A Critical Assessment of the Standard, Traditional, Residential Real Estate Broker Commission Rate Structure

By: Mark Nadel, Joint Center, AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies

While real estate brokers have long set their fee as a straight percentage of a home’s sale price, this formula is an anomaly and a primary reason why such fees may be inflated by more than $30 billion annually. Although competitive pressures ordinarily produce a fee structure reflecting costs, real estate broker commissions are strangely unrelated to either the quantity or quality of the service rendered or even to the value provided. Rather, this fee has been based solely on the price of the home. (It is as if tax preparers set their fee as a flat percentage of a client’s gross income, irrespective of how difficult the return was to prepare or how much their efforts saved the taxpayer). Oddly, not only is there no evidence that it is any more costly to sell higher-priced homes than median-priced properties, but it is possible that the opposite may be true! Furthermore, the straight percentage fee formula creates little incentive for real estate agents to provide home buyers or sellers with additional value.

The article analyzes five elements of the traditional residential real estate broker rate structure, the most important of which are: 1) setting fees as a percentage-of-sale-price, 2) letting the seller’s broker set the fee received by the buyer’s broker, and 3) refusing to unbundle the price of a full package of services. After explaining the conditions under which such rate elements would be justified, this article finds that those conditions do not generally exist in the real estate brokerage market. Moreover, it identifies more than a half dozen harms that the rate elements cause to home buyers and sellers. For example, buyers are often not alerted to attractive homes because the rate structure leads traditional agents to intentionally avoid showing them. Meanwhile, many buyers do not even consider negotiating the fee paid to their broker because the rate structure causes them to believe their brokers’ services cost them nothing.

After this criticism, the article suggests that consumers would benefit most from a fee-for-service approach – combining flat fees, hourly fees, and bonuses, including percentages of extra value created – and it identifies currently available examples of some of these options. After reviewing eight reasons why incumbents are able to protect the current structure, the article suggests six new disclosures that might undermine the industry’s protectionist practices.

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