Saturday, February 27, 2010

Six Percent and the Secrets of Real Estate

Several years back, Alex Tabarrok pointed out the mystery of real estate commission. No matter where you go, or what's being sold, real estate agents take 6% of the home's selling price (typically, 3% goes to them and 3% goes to the the agency they work for). This is bizarre: why would agents in Montana be charged the same percent as agents in California, where homes are much more expensive? Is the increase in work to sell a home really so perfectly proportional to its price? Seems unlikely.

I ran into a real estate agent on the train while traveling to New Haven, CT on Thursday and asked her about it. She insists it's not true. Even before the crash, commission's negotiable: she's done 4% or 5% for some buys and she's charged 7% for major sales (such as if selling the home requires that she rents a helicopter and takes aerial photographs). If she's selling a home and finds a buyer willing to be represented by her, she takes a smaller commission on each (though she gets more overall; 4% twice is more than 6% once). "Everything's negotiable," she says. That's reassuring.

While she's been in the business since the mid 1990s, this is just one data point. Still, with so much freedom of entry and variation across real estate markets, I'm more likely to believe that this 6% level is more urban legend than industry practice.

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