SAN FRANCISCO — Traditional pricing for real estate services is bound to crumble, and flat-fee brokers will likely deliver the deathblow — at least according to Steven D. Levitt, co-author of “Freakonomics,” a book that takes an unconventional approach to economics.

Levitt, who spoke to attendees Thursday at the PCBC builders’ conference and trade show at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, also said that the real estate brokerage industry is in some ways its own worst enemy, as low barriers to entry lead to proportional surges in agent population during housing market booms.

“It turns out that the median real estate agent is making the same amount of money today that they were 10 years ago, despite the fact that housing prices are up 50 to 60 to 70 percent during that time period nationwide. In the end … you’ve got to feel sorry for the real estate agents. Now, instead of selling six houses a year, the typical agent sells two or three houses. My own feeling is that if you were thinking about getting into the real estate business, I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

Such views have not won Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner any popularity contests within the ranks of the National Association of Realtors trade group, Levitt readily acknowledges. Particularly because one of the chapters in the book draws parallels between real estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan. “We’re not big favorites with the National Association of Realtors right now,” he said.

But Levitt explained that the book is not intended “to imply that real estate agents are bad people in any way, shape or form,” he said. His research has raised questions, though, about whether real estate agents always seek to get the best deal for their clients.

In an analysis of 100,000 home sales in the Chicago area, Levitt found that real estate agents tend to sell their own homes for about 3 percent or so more than the selling price of their clients’ homes. When he speaks to real estate agents, he inevitably will hear a familiar range of responses, he said, such as: “Well, that’s just because we have better taste. We’re better at showing houses. We have good paint colors and that makes people want to jump in our houses and pay more.”

The research also found that real estate agents tend to leave their own homes on the market about 10 percent longer than their clients’ homes. “If they have such great taste in paint you’d think their homes would sell faster than their clients’ (homes),” he said, adding that he was not surprised by the findings.

He shared a personal story about a home he was interested in buying in the suburban Chicago area. The home had been on the market for about six or eight months, and he decided to call the listing agent directly.

“I had learned already that I didn’t want to have a buyer’s agent,” he said, since he knew that a buyer’s agent shares in the total commission paid by the seller to the listing agent. By going directly to the seller’s agent, that agent and the agent’s broker could keep all of the commission for themselves.

“I said to her, ‘I’m interested in this house and I don’t believe in buyer’s agents.’ I could hear her voice really pick up on the other side of the line.” Then, he asked a very direct question. “Can you just tell me the absolute lowest price at which the homeowner is willing to sell this house for?”

Her response, “You should be ashamed of yourself. That would be a complete violation of my client relationship to tell you any information like that and you should know better than that. It’s not right to ask me questions like that.”

Later, as the phone call came to an end, Levitt said the agent volunteered some information that led to his offer on the property: “Let me just tell you one last thing. The owner of this home is willing to sell this house for less than you can possibly imagine.”

He made an offer for $50,000 less than he had planned to offer, and the offer was accepted without any back-and-forth. “Basically, in order for that agent to put an extra $20,000 or $30,000 back in her pocket she basically stole $50,000 from her client.”

Levitt added, “When I tell this story in front of real estate agents, I always get the same reaction, completely predictably, ‘I would never, ever do something like that to my client. It’s just patently absurd. But you wouldn’t believe the people I interact with on a daily basis – every other real estate agent is doing this every time I turn around.”

Lately, Levitt has focused his attention on flat-fee real estate brokers that charge a flat rate for listing a home for sale in a multiple listing service. He has studied three markets, and so far has concluded that there isn’t much difference in the price that sellers get for using a flat-fee broker versus a traditional, full-service real estate broker.

“In some markets it may take 10 to 15 days longer to sell my house — in other markets I see no difference at all. In the end, if this is true, it’s really going to be bad, bad news for real estate agents, which I think is actually really good news for everybody else.

“I just don’t see how the real estate agents can maintain the level of pricing they have,” he said, referring to a commission rate that has traditionally hovered around 6 percent of the sale price of a home. “And I think that the way it will crumble is not through FSBOs (for-sale-by-owner transactions). What’s really going to be the undoing of real estate agents is going to be flat-fee brokers. It seems to me that’s a very viable option, unless (Realtors are) successful in the end in getting legislation passed which will preclude it from happening.”

Levitt later said that he received letters from lawyers for MLS Northern Illinois about his real estate research that relied on MLS data.

Levitt’s research has in some cases wandered to areas where people might not typically expect to find economic principles at work. He shared stories about past research into drug-dealing, sumo wrestling, and the naming of babies, for example.

He also shared stories about recent research into the economics of prostitution. “I always thought a street-level crack seller was the worst job in America, but a street-level prostitute is by far the worst thing,” he said.

New doors opened to his research after the release of “Freakonomics,” Levitt said. “Suddenly, everybody wants to give me data.”


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