X-Pert Knowledge: September 2007 Archives

I have to admit I'm uncomfortable with it and don't like it. As a buyer's agent, here I am getting paid by someone who not only is not my client, but whose interests are aligned, in most issues, opposite to my clients. They want the highest possible price, my client wants the lowest. They want out of the property without spending money on repairs if possible, my client wants the necessary repairs made. The list goes on and on. About the only issue on which the two sides are in agreement is that they want the transaction to happen. Yet it has become essentially universal for the seller to pay the buyer's agent. Indeed, this is basically the only fig leaf protecting Dual Agency. If the money to pay the listing agent came from the buyers, they'd have to ask themselves "whose interest is this agent looking out for?" with the result being that dual agency would die overnight, and if staking dual agency through the heart doesn't appeal to you, you're unlikely to be on the consumer's side. Not to mention the myth of "Discount price, full service" would die just as quickly, on both buyer's and seller's sides of the transaction. There are protections in place to make it both legal and ethical, but getting paid by the seller when I'm acting on behalf of the buyers still makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and that's aside from facilitating these urban legends.

That said, let's consider why it happened, what it would take to make it change, and what the cost of that change would be.

The first paragraph makes obvious the benefits if no sellers were to pay buyer's agents - if what the seller paid out in agency fees was reserved solely to the listing agent, usually contingent upon a successful sale. No "Co-operating Broker" percentage. Not to mention the fact that the seller would come away with a larger percentage of the value of their property. Instead of seven to eight percent, the cost of selling the property would fall to between four and five percent. Not paying the buyer's agent sure looks like a win for the sellers, and one would think explaining that it would be part of an agent's fiduciary responsibility to explain, right?

But the reason that it is in any given seller's best interest is almost as obvious. Ask any agent and any loan officer what the number one obstacle to buyers being able to buy a given property is buyer cash. Okay, there are those unethical persons who will tell you that the problem is qualifying people for property beyond their means, but I'm talking about people who want to buy properties they can otherwise afford. Once they get the loan and the property, they will be able to afford the payments - the real payments on a sustainable loan - and keep up the property and all of the other stuff that essentially goes with "happily ever after". The number one constraint upon people wanting to purchase property they really can afford is cash in their pockets (or equivalently, bank account). The cash for the down payment, the closing costs of the loan, and everything else involved. It takes a long time to save that money, over and above the daily expenses of living. Some people find it difficult; others, impossible. Add the buyer's agent commission to that, and that sets the bar of cash they need to save that much higher.

The seller has the built up equity in their property, from the loan they've been paying on and usually, the increase in property value, and if that property commands a higher sales price, this equity is greater, and therein lies the reason for them being willing to pay the buyer's agent. This willingness means that the pool of potential buyers doesn't need so much cash, which means that more potential buyers are able to afford this property. The more potential buyers able to potentially afford the property, the higher the likely sales price. The greater the economic demand, the higher the price, holding the supply constant, and there is only one such property. In fact, this increase in the sales price is typically much larger than the cash they pay, thus furnishing incentive for the sellers to be willing to pay the buyer's agent as part of paying their own. By shrinking the necessary pool of cash the buyer needs to a smaller percentage of the purchase price, they increase the potential selling price by more than they cash they put out. Furthermore, if everyone else is willing to pay this money and they aren't, by making it harder to purchase their property than the competing ones, they shrink their pool of potential buyers, thus costing them more in eventual sales price than they are likely to recover. If my clients have just enough cash for closing costs plus down payment, they're not prospects for that property, because if they had to write the check for the buyer's agent, they fall short. One alternative is to lump the buyer's agent commission into a seller paid allowance for closing costs, but the six percent aggregate limit that most lenders draw in the sand for that can make it a real constraint. Considered on an individual basis, it's better to simply agree it's your responsibility in the listing agreement, thus removing the money from that allowance.

