'd be a much weaker agent, whichever side of the transaction I was on.

Now some states permit agents to call themselves "exclusive buyer's agents" if they work with exclusive buyers agency contracts. An exclusive buyer's agency contract, however, does not mean that all of that agent's business comes from representing buyers. It means that they require buyers to sign a contract that essentially prevents those buyers from working with another agent. An exclusive buyer's agency contract says that no matter which property these buyers buy during the period it runs, that agent will get paid. End of discussion. Since the buyers accept responsibility to pay the agent if the seller or someone else doesn't, which isn't a problem if there's only one buyer's agent, because it is in the seller's interest to pay the buyer's agent. However, what the seller pays only covers one agent, so if there's a second agent involved, the buyer has to pay that second agent out of their own pocket. This essentially constrains them to work with the agent they've given that exclusive contract to. Many very weak agents require exclusive buyer's agency contracts because they're scared of the competition - they know they don't measure up, so they cut the competition out by binding them with an exclusive agency contract. They've got good advertising campaigns in effect, good networks of people, whatever - the essential element in their strategy is that the prospective buyers talk to them first, before those buyers understand what's really going on. Not to mention that this does, in some states, allow them to designate themselves as "Exclusive Buyer's Agents." This is confusing nonsense, and not beneficial for consumers.

There is, however, an alternative. This is the Non-Exclusive Buyer's Agency Contract. This is a standard contract, available in all fifty states through the work of the Association of Realtors (self-interested dinosaur controlled by major chains though the organization is, it does do some beneficial work). In California, it's put out as a part of the WinForms program of standard forms, and I suspect the same is true elsewhere. When you strip it of all the legalese, what it says is that If you buy a property that agent introduces you to, then that agent will be entitled to a buyer's agency commission. Notice that construction, straight out of you high school geometry or logic course? If A then B. If not A, then nothing. In other words, if some other agent introduces you to the property you buy, you owe this agent nothing.

Consumers can be working with literally any number of prospective buyer's agents through non-exclusive contracts, and be perfectly safe. There's only going to be one commission due - to the agent who actually gets the job done. Because of this, consumers can sign one of these and start working with any agent, safe in the knowledge they're not stuck with that agent if they find out they're not doing the job they should. The only thing consumers are giving up is the ability to cut out the agent who actually finds the property they want to buy at a price they're willing to pay. Since this is the hardest, most difficult, most time consuming and most liability ridden part of a buyer's agency job, this is only reasonable. You don't go down to the premium mechanic, have them fix your car, and get out of the bill by paying the cheap shop on the corner. That is the real work for a buyer's agent, not the paperwork of the offer and escrow period, or the gladhanding, or even the showing. The ability to recognize and negotiate a bargain are closely related, however, so even if you get a lower buyer's agency commission by cutting out the agent who finds the bargain, or a cash rebate, you're likely to end up paying more overall for the property. How is saving one or two percent and missing out on five percent, ten percent, or more a good investment? The lowest difference I've made in the last year was over fifteen percent, by CMA of properties sold. That's what a buyer's market will do for you. But you're unlikely to find the agent who makes that kind of difference in your area first time out of the box. The non-exclusive buyer's agency contract lets you give every agent you meet the same chance to earn your business - which means consumers get to force the agents to compete on the basis of who actually does the job!

This makes signing such an agreement a bet the consumer literally cannot lose. In fact, the more such bets the consumer makes, the better it's likely to turn out for them. The weaker agents will self-select out of the process in most cases. What this means in plain every day talk is they won't exert themselves because they know they're not likely to end up with the business. The consumer who signs ten non-exclusive buyer's agency contracts might have, at most, two or three agents who actually work for the business. The others simply won't. They know they can't compete, and simply won't bother. Actually, most of them won't sign the non-exclusive agreement. They'll try to talk you into an exclusive agreement, but don't let them. For the consumer's part, they can simply keep looking for agents until they find the ones that will compete.

