Town Square | A champion for a flat fee for sellers’ agents


An artist’s rendering shows the 14W apartment building at 14th and W streets NW. (Courtesy of HOK)
April 26, 2013

Not long ago, the legal profession was dramatically shaken up with a highly contentious move by some upstart law firms to change a key component of the business model: Switch from the profitable hourly billing formula to flat fees.

Now Atieno Okelo Williams says she’s hoping to make similar waves in the real estate industry. A few weeks ago, Williams’s DC Home Buzz firm shifted from the traditional system of paying her sellers’ agents 6 percent and 3 percent commissions to a flat fee of $9,900.

What’s more, she says, she plans to press other firms to make the flat fee the standard, and is bracing for the push back the issue has sparked across the country.

The flat fee “is an industry disrupter and won’t be welcomed,” says Williams, who established the firm in 2008. “It is a touchy topic in the real estate sphere. We’re hoping [to inspire other realty firms] to give consumers another option.”

The firm says buyers’ agents will still receive a commission of up to 3 percent.

Williams says she believes that if the flat fee catches on, consumers will pressure other brokers to lower their fees. A seller under a traditional broker would pay $60,000 to his and the buyers’ agents on a $1 million house. Under her flat fee, that seller would pay $9,900 to Williams’s firm and $30,000 to the buyers’ agent, saving $20,000.

Laurie Janik, general counsel of the National Association of Realtors, says the organization has no position on the pay system.

However, Janik says, agents are justified in charging higher commissions because they need to recoup the money they don’t get for properties that don’t sell. “The commission model is guaranteed performance — you don’t have to pay me unless . . . this deal closes,” she said. Deals that “don’t close are subsidized by the deals that do close.”

Williams says the six-agent DC Home Buzz will continue to be a full-service firm, offering help finding houses, negotiating contracts, and staging and marketing properties.

She says that technology has reduced costs — many consumers are finding houses themselves online — and that she expects to make up for the loss of commission through volume business.

Straight outta McLean: The real estate rapper

Market’s heatin’ up, it’s no longer cold, houses gettin’ sold. Listenin’ to the news, read it in the paper — what’s above the fold? D.C. houses gettin’ sold.

So begins the rap on the one-minute, 36-second “Houses Gettin’ Sold” video. Real estate agents increasingly have been using video to distinguish themselves in this tight market. But the one by Brian Block, managing broker of Re/Max Allegiance in McLean, who calls himself B-Block, is among the most imaginative.

In the video, Block dons shades and a backward cap. He rhymes and gestures to the camera, while his wife, Deborah, shakes to the beat.

“Real estate is a serious business, but it can be fun, too,” Block says. “I was thinking about the number one issue in our market right now, which is low inventory. The word ‘sold’ kept sticking in my mind, and it rhymes with a lot of words, so I just started writing the lyrics to the song.”

The video was shot by his intern, Benjamin Lynne Carrasquillo III. Block says it was a natural fit for Deborah, a professional dancer, to join him.

“We didn’t really choreograph the song, she just ad-libbed,” Block says. “It was a chance for her to show off her dance skills while I’m just being goofy.”

The video was picked up by the Huffington Post and shared on Facebook and YouTube, where Block’s channel has more serious videos answering real estate questions and showcasing neighborhoods in Northern Virginia. What’s next for the Blocks?

“Maybe a series of dance videos. . . . We could do something like, ‘Waltz into your new home,’ ” Block says.

Tip of the week

Do you have a TV-worthy man cave or workbench to show off and a desire to be the next Ty Pennington?

The DIY Network is looking for Washington area homeowners to highlight their improvement skills and demonstrate new home and garden products on its “I Want That” show. In addition to appearing on camera, the host, in most cases, may get to keep the gadgets and appliances he demonstrates on the show.

Casting directors are looking for enthusiastic candidates with basic home-improvement skills, flexible weekday schedules, and great man caves or other areas of the home, who live 30 minutes or less from downtown Washington.

If you’re interested, log onto the network’s Web site, www.diynetwork.com and fill out an application. Include photos of your home and family, and describe the kinds of projects you like to do.

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vMortgage rate: The average 30-year fixed rate slipped to a near-record low, down from 3.41 percent last week and 3.88 percent a year ago. Page 4

A model unit that tenants can re-create

For renters who have trouble choosing the ideal sofa to match the chairs and the color scheme of the space, a soon-to-be opened luxury apartment building in Northwest Washington is offering help.

If residents of the 231-unit 14W building at 14th and W streets like the European-inspired furnishings in the model unit, they can order their own pieces from the supplier who outfitted that space.

The building, developed by Simpson Property Group, offers numerous amenities, including a fitness and yoga studio, swimming pool, rooftop lounge, game room and 24-hour concierge services.

The apartments include Caesarstone quartz kitchen counters, stainless-steel appliances, European wide-plank flooring, solar window shades, and a front-loading washer and dryer. They are priced from just under $2,000 per month for efficiency studios to $4,700 for two-bedroom units with dens.

— Michele Lerner

Lerner is a freelance writer. To pass on a tip or news item, contact us at realestate@washpost.com and put “Town Square” in the subject line.

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