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Trading Places

Michael Flack  |  October 12, 2020

MY WIFE AND I decided at the end of 2016 to sell our house. Selling a home is the biggest transaction most of us will ever make, and yet—in my experience—almost all home sellers spend too little time trying to find the right real estate agent.

Folks might interview two agents at most and many interview none at all, instead hiring based on a friend’s recommendation. I realized there must be a better way. Now, I didn’t know what that was, but I was determined to take a more rigorous approach. I had four options:

1. Full-service agent (a.k.a. “the 6% solution”)

We had used a full-service agent to buy our house. He hadn’t done a good job, so we interviewed three other full-service agents. All used what I came to realize is the classic (and only) real estate agent sales technique, which is to tour your house issuing generic compliments (“I love the natural light,” “beautiful floors” and so on) and then handing you “The Binder” which contains:

  • Brochures that tout their ability to sell your house, including abilities that every agent possesses: the multiple listing service (MLS), listing on Realtor.com, access to exclusive clientele, blah, blah, blah.
  • Agent bio.
  • Comps for your house that leads to the recommended sales price, which is the only thing you really care about.

None of the three agents made any effort to personalize his or her pitch. The phone call setting up the appointment, the compliments and The Binder were all identical. I kept waiting for something specific to our situation, but it never came.

One tip: Try to negotiate a 4.5% or 5% commission. While agents will obviously resist, some may agree, especially if it’s a higher-priced home.

2. Discount brokerage

There are some full-service brokerages that don’t charge a 6% commission. One of them is Redfin, which only charges a 1.5% selling commission. That means you still need to pay the 3% to the buyer’s agent. I had noticed one of Redfin’s for-sale signs in front of a house a block away from our home and contacted the agent. She showed up at the appointed time and proceeded to use the classic (and only) real estate agent sales technique. See above.

At one point, though, she mentioned that she knew the builder’s rep who sold us our home two years prior. I became filled with hope that she would next say that she had called him in an effort to gain a better understanding of how best to sell our house. My hopes were quickly dashed. She mentioned how Redfin would market our house using the MLS, listing on Realtor.com, access to exclusive clientele, blah, blah, blah.

3. Flat-fee listing service

There are brokerage firms that will list your house on the MLS for a flat fee, thus sidestepping the 3% selling agent’s commission. Generally, you’ll still have to pay a 3% commission to the buyer’s agent.

4. For sale by owner

Otherwise known as FSBO, this means not listing through the MLS, thereby avoiding both the 3% commission to the buyer‘s agent and the 3% selling commission. This is a true DIY option, but to me it isn’t a realistic option. Without the MLS, I’m not sure how you could get the exposure you need.

And the winner was… discount full-service brokerage. Actually, Redfin wasn’t so much the winner, but the best of the worst. While we weren’t impressed with the agent, she was no worse than the others and we were saving 1.5%.

Well, we met with our agent and agreed on a price of $424,900. As Houston was a buyer’s market, we needed to price the house above our expected selling price to allow for negotiation.

As soon as I saw the first draft of the MLS description that our agent had written, I knew we were going to have to work for our 1.5% in commission savings. The description was atrocious, almost like she had never written one before. My wife completely reworked it, turning it into the superior marketing document it needed to be.

On April 20, 2017, the for-sale sign was installed and we waited for the offers to come pouring in. And in a way they did. We were excited when Beverly Mae called us with an offer only a few days later. Our excitement quickly ebbed when we realized it was for $390,000.

The low-ballers had appended to their offer a lengthy document used to profess their ardor for our house. To be honest, I’m not sure of the entire contents, because I stopped reading their love letter after they stated that $390,000 was the best they could offer. Despite their instructions, we countered at $420,000. We never heard from them again.

A week turned into a month, a month into two months. We started dropping the price, first to $417,000 and then to $410,000.

In our subdivision, there was a larger house that was for sale for $575,000. As both our for-sale sign and theirs were at the entrance to the subdivision, we realized that many buyers that visited this larger house may not have realized our house was also for sale. We expressed our concerns to Beverly Mae, who was not concerned. At our insistence, she provided us with a second for-sale sign, which we installed on our front porch, in direct sight of those visiting the larger house. I wasn’t sure it was going to help, but it made me feel better.

After 100 days on the multiple listing service, the missus informed me I could get out of the fetal position. We had just received not one offer, but two. Our agent said that she had gone back to both buyers for their best and final offer. Buyer No. 1 responded with an offer of $400,000 and buyer No. 2 with an offer of $397,500. Our agent said the next step was for her to get a signed contract from buyer No. 1.

“Whoa, hold on a minute,” I replied and asked her to go back to buyer No. 2 and “tell her the bad news.” Beverly Mae was reluctant. She didn’t think this was professional, but she would if we insisted. We did and were rewarded with an offer of $405,000 from buyer No. 2.

“Next step is for me to get a signed contract,” said Beverly Mae, to which I replied, “Not yet, please tell buyer No. 1 the bad news.”

“If you insist,” she reluctantly replied. We did and were rewarded with a $410,000 offer from buyer No. 1. Unfortunately, after buyer No. 2 heard the bad news (again), she didn’t make a counteroffer.

“Well, I guess the next step is to get a signed contract,” I said to Beverly Mae, and she did.

We subsequently invited buyer No. 1 to our home to say “hello.” After a congratulatory toast, we were satisfied to learn that they had only noticed our home was for sale when they looked at our front porch—and saw the extra for-sale sign.

Michael Flack blogs at AfterActionReport.info. He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets.

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