On the House | A survey and a few caveats

Guess what? A survey of consumers by the National Association of Realtors shows that most are very satisfied with their real estate agents.

This survey is done every two years, and the results are always the same. (Actually, this time the results were better, by 2 percentage points.)

Even if the housing market is in a tailspin and threatening to bring the rest of the economy down with it - I'm just reporting what the economists are saying - Realtors apparently still command the respect of their clients.

Who am I to disbelieve it?

After all, the survey was based on an eight-page questionnaire sent in August to a national sample of 150,000 home buyers and sellers who, according to county records, were involved in transactions between July 2006 and June 2007. That generated 9,966 usable responses; the adjusted response rate was 6.9 percent.

I know, I know. You're asking what happened to the other 140,034 people. Well, any professional in the survey biz will tell you that most folks don't respond - they forget, their pens run out of ink, they fill out the questionnaire but forget to mail it, they use their last stamps for the utility bills.

So I guess 79 percent of almost 1/15th of the people surveyed is about as good as it gets, considering that voter turnout is dropping enough every year that by 2020 we could be picking the president by flipping a coin at Citizens Bank Park.

The real question - as several readers have posed it over the last few months, whenever I've written anything that could be construed as positive about any subject - is this: Do most people actually know what their real estate agents are supposed to be doing for them?

Michael Lee, advocate of fee-for-service and one of the industry's recognized experts on multiculturalism in the housing market, says the public truly believes that all an agent does is show up to list the house and then doesn't show again until closing, to pick up the commission.

The whole idea behind fee-for-service is to allow sellers to choose what agents do for them - for the sake of accountability, among other things.

Most agents and brokers reject the fee-for-service model because they wrongly believe that it is discount brokerage, in which you negotiate with a broker to provide reduced service or are charged a lower commission for less.

But you have to understand where brokers and agents are coming from. Someone asked Dick Gaylord, the new Realtors association president, at the recent Las Vegas meeting whether 20 percent of the Realtors were still selling 80 percent of the houses. He didn't disagree.

There are about 21/2 million real estate agents in the United States, more than half of whom are members of the National Association of Realtors. Though some don't practice, plenty do, and most of them weren't making much money at it even during the real estate boom.

Let's reduce things to the basics:

Twenty percent of 2.5 million agents is 500,000. Eighty percent of 6.7 million existing-home sales at the peak of the boom is 5.45 million.

Round the average number of sales per agent to 10 houses, and with the U.S. median price at $260,000, you're talking about earning 3 percent (half the typical commission) or a total of $78,000 for a year.

After expenses repaid to the broker, income taxes, insurance, and car payment, you're talking about only $26,000 net for the year, or 1 percent of the 6 percent commission on a total of 10 houses.

Remember that the other 80 percent of agents are involved in only 20 percent of the transactions, and then do the math again. Still, Gaylord reported that Realtors Association membership is increasing, and cited the fact that a record 30,000-plus members showed up in Las Vegas for the annual meeting.

Of course, the economy overall is showing signs of slowing, and with corporate downsizing on the increase, the real estate business, even in the doldrums, looks more promising in the long run.

Things are bound to get better. Just when they will is another big question.


"On the House" appears Sundays in

The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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