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Why pocket listings promote a discriminatory real estate market

When we claim to have a marketplace for homes, we should make sure that it is a fair marketplace for all and that all home buyers and home sellers have an equal chance to buy and sell homes in the market. (iStock)

Reader comment: You recently answered a question about a home seller paying the commission to an agent for a “pocket listing.” You bypass the larger issue and the reason that so-called pocket listings are against the National Association of Realtors (NAR) rules. “Pocket listings” are against fair housing rules. You should put an addendum to your answer addressing that issue.

Our response: Thank you for your insight. You bring up a good point about pocket listings: When real estate listing agents use pocket listings, they deny the general population the ability to view and bid on properties that should be on the market.

We’ve written about pocket listings and the NAR passing a rule that prohibits pocket listings several times this year. A pocket listing is when a homeowner hires a real estate agent to sell their home, but the listing does not show up in any multiple listing service or in any online listing of homes for sale. The listing agent effectively keeps the listing for themself (and their own customers) and markets the home privately to other agents who are often in the agent’s own office or to specific people before the world gets the right to view and bid on the home.

We believe pocket listings do a disservice to buyers and sellers. And the current overheated state of the residential market shows exactly why.

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In a hot market, a pocket listing might enable a homeowner to unload their home quickly to a buyer that the listing agent already has or finds through word of mouth in the listing agent’s office. That sounds good, right? But such a quick “insider” sale might deprive the seller of a higher price that the seller might get by having all interested buyers in the marketplace know about the home and be able to tour it and bid on it.

What about using a pocket listing in a slow market? It’s a basic economics question: The more people who see the property, the higher the chance there will be more interest in it, allowing the homeowner to sell for more money. Indeed, the listing agent might test the waters and see what the market might bear with a higher sales price. If the market responds negatively to the higher price, the listing agent can lower the price of the home to the point where it becomes competitive.

No matter whether the market is fast, slow or (in the words of Goldilocks) “just right,” pocket listings do not give the homeowner the benefit of having every possible buyer see that the home is for sale. The homeowner only gets a narrow slice of the market, and that slice is determined by the listing broker.

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Now we have heard arguments from listing brokers that say some homes are better off sold through pocket listings; in particular, high-end homes or homes of the rich and famous. Again, we disagree. Many agents of extremely high-end listings say that pocket listings at these price levels rarely work. We know of a top agent in Atlanta who advertises her listings (multiple-million-dollar listings, some of which listed at prices more than $10 million) globally. More often than not, she sells to an out-of-town buyer.

Your point is that pocket listings deprive the market as a whole of these listings and that listing brokers might intentionally or unintentionally market these homes in a way that deprives specific groups of buyers from even knowing about these properties, let alone making an offer. This is the essence of discrimination in housing, no matter the price point, which is illegal under the Fair Housing Act.

When we claim to have a marketplace for homes, we should make sure that it is a fair marketplace for all and that all home buyers and home sellers have an equal chance to buy and sell homes in the market. Thank you for your comment.

Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website,

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