How do you know if your listing agent is doing a good job?

I was out showing homes this weekend and I went to a community to see 3 townhouses on the same street. I reviewed the showing instructions. The first house had instructions to call a showing service, which I did, to receive the combination to the lockbox. (As an aside I HATE combo lockboxes…it’s such a disservice to the seller…there’s no record of who came by and when, and no way to tell how many people have the combination. But I digress.) The other two were labeled ‘show anytime, electronic lockbox’. I dutifully took my buyer—who, by the way, is pre-approved and ready to write an offer as soon as she sees something she likes—only to find that the two ‘electronic’ lockboxes were actually combination lockboxes. No combination listed in the MLS printout. I called both agents and got voicemail. We walked around the community for a few minutes, then left. Later that day I got a call from one of the agents with the combination. I never did hear from the second. And my client? She decided to buy somewhere else.

It’s really too bad that there isn’t a standard level of service provided to—and expected by—sellers. Here is a short list of questions to ask and ways to check up on your quality of service:

  1. Does your property have multiple pictures in the MLS? Have you looked at them? Too many times I see a picture taken with a point-and-shoot that is really a picture of the furniture rather than the room. You can’t get wide enough angles from a run-of-the-mill camera. Buyers DEMAND pictures. I work with a LOT of buyers, and they assume that something is wrong with the property if there are no pictures.
  2. Is there an electronic lockbox (this is for the seller’s safety)? Does it open properly (Ask your agent to check periodically…I tried to show one last week and the box wasn’t working so we weren’t able to get the keys.) Are there keys in it? (Yes, I’ve had this happen, too, when trying to show a property to a buyer.)
  3. Web Site – Does your property have its own website (e.g., These sites aren’t for search engine ranking, but rather for your marketing materials—the brochures, the open house ads, the signs. Buyers want as much information as possible. Buyers DO look at these sites (my listings get dozens of hits per day), and they show them to their friends for opinions, and I want buyers spending as much time as possible looking at information about my listings versus others.
  4. Open Houses – I’m a big fan of open houses. (See my open house post here.) Any agent who says “No one buys off an open house” is WRONG. I’ve had several of my buyer clients buy a house that they saw for the first time when it was held open, and I sold one of my listings to someone who saw it at an open house. Do you want to be denied that chance? Make sure the ad in the paper has your property’s web address (see #3) in it – buyers are more likely to make the time to see your home if they’ve seen it online and the pictures are good—see #1. See how all of these fit together to form a marketing strategy?
  5. Updates – Make sure you get a full market analysis from your listing agent at least every week. Market conditions change, and it’s important that you know what your competition—those other listings—is doing.

This is just a brief list of some of the most common mistakes (or, dare I say, lack of effort) that I see out there. Make sure you optimize your chances of selling by demanding the best from your agent.

To discuss what I do in addition to the above for my sellers, email me.

Read more: Open Houses and Route Optimizer

Read more: 5 Mistakes Listing Agents Make


Why I May Not Be Able To Represent You

When someone calls me to tell me they want help writing an offer and they already know what property they want, my heart sinks. Seems counter-intuitive, right? I had to turn down two qualified buyer clients so far this year. I really wanted to work with them, and they each really wanted to work with me. What gives?

Both instances had procuring cause issues. Procuring cause is the legal term that gives a buyer agent the right to claim the person as their client, and therefore claim the compensation due in the sale. The agent must cause the buyer to procure the property—and only one agent can be a procuring cause for any given property. Interestingly, procuring cause has very little to do with whether or not a buyer has signed a buyer broker agreement, which leads to some very unfortunate circumstances like I experienced.

In the first case, the buyer had contacted the listing agent (who represents the seller) to view the property. The agent went on to recommend a lender, and discuss specifics of what an offer might look like in terms of a proposed offer price, settlement date, inspections, etc. (This brings up another pet peeve of mine—dual agency. I’ve yet to have someone explain to me how a single agent can best represent both the buyer and seller in a single transaction. You can deal honestly of course, which one would hope an agent would do regardless of whom they represent, but to fully represent the best interests of both sides seems impossible to me. That’s why many states have made it illegal.) This buyer did NOT sign an agreement with the agent, but nonetheless had an implied agency agreement due to their interactions, which prevented me from representing her.

Moral #1: Do NOT call the listing agent to view a property you’re interested in—you may inadvertently restrict your representation options later. Wait for an open house, or better yet, find your own buyer’s agent.

In the second case, the potential client again reached out to me to ask me to represent him. Unfortunately he had already seen the property—new construction—on which he intended to make an offer. He had seen the property with another agent he had been working with, but whom he now did not wish to be represented by. Again, no signed agreement was in place. But merely by being accompanied by this agent to the sales office, he was now ‘registered’ with this agent. He did it exactly right by registering with an agent—sales offices are notorious for now allowing representation later if you don’t, but unfortunately he decided he just didn’t work well with this agent. But my hands are tied—the other agent is his registered agent, at least for purposes of that particular property.

