Consumers are always looking for ways to save money, and paying commissions on a real estate transaction can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. That's a significant sum for most people, and it's reasonable to wonder whether it's worth it to hire a full-service real estate brokerage over a discount or limited-service agency.
It depends on numerous factors, from the market to whether you think you'll need a little guidance and hand-holding and whether you have a firm understanding of the differences between these types of brokerages.
What's in a Name? Definitions
A full-service real estate brokerage is pretty self-explanatory. It does it all, from taking the listing to marketing the property and handling the details of closing. You'll have access to your agent in times of confusion or if problems pop up, as well as to managers and support staff.
Some brokerages offer their own escrow companies as well, which can streamline the process considerably and even save buyers and sellers a few dollars.
Technically, discount services do the same, but for less money than the commission fees you'd pay to a full-service brokerage. It can be argued that you get what you pay for. Discount brokerages often cut back incurring expenses in certain areas, such as marketing, in an effort to balance their reduced commissions.
Finally, limited-service brokerages typically won't do anything more for you than provide access to multiple listing services (MLS). They normally charge a flat fee rather than a commission.
Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Policy Development and Research quotes a report that indicated that although it usually takes longer to sell a property with a limited-service brokerage, homes do eventually sell for prices comparable to those listed with full-service brokerages.
The Role of Multiple Listing Services
MLSs are invaluable tools when it comes to selling a home, but they can't do the job by themselves. They're merely databases of properties that are available for sale. They're not accessible by the public except through participating brokers.
A limited-service brokerage will give you the key to unlock this door, but that probably won't be enough if you want to sell now rather than in the distant future.
As with any tool, the success of an MLS listing hinges on its content. It should be enticing and informative but factual.
The Effect of the Market
Homes almost sell the minute they hit MLSs in seller's markets regardless of how they're listed, but some homes don't sell at all in buyer's markets.
Buyer's markets exist when inventory exceeds the supply of buyers. This is where expertise and extra work pay off, so your choice of a brokerage can be critical. Listings that sell at top price are typically those exposed to the most buyers, priced well, marketed well, and show well.
Full-Service vs. Limited-Service Comparisons
Many aspects of a successful home scale require a bit of an investment on the part of the brokerage, and limited-services brokerages typically don't provide these types of assistance at all.
Agents and buyers tend to pass them over without a second thought when new listings hit the MLS without a photograph. Many multiple listing services will accept eight to 12 photographs, so full-service agents often hire professional photographers and shoot double the photos required.
Agents spend considerable time sorting through photos to select those with the best light, the best angles, and the sharpest contrast and color. The photos are then cropped and resized to accentuate positive attributes. Each photograph is entered into MLS with a full-length enticing description.
A limited-service or discount brokerage might not be right for you unless you feel confident about doing all this yourself. These brokerages generally won't go the extra mile, if they even include photos in listings at all.
Few discount brokerages spend money on quality professional signs because they can't afford it. But good signage is free advertising. Many full-service firms include critical information on their signs:
- The main office telephone number
- The agent's personal cellphone or voicemail number
- A website for more information
- Virtual tour links
- Specific information that makes this home different from others in the area
Full-service companies tend to project quality, and that means four-color flyers and four-color direct mail pieces. The days of hiring neighborhood kids to toss photocopies on neighbors' front steps are gone. Full-service marketing can determine if a property sells and how long it takes.
A successful open house requires experience and finesse. It means working the buyers who come through by pointing out a home's impressive features without making the buyer feel oppressed or hounded. It's an art, and it requires the service of an experienced salesperson.
Many discount brokers refuse to hold homes open at all. And all you're getting from a limited-services broker is that MLS listing.
Real estate can be an extremely competitive business, with many agents fighting for the same listings. It follows then that the full-service agent who wins a listing is probably a good negotiator, a person you want on your side during offer negotiations.
Agents who can persuade you to pay commissions they feel are reasonable will probably also persuade a buyer to pay your price.
The Final Sales Price
Sometimes full-service agents lose listings because sellers are promised a higher price and a lower commission by a discount brokerage. These listings often show up in the MLS a month later with reduced prices, and these price reductions tend to exceed the difference in commissions between the dueling agencies.
These sellers received fewer services and ended up losing money on the sale as well.
Ask agents to show you their last 24 months of price reductions and compare them against each other.
State Laws Matter
States have varying laws regarding all types of brokerages, and some—including Texas and Illinois—have begun taking legislative action to control what services brokerages are legally obligated to provide. A particular focus has been on limited-services brokerages. Check with a local real estate attorney to find out what's acceptable and not acceptable in your state.