Indeed, it's only when signing an exclusive contract that consumers are making a bet they can lose. Not only can they, they are extremely likely to. Remember the ten non-exclusive contracts you signed in the last paragraph, out of which you got two agents who were willing to actually do the work? Look at that the other way around. Eight out of ten didn't, and the real proportion is probably higher than that. So if you sign an exclusive buyer's agency contract, those are the kind of odds you're facing. Eighty percent or more chance you're locking your business up with an agent who won't really do the most important parts of the job. I get calls from these people's victims all the time, asking me to work for them without any chance of getting paid. My answer is no. I'm perfectly willing to compete for the business, but I'm not willing to work without pay so that someone else can get paid. I'm eager to make the bet that I can out-compete other buyer's agents, but if someone else has already been awarded the gold medal, I'm not going to so much as head for the stadium. How hard do you think the person who has been pre-emptively awarded that gold medal is likely to really work for you? If the answer you got is, "not very" then you understand why you shouldn't sign an exclusive agency agreement. But buyer's agency is one competition where "time in the competition" doesn't control who wins. If you don't award that gold medal before the competition is held, good agents will compete, and they'll work all the harder because if they don't measure up, you can always find some more agents who will. Isn't that what you really want as a consumer?

Caveat Emptor


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.

Caveat Emptor

Is it unwise to use the listing realtor as your purchase realtor?

A house I'm interested in purchasing is being sold by the realtor selling my house. Although she's done a decent job selling my house, I fear she won't negotiate well on my behalf if she has to divide her loyalties between these listers and me (a potential buyer). How awkward would it be not to use my listing realtor to purchase a new home?


I would not undertake dual agency myself. If I do find a buyer for one of my listings, I'll refer them to someone else for negotiations, or at least get them to sign that I am representing the seller, not them. Everyone in the industry whom I respect agrees with this position. Too often, there is a conflict of interest between buyer and seller. Anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to rationalize money in their pocket.

It'd be fine to use her for any property she's not listing. If you want that one, however, go find another buyer's agent.

In every transaction, there is a tension between the interest of the sellers and the interest of the buyers. It is in the interest of the sellers to get the most money possible for the property. It is in the interests of the buyers to pay the lowest possible price. Except in the highly unlikely case where the most that buyer might possibly have paid is the exact same number that is the least that seller might have accepted, and that is in fact the sales price, such simultaneous duties cannot both be met. Since such happenings would be freak coincidence, and not only are they not known until afterward, any such lookback is prone to an agent indulging in what psychologists call confirmation bias.

Furthermore, there is tension between the interests of the buyer and the interests of the seller in other matters as well. Not far from here is a condo conversion project, currently being sold out. About 1993, there was a resident of that complex arrested on suspicion of serial murder. I am unaware of whether he was eventually convicted, but I do know they dug up several bodies as I was unfortunate enough to drive by when they were removing them. California law requires the disclosure within three years of anyone dying on the premises, but at three years and one day there is no requirement for disclosure that I am aware of. Nonetheless, if one of my clients wanted to buy one of those units it would be part of my duty of care to that client's interests to make certain they were informed. Would you not want to know about your building being used as an impromptu cemetery for several bodies? But acting as a seller's agent, I would be forbidden from making that disclosure. Which client's interests do I follow?

Suppose my client is having difficulty qualifying for a loan. Okay, obviously I'm not doing the loan, but I cannot force clients to do their loans with me and the only thing I can offer is carrots, never sticks. But suppose that I, as buyer's broker, find out from the loan officer on day 24 that they've been disqualified because the processor told the underwriter something they shouldn't have, and the loan is back to square one. If I am acting as listing agent as well, my duty to the seller requires me to inform my client of this difficulty. But my duty to the buyer is equally clear about in being a violation of my other client's best interests. Whose interest is paramount? Whose interest do I disregard? These interests are in direct conflict - there can be no compromise resolution. Indeed, as a listing agent I will demand information that it it may not be in my buying client's best interest as buyer's agent be disclosed, and vice versa. If they agree of their own volition, or some other agent talks them into it, then we have a willing buyer and a willing seller and full disclosure from my end and best interest of the client in furthering the transaction and so on and so forth. If I fail to ask because I am also representing the other side, I have not represented my client's best interests. If I talk either client into it when I am representing both, then I have, ipso facto, violated that client's best interest by getting them to agree to something which is not in their best interest. Did I do it because such was in their best interest, or the best interest of my other client? Even if I did act in their best interest, can I prove it? Probably not. Can I prove it in a court of law? Definitely not.

