Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Move over stock exchange – welcome the Real Estate exchange!

There are reasons buying and selling a home gives the average person a high risk of bursting into fits of rage. Ninety percent of real estate agents are dodgy ninety percent of the time. Information on the home buying process is provided by the self-interested agent to the otherwise (but often not) uninformed buyers and sellers. And while the provision of information, in the form of sales data, legal and financial advice is growing, the incentive structure at all levels is engineered to complete a sale, rather than achieve the best price for the seller. I am going to suggest that the provision of a nationwide residential real estate exchange will benefit both buyers and sellers in the real estate market, at the expense of commission based leeches (that’s real estate agents).

First, consider the role of an agent. They are contracted to act on behalf of the seller to find a buyer at the highest possible price. For this service, they receive a commission on the sale price, which is designed as an incentive for them act in the sellers best interests. Which we all know that in practice this often faces some obstacles. An agent, who would receive in their own hand 1.25% of the sale price, or $2,500 on a $200,000 sale, has little incentive to work harder to achieve an extra $10,000 for the seller. The agent’s premium for the extra $10,000 is a meagre $125.

But maybe the current commission system is better than the alternative fixed cost system. Imagine you pay an agent a fixed cost of, say, $2,500. Where is the incentive for them? Well, they get the same money at whatever price the house sells for. And if it was structured as a fee for service, where the price needs to be paid regardless of whether the house is sold, the incentive is to never get it sold - to get the repeat business!

My main concern however, is actually not about the commission structure itself, but that the commission charged by every agent is the same. The State regulates that the maximum commission charged is 2.5% of the sale price plus $900. You cannot find one single agent who will endeavour to sell your house for less, even though the standard REIQ contract suggests negotiating this amount. Wouldn’t competition amongst agents cause this price to decline, especially as house prices have increased substantially since the regulation was introduced?

The question then is would anyone be worse off if the maximum commission rate was reduced? Some agent would of course, and it may send some out of the game, but that wouldn’t be such a bad thing at a society wide level. The prices acheived in the market will be the same (people's willingness to pay for housing will not be affected by this small detail).

The other little nasty in the real estate game is auctions. As a buyer I always find it amazing how often auctions occur, because it puts me off completely. First, to be a serious bidder you have to commit money for appropriate inspections and financial arrangements without being certain of the price you will have to pay, and whether you will actually buy. The media has recently reported some buyer complaints against agents for misleading them on house prices. The potential buyers had committed around $1,500 to inspections and other arrangements, only to find that the eventual price was way out of the ballpark. So buyers at auctions face higher risks, and hence are likely to pay a lower price than they would be willing to if they could buy with a conditional contract.

But that risk is the key. Agents face the risk of a house not selling because the seller has unrealistic expectations, or they change their mind, or whatever the case may be. Eliminating this extra ‘agency risk’ will reduce transaction costs significantly.

Imagine a real estate exchange (REE) where home owners could list their properties. Maybe each property has a list of compulsory documentation to be included – Survey plan, title, aerial photo, front photo, number of rooms, bath, bed, total covered area, building materials, age, car spaces, maybe pest inspector and engineers reports. The house would be put up on the exchange, which could be searched by any of the characteristics. The seller would nominate a price and contract conditions they are willing to accept, and buyers would nominate a price in a kind of open auction process. There would be no time limit, and people could keep their house in the exchange at a ridiculously high price, and if someone agreed, they would be forced to enter the contract, even if it was a bit of a joke - “just testing the market” or something like that.

In this case, there is no requirement for agents. Remember their fundamental role is to bring buyers and sellers together, and that role would now be replaced with the REE. Risks of uncommitted sellers would be eliminated.

There may then open up a market niche for business to provide the service of granting entry to homes for sale. Real estate agents may metamorphise into home display service providers, who collect a fee for answering enquiries and granting entry to potential buyers. Similarly, they may inspect houses on behalf of buyers. But without commissions, and without the associated risk, they can focus on the streamline management of inquiries and inspections, and compete on price for a rather homogenous service.

But maybe we don’t need government here. Google offers listings on their mapping tool for free to any individual or agent. This is a real step in the right direction. Maybe soon they will use their Google Checkout to enable bids to be made, further facilitating transactions. Maybe we will find market solutions to market failures?

*I had this blog written for some time, then searched the web before publishing and found the REE idea here.

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