The four Washington area Realtor associations and the Maryland Real Estate Commission are attempting to head off misunderstandings about whom a real estate agent represents in a transaction, although one of the initiatives may further confuse the issue.

While it seems fairly clear to many home buyers that the agent listing a home for sale works for the seller, many incorrectly believe that the salesperson who shows listings to a purchaser is working on the buyer's behalf.

Unless a buyer has specifically entered into a written contract and agrees to pay the agent for personal representation, the agent's allegiance is to the seller, even though the two may have never met.

The seller is entitled to such loyalty because the seller pays the commission, which is shared by agents who have worked on a sale.

The agents agree to such terms as a condition of participating in the Multiple Listing Service, a computerized inventory of homes for sale.

But it appears little has changed since a Federal Trade Commission survey in 1983 that found that 74 percent of buyers claimed the selling agent involved in the purchase as their own representative.

The confusion arises because the buyer "mistakes representation with the agent's duty to treat the buyer fairly and ethically," according to Karl O. Gilbert, director of government affairs for the Maryland Association of Realtors.

"It's the difference between assisting the purchaser versus being the representative of the purchaser," said Vincent M. Policy, legal counsel for the District's Association of Realtors.

He suggested that buyers should think of themselves as the customer of the agent and the seller as the agent's client.

Generally, selling agents are careful to avoid saying anything overtly that could be misconstrued as representation, Policy said.

Nonetheless, Realtors' groups have recognized that confusion still exists in some buyers' minds.

In some decisions, California courts have ruled that nondisclosure of the actual relationship between the buyer and a real estate agent amounts to deceiving the purchaser.

Legal interpretations such as have prompted the local Realtor associations to "try to deal with the situation before it becomes a string of lawsuits," Policy said.

To resolve the situation, much of the local real estate community appears to favor written disclosures that are given to buyers to read and sign.

Such documents spell out the principle generally accepted within legal circles that any agent involved in the transaction works for the seller, unless other arrangements are made.

The Virginia Real Estate Commission recently finished a massive revision of its regulations but did not deal with the agency disclosure issue directly, according to Florrie Brassier, the Virginia Department of Commerce's deputy director for regulatory programs.

"It appears we just haven't had a problem yet," she explained, "although we are aware that dual agency is under discussion in other jurisdictions."

At the urging of the Maryland Association of Realtors, the state's real estate commission voted in March to require written disclosures throughout the state.

The rules, however, won't go into effect until the commission decides what requirements to impose. One option before the regulatory body is a controversial interpretation of agency law drafted by its legal counsel, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Acton III.

The proposal takes the unconventional view that the agent working with the buyer represents the buyer, unless a disclosure statement exists to the contrary.

The listing agent would still represent the seller under this plan.

Acton said his approach parallels the perception that the general public already holds when it comes to who is representing whom. Furthermore, Acton said his set of presump- tions are intended to protect the commission from an overwhelming number of disputes that hinge on whether an agent failed to make the necessary disclosure to a buyer.

However, others in the real estate industry fear that Acton's proposal will add to confusion. Stephen Francis, executive vice president of the Salt Lake City-based National Association of Real Estate License Law Officials, said the "unusual" interpretation was "inconsistent" with the laws and regulations enacted or pending in the 20 other states which have tackled the representation issue.

William D. North, executive vice president of the National Association of Realtors, said the idea "shocked" and "surprised" him. "He might think it's consumer protection, but it's a consumer disaster," he said, adding that the proposal would play havoc with the Multiple Listing Service concept. "The only right an agent has to show a property {listed in the MLS} is because he is a subagent of the listing agent," North said.

Policy called Acton's notion a "bad idea" that contradicts legal precedent "that goes back decades."

Acton, however, dismissed arguments that because the seller pays the real estate commission, it should also decide the representation issue. "A seller recognizes the money, but it's the buyer who is paying for it" in the price of the home, he said. "You can trace the money to either the buyer or the seller."

Acton said he does not believe the state commission will decide on the content of the regulation any time soon.

Meanwhile, the Montgomery Board of Realtors has developed a disclosure form that would alert home buyers to an agent's loyalties. The board began distributing the document to its nearly 6,000 members at the beginning of the summer.

Montgomery board members are encouraged to get prospective purchasers to sign the form "before any viable relationship develops which may evolve into the purchase of the property from the agent," said Hans Nestler, the board's executive vice president.

The Northern Virginia Board of Realtors has appointed a task force to devise its own disclosure form. "We're enamored with the kind of thing that the Montgomery County Board did," executive vice president Wayne Howland said, referring to the multipurpose nature of its neighbor's statement.

Besides addressing the representation question and other information affecting the transaction, the Montgomery form also advises buyers to check properties they are considering buying for radon and hazardous waste problems, arrange for a structural home inspection and guard their rights guaranteed under the equal housing opportunity laws.

The board of the D.C. Realtors group is expected to decide later this month whether to adopt a disclosure form, according to executive vice president David E. Strachan. The prospects for passage, he said, look good.

The Prince George's Board of Realtors also has a disclosure proposal "under consideration," according to executive vice president Paul L. Fowler, but no definite plans to bring the issue to a vote.

Besides taking the matter directly to home buyers, the Realtor boards are also trying to educate their members about their legal responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Some boards cover the material in classes that meet the course work requirement for relicensing. Others, such as the Northern Virginia board, broach the subject during new-member orientations or cover the topic in special seminars.

Despite these efforts, the word apparently isn't reaching all Realtors.

When Ronnie Roha and her husband, Tom, went house hunting this past winter, she said she found that "no one clarified the situation," although the former lawyer was well aware of the agent's limited obligations to her. "In the beginning, it was 'we'll do this and we'll do that,' " Ronnie Roha recalled. "It was only when the going got a little rough that the 'we' changed to mean the seller and the agent, not the agent and us."

A careless approach like that on the part of the Realtor can be construed as an illegal "dual" agency, which means the agent represents the buyer and the seller unbeknownst to both parties, Policy said. In such cases, the agent is practically begging for a lawsuit from either the buyer or seller, he said.

The wronged buyer, for example, could sue the agent for the cost of fixing up a house in poor condition. A seller could refuse to pay the commission and sue for the difference between the sales price and what he believes he could have gotten with more favorable representation. In the extreme, either buyer or seller could claim misrepresentation as a basis for rescinding the sale even after the closing has occurred.

"It doesn't take a whole lot to establish an agency relationship" with a buyer, Policy said. All an agent has to do is use such phrases like "Don't worry, I'll protect you," or "I'll look out for your interests," he said.

Given a selling agent's true colors, buyers should weigh what information they care to share. For instance, buyers who confide to a selling agent that they can go higher on their offering price might just as well say so to the seller's face. "The selling agent has a fiduciary duty to disclose that information to the seller," Policy said.

Although an adversary of sorts, the selling agent can provide a buyer with free information and assistance, Policy said. That includes showing homes, supplying standardized contract forms and explaining how to make a purchase offer.

"They can give a lot of data, but getting you the best deal vis-a-vis the seller, that's not their job," he concluded