I like to make more money as well as the next person. But accepting dual agency is logically and provably a violation of my duty of care to someone in every case, no matter how the transaction turns out. No matter what you do, it's kind of like the old joke about someone playing chess with themselves. Sure you always win. But you always lose as well, and when you have a fiduciary duty to someone else, setting up a situation where you are guaranteed to lose is in itself a violation of that fiduciary duty.

So I urge you in the strongest possible terms to go find another agent to represent you. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using the same agent to represent you in multiple transactions, even simultaneous transactions. But I would never use the listing agent for a property as my buyer's agent, and I would not allow an agent I was listing a property with to act as buyer's agent. Force them to pick a side and stay on it, and since they've already got a listing contract, they have already made their choice.

This is incidentally another argument against Exclusive Buyers Agency Agreements. If they show you one of their own listings under an exclusive agency contract, they are the procuring cause and you must pay them. Nonexclusive contracts should also have explicit releases if the agent is also the listing agent.

Caveat Emptor


Several times a month I get calls and emails. Sometimes, it's even people stopping in. "I've heard you're good at finding bargains." Well, yes I am. "Please tell me the addresses of some bargains so I can drive by."

Well, facts are cheap in the age of transparency. I will quite joyously look at stuff on the internet, even set up an MLS Gateway or feed for someone on the speculation that they'll come back to me later for a showing or to make an offer. Setting up such a feed takes very little time, and about the expertise of an eleven year old that has learned to fill out internet forms. Oh, and MLS access. Can't forget MLS access. We've got a brand new system that lets me custom define the search area now - I can click the corners of a search area I want on a map, and it will return only the results within that area. It's a really neat feature, and using it takes about ten seconds of training, and maybe ten minutes to do the whole thing. I'll happily do it as the possible prelude to a limited service commission, and even if the prospects end up using another agent, I've risked and lost nothing significant. No agency contract required, or even asked. I've even done it for folks who didn't want to give me their phone numbers so I could follow up. If they come back to make an offer, my compensation will be set in the offer paperwork.

But good analysis, experience, and expertise are not free - or even cheap. Furthermore, my time is valuable - and you're asking for a lot of it. I might find three or even four real potential bargains when I spend a full day searching - and that's in a target rich environment. Furthermore, I've got a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge to draw upon that many agents don't, and I look at a lot of properties. I can winnow 100 listings on the internet to twenty possibles in about an hour, go through them in about five hours, of which I might show a client who has made the commitment to work with me six, with usually one or two standouts among those. The rest will have something that to experienced, knowledgeable eyes, will have reasons why it is not a viable choice for these particular clients. Maybe it's overpriced and I have reason to believe the owner won't negotiate. Maybe the location or surroundings have an unsolvable issue - one reason you can only tell a bargain by getting out of the office and looking at property. Given the area I work, most often there's something going on with the property itself that's not worth what it's going to cost to fix. I love the older East County suburbs of San Diego - they are good places to live, and when you consider what you get for what you spend, they blow the rest of the county away as far as value. Furthermore, I think the conditions are getting right for the housing buzz to rediscover them. But anytime you consider structures that mostly vary from thirty to eighty years old, you have to watch for maintenance and repair issues, and it really helps to know what you're looking for. Furthermore, it is always necessary to understand the market the property is being listed in. The only way you can do that is by having been in the properties that have sold recently, and the only way you can do that is to go out and look at them while they are still "for sale" because it's not likely the new owners will let you in after it sells.

What I'm trying to say is that the fact of the existence of a listing on MLS is cheap - basically free. You want me to send you addresses of properties for sale meeting certain criteria, that's easy and I'm happy to do it, no strings attached. Anything like that, that can be done by automated computer search, is not a part of what I'm really offering for sale, and I'll give it away on the speculation that sometimes, I'll make something when that person comes back to me to write an offer.