Indeed, an argument can be made that offering a high incentive (locally, 3% or more) to a buyer's agent is one of the better ways to get the property sold. Not only do many buyer's agents shop that way explicitly, but if they have an exclusive contract that says 3% (as many do, because their clients aren't educated enough to know what a crock exclusive buyer's agency agreements are in the first place, but they'll also willingly trust the chain agent as to what is "standard"). If the Cooperating Broker's percentage is lower than what it shows on the buyer's agency agreement, that buyer will need to come up with more cash to pay their agent, from out of their limited pool of available cash. When that buyer's agent is in a position to demand 3% whatever property their victim buys, even if they didn't find it and weren't involved, that means properties paying less than that aren't contenders for this buyer's business, unless they've got so much available cash that it just isn't a constraint, and that is rare. A better buyer's agent puts a lower number on a nonexclusive contract, and if they get more, that's certainly fine with them, but because they have a non-exclusive contract, they don't get anything if the buyers become disenchanted with them and stop working with them. This gives a buyer's agent with a non-exclusive contract the incentive to find the property that's a real value to the clients as quickly as possible. I care far less about whether I'm getting two or three percent or something in between on a particular property, than I do about finding the property my clients want that's within their budget. My incentive is to make the clients as happy as possible so that I do get paid, because if I don't, I won't. But the buyer's agent with an exclusive contract that pays three percent has a different set of incentives, which is another reason I advise strongly against signing exclusive buyer's agency agreements, and the existence of such creatures is the reason why it may be a good idea for sellers to offer a higher percentage to a buyer's agent. (There is no consumer oriented reason to keep the amount of the Cooperating Broker's percentage secret, and I strongly support making it part of the general public's available information, which it currently is not on the local MLS.)

So sellers offer it because it shrinks the percentage of purchase price that buyers need to have, competing for buyer business as well as expanding the pool of possible buyers theoretically able to consider this property, both of which increase the purchase price more than enough to balance the money they spend. If by paying someone three percent, I increase my take by five percent or more (and the numbers I've seen indicate that the seller's increased take is about ten percent of gross price, which translates to almost seven percent more money in their pocket), that's money any rational person will spend. On a $100,000 property, you spend $3000, get that money back and another $7000 besides - wouldn't you do that? Doesn't happen on every transaction, but those are the statistical averages. It might not be that much in your particular case - but it could as easily be more as less. If the dice were loaded on your behalf like this in Las Vegas, and that the expected value of a $3000 bet was $10,000, most of those reading this would quit their jobs and move there (at least until the casinos went bankrupt).

We've seen what a winner this bet is, in the aggregate, and therefore why rational sellers who are allowed the option will opt to do offer a cooperating broker's percentage, which essentially goes to pay the buyer's agent. The economic incentives under the market therefore reduce it to something like one more tragedy of the commons, although unlike the classic example, it doesn't really hurt anyone directly, it just shifts the market price upwards. The only way to change it is therefore to pass a law prohibiting it. Leaving aside the mechanics of such a law and considerations of whether people could find loopholes in such a law (they would), and consider such a law as being proposed. Consider such a theoretical law as perfectly written and trivial to enforce, such that nobody could successfully get around it. I know that this is ridiculous (as should any adult), but let's pretend to believe this fairy tale for just long enough to tear it apart even under ideal circumstances. What happens? Well the market is priced to include the shift upwards in prices that sellers paying buyer's agents causes. It's just a one time shift, but we've already had the up, so now we'd get the down. Obviously, it would further damage current owners who would like to sell, and make prices more affordable to those who want to buy. Okay, so far we have a 1:1 correspondence between who gets helped and who gets hurt, and even, arguably, a $1:$1 ratio in hurt versus help. For every potential buyer who qualifies on the basis of income but no longer has the necessary cash in hand for a down payment, closing costs and a buyer's agent, to boot, we now have someone new qualify who has the money for the down payment, etcetera, and can now qualify on the basis of income. Like I said, direct effects help someone for every person they hurt. Before we leave direct effects, we might ask about how likely people are to vote to harm people who bought into the current system of homeownership based upon the status quo, in order to benefit an equal number of people who aren't - or aren't yet - part of that system at all. That equation doesn't play well very often in the United States.

Now let's consider the indirect effects. You see, people who want to sell and people who want to buy aren't the only ones affected. People who own, but want to hang on to their current properties will also be hurt. When prices fall 10%, everyone with less than 10% equity is suddenly upside-down, with all of the problems that brings. In the current market, the chances of them being able to obtain refinancing are essentially nonexistent. Maybe you're been paying attention to the news recently, maybe you haven't. There's an awful lot of people who want to hang on to their properties right now, and are having a very hard time. Just because I don't think the one proposal that's been made to bail them out directly is a good idea, doesn't mean I want to actively sabotage their efforts. This would flush all but a vanishingly small percentage of them out of their homes and back into rentals.

