It’s that time of year when renters on the prowl are scoping out apartments. One summer back in my post-college days, the broker who eventually found us a place in Beacon Hill showed up in the morning with a black eye, drinking coffee out of what looked like a five-gallon bucket. “It was a bad night last night,” he explained. “My friend beat me with a spatula.” First of all: I’d hate to meet that guy’s enemies. Second: Rental agents really work hard for their money.
Sales agents, though, might be a different story. And brokers are touchy these days because they’re worried that the internet has made them obsolete and that homeowners are going to eventually get wise. I don’t see that happening, because real estate agents are ruthlessly committed to the premise that you must have an agent on both sides of the deal or else you’ll end up living on an ancient burial ground haunted by poltergeists who wail, “This is a bad school dissstrrriiicccctt!” And I know this because I’ve now sold two places without using an agent.
Here’s my logic: Property in Boston is not exactly hard to sell. Why would you pay someone to sell a thing that people really, really want to buy? It’s like, gee, I’ve got this ice-cold oasis in the desert—how am I gonna sell this water? And when sellers are paying five percent of the sale price, the work-versus-reward ratio gets distorted quickly. I have a friend in Needham who just sold his four-bedroom, which immediately generated 10 offers over list. The vig for just the seller’s agent came out to about $90,000. Is it reasonable to charge $90,000 for a weekend’s worth of walk-throughs followed by some light paperwork? The only reason this wacky structure remains in place is that real estate agents stick together like the Cosa Nostra. You go outside the system, they’re gonna ice you.
Back in 2008, when we first tested the for-sale-by-owner waters in Southie, one agent made an appointment and then simply didn’t show up. When I called her, she replied, “Maybe if you used a Realtor, that kind of thing wouldn’t happen.” Oh! The horse head in the bed, right there.
In another case, on the buyer side, we initially dragged our heels getting an agent because we figured we could initially identify potential places ourselves. This approach so enraged one agent that she refused to show us her listing because she was indignant on behalf of the imaginary agent we weren’t using. How dare we not pay commission to this person, if they existed! She eventually said she’d show us the house if we signed her as a dual agent (i.e., if she got both sides of the commission). It’s a nice pitch: I despise you, but if you promise me lots of money then I’ll pretend to represent your interests but won’t really.
Well, lady, you don’t want to step to my game when it comes to being petty and vindictive. I looked up the deed from the county registry, found the owner and called to let her know that her agent refused to show her house. Lo and behold, I got a contrite call later that day offering to show the place. Nah. I didn’t like it that much anyway.
You might gather, from all this friction, that I’m anti-real estate agent. I’m not. I’m anti-commission structure, where the terms are dictated by cartel-like solidarity and nothing else. (In other industries, this is called “price-fixing.”) But with two FSBO sales under my belt, I appreciate the main function of a broker, which is to absolve the seller of second-guessing. Could you have asked for more money, or conceded less, or accepted the offer that had some strings attached? This is stuff that quite literally kept me up at night, but if I’d had a broker then I could’ve just said, “Well, Carol”—most brokers are named Carol—“told me to do this, so it’s out of my hands.” It’s like paying someone to place your bets in Vegas. You might still lose five grand on red, but it’s not as bad if it wasn’t your idea.
In fact, I think I’m on to something here. For a modest fee, let’s say $250 per hour, I’ll tell you how to price your house. (Hint: It’ll be similar to the prices that other ones nearby sold for.) Then when you get an offer or two, I’ll tell you which one to take (the highest, usually). And when the buyers come back and ask for $20,000 off, on account of all the poltergeists and ferret dung, I’ll tell them to pay you $20,000 for even asking such an insulting question. Finally, when they walk away, I’ll take the blame. You’ll feel bad, but not as bad as you would if this were your idea. For a small upcharge, I’ll even get out the spatula. ♦
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