But the ability to recognize a bargain and equally important, what is not - that's the largest part of what I'm really selling as a buyer's agent. Winnowing those 100 listings to a few standout values is a valuable skill. If you don't agree with this, you shouldn't need or want that skill, and you shouldn't be talking to an agent about finding bargains. For people that want me to use that skill, there is a fee. This is precisely equivalent to the difference between a computer programmer giving away some old boilerplate code for free - but they want to be paid for a brand new custom program. This requires all of the same things: Expertise, analysis, experience, knowledge of the area and the current market, the time it takes me to build, run, and debug the bargain-finding program in consultation with the client, and everything else that's involved. The mental ability to do those things did not suddenly appear one morning and it does not maintain itself. Furthermore, the liability for doing this if I make a mistake is huge. Agent mistakes cannot be undone by simply re-writing a few lines of code to work correctly, and having the ability to sue me and my insurance company if I do make that mistake is a huge benefit to the client in and of itself. If they make the mistake, they're stuck - and to be blunt, the probability of a non-professional making that mistake is both much larger than most home buyers believe and many times the probability that I will make that mistake - while if I make that mistake, they can get a lawyer and sue me for everything they might have lost, plus court costs, plus other damages ad nauseum. The idea isn't to sue, but rather not to make that costly mistake in the first place. An amazingly large percentage of buyers make mistakes of a magnitude that I find incomprehensible, all in the name of saving a fraction of what the mistake costs.

The ability to recognize a bargain property is a valuable skill. If you disagree with this, what reason do you have for looking at properties before you buy them? Why don't you simply pick out the cheapest property that meets your specifications on MLS, make an offer, come to an agreement, and pay the price, all sight unseen? Remember, you're claiming that the ability to recognize a bargain does not have value. Why would you want to take the time to look if there's no value in it? When there are ten thousand identical items in a warehouse or on the grocery store shelves, you grab one and get on with your life. You might look at the label to make certain it was manufactured to fill the need you have. You don't bother opening the box - if it's defective, you can just exchange it for another. They're all interchangeable.

But that isn't the case even on everything in the grocery stone. There's a reason they wrap meat in transparent plastic - so you can see the piece of meat you're buying. To view the cut, how much fat is on it, how large a piece of meat it really is, how fresh it is - in short, the value of the meat. If you know what good meat looks like, you've seen people that have no clue as to what to look for choosing crummy meat that you've just rejected. It happens most of the times when I'm at the meat counter, as a matter of fact. It's why the grocery stores keep putting out bad cuts of bad meat. Somebody who doesn't know any better will buy it.

The same thing happens in real estate. I have dealt with people who bought into just about every bad situation imaginable - and now they're trying to unload the results of that onto someone else at a premium price. When I list a property, it's even my job to help them do so. But a significant percentage wouldn't even be selling if they had made the right choice in the first place!

The point I'm trying to make is this: Because the ability to find and recognize a bargain is a valuable skill, if you want it, you're going to pay for it. You can either pay me consultant rates by the hour, or you can pay me by doing the transaction with me. In either case, you're going to sign a contract that spells out exactly what that pay is. If you want bargains I've already found, those are valuable also. I can use the basic information as a lure to attract other people willing to work with me. If you buy it and you are not my client, the simple physical reality is that it's not available for people who are my clients. You got the benefit of my expertise without paying for it - and those who are willing to pay for it didn't. Contrary to something I read by a listing agent the other day, I have no responsibility to market the property - I haven't accepted agency, sub-agency, or anything else. When I'm acting as a buyer's agent, I have no obligation to any owner to sell their property. And until some prospective buyers sign my agency contract, I have no responsibility to them as far as locating and evaluating property. So if they're not going to sign my contract - and a non-exclusive agreement is all either one of us needs - I have no responsibility to give them the benefits of my expertise for free, any more than a lawyer or a computer programmer does. As a matter of fact, that non-exclusive contract is me betting that I will find something sufficiently above and beyond the market that they want to buy it - because if they don't buy it, the contract says I don't make anything. It's me betting that my expertise will cause them to want to stick with me - because if it doesn't or they don't want to, there's no reason they have to. If that bargain I find isn't a bargain, they can walk away with no obligations. But if it is a bargain, they use me as buyer's agent. The only reason to refuse to sign a non-exclusive agency contract is if you're not willing to work with the agent who brings you the bargain.