Furthermore, there's a ripple effect across the rest of the loan to value spectrum. People who now have significantly less equity find it harder to refinance, and end up with higher rates, higher cost of money, etcetera. When prices shift downwards by ten percent, someone who had ten percent equity suddenly has none, making their loan much more difficult and costly. Someone who had eighty percent loan to value is now essentially at ninety. Someone who was at seventy is now almost to eighty, and indeed, a a 77 percent loan to value ratio is an eighty percent loan. It's not until you get below sixty-three percent of current value (which becomes seventy once values have shifted downwards), that the differences become small enough to ignore. In a significant number of those cases, this is going to make enough of a difference such that these owners will not be able to refinance even though they need to, or they'll have to accept loans they can't really make the payments on. Whichever is the case, they lose the property. How many people who bought in the last few years have a loan to value ratio below 63%? Not a whole lot, it turns out. Even when value increases would have more than caused that level of equity, they've taken out equity lines to pay for improvements, cashed out for toys, or even in order to put the down payment on more real estate. Maybe they shouldn't have done that. It's not my place to make that kind of judgment. I'm only going to say that they did so having no reason to believe the status quo would change, and intentionally shifting it even further on them is moving the goalposts, and to the extent it causes current homeowners to fall short of their goals of meeting their financial obligations and lose their homes, is vile.

All this leads up to the killer reason: As I noted a little while ago, residential real estate in the United States is valued at about 25.3 trillion dollars. Let it be devalued by ten percent, and that's 2 trillion, 530 billion dollars in real wealth, just gone. I could freak out enough people just by talking about the thirty billion, or roughly $100 for every man, woman, and child in the United States, but that's only the third decimal place of the loss, in this particular case. Accounting phantom consisting of numbers on paper or not, this is real money, every bit as real as that $100 in your checking account. Every penny that vanishes means that someone doesn't have it to invest in the economy. Whether it's an individual, a corporation, a lender, or what have you, it means that suddenly the last year or so of economic expansion goes poof!. This two and a half trillion dollars vanishing has second and third order consequences, each dislocation causing more troubles further down the line. The global depression of the 1930s had much milder causes, even considered proportionately. You want to know who gets hurt? The little guy and the emerging entrepreneur, who would have been responsible for most of tomorrow's growth. Old Money comes out fine, by and large. The depression was an inconvenience to the Astors and the DuPonts, to be sure, but that inconvenience didn't much effect their personal lifestyle. It economically killed a generation of innovators in addition to causing well documented economic misery among those who were less well off.

So now you know why the sellers pay the buyer's agents, you know why it is in the individual seller's best interest that it be so, what it would take to change this, and what the results of such a change would be. I still don't like it, but changing it would cause more damage, and more immediate damage, than allowing the status quo to continue.

Caveat Emptor

Hi, Dan! I just came across your website and you strike me as the type of guy who has answers for our situation:

My husband and I built our home 2.5 years ago. We took out a second mortgage last year which brought us up to financing basically 100% of the value of our home. We owe a total of about $305,000 on the home, and even though it was appraised for around $305-310K. if we sell, we have been told we won't get a price anywhere near that, because it is not in a development.

Do you have any suggestions, comments, opinions...which could help us out. We would really like to relocate closer to my brother out in the DELETED area-but we seem to be stuck right where we are given the circumstances-are we?

Gee, around here custom homes usually command a premium over cookie cutters, other things being equal. Not necessarily a huge premium, but a premium.

Nonetheless, I'm hesitant to second guess the agents on the scene when I have zero personal knowledge of your local market. You basically have four options: Stay where you are, rent it out, default, or sell.

You don't state whether you are having difficulty affording the payments, or whether you've got one sort or another of unsustainable mortgage. If you're not having difficulty affording the payments and you're in a sustainable loan, there's no need to do anything. If you're at or close to 100% financing, and you need to refinance, you're looking at right around 6.25%, plus PMI of about 1% until your equity improves. It would be better if lenders were giving second mortgages above 90% financing, but that's not happening right now. I'm going to presume that all refinanced, you're looking at a mortgage balance of $310,000, which may be a little low. Payment works out to $1909 on a thirty year fixed rate loan, fully amortized, plus PMI of $258. If your income situation isn't cramped, you may be able to get "interest only" for five years (or longer!) at a slightly higher rate. If you do an interest only loan, that would be a payment of about $1680. although you need to be aware before you do it that it is a calculated risk. I don't know your market, but mine is preparing to recover and I don't see anywhere not recovering within five years. Nonetheless, getting an interest only loan sets up a deadline for doing something again, and your market isn't under your control or anyone else's. I think it's a reasonable bet given that you already own the property, but it remains a gamble.

