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Do I have to work with this agent?

I was recently asked, “What if I’m not happy with the Realtor I’ve been working with and find a house I like at someone’s open house? Do I have to use the first Realtor to make an offer?”

Technically, you can choose any agent to represent you in a purchase. If an agent has been showing you homes and you happen to walk into someone else’s open house, you are in most cases free to write an offer with that “new” agent, eliminating the agent you’d been working with. They would not receive any compensation at all in that case.

It’s not quite as simple as that, however. Real estate agents do a great deal of work behind the scenes on their buyers’ behalf. They don’t simply show houses at random. A real estate agent may often spend dozens of hours working for each buyer before making a successful offer for them. When a prospective buyer doesn’t ultimately purchase a home through them, they have been working for free.

This is the nature of the real estate business; all agents work “on spec,” and not every prospect buys a home from them.

But if you are unhappy with the Realtor you’ve been working with, you should tell them what you expect, as a matter of courtesy. If they are not showing you the kinds of homes you are interested in (assuming your expectations are reasonable), you should tell them in as much detail as you can why each house they are showing you isn’t right. If they still fail to meet your expectations, just tell them that you are changing your plans and won’t be working with them any longer. If they have not been returning your calls, emails or texts within a reasonable time, you should still tell them you won’t be working with them any longer.

Doing this—even if they have fallen far short of your expectations—you’ll know that you’re being a good human being.

There is at least one legal aspect to looking at properties with one Realtor and using another to purchase a property previously shown by the first. The agent who first showed you the property would be considered the “procuring cause” of the sale, and would be entitled to a commission. These kinds of disputes between Realtors are often settled at the level of the local Associations through arbitration.

The best agents are scrupulously aware of the ethical aspects of their business. When a buyer visits an open house, the agent on-site, will often ask, “Are you working with an agent?” If the answer is yes, the hosting agent will work with the buyer’s agent if the buyer wants to make an offer. Agents who “poach” the clients of others often derelict in other aspects of real estate practice, as well.
Many of the best real estate agents work with buyers on a Buyer Representation Agreement—Exclusive basis. Agents refer to this as a “BRE.” When you sign this agreement, you agree to work exclusively with that agent during the term specified. It is the buyer-side equivalent to a listing agreement between seller and agent to sell a property.

Agreeing to a BRE can be a very good strategy for a buyer. Since real estate agents spend a great deal of time (and money) working “on spec,” entering into an exclusive arrangement like this tells your agent that you are serious and have done your own due diligence in selecting them to represent you as a buyer. If you are a casual would-be be buyer (what used to be called a “looky-loo” or “tire kicker,” don’t enter into this kind of agreement. But if you are not a serious buyer, don’t waste an agent’s time asking them to research the market for you and show you homes that you’re not likely to buy. Walk into open houses on weekends, and if you happen to fall in love with one, ask the agent hosting it to write an offer for you if you’re inclined.

But don’t waste agents’ time if they are not performing to your satisfaction and don’t respond to your feedback and guidance.

It’s that “being a good human being” thing.

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