And that describes most of those who call or email. When asked to sign my contract, they'll say, "I'm working with someone." To which the answer is, "No, you're not. They're not doing the job. If they were, you wouldn't have come to me. What you are asking for is no different than asking one lawyer to do for free what you're paying another lawyer to do, or asking one computer programmer to do for free what you're paying someone else for. If you didn't think that what I do was somehow valuable to you, you wouldn't have contacted me and we'd both be doing something else right now. So your choice is this: Do you want to stick with someone who isn't doing the job, or do you want to work with someone who will get the job done, and will give you permission to fire him if he doesn't?"

Loyalty has a place. It's perfectly fine to give your Uncle Harry a chance to earn your business. But if Uncle Harry gives you his business card and tells you to call him when you've found the property you want to buy (or a property you may want to buy), he hasn't earned your business. In fact, he's told you he's unworthy of it. That's not an agent. That's a transaction coordinator, which most agents will charge you extra for so that they can go out prospecting and gladhanding for other business while the transaction coordinator does paperwork - the only real work their office does. But full service should be a lot more than a transaction coordinator doing paperwork in the office - and the office should pay for that coordinator out of what they make, not charge you extra for it. In this scenario, what expertise are you really getting? The ability to fill out all the paperwork on a checklist? It is important - but is it worth the thousands of dollars to you? Or is the ability to find you a bargain while discarding properties that aren't bargains what's really worth what a buyer's agent makes?

If you want a bargain on real estate, work with the buyer's agent who finds bargains you want to buy. The principle is the same one that says if you want the ditch Charlie digs, you pay Charlie to dig a ditch, not George. If you want the haircut Jane gives, you go to Jane's shop for her haircut - not down the street to Mary. And if John the mechanic isn't fixing your car correctly, you don't pay John and then ask Dave to do the work for free. You take your car away from John and take it down to Dave, and pay him for the work he does. It doesn't matter that John's mechanic shop has nifty uniforms, a funny advertising campaign, or anything else other than the mechanic who fixes your car so it runs right, which they don't. Dave fixes your car so that it runs right, you pay Dave, and you go back to Dave the next time it breaks down. If the funny advertising campaign is worth giving John some money, that's fine. But you're still going to have to pay Dave to fix your car, and he's going to want you to sign his service contract before he does any real work. The same thing applies to when you want to buy real estate. If Uncle Harry isn't doing the job you need him to do, you fire Uncle Harry and start working with someone else. Don't tell me you want me to find bargains for you but you're working with Uncle Harry. Get Uncle Harry to find you the bargains. If he's not doing that, your choice is really very simple: Suffer with Uncle Harry, or start working with someone who will do the job that he isn't.

When I'm looking to buy professional services, I don't look for the office with the lawyer with the neat ad campaign, computer programmers who act friendliest, or the doctor who talks about how to draw customers into their office. I look for the office who will demonstrate their expertise, keep me there by demonstrating their knowledge of the expertise I need, explain everything I need to know (preferably before I need to know it), advise me as to what my best choices are and the consequences of those choices. I want the office that finds other, better alternatives and offers them to me. That's sanity. That's what's valuable to me.

The same principle applies to real estate. If you want to do the searching yourself, that's fine. Here's your MLS gateway, call me when something pops up that you want me to get involved in. But if you want real expertise on the buyer's side of the transaction, that gateway is not what you want and you're going to have to agree to pay the agent who gives it to you. Because it is valuable, and if you didn't think it was valuable, you wouldn't be asking for it. I am not cheap - no good agent is. But I'm a lot less expensive than using a cheap agent.

Caveat Emptor

Why doesn't real estate just sell for the asking price instead of having to go thru all the paper work...?

Wouldn't it be easier to just put a price on it and sell it for that price? We don't go thru all of that when purchasing cars or anything else. Where did this practice start?

Land is important, it is immovable, they are not making any more, and it is uniquely identifiable by location. It is used as a basis for taxation, and social status. Not too long ago, the vast majority of the population worked by farming land.

Precisely how much land goes with a parcel, and precisely what the boundaries and limitations are, is critically important. Taking just a few square feet away can mean that it cannot be used for a given purpose. Rights of easement are important to everybody served by that easement. Wars have been fought over simply the right to pass over a piece of land. Zoning disclosures are a real issue with at least twenty percent of all properties, as well as any number of their issues about the condition, permitted uses, boundaries, and appurtenances.