Another word on the viability of refinancing: It hinges upon your ability to either get an appraisal that covers the amount of the new loan balance, or to come up with the difference in cash. It is theoretically possible to finance more than the value of the property, but the rate and terms of those loans are ugly. If you're looking to refinance because you can't afford your mortgage, refinancing more than the value of the property is unlikely to make it more affordable. It's probably better to consider another option.

You could rent the property out. I don't know what rentals are like in your area, but if you can get enough rent to cover the monthly expenses (mortgage, taxes, insurance, and an allowance for upkeep and management), that becomes a possibility. If you can cover the difference, that's fine, also. Remember, I think the markets are going to do well once they've digested the hairball caused by the speculative practices of buying with unsustainable mortgages. If you're short $200 per month and in five years you can sell for $50,000 more, that's an investment I'd make. The question, unanswerable by anyone at this point in time, is where your local market will be in five years. $50,000 is about 16% of $310,000. Here in San Diego, I'd leap at that - I think we're going to see that within three years or less, as opposed to current prices. In your area, I don't know. In either case, it's a risk, and you need someone who knows more about your market than I do to advise you on the probabilities.

You could just default. I'm not recommending it. It's a bad option, but it is there. If you want to buy, or even rent, after your relocation, your credit will be hosed. I don't know your state law on deficiency judgments, but that's a concern. Under this same heading is deed in lieu of foreclosure, with most of the same problems. The reason people are willing to grant credit is that we're legal adults, and supposedly responsible. If you give them evidence that you're not, you may not pay for it in dollars directly, but you will pay for it, and typically the interest rate is usurious.

Or you could sell, most likely a short payoff assuming what you've been told is correct. It costs money to sell a property, more so in a buyer's market. Figure it'll cost you about 8 percent of whatever the gross sale price is to get the property sold. Using this as the basis for an estimate, even if you sold for $310,000, that'd only net you about $285,000, so you'd be short roughly $25,000. If the lender forgives the difference, you'll likely get a 1099 love note adding it to your taxable income. If they don't, you could be sitting on a deficiency judgment for the difference. I don't know your state's law, but around here, if someone was liable for the difference, I'd suggest saving the legal fees by agreeing to sign a promissory note. If you fight, you're likely to be wasting the money as well as digging yourself in deeper. They're going to win, and they'll almost certainly get to add their legal fees to what you owe. So unless you really like subsidizing the legal profession, if you're in the situation, I'd suggest considering agreeing to pay without a judgment. Talk to a lawyer in your state about what the law says about your situation, of course, as spending the money for a half hour of a lawyer's time is likely to be considerably less than $25,000 plus interest.

Now if you accept such a promissory note, I actually have no idea what the rate will be, but even if it's 18 percent, you're still talking about owing only about a twelfth of what you do now. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but you can pay it off in a few years, and it's probably cheaper than the costs of defaulting, even though it does hit your debt to income ratio. People choose defaulting and bankruptcy because it's easier now, but when you go through the total costs rather than just the immediate cash, you're likely to come to a different answer.

Caveat Emptor

The answer is yes.

As with everything else pertaining to real estate, there are potential upsides and downsides. First of all, lenders in short sale situations often demand agents reduce their commission, so the agents are not likely to start from a discounted or low end commission. If it takes $12,000 to break even on a full service transaction, and you have to reduce your pay to make the sale happen, you're going to want more than $12,000 before the reduction. Discounters usually demand their money up front, but discounters aren't selling many properties in this sort of market. Along these same lines, it's a good idea to offer a larger than average commission to the buyer's agent. The average buyer's agent sees a short sale, and they say a transaction that takes twice as long as average, and that they have to accept reduced commission for while handling a whole lot of additional concerns. It makes the loan officer juggle rate locks and possibly submit multiple sets of paperwork. It makes the escrow officer juggle the entire transaction schedule, usually several times. Sometimes, the transaction approval with the seller's lender takes so long that an inspection or appraisal has to be re-done in order to satisfy the buyer's lender. It's tempting to just consider the property next door or down the street, even if it may not be such a bargain. With short sales, everybody marches to the beat of the seller's lender, which means I (as the buyer's agent or loan officer) have a whole slew of things that can go wrong beyond my ability to control, any of which results in my client ending up unhappy by costing them more money. Unhappy clients are poison to my business, no matter how great the deal they actually got was. Furthermore, I'm a lot more willing to not worry about my pocketbook than many other agents.

