WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some viewers will believe that the characterization of real estate industry practices and pricing in a “60 Minutes” segment that aired earlier this month is accurate — and there are still people who claim the Earth is flat, said Pat V. Combs, 2007 president for the National Association of Realtors trade group.
Combs, who spoke during an NAR Board of Directors meeting Saturday in the nation’s capital, launched the latest volley in a war of words that has festered since the CBS newsmagazine aired a segment titled “Chipping at Realtors’ Six Percent” on May 13.
“Believe it or not there is still a Flat Earth Society whose members still argue that the Earth is not round. And there are those who will believe what they saw on ’60 Minutes,’ ” she said. “That is the bad news. The good news is that expectations based on false information eventually unravel, especially in a world where you can access information so easily.”
The “60 Minutes” show stated that the 6 percent commission rate charged by Realtors, which is based on the home’s selling price, “is sacrosanct” and “has remained in place, even as the price of homes has quadrupled over the past 25 years.” The show also stated that “the sacred 6 percent is under assault from online discounters,” and profiled Seattle-based brokerage company Redfin as an example of a discount real estate company.
The Realtors’ trade group lashed back, firing off a statement to CBS demanding several changes to a Web site version of the news segment that appears at the CBS Web site. The association has also asked its members to send letters to CBS expressing their opinions about the show.
A NAR Web site chronicles the various communications related to the program, including the initial letter, a response from “60 Minutes” producer Richard Bonin, a rebuttal to Bonin’s response, an e-mail to Realtors from Combs, NAR’s formal position on the “60 Minutes” segment, and a link to the hundreds of comments about the show posted at the CBS Web site.
Combs said, “At the end of the day, truth and fact will always win with those whose opinions matter most, including our key audiences. Real estate is a word-of-mouth business. Our clients … know that we encourage and promote competition and provide tremendous value in a transaction. They aren’t going to be swayed by a shoddy news report.”
She also said, “Key decision makers aren’t going to be fooled either. They know how the media works, and they’re well aware of our critics’ attempts to mischaracterize NAR’s policies and our members’ policies. The truth is our efforts here in Washington to connect with lawmakers and show them how we’re working on behalf of consumers and communities will always trump negative news.”
Combs’ speech came during the group’s annual legislative conference, during which Realtors lobby for a variety of industry issues on Capitol Hill. NAR’s lobbying expenditures totaled about $16.8 million in 2006, according to the OpenSecrets.org Web site. NAR’s lobbying expenditures ranked among the top-10 highest in the country, a list that also includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Medical Association, General Electric and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Echoing a National Association of Realtors advance communication to members that they should “be glad” that the news program was airing on Mother’s Day and would “probably draw fewer than its average 14 million viewers,” Combs said, “Perhaps the best news is that the ’60 Minutes’ piece ran on Mother’s Day — one of the most beautiful days of the year in almost every city across America, when most of our clients hopefully were spending time with their family” and may have missed the show.
She encouraged Realtors to stay positive, and quoted singer and actress Dolly Parton, who said, “If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.”
The Realtor group said in an announcement last week that it does not agree with statements in the show about the “sacrosanct” 6 percent commission, that NAR is the industry’s “governing body,” that NAR rules threatened to block Internet discounters’ access to the MLS, and that there is a single MLS database — among other statements — and also announced that NAR officials spent time working with the show’s representatives and “offered and prepared association spokespersons for interviews” but did not have an opportunity to participate in an on-camera interview.
Steve Cook, a NAR spokesman, said in a letter to “60 Minutes” producers, “Millions of real estate professionals and others know that a 6 percent commission is not ‘sacrosanct’ and that NAR does not ‘govern’ the industry. These errors were inexcusable but not as damaging as the story’s obvious lack of balance.”
Bonin responded, “I’m sorry that you and your colleagues at (NAR) feel our report was one-sided. I respectfully disagree. We made a real effort to be fair and I believe our report reflected that.”
On the issue of real estate commission pricing, “our research shows that there is no good, reliable data on the actual commission agents charge their clients,” Bonin stated. “What we did find is that real estate agents generally try to keep the 6 percent commission in place.”
And as for NAR as a governing body, Bonin said that the group “is a trade association that promulgates rules that, in fact, govern the business practices of its members and its member boards. Indeed, our characterization mirrors that of the Justice Department and of NAR itself in its own court filings” related to an ongoing antitrust lawsuit that the government filed against the Realtor group in 2005.
Bonin also noted that an editor’s note has been attached to the Web site, stating, “In (Cook’s) letter he said, ‘All real estate commissions are negotiable and the average is 5.1 percent, according to the most recent available data.’ That number came from an industry trade publication, Real Trends, and was an estimate of average commissions charged by the nation’s top 500 brokerages.
“A critique of that survey, written by John C. Weicher, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Housing and Financial Markets, found Real Trends’ commission data limited by its focus on the largest brokerages and most expensive homes; the most likely situation in which agents charge a lower-than-6-percent commission fee.”
Also, the editor’s note states that the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, “reported in a 2005 study that commission rates continued to be about 5 percent to 7 percent of a property’s selling price “regardless of local market conditions, housing prices, or the cost or effort required to sell different properties.” The note acknowledges that there is no national multiple listing service, and “according to the Justice Department, there are about 1,000 multiple listing services, 80 percent controlled by members of the National Association of Realtors and governed by its policies.”