Because of its importance, its permanence, and its value, there has been a lot of fraud committed over land, therefore the systems of title and escrow. Add that to the fact that land is taxed by most governments, and you have the justification for public records systems.

Because of its permanent and immovable nature, banks will loan money against land on better terms than anything else. But since a fair number of people over the years have gotten money for land they don't own, or gotten more money for land than it is worth, the lenders have instituted safeguards such as the appraisal, inspection, and lenders title insurance. It still happens, by the way. Last week I looked a a property in a fantastic location, but really old and run down. By the market, I'd say it was maybe worth $600,000 - but the owners convinced someone to loan them $1.8 million dollars on it.

Every part of the process has a reason it is there. There is no need for anyone who is not a professional to learn them, but the reason those professionals exist is so that you don't have to know what they know - and that runs true for everyone from the escrow officer to the title officer to the agent, and trying to shortcut the process is a recipe for disaster. Just ask the people who got burned, and whose cases are the reasons for all that paperwork and hassle you have to go through to buy or sell a property. And people still get burned today. Most often, it's the people who try to shortcut the process to save a few dollars. "You don't need that appraisal! You're paying cash!" "You don't need that inspection! Solid as a rock!" "You don't need an agent! Trust me!"

There are good solid reasons why you don't want to cut any corners, and why you want a professional working for you every step of the way. Proper disclosure will save you from a lawsuit you wouldn't believe. Proper investigation will stop you from walking in to the problem in the first place, or at least get you some serious concessions if you have a good buyer's agent on your side. And if they fail to do their job properly, it gives you the right to go after their insurance and their broker's bond, and even to sue them to make you whole. By trying to "save money" and cut corners, you could easily find yourself out a much larger amount of money with zero recourse.

Caveat Emptor

I got an ill-mannered complaint email about how an evil loan officer ordered the appraisal without waiting for the inspection to be done, and it turned out there was a minor problem that the seller likely could have had repaired, but this clown chose to walk away, and as a result is griping about having to pay for the appraisal.

First, that appraiser did the work based upon your representation you wanted the property. You signed a purchase contract saying that you were intending to purchase the property, and someone acting on your behalf because of that action ordered the appraisal, which has to be done if you're going to get a loan. That appraiser did the work. They are entitled to be paid.

Second, scheduling an appraisal promptly protects you. The longer the entire process takes, the worse the loan you are going to get. If they didn't lock your rate right away, the loan officer is gambling with your money. But rate locks aren't free, and they are for definite periods of time. The longer a rate lock is, the more you will pay for it. Furthermore, if you go beyond them you're either going to pay a tenth of a point for five days, or a quarter for fifteen (both assessed in full on the first day of extension) or pay worst case rates. The person who ordered the appraisal was acting in good faith to protect your interests based upon the representation that you wanted the property. If you didn't, why did you make an offer and sign the purchase contract? Speed is important in getting a loan done, and even if in some instances people like you end up paying for an appraisal when they cancel escrow, the people who actually want the property benefit by having everything done right away. Appraisals are around $350. A tenth of a point of $400,000 is $400. A quarter of a point is $1000. Or you can pay a quarter of a point more - $1000 - for a longer rate lock in the first place, but the assumption when you sign that purchase contract is that you want the property, which means the appraisal has to get done, and you want the lowest rate, which means the shortest practical lock time. People get sued - successfully - for not ordering the appraisal right away. This person was doing exactly their job.

I have stated before that I will bet money, based upon no additional information, that a loan done in thirty days or less will be a better loan than one that takes sixty or more. Ordering all of the services: inspections, appraisal, disclosures, zone report, etcetera, right away is part of how a good loan officer - and good agents - get a transaction to close fast, on time, and to the loan quoted. For the buyers who carry through on their intention, as evidenced by that signed contract, doing this is the only correct way to do business. Delaying the appraisal until after the inspection adds to the time it takes to get the loan done. How do you think the seller feels about everything they had to pay for, now that you flaked out?

