IN PALEOLITHIC TIMES, if there was only one cave and several families, the families likely shared the cave, glad for the extra body warmth. In terms of residential civility, we've been sliding backward ever since. Shelter is such a basic need for humans, it seems we're reverting to our basest instincts in obtaining it—not quite conking our competition over the head with clubs, but almost. The behemoth real estate market in Seattle continues to defy expectations and logic. You'd expect that with interest rates up 25 percent over last year, the stock market as much as 25 percent down, and big layoffs of workers, the housing market would have softened. Not so.
At least, not on the most desirable properties. In March a $400K condominium in Belltown shot to $500K in a flurry of bidding. The victorious buyers had waived their inspection contingency, waived financing, and agreed to let the sellers stay in the condo for three months rent-free until their Capitol Hill renovation was complete. The sellers called every shot on the sale, and the buyers probably would have done split-position backflips if that were what was required. Long-term Seattleites wonder if they'll ever see a buyers' market again.
Such circumstances leave all but the victorious disappointed, and lead to questions about the fairness of the bidding process and the role of agents in the middle of it. Do agents tip deals? Do they buy up the best places before those properties hit the market? Do they lie about having other offers when they don't in order to breed urgency and raise the stakes?
The very concept of agency makes it particularly difficult to get to the bottom of these questions. "To my mind, agency implies advocacy," says Karen Lavallee, broker of Windermere West Seattle and chair of the King County Association of Realtors' Professional Standards Committee. So although a seller's agent is bound by the Association's code of ethics to be honest to all parties, she's also bound by the concept of advocacy to act in her clients' best interest, which many would argue means a listing agent's garnering the highest price for a seller. Fabricating other offers to drive up the price could be in the seller's best interest financially, but it presents an ethical dilemma vis-୶is the duty of honesty for all parties.
"It's a gray zone," says Jim Rockwell, broker of Skyline Properties' Northgate office. Rockwell, who doesn't advocate offer fabrication, points out that the tight housing market and multiple-offer situations foster a climate of hype and hysteria. "I am sure that listing agents sometimes bamboozle desperate buyers into thinking there's more competition than there is. Some would say that's their job and obligation to the seller. Others would say it's dishonest. I think it shows the dangerous potential for distortion and manipulation in this business."
Until 1996, the assumption was that all agents were working on
behalf of the seller since they, like the seller, wanted to sell the house at the highest price to make the largest commission possible. Then the Washington Legislature passed a bill to create buyers' agency, which allowed real estate agents to represent the interests of buyers. Sometimes, however, the listing agent will bring her own buyer to the deal, thus supposedly representing both buyer and seller but in effect advocating for neither. "Personally, I don't think an agent can advocate for both the
buyer and the seller in a transaction," said Lavallee, who does not engage in this practice, called "dual agency." "But plenty of agents do it, and it's not prohibited."
CONSIDER THIS SCENARIO on a popular house: As many as eight or 10 agents representing desperate buyers send their cleanest offers to the seller, one by one, through the listing agent. Have they all had access to the same information through the listing agent, or has there been favoritism? Was the house deliberately underpriced to generate "traffic" and spark a bidding war? If the listing agent is bringing his own buyer's offer and is thus acting as a dual agent, will his offer have an advantage over other agents' offers? If there's no face-to-face contact with the seller, how can buyers know that their offers are even being presented?
"We get calls daily from buyers and sellers who suspect impropriety in transactions," says Ginger Downs, executive vice president of the King County Association of Realtors. "Usually there is no way to find out what really happened without an investigation, so I always suggest that they contact the agent's broker, and then the State Licensing Division, where they can file a complaint."
But what percentage of complaints don't even get made because of fear of reprisals, lack of confidence that license laws were broken, and battle fatigue? Last year when an agent with a large, well-known company allegedly failed to disclose himself as an investor in a property his client was purchasing, the sellers and their neighbors were outraged, but ultimately no complaint was made.
And agents often ignore other agents' violations because they fear becoming known as whistleblowers. "The worst thing that can happen to an agent is to be ostracized by his peers," said one agent recently at an open house. "To be effective, you've got to be able to play with the other kids."
REAL ESTATE MAY BE the least regulated of all forms of commerce. You can be a fully licensed real estate agent in Washington, handling contracts and processing huge sums of money, three years before you can legally drink a glass of wine. The only requirements are that you be at least 18 years old, take a 60-hour course, and pass a multiple-choice exam with a score of 70 percent or higher. A high school diploma is not required, although all agents have to do continuing education for license renewal.
Once agents are licensed, they wield a stunning degree of control over property transfers. It is common for agents to direct their clients to mortgage brokers, inspectors, title and escrow companies, and even lawyers. "There is so much trust involved in the agent-client relationship, I can't imagine not being married to my agent," muses Ilana Long, who recently purchased a house in Bellevue with her husband, Steve Blatt, a schoolteacher and part-time agent. Another recent buyer jokes that she spent more time with her real estate agent during the four-month search than with anyone else in her life. "It was like we were going steady."
Passions run high because residential real estate is, above all else, an abjectly personal, high-stakes business. A buyer of a house listed by one of the area's largest real estate companies claims that last fall she and her agent repeatedly endured vicious emotional outbursts from the listing agent, "only because we really wanted the house. Otherwise we would have walked away." When the dust had cleared and the sale had closed, she contacted the agent's broker. "The agent is very successful," was the broker's unsympathetic reply. "As though that excused any behavior," the buyer marveled.
Similarly, last month a real estate agent with one of the nation's most prestigious firms allegedly assaulted a seller physically when the seller declined to review her offer. The lawyer for the victim, whose injuries included a black eye and a cut lip, said that when he called the company's president to report the incident, the president informed him that the agent was "a good producer." A few weeks later, when asked to comment for this article, the company president said he had 650 agents to keep track of and couldn't be expected to remember an assault case.
Maybe real estate is all about conking folks over the head after all.