The two-year Federal Trade commission investigation into the real estate industry is expected to be completed soon and the staff working on the probe hopes to produce its findings and recommendations in the spring.
The agency is seeking to determine if the industry treats consumers fairly. It also wants to identify any possible anti-competitive aspects of the business.
The role state regulation should play in real estate, as well as the involvement of multiple-listing services in the marketplace are being examined, the staff has said.
In addition, the FTC is taking a hard look at the relationship between the broker and the home buyer. Staffers are asking buyers what they expected from their brokers, how those brokers were chosen, and what role the brokers ultimately played in the transactions.
The staff is also asking various multiple listing services how they work, and how well they serve prospective home buyers.
As part of the probe, which centers on five cities -- Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston and Jacksonville, Fla. -- the FTC staff has conducted scores of in-depth interviews with realty boards, brokers and local real estate regulators.
Should the FTC find any anti-competitive or unfair activity, it can take several actions. Antitrust suits or rule-making proposals could be filed to correct the problems, staffers say, and consumer education efforts initiated. Such education could be similar to the type used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for land sales, the staffers said.
Another option -- legislative recommendations involving the proposal of model laws for states -- has become less of a possibility because of the recent anti-FTC mood of Congress.
The housing industry is a huge target for the FTC, with an estimated $13 billion dollars in commissions paid annually.
The FTC staff wants to know how much that huge industry is influenced by its powerful trade association, the National Association of Realtors.
The staff is also investigating the possibility that brokers representing both the buyer and seller of a home are acting in conflict of interest.
There is also some concern that innovative brokers are frowned upon by the industry because they represent a threat to highly-profitable traditional real estate selling techniques. There have been reports, for example, that brokers charging discounted commission rates have been harrassed and "blacklisted" by other brokers.
A recent Consumer Union survey in California found a "high level of dissatisfaction" with real estate brokers, and widespread price-fixing and anti-competitive practices. That survey led to statewide legislation requiring new disclosures by brokers.