A purchase contract should not be something you enter into lightly, thinking you can get out of it easily if the slightest thing goes wrong. This is part of the reason for buyers agents. They should explain to you that this is a binding contract, and you are agreeing to purchase that property, and in many cases the seller can sue to make you buy the property. A buyer's agent will also spot a lot of problems before you make the offer. Don't think of them as building inspectors; few agents have that license (and I'm not one of them). But there is nothing that says that I can't spot potential issues and bring them up. In this particular case, it's a trivial issue that I spot and tell my clients about on a regular basis before they make an offer, and as a result, we have dealt with the issue before the contract is agreed to.

Caveat Emptor

Whenever I go scouting in public forums, somebody is always asking, "What's the secret? How do you get rich in real estate?" The alternate to this question is "What do you know that I don't?"

These people are sure there's some magic formula for getting rich quick in real estate, but nobody is willing to share. They're a good person, they're a smart person, and in their mind, they deserve to make money as much as the next person. Why won't anyone tell them? No con artists need apply, of course.

The reason nobody except con artists will tell them is that there is no such secret. There are no mystical secrets of the universe that make you an overnight success in real estate or any other field. Like any other investment, it takes money to make money in real estate, and the more money you have and are willing to risk, the more money you can make. Leverage in real estate is a fantastic instrument, but in order to get the lender to loan you money, you have to be able to convince them you can repay it. This takes money, and it takes income. It can also be overdone, as many people have. Even if you win the bet about your property increasing in value, if you cannot make the payments you can bet on losing the whole thing.

Other people are skeptical of the value of real estate agents at all. "What do they know that I don't know?" is the question that I see asked the most, when they don't proceed directly to an assumption that the answer to this question is "Nothing," and from there the bashing begins.

Until somebody hits a real world snag, of course. "My house isn't selling. What do I do?" "A buyer offered me $X. Should I accept?" or "This happened. What do I do now?"

The issues are mostly preventable, and had even a brand new agent with the ink on their license still wet written the contract, chances are good that the potential problem would have been foreseen, and safeguards against it devised. This is, after all, what we're trained for and what we do. If I could learn a job by reading a couple books, I wouldn't need to pay you. Well, I know enough about many subjects to know that I can't learn everything I need to know by reading books, and that any pretense otherwise on my part would be foolish pretension. It might be one thing for me to pull my little girls out of the swimming pool when they get in over their head. It would be something else again to try an open ocean rescue.

And a financial lifeguard is an entirely apt analogy. It's not that you don't know how to swim, for crying out loud. It's that you got in to a situation beyond your capabilities, beyond your experience, and now that you're there, you can't get yourself out. Unfortunately for those who ignore "no lifeguard" signs in real estate, it's very difficult to go find that lifeguard while the trouble is going on. It's not like you can get a time out, and many times that fact that you are drowning may not be apparent until you breathe in water, months or years later. If there is a agent present the whole time, you can sue their insurance carrier for your losses, but most often, they will prevent the deadly misstep in the first place. Any agent with a lick of sense won't get involved when there's already an existing problem. That's where attorneys come in, and attorneys get much more expensive than the agent in a hurry.

It's not what agents know, but what they know. Anybody can read the financial press, and it's not too difficult to understand what they're saying. But knowing it and understanding it are two entirely different things. What good agents understand down deep at a level of calm certainty that nobody with an expertise less than theirs stands a cell phone's chance in an IED of talking them out of, and that is a system of approaching the transaction that debunks the hype, the nonsense, and makes certain that the numbers all work and the traps are all evaded. If you're not willing to pay the agent what it takes, spend a couple of years of your life familiarizing yourself with all of the issues, and you'll still likely fall short, because it's not just book learning, but experience, and even a new agent has a supervisor with a wealth of experience to draw upon. Nor is it just "sticks". There are an awful lot of carrots out there that are very valuable if know when and how to use them, and will cost a lot of money if you do not know when and how not to.

There aren't any huge and critical secrets. But there is a wealth of experience and understanding that people who do not deal with the real estate and mortgage markets every day are unlikely to have. Whether you're a computer programmer or any of a thousand other occupations, ask yourself if someone fresh out of college could do your job correctly on the first attempt. Because that's the bet you're making when you decide to work without an agent.

Caveat Emptor

 



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