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Discount brokers helping homebuyers save money

But regulators and real estate agents are fighting back

Americans will pay $63 billion this year in real estate commissions: on average, 5 percent of a home's sale price.

For a median-priced home, that's more than $10,000. In Orange County, Calif., the tally is closer to $35,000.

But a not-so-quiet revolution within the real estate industry is chipping away at commissions. The result: a nasty turf war among agents that has attracted scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators but could save buyers and sellers hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars.

Discounters are the revolution's foot soldiers. With names like HelpUSell, Assist2Sell, ZipRealty and RealEstate.com, they pass along their savings when buyers and sellers do the legwork or make heavy use of the Internet. ZipRealty's agents show about half as many homes as traditional agents because house hunters weed out the duds online, says Zip vice president Pat Lashinsky.

Lashinsky's firm rebates 20 percent of the commission it earns to the buyers it represents. Nate and Aimee Wells used the $3,000 they received to refinish the hardwood floors in the $609,000, two-bedroom flat they recently bought in San Francisco's Noe Valley.

At Miami-based Homekeys, sellers can pay $179 to list their home on the multiple listing service, the database used by area agents, or as little as $5.95 to figure the value of one property.

Streamlined sales practices are catching on. Three years ago, a survey by Real Trends newsletter found that 3 percent of home sellers had used or considered using a discount broker. By 2005, that number had grown to 10 percent — still small, but large enough to challenge the status quo.

Established real estate agents are fighting back. Discounters complain that some agents refuse to work with them and won't show their houses. In September, the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors, claiming that one of its rules unfairly prevents discount brokers from displaying the same information online that traditional brokers provide in their offices. The NAR says the rule isn't unfair and vows to fight the suit.

In a rising real estate market, traditional agents compete for listings by offering extra services — such as marketing specialists, or team members to oversee the closing or shepherd the paperwork. When home values flatten, these agents may have to compete on price.

For discounters' customers, such as Nate and Aimee Wells, that day is already here.