The person who drives this whole process, and makes it happen or fails to make it happen, is the listing agent. So if I see anything that tells me that listing agent is a bozo, or doesn't have their act together, I'm going to recommend that my buyer clients pass on the property, and I'm going to tell them precisely why. Pricing, staging, marketing, it's all got to have the fingerprints of a professional. If that listing agent has overpriced the property, if they have allowed the owner to leave excessive clutter, if they're saying things about the property that are not borne out when I go to view the property, I'm going to spell it out to my buyer clients why it's a bad idea to make an offer. I won't even look at "For Sale By Owner" properties trying to execute a short sale. I know, from experience, that I'm wasting my time, and my buyer client's as well. Lender approval of the short sale is not going to happen without an expert who is motivated to get the best possible price. You, as the owner, don't want to turn off either the buyers or their agents. So you want a listing agent that's demonstrably up to the task.

Now just because the lender accepts a short payoff in satisfaction of the debt, doesn't mean that all is forgiven. In some circumstances, they may go so far as to eat the loss entirely. I'm not certain I've ever seen such a case. They may report the loan as being paid satisfactorily to the credit bureaus, avoiding further hits to your credit, but they've just taken a loss. They want to deduct that loss from the earnings, as tax law permits them to do. But in order to do this with the IRS, they pretty much need to send the borrower they forgave a form 1099, reporting income from forgiveness of debt. Since this is taxable income under current law, expect to pay income taxes on the shortfall. President Bush has suggested a temporary halt to this practice, but to the best of my knowledge it has not yet been enacted by Congress.

For those agents who promise that the lender will forgive your debt completely, it really isn't under their control. You're trying to get the lender to forgive many thousands of dollars in money you owe them, plus you want them not to hit you with a debt forgiveness 1099, so they end up paying the taxes as well? Remember that not going through the entire foreclosure process is a benefit to the current owner as well as the lender, and there may be the possibility of a deficiency judgment as well. I'd be extremely skeptical of any promise to get you out of both or all three. If someone comes to me for a short sale, I can promise to try, but I can't promise to deliver. Nor can anyone else - it's not under our control. That's a cold hard fact.

So even though you're not really paying the listing or buyer's agent directly, as you would be in most normal transactions, you can expect to end up paying the tax upon whatever it is they end up making. After all, $10,000 paid to the listing agent and $10,000 paid the the buyer's agent means $20,000 that didn't go to your lender. As I've said before, that lender is going to want to see real evidence of poverty before they accept the short payoff. Getting short payoffs approved is not about "it's difficult!" or "I don't wanna!", it's about showing that there isn't any way that nets the lender more money. If it looks like they'll lose less if they foreclose, expect the lender to go the foreclosure route. They're not going to accept a short sale just because it would be uncomfortable for you, financially. You are (or actually, your listing agent is) going to have to persuade them that all of the other alternatives result in them losing more money than approving the short sale.

Agent commissions mean you'll owe more money in taxes, or deficiency judgment (if applicable) than without an agent, but that's only considered in isolation. If they convince a buyer's agent to show it to their client, if that results in a client being willing to make a larger offer, or an earlier one, if they negotiate the offering price upwards, and most especially if they get the lender to quickly approve a short payoff rather than dragging it out, or going through that whole dismal foreclosure process, all of these mean you ended up owing less money than you would have without that agent - precisely analogous to any number of research studies and studies that show that people who pay full service agents end up with more money in their pocket, even after paying the agent. It's very easy to look at the HUD-1 and ask yourself what an agent could possibly have done that's worth 3 percent of the sales price. There's no way to show or track, on an individual sale basis, the added value that the agent brought to the transaction. Those numbers just don't show up on the individual HUD-1, because there's nothing that documents them. On the other hand, they've been documented any number of times in the aggregate. The bottom line is that if the lender ends up losing less money, you end up with less in the way of potential tax liabilities, less in the way of judgments against you, and less damage to your long term financial picture, not to mention that the lender comes away better and the agent gets paid. If that's not the perfect picture of win-win-win, what is?

One last thing before I close: this presumes you have some reason why you need to sell the property. The local market being what it is, I am straightforwardly advising people not to list their property for sale right now if they have an alternative. It may be a great time to buy, but it's a rotten time to sell. If you can afford the payments, if you don't need out from under the mortgage as quickly as possible - in short, if your situation is sustainable - there's no need to do anything, and you'll be able to sell on better terms when there aren't forty sellers per buyer in the market.

Caveat Emptor

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This page is a archive of entries in the X-Pert Knowledge category from September 2007.

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