It’s Not Hard to Bargain on Fees

Shrewd buyers and sellers will negotiate on agent commissions

August 21, 2013

Ed Poe and Kate Debelack chose to use Redfin when buying a home, in part because the company offered to put a portion of its commission toward the couple’s closing costs.

Imagine a world where real estate agents give house hunters money to purchase new homes. It may seem like the stuff of unicorns and elves, but it actually happens every day.

Kate Debelack, 40, and her husband, Ed Poe, 42, purchased a Petworth rowhouse in July. They used an agent from Redfin, a website that shares up to 50 percent of the buyer’s agent commissions with purchasers. As a result, the couple received a little more than $6,000 worth of credit that went straight to their closing costs.

“It’s sort of magic money that we never saw,” Poe says.

While most home buyers are focused on the home’s overall cost, shrewd buyers and sellers go a step further and look at how much they’ll pay their real estate agent in commissions.

Before you sign that agent agreement, learn about the ways their fees work so you can negotiate like a champ and potentially save yourself thousands of dollars.

If You’re Selling

In standard home sales, the seller pays all commissions — which in the Washington area are normally around 6 percent of the home’s price. Half of that 6 percent goes to the buyer’s agent, and the other half goes to the seller’s agent.

Six percent might be the norm, but it’s not mandated.

“Commissions are always negotiable,” says Danny Samson, owner of Samson Properties (14526 Lee Road, Chantilly, Va., 703-378-8810).

In 1997, to stand out from the crowd, Samson began offering his services to home sellers at a 4.5 percent commission (3 percent to the buyer’s agent and 1.5 percent to himself as the seller’s agent). To this day, all agents at Samson Properties are free to negotiate their own commission rates.

Lower commissions helped motivate Steve Payne to hire Samson agent Bernie Kagan — who was offering 4.5 percent — to sell his Chantilly Highlands home in May.

“With the houses in Northern Virginia as expensive as they are, that one and a half percent is a nice, tidy little sum that you don’t have to pay,” says Payne, 45, an IT professional.

There is a reason that Samson decided to lower the seller-side commissions but keep the buyer-side commissions at 3 percent: The buyers’ agents might be less motivated to show a home to their clients if the commissions are lower than those at comparable houses.

If You’re Buying

As a buyer, you don’t set your agent’s commission — the sellers do, as they’re the ones paying it — but that doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate. Ask your agent to share a percentage of the commission.

Debelack and Poe chose to use Redfin in part because sharing the commission is the company’s standard practice.

Each home’s commission refund is predetermined based on purchase price — the average refund is about $5,000 — and is posted on the home’s listing page on Redfin’s website. (The mobile app does not currently show the refund amount.)

In Debelack and Poe’s case, that amounted to $6,282, which, as Debelack says, is “nothing to sneeze at.”

If You’re Buying and Selling

Most agents will negotiate their commissions with you if you have the same person both sell your current home and help you buy your new place. (Sorry, first-time buyers — this won’t help you save money.)

The agent would likely have you sign both a buyer’s and seller’s agent agreement, which would lock you in with that agent for at least a few months. So be sure you do some research and interview a few agents before making that commitment.

In the end, saving money is kind of like that lottery slogan: You can’t win if you don’t play.

You’ll never get those reduced commissions if you don’t ask.

 

Cutting Out the Middle Men

If you buy or sell your home on your own using a website such as For Sale By Owner, you could save thousands of dollars in commissions. “More and more often, you’re seeing buyers and sellers who are dispensing with using agents at all,” says D.C. real estate attorney Peter Antonoplos. If the legal stuff, such as negotiating price and writing and executing contracts, makes you uncomfortable, you could always hire an attorney or bring on a real estate agent — at a reduced commission — to negotiate the sale and handle the contracts. “For 1 percent, we’ll come in, write up the contract and make sure everything’s handled properly,” says Danny Samson, owner of Samson Properties.

 

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