Moral #2: Choose your agent carefully. You may not be able to change later, with or without a signed agreement.

In both of these cases, the agent is reasonably seen as the procuring cause—that is, the agent who took significant steps to help the buyer procure the property either by providing access, assisting with process guidance, or simply being present at time of registration. Which is why my heart sinks a little bit whenever someone calls me to ask me to represent them and says ‘and I already know which property I want.’ Because chances are that I can’t help them, as much as I’d like to.

Procuring cause gets very complicated. It doesn’t mean that once you start working with an agent, you’re locked in even if you didn’t sign anything. Assuming you are not bound by a written contract, you can begin working with another agent. It just gets a lot trickier (though not impossible) if you end up buying a property you saw with the first agent.

If you’re concerned that you have unwittingly created an implied agency relationship, talk to the agent, or if you’re uncomfortable, the agent’s managing broker. Or barring that, the agent you then wish to engage. It’s quite possible that the first agent will ‘release’ their right and you can move on as you wish. Or alternatively, the old agent and the new agent may be able to work something out. Of course, the best thing to do is, right at the beginning of your search, choose an agent with whom you’re comfortable, but hindsight is 20/20 in that regard. I encourage potential clients to get me involved as early in the process as possible—even if your purchase is many months away. Better to have a patient advisor (I have clients who have been looking well over a year!) than to be denied the representation you want later.


FAQ: If the Seller Pays the Buyer’s Agent, How Do I Know My Buyer Agent is Doing Her Best for Me?

If buyer agents are paid by the seller, how do I know they are working to get me the best deal?

I’m often asked this question, especially by readers of Freakonomics (a great book!). It’s a fair question; it seems that it’s an inherent conflict of interest.

Let’s discuss how agents are compensated. Sellers don’t hire an agent, they hire a broker, though in reality sellers often choose a broker based on the agent they like. Let’s say it’s Long & Foster. Long & Foster then has individual contract agreements with many, many agents. (Agents are NOT employees—we’re all 1099, or individual contractors. That means we get to deal with the joys of finding our own health insurance, funding our own retirement, paying our own marketing expenses, and dealing with our own quarterly tax filings, not to mention the 7.5% self-employment tax! But I digress.) Each agent has their own agreement indicating how they will be compensated on every transaction, whether it’s a flat percentage, sliding scale, etc.

A seller agrees to pay a listing broker a compensation of what we’ll call X% or $X. Further, that agreement says that the listing broker will pay a co-operating broker (who represents the buyer) Y% or $Y of that total. That portion gets paid if and only if the buyer has representation. If the buyer does not have representation, then the listing broker keeps the whole thing. Similar to the listing broker and his agents, the co-operating broker (who represents the buyer) has similar agreements with their own agents.

So far, we have x%/$ being split 4 ways: the listing broker, the co-operating broker, the buyer agent, and the seller agent.

So if I, as your buyer’s agent, am getting paid by the seller (though technically it’s the co-operating broker getting paid by the listing broker), and one way or another it’s tied to a percentage of sales price, then how do you know I’m doing the best job I can for you?

I wish I could give you a checklist of “How To Know Whether To Trust Your Agent” but it’s not that simple. Buyers need to choose an agent they trust to have their best interests at heart. It’s a combination of experience, education, and your gut. One thing is for sure: if you are asking yourself this question, you probably don’t trust the agent you’re with.

Here’s another way though: Know whether your agent is building their business based on referrals. Do they keep in touch with past clients? Do they communicate often with you? Do they have events throughout the year designed to thank clients for their business? Are past clients satisfied? These are all indicators that they depend heavily on referrals to build their business, and it’s therefore very important that they do a good job.

These are qualitative ideas though, and I know people want numbers – so let me give an example of why a smart agent knows more important that I do a good job representing a buyer to get future business rather than get a higher commission on a single transaction. Let’s say a buyer overpays by $10,000—that’s real money. Once the transaction is recorded and the buyer lives there for awhile, it will become very clear whether they’ve overpaid. Neighbors talk, and tax records are public information. And if they have overpaid, they obviously will not be pleased with their agent, and will not send any future business. That $10,000 in sales price represents—after splitting four ways, accounting for taxes, etc., about a few tanks of gas in my pocket as a buyer agent. Seriously, no joke. Why on earth would I jeopardize a client relationship, future referrals, and even a future sale (after all, you’re likely not going to stay in that house forever) for such a small amount? For two tanks of gas I’d give up a future revenue stream worth thousands, or maybe tens of thousands? I think not. One of my clients—who happened to be amongst my smallest dollar transactions, by the way—sent me TEN referrals last year!

