Buyer agent commissions was a hot discussion topic at Inman Connect Las Vegas, with industry voices weighing in on the impact of lawsuits challenging the traditional real estate commission structure in the U.S.
According to Brian Boero, a consultant and partner at 1000Watt Consulting, buyer agents—as well as buyer-focused brokerages and companies that serve them—will bear the brunt of those legal challenges.
It’s worth noting, too, that the U.S. is an outlier when it comes to agent commissions. Every other country does it differently. So, if the traditional way of paying agents gives way to newer compensation models, curiosity seems more appropriate than panic.
And if Brian Boero and panel moderator Joe Rand are correct, this could be a good thing.
Buyer Commissions Apocalypse or “Happy Reckoning”?
If the DOJ rules the traditional real estate commission structure as a violation of antitrust laws, we’ll likely see changes like the ones instituted by Northwest MLS across the board.
Buyer agents will have to be more transparent about the value they bring to a real estate transaction—what they do for the buyer and how much they get paid (or want to get paid) for it.
Transparency is having a moment right now. And while some will take that as their cue to exit stage left (or partner up with Zillow), resilient and forward-thinking agents and brokerages will adapt and plan accordingly.
Agents on the buy side have not been put in a position where they have to even talk about the commission, which is why they don’t talk about they’re getting paid by the seller. The buyer doesn’t have to literally write a check for it. So they haven’t had to justify their purpose in the same way.
Buyer agents will have to demonstrate their value proposition
Buyer agents who expect drastic cuts to their commission income may need to consider other ways to earn—like charging by the hour, charging a retainer fee, or charging a fee for each service rendered.
Bernice Ross, who pointed to Northwest MLS changes as a creative solution worth emulating, agreed with Brian Boero on this point: Buyer agents and listing agents alike need to do a better job of showing clients what exactly they do for them and how they get paid.
Most listing agents don’t have a clear value proposition. They show up at your appointments with their little printout from the MLS. Maybe that has to change at the listing level. But now it’s going to really transfer over to the buyer’s [agent]; they’re going to have to illustrate their value.
Raising the bar for real estate agents
It’s likely that buyers, confronted with the costs of using an agent, will shop around for those who give them the best value for their buck. And agents who aren’t willing to put in the work required to stand out will leave the industry in droves.
I personally think that the practice of real estate is a nearly sacred vocation that ought to be handled by professionals at the highest level. Look, we’ve got a million-and-a-half real estate agents in the United States of America. It’s too many. I think if we cleared out a half million real estate agents, and we had a tight cadre of pros with great agents, great teams, great brokers—that to me is not painless, but it’s a net positive.
Tech companies and transparency
Zillow has seen the writing on the wall, and these changes—like the ones instituted by Northwest MLS—could be at least part of the impetus behind their recent partnership with Opendoor.
Zillow takes pride in its mission to “turn the light on” and make real estate transactions more transparent for consumers. This makes the partnership all the more interesting, given Opendoor’s recent spanking by the FTC for misleading consumers.
However this partnership plays out, both companies will most likely survive the impact of any changes to the commission structure.
Start planning now
Brian Boero encouraged agents and brokerages to start planning now as if the traditional commission structure is going away. He pointed out how the big players in the industry (like Zillow) are already planning for this.
While individual agents may not be planning for this, Boero is confident that buyer-facing brokerages and companies like Zillow and Redfin that depend (at least partly) on buyer commissions are already taking action to soften the blow—or even use it to their advantage.
Individual agents, as well as smaller brokerages, should do the same.