Agents brace for impact: A future with more unrepresented buyers


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Seven years ago, Michigan real estate agent Michael Krausman began experiencing a series of symptoms that looked like a stroke.

Krausman told Inman that he started falling down and suffered from memory loss. Eventually, doctors discovered he was suffering from a brain disease, not a stroke, but the experience still meant that he was no longer able to work.

“I couldn’t talk or do anything,” Krausman, who today works at Luxury Living Real Estate, said. “I was out of business. I had to move out of where I was living.”

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But that move — to a condo, where he’d have better access to care — proved to be pivotal. Krausman recalled that he never spoke with a seller’s agent, but rather coordinated with the property owners themselves. And when he asked the owners about their experience, they revealed they too hadn’t met their agent; instead, they had used a flat-fee agent who charged a few hundred dollars to get the property on the local multiple listing service.

Krausman suddenly realized he was facing an opportunity. He couldn’t drive around town to open doors, or hold open houses. But even with his brain disease, he could work a few hours a week online. So he built a website and began offering flat fee services to consumers. And it worked.

“My business took off,” he said, adding that even as he has recovered he has continued offering flat fee services to consumers who don’t want to pay ordinary agent commissions. “The truth is I’m making more money now that I was before.”

Krausman’s story is ultimately an example of an agent taking particularly sour lemons and making lemonade.

But this isn’t just an inspiring human interest tale. Rather, the reason we’re talking about Krausman right now is because the real estate industry more generally is in the midst of some major changes — lemons, at least in the eyes of some observers — thanks to a massive proposed settlement the National Association of Realtors just forged in multiple commission lawsuits. If approved by a court, the settlement will involve a big payment from NAR as well as rule changes. And while it remains to be seen how exactly these changes might play out, one of the more-discussed possible outcomes is that in the future fewer consumers may opt to transact using agents.

In other words, Krausman’s experience may foreshadow the way real estate looks for more and more people going forward.

It’s worth noting that this outcome is far from guaranteed, and a multitude of unknowns remain when it comes to commission litigation. Some people also don’t think much will change at all in the wake of the commission cases; just last week, for instance, none other than Barbara Corcoran suggested the commissions litigation isn’t actually a big deal.

But Inman was curious what might happen if, say, more buyers started coming to the table without agents. Will sellers’ agents help them? Will some sort of flat-fee model thrive? Will dual agency become more popular? Inman reached out to agents looking for answers. And while responses varied, the takeaway from these conversations was that both buyers and sellers’ agents might have to get more creative in a future that looks quite different from the present.

The flat-fee coordinator

Among the agents who spoke to Inman for this story, Krausman operates using the most atypical model. But in part because he’s helping sellers take a more proactive approach, he also fields direct buyer inquiries relatively often — including the morning he took Inman’s call. And Krausman suggested that such activity might become more common in the near future because buyers will generally be reluctant to pay 3 percent to their agents.

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Michael Krausman

“The first agent that goes and says to a buyer, ‘I need you to sign this agreement saying I’m going to get $24,000 on an $800,000 house,’ the first thing [the buyer is] going to do is ask, ‘$24,000 for writing an offer for me?’”

In response, Krausman speculated that buyers will start being even more proactive, visiting more open houses, for example, and spending even more time combing over listings on big portals. Some agents may ultimately be better off in this future.

“It’s going to be good for me and people who list homes,” he said.

Asked specifically how he responds to unrepresented buyers who don’t want to work with an agent, Krausman said that in the past he has referred buyers to sellers so they can work together directly — much as he did when he bought the condo that started his flat-fee journey. But he also said he can function as a kind of transaction coordinator for buyers who want to do deals with his sellers. He wasn’t talking about dual agency, but a different kind of role much like he plays for sellers who just need him to get their property on the MLS.

In such cases, if the seller’s are offering a commission to a buyer’s agent, Krausman said he also shares that money with the unrepresented buyers.

“When these buyers call me, I’ll sell the home and I’ll split the commission,” he said.

The referral and DIY model

A recurring theme in conversations for this piece was that many agents aren’t fans of dual representation. Among those who voiced this opinion was Bill Brandt, a Coldwell Banker agent in the Phoenix area. His argument was that “even though you can be fair and honest it’s not a good situation to enter into.”

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Bill Brandt

Brandt told Inman that if unrepresented buyers approach him about one of his listings, he first asks if they’re working with an agent. If the buyers don’t have representation, he offers to refer them to someone who can represent their interests. Brandt repeatedly stressed the importance of working with agents, noting that decades ago when he started in real estate buyer representation was less common — which he views as an inferior way to transact.

However, in situations where buyers don’t want to work with — or possibly, in the future, pay for — an agent, Brandt said he invites them to do the deal on their own. And though Brandt believes agents are valued, he also said consumers can and do figure out how to transact for themselves.

“I would tell the individual, ‘if you decide to do this yourself you’re more than able to do that,’” Brandt said. “If they don’t want to be represented then that’s fine too, but I’m not going to represent them for liability reasons.”

Change may be challenging

Last week, Florida-based RE/MAX agent Tammy Campbell posed a question in the popular Real Estate Mastermind’s Facebook group for industry professionals: “Who cuts their commission in half when the buyer is unrepresented?”

The post ultimately racked up more than 130 responses as of this writing. Some agents indicated that they do cut their commissions, or do whatever it takes to close a deal. Others said they just pocket the entire percentage the seller is offering.

“I actually almost double mine at that point,” one person wrote. “Three-point-five percent to me, 2.5 percent to buyers agent. If there’s no buyers agent, 6 percent to me.”

“I reduce to 4 percent if I have both sides and it’s a higher dollar amount,” another explained.

“If that’s what it takes to close the deal I would. And move to the next [one],” yet another person said.

(It’s worth noting that a fair number of agents also urged fellow industry members not to discuss commissions publicly, lest they open themselves up to further litigation.)

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Tammy Campbell

The conversation highlights the vast range of attitudes about unrepresented buyers (and possibly the anxiety about unknowns) swirling the industry right now. But in a phone call with Inman, Campbell said it might not be so easy to simply redirect commissions once a deal has begun.

“It’s hard to change a contract based on the representation status of the buyers,” she said.

Campbell’s point was that buyers with various representation statuses may approach a seller. And that seller might be willing to offer 6 percent (or another figure) in total to entice buyers, but may be less enthusiastic about offering the entire amount to the listing agent. How such a scenario might play out in the wake of the commission suit settlements remains to be seen, but the thing to remember is that a world in which a large number of buyers lack representation would be uncharted waters for today’s U.S. real estate market.

Krausman pointed to other challenges as well. In his case, for example, he was able to pivot to an entirely new model when health problems got in the way of his work. But he said now, when other factors get in the way of some agent’s livelihoods, they may run into rules or policies at their brokerages that limit their agility.

Either way though, Krausman did stress that like it or not, change is coming

“If you’re not going to do something different right now,” Krausman said, “you’re going to die out there.”

Email Jim Dalrymple II





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