And therein lies your goal: Find an agent who values the relationship, and builds their business for the long term. Then you can be confident they have your best interest at heart, regardless of who is paying them.


How to Read a Good Faith Estimate or HUD-1

It can be difficult to compare apples-to-apples when looking at closing cost estimates from lenders. There are lots of tricks that a lender can pull to make themselves look better, and there are so many expenses that’s it’s difficult to know which ones are “junk fees.”

Let’s review terminology first. When you make a loan application, a lender is required to provide you with a Good Faith Estimate (GFE). Most lenders provide you with this estimate even if you haven’t made a full application yet. The GFE contains three main parts: your rate/point combination, your monthly housing payment estimate, and an estimate of your closing costs. Though lenders are required to give you an estimate of closing costs—which run 2.5% to 3% in this area—they actually have no control over most of the fees shown! So be warned: do NOT compare lenders based on total closing costs! There are too many places they can under-estimate to make themselves appear more competitive.

The GFE closing cost estimate is an estimate of what will ultimately be shown on the HUD-1 at closing. The HUD-1 is a standard government form with each line item numbered for easy comparison. GFEs, on the other hand, come in a variety of format, further complicating comparisons.

Generally the expenses on GFEs and HUD-1s will fall into these categories:

Total Sales/Broker’s Commission

Section 700 on the HUD-1, and usually not shown on the GFE because this section is an expense of the seller.

Items Payable in Connection With the Loan aka “Lender’s Fees”

Section 800 on the HUD-1. These are your lender fees, and the most important part of your GFE because this is the part your lender actually controls, and is, at least in part, negotiable. This section will also include any points that you are being charged to get your loan rate. So you must compare this section in conjunction with comparing the interest rate charged.

Items Required by Lender to Be Paid in Advance

Section 900 on the HUD-1. This section is primarily driven by the day of the month you close. Lenders require that you ‘pre-pay’ the interest between settlement day and the end of the month. So if you close on the 1st, you owe 30 days of interest. If you close on the 30th, then you owe one day. If you’re comparing lenders, make sure they all use the same assumption for purposes of the GFE. As long as you’re comparing apples to apples in rates and points across lenders, you can ignore this section.

Reserves Deposited by Lender aka “Total Prepaids/Reserves”

Section 1000 on the HUD-1. Most lenders are the same in what they require—a year of hazard insurance, a few months of property and other local taxes, mortgage insurance, and possibly a month of condo fees. The lender doesn’t actually control this section of the estimate, so it’s safe to ignore it in your ‘shopping’ of loans.

Title/Settlement Charges

Section 1100 on the HUD-1. The settlement company determines this section, so it’s safe to ignore it in your comparison of lenders. This is a big chunk of your fees because it includes title insurance.

Government Charges

Section 1200 on the HUD-1. The local jurisdiction determines this section, so it’s safe to ignore it in your comparison of lenders.


Section 1300 on the HUD-1. Contrary to popular belief, this is not where the “junk fees” are. Instead it tends to be actual costs incurred for couriers, the survey of the property, and other fees that don’t fit into one of the above categories.

Read more: “Junk Fees”

Read more: Title Insurance


Complications Buying Condos Using FHA Financing

FHA doesn’t play well with condos. Which is too bad, really, since FHA is such a perfect option for first time buyers since it requires only 3% down, as opposed to the 10% most banks are demanding right now. For a borrower to use an FHA loan to purchase a condo, it must be on the FHA approved list (click here for database). If you take a look through this database, which is not very user-friendly by the way, since it doesn’t allow you to search by address, you’ll see it’s slim pickings.

That doesn’t mean that you should give up hope though. You can still try for a ‘spot-approval’ which means that FHA will see if the building meets certain criteria and then give a one-time exception. Some of the most restrictive criteria include:

· Building must be at least 90% sold (so no new construction qualifies)

· Building must be >51% owner-occupied (I’ve found this is an issue for many older buildings where units are low in price.

· No single entity owns more than 10% of the units

· Condo Association must not be currently in litigation

· No special assessments are pending

· There is an adequate reserve fund and plan

To protect yourself as a buyer, it’s advisable to include a financing contingency period while the lender investigates whether you can get a spot approval. You don’t want to be locked into a contract only to find FHA won’t give you the loan.

So, what to do if you’re interested in a condo but can’t get FHA approval? First, speak with your lender (or other lenders) about other programs that might be available. If your budget allows it, consider looking at townhouses or duplexes, which aren’t subject to the same FHA approval requirements. It may be even more affordable than you think, when you factor in the lack of a condo fee. Or concentrate your search on buildings you know to be FHA compliant.