In this heated home market, some sellers are using discount brokers who don’t pay full commission to the buyer’s broker — so the buyers are being asked to make up the difference.

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On top of bidding wars, record-low inventory of homes for sale, and surging prices, would-be homebuyers can add this to their list of things to worry about: “buyer’s agency” fees.

Some brokers are asking the buyers they represent to sign a “buyer’s agency” agreement that obligates the buyer to pay their commission if the seller won’t pay it. In the Seattle area, brokers representing the buyer typically collect 3 percent of the purchase price on a home. So on a home sold for $500,000, the buyer’s broker receives $15,000 of the proceeds.

Buyers rarely think about commissions because brokers routinely say that their services don’t cost the buyer anything. The broker’s 3 percent commission is commonly baked into a home’s asking price, so buyers can end up paying it without realizing commissions are negotiable.

But now buyers and their brokers may be forced into talking about what those services are actually worth.

That’s because new brokerages like Surefield and Quill Realty have declared war on the notion that sellers should pay any commission to the buyer’s agent — Surefield offers them a flat $2,000, while Quill pays nothing.

“The seller gets very little value out of buyer’s agent services,” said Craig Blackmon, Quill Realty’s managing broker. “If a buyer wants to be represented, they can negotiate that with their own agent.”

When consumers shop on sites like Redfin and Zillow, they can’t see how much commission the seller is offering — but real-estate brokers in the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) cooperative can. The suspicion is that many brokers steer their buyers away from houses where the commission is low or nonexistent.

“They’ll all tell you the house won’t sell,” said David Eraker, Surefield’s CEO and previously co-founder of Seattle brokerage Redfin. “Given that consensus, it’s pretty interesting that every house we’ve listed this way has sold.”

Surefield says it’s sold a dozen homes so far this year that advertised a $2,000 fee to the buyer’s broker.

But in most cases, the buyer has had to pay their broker a fee to make up the difference — as Ian Finder discovered last month.

Finder, 25, started shopping for his first home in April with a Windermere agent and put in four unsuccessful offers above asking price before he got a town home under contract in May.

The town home in Seattle’s Judkins Park neighborhood was listed at 11:11 a.m., and Finder and his agent got there in less than an hour.

When Finder put in an offer later that day, he said his agent asked him to sign a buyer’s agency agreement.

The house was listed for $469,000, and Finder offered $481,000, or 3 percent more. He said he expected to pay above asking price to win the house, but the extra $12,000 went toward his agent’s commission.

“It was a little awkward,” Finder recalled, but added, “I understand where he was coming from. This is the guy’s job. Nobody works for free.”

Finder said his agent worked fast to get him into homes and put together competitive offers. Still, “I would have liked if he would have given me a discount,” he said.

The agent couldn’t be reached for comment. But a Windermere spokeswoman acknowledged some agents do ask clients to sign buyer’s agency agreements.

Finder said he felt Surefield’s listings should disclose that it doesn’t offer a 3 percent commission to the buyer’s broker.

Rob McGarty, Surefield’s managing broker and co-founder, said MLS rules bar member brokers from disclosing to the public any information on commissions with listings.

“We’re all about transparency and wish all commissions were published so all consumers know what their agents are getting paid,” McGarty said.

The sellers of the house Finder bought, Myriam Askar and Ajit Banerjee, said they were impressed with Surefield’s expertise and knack for pricing the home right. Before they hired Surefield, Myriam Askar said another agency advised them to list the home in the low $400s.

As for the commission to the buyer’s agent, she said, “I don’t want to pay 3 percent of the transaction if I don’t have to.”

Craig and Laurie Marocco also decided to list their four-bedroom house in Normandy Park with Surefield after talking to a 70-year-old friend who hired Surefield to sell his Capitol Hill condo. The couple’s house went on the market in May for $770,000, went under contract five days later and sold last month for $765,000.

Craig Marocco, 62, said they paid a 3 percent total commission, split between Surefield and the buyer’s Windermere agent. Marocco said the buyer also paid their agent an additional fee.

Some buyers may need an agent “to shepherd them through the process, but it just doesn’t seem like there’s as much work for them to do,” he said.

