Things get even stickier if you’re both the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent. Whose side are you on?
Nechama Norman with Batsheva Berman
very profession has its dark side, and the real estate world can definitely get shadowy.
One core of real estate ethics is fiduciary obligation — the legal obligation to act in your client’s interest. If you’re representing a buyer, you’re obligated to help your client get the lowest possible price; if you’re on the seller’s side of the table, you need to negotiate for the highest possible price.
Recently, I brought potential buyers to see the Werners’* house. They liked the house and were thinking of making an offer. The Werners’ agent, who was friendly with me, mentioned that the couple was desperate to sell by the end of the day. They had found a house they loved, but their seller wanted it sold by the end of week, so they needed money for a down payment on their dream house. And the race was on.
Once I knew this, I was able to negotiate far more aggressively; a desperate seller is often willing to shave thousands, or even tens of thousands, off the asking price. The Werners’ agent shouldn’t have shared that tidbit with me.
Things get even stickier if you’re both the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent. Whose side are you on? Are you trying to snag the highest possible price, or whittle it down to the lowest possible sum? In many states, being a dual agent is illegal; New Jersey isn’t one of them. Still, it’s fraught enough that I make it clear to both clients what a tightrope I’m walking. If it does happen, I warn the buyers that, legally, my first responsibility is to the seller. If it’s buyers who have been with me for a while, they’re usually fine with that, they just want me to take them to finish line. Some agents, though, see things differently.
Malky Blum was a friend’s cousin. She reached out and told me she wanted to move to my area. I met with her and her husband. They came to the area for a Shabbos and I set her up for the seudos. Over the course of two years, I showed the Blums a number of homes, spending dozens of hours with her, but nothing was right.
Then, she made a simchah and took a break from house hunting. When I followed up a few months later, she told me it looked like they’d be moving out of town, but if she changed her mind, she’d call me. I crossed Malky off my “potential buyers” list.
A few weeks later, I was taking a walk, and met Chelsey McNeil walking her dog. We exchanged greetings and she told me she was planning on moving to the West Coast. I asked if she was looking for an agent, but she told me that she was working with another agent, Sandra Kay.
My heart sank. Sandra was notorious for “double-dipping” — trying to be the agent for both the seller and the buyers. She did this by making it difficult for other agents to show the house she was representing. But that tactic is illegal; when you’re representing a seller, you’re supposed to make the house accessible to the maximum number of buyers to give the seller the best chance of getting higher bids.
Still, I gave it a shot. I tried to bring two different buyers to see Chelsey’s house, but Sandra always found a reason why they couldn’t come. Since Chelsey was my neighbor, I saw her outside, and she asked me if I’d brought anyone. I casually mentioned to her that I had potential buyers, but her agent wasn’t letting me in. Sandra was furious at me when Chelsey called to complain, but once the game was up, I managed to get my clients — the Whites — in the next afternoon.
The Whites loved the house and made an offer on the spot. Sandra informed me frostily that she had clients who had outbid the Whites.
I was surprised. Even if I’m not representing them, I usually know if people are looking to buy on my block; most potential buyers call around and speak to someone in the area, and as far as I knew, no one had done that recently. But so be it. The mystery bidder bought Chelsey’s house, and the Whites continued their hunt.
A few days later, I was looking over an updated neighborhood list and I saw a Blum there. When I met Malky Blum at the grocery the next week, I said, “Hey, I saw a Blum on our neighborhood list, they must have just bought. Is it your husband’s brother? Cousin?”
“No,” she said breezily. “That’s me!”
I was shocked.
She’d seen an ad in a newspaper for a house in the area, and had called the agent, bypassing me entirely. I’d invested years of time and effort into the Blums’ house hunt. But she hadn’t let me know that she was staying in New Jersey, nor invited me to continue working on her behalf —even though I could have gotten her the same house for the same money. It stung.
But it was water under the bridge at that point. I smiled and welcomed her to the neighborhood.
Just two weeks after I became a real estate agent, I was speaking to another agent, a frum girl, and she baldly lied to me. She called, told me she was thinking of moving, and asked about a house in the neighborhood. I gave her lots of information, friend to friend. The next day, she mentioned that her client wouldn’t be taking the house. I was taken aback. No need to tell me something you don’t want to share, but how could you outright lie?
When people heard that I was a real estate agent, they sometime recoiled, as if I’d told them I work for a smuggling ring. One person told me, “When you shake hands with a real estate agent, check your hands afterwards to make sure you still have all ten fingers.”
I didn’t want to be that sort of person, or have people assuming I’m that kind of person. “I’m a straight shooter,” I told my husband, before I even started working. “How can I work in this field?”
He suggested I speak to my former principal, Rav Marmorstein of Beis Soroh Schnierer seminary in Manchester. I shared my concerns.
Rav Marmorstein thought it over, and said, “Sometimes Hashem puts you into a certain place, in a certain job, at a certain time, and your mission is to be a shining example to others. You do what’s right, and show people that they can have success that way. Make a kiddush Hashem, and you’ll see tremendous brachah.”
I took that as my mission statement — and got my first contract that week.
My father always used to tell us that we should never put ourselves on the line for a dollar; that it will always come back to bite you, and it’s never worth it.
The words of my rav and my father have followed me throughout. There are many ways to cut corners. You can inflate numbers, cover up the flaws of a house, fake urgency when it doesn’t exist. But I won’t go there. I’ve seen that you can be entirely straight, and be very successful, not despite the honesty, but because of it. People will trust you, and there’s nothing more valuable than being known as someone who will stick to her principles.
to be continued…
*All names and details have been changed
When I get a knock at the door and there’s a chocolate platter, my kids know something happened. In lieu of a menschlich call with an explanation, I get a scrawled note: “Here’s a token of our appreciation for the hours and hours you’ve spent with us.” We call these deliveries the “korbanos platters.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 806)
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