It’s a simple question: Does my real-estate agent represent my interests?
Most Washington home sellers and buyers would probably answer with a strong yes.
A new report from the nonprofit watchdog group Consumer Federation of America says, however, that most home shoppers don’t understand the different roles real-estate agents can play in a transaction, and how that impacts their agent’s responsibility to seek the best price.
And the group decried Washington’s seven-page disclosure pamphlet on the subject as the worst in the country, needlessly confusing home shoppers.
Local residential real-estate leaders dispute the conclusion that this state’s disclosures are the nation’s worst, saying that even if the paperwork is confusing, brokers are up front with their clients about conflicts of interest.
“It wouldn’t behoove the broker to mislead their client,” said Annie Fitzsimmons, an attorney for industry group Washington Realtors. “It’s going to come out eventually. And it flies in the face of the broker’s unwaverable duty to honesty to their clients.”
Real-estate agents are required by state law to tell their clients whether they have a conflict of interest in a potential transaction. But the report says the laws on the books aren’t helping home sellers or buyers understand their agent’s role.
The report surveyed all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The authors singled out the seven-page pamphlet Washington brokers are required to give to their clients as “the least consumer-friendly” in the country. Parts of the document, the authors said, were “clearly written by lawyers with little consideration for consumer comprehension.”
Specifically, the report said, home shoppers need to understand their agent’s loyalty can change during the process of buying or selling a home — potentially costing them money.
Washington’s pamphlet, the report said, doesn’t do that.
That could leave people on the brink of one of the most important financial decisions of their lives uncertain whether their agent represents their interests.
In a national Consumer Federation survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said real-estate agents were “always” or “almost always” required to represent the homebuyer or seller with whom they are working. No state actually has this requirement, the report said.
In fact, an agent representing either the seller or buyer of a property can become what’s called a “dual agent,” representing both parties to a transaction — if, for example, an agent is representing buyers interested in a property the agent lists. At that point, the agent ceases to represent solely one party and instead facilitates the transaction.
Both the buyer and the seller would need to agree to such an arrangement. But if one party doesn’t understand their agent is no longer acting solely in their best interests, that could cost them money on the deal, said the report’s author, Stephen Brobeck, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America.
“Home sellers may have gotten $5,000 more if they were working with someone who represented solely their interests, but they don’t understand that,” Brobeck said.
Agents, meanwhile, are incentivized to enter dual-agency agreements because they could receive twice the commission they otherwise would have.
“This actually happened to us when we were looking for land in Bainbridge,” Brobeck said. “When we were looking for properties, we ended up with an agent who only took us to properties he listed.”
The best way for consumers to ensure they understand who’s looking out for their interests in a transaction is to have a conversation with their agent, said Keller Williams broker Russ Cofano, who helped draft Washington’s agency law.
“Most agents are willing to and do take time to talk to their clients about agency,” he said.