Had they paid the traditional 6 percent commission, Marocco said that would have totaled about $46,000, which “is an insane amount of money to pay for a transaction. That could be all the money you made on the thing.”

But Cullen Brain, a CB Bain agent who represented a buyer in one of Surefield’s deals, said Surefield’s business model does a disservice to sellers.

Surefield’s rock-bottom fee means “brokers aren’t showing their homes, so they end up selling the homes for less,” Brain said. “If the market wasn’t so geared toward the seller, I don’t think they’d be around.”

A few buyers who tried to make offers on Surefield listings have had trouble finding an agent willing to accept Surefield’s $2,000 fee. Because Surefield only represents sellers, it has referred them to Quill’s Blackmon to represent them.

But even Blackmon said the $2,000 fee is too low to be a sustainable business model. Brokers expect at least a 2.5 percent commission, he said.

If this debate seems familiar, it is. A decade ago, Seattle-based Redfin offered buyers the idea they could buy a house for less by getting a rebate on the buyer’s agent commission at closing. Over time Redfin, which is a member of the MLS broker co-op, has reduced the share of the buyer’s agent commission that it rebates to the buyer.

“If you want to see a decrease in real-estate commissions, you’re not going to achieve that by negotiating with buyers because they don’t pay the commissions,” Blackmon said. “You have to deal with the sellers.”

Blackmon said he withdrew from the Northwest MLS recently so he could list homes on Zillow and other sites and pay no commission to buyer’s brokers.

Under Quill’s model, sellers pay a 1 percent commission, or a minimum of $5,000, and get the services of a real-estate broker and an attorney. Buyers who want to be represented will pay a 1 percent commission too, or a maximum $8,000 — but Blackmon says he can give buyers forms to fill out if they want to make an offer on a Quill listing without being represented.

That sounds like a good deal to Laurie Marocco, 58. Since the Maroccos sold their Normandy Park house, they have been renting a condo on Alki and browsing Redfin for their next home to buy.

“If I have to do all the work, yes, I would hire a lawyer,” she said. “I don’t mind using an agent, but I’ll never pay the full 3 percent for an agent again.”

— Sanjay Bhatt: sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published July 11, 2015, was corrected July 13, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the sellers of the house Finder bought were  Myriam and Ajit  Askar. Ajit’s surname, however, is actually Banerjee.

One in four craft beers launched last year had an alcohol level of 6.5 percent. Most pilsners are 4 to 5 percent.  (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)
One in four craft beers launched last year had an alcohol level of 6.5 percent. Most pilsners are 4 to 5 percent. (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)

Craft brews are more potent

The growth of the craft-beer movement in the U.S., which owes a lot to Washington state’s brewers as well as its growers of hops, is making much of the world a tipsier place, according to recent research by consultancy Mintel.

Soaring demand for strong brew (a consequence of spreading love for tasty craft beer) has meant that one in four beers launched around the world in 2014 had an alcohol by volume (ABV) level of 6.5 percent or more, up from one in seven two years before (most mass-produced pilsners range between 4 and 5 percent.) It’s the result of what a 2011 post at the Washington Beer Blog described as the “ABV arms race.”

Furthermore the number of strong beers launched globally has risen nearly threefold since 2011, Mintel reports. The biggest jump (319 percent) has been in North America, where the favorite style among craft beer lovers is the hoppy and heady India pale ale. In Europe, strong beer releases have jumped 307 percent and even in lager-loving Latin America by 260 percent.

But people in the Asia Pacific still prefer their beer light (strong beer releases have grown only 46 percent in the same time period.)

In Washington, in 2014 there were more than 256 breweries in 2014, up from slightly below 150 in 2011, according to the Brewers Association. Last year the state churned out 405,131 barrels of craft beer, or about 2.5 gallons per drinking-age Washington adult. A lot of these local brews pack a punch: take Black Raven Brewing’s Great Grandfather Raven Bourbon Imperial Stout (11.7 percent) or Fremont Brewing’s Triple Trifecta (11.80 percent). That means a pint of those equals drinking nearly three pints of Bud Light.

— Ángel González: agonzalez@seattletimes.com