How are Realtors actually paid?

It’s the question that everyone has, but they’re too afraid to ask… How are you paid?

I’ve been waivering back and forth on how much I want to reveal in this post and I’ve settled on discussing the mechanics of agent compensation, along with a general personal discussion. It’s important to note that every real estate agent runs their business a bit differently. Much of these differences hinge on personal values and what someone will or won’t do or accept in their business dealings. There will always be someone that is willing to work for free, it’s up to clients to decide what the value of having a knowledgeable agent representing them is and negotiating compensation accordingly. There are good real estate agents and there are bad ones, and we all have our war stories from our time in this career.

Before I move forward in this discussion it’s important for me to CYA from a legal sense and say that everything is a negotiation. If you are hiring someone to do a job for you or represent you in some capacity you need to come to an agreement on compensation with them first and foremost. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, so make it a discussion.

Generally, in a residential transaction the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent are both compensated by seller. Both the seller and the buyer come to an agreement with their respective representative on compensation, but that fee is generally then covered from the seller’s proceeds from the sale of the home.

The seller decides what they are willing to pay for both their listing agent and for the services of a buyer’s agent in finding and bringing forward a qualified buyer before listing their home. For example, the seller offers to pay 6% of purchase price with 3% going to the listing agent and 3% going to the buyer’s agent. If the buyer’s agent has an agreement with their client for higher than 3% compensation it would be up to the agent to get the additional amount paid to them from the buyer. If the seller only offered 5% of purchase price they could split the compensation 2.5% and 2.5% or they could pay their agent 2% and the buyer’s agent 3%. It’s really however the seller wants to set it up and they discuss this with their agent as part of the listing agreement.

There are some things to keep in-mind if you’re the seller who is deciding compensation. Aside from the normal adage of “you get what you pay for” when it comes to your own representation, if compensation is too low for the buyer’s agent 1) you’re putting the buyer in a tough situation to fund the difference for their representation during an already costly financial transaction and 2) agents may decide not to present your home to their clients. I’m not going to debate the ethical implications of steering a client away from a home for the agent’s personal financial gain. I’m just saying that it’s up to each agent how they choose to run their business, and no, I do not agree with where everyone lands on the ethical spectrum.

With compensation often being a percentage of purchase price, that does mean that higher-priced homes come with higher commissions than lower price point homes. This does not mean that higher price-point homes are more difficult to sell, in my experience it is actually quite the opposite. A $100,000 home is oftentimes much harder to transact because the buyer and seller have less money available for things like repairs, there’s more first-time homebuyers at lower price points and there can be agents who don’t want to deal with lower priced homes.

When closing a higher-priced home, what ends up happening is that the bump in commission dollars ends up helping to float time and expenses spent working on lower price point transactions that need more of my time and attention. It may be because there are more nuances within a specific transaction, more legal hurdles, or simply because a client needs more time to talk through ideas or need to view more homes with me before they’re sure of their decision.

It’s also very natural within the real estate business to spend time working with clients that aren’t ready to buy for whatever reason. Because an agent is only paid if a transaction closes, there are many hours spent meeting and working with clients that simply won’t close. Believe it or not, there are costs associated with showing homes to someone who doesn’t end up buying or selling a home with you in time spent, along with wear-and-tear on your car and the necessary gasoline to get from place to place.

The commission number that you see on the closing statement does not go directly into the agent’s pocket. There are splits to pay to the brokerage firm and any team that an agent may be affiliated with. Then money hits an agent’s bank account, where they must set aside money for their own income taxes and self employment taxes, along with their costs of doing business (insurance, advertisements, supplies, car, office, etc).

Each agent is their own small business owner, so all the risks and rewards of being in business for yourself apply. Sometimes it can be lucrative, sometimes your expenses far outweigh your income, but it’s always worthwhile work if you love it.

Why New Construction is Your New BFF

Prices are high, inventory is low and offers in the market are walking a fine line between homebuying and becoming a Vegas-level professional gambler funded only by your life savings. To say that the market is crazy feels a bit like an understatement these days and Covid has compounded the issue. I’ve seen Realtors take keys out of lockboxes to keep homes their clients are interest in from being shown (that’s a great way to lose your license), and I’ve had a Realtor enter without having scheduled a showing (another way to lose your license) which is technically trespassing and a great way to make the seller really, really angry. So as the buyer, how do you stay above the fray?

Two words: New Construction.

While it can be fraught with it’s own set of difficulties, new construction is a great way to keep out of the trenches of full-out real estate warfare known as the multiple offers situation.

Working with a builder means working with a company so they’ve got a plan to handle roll outs of lots and floorplans. They are held to a higher standard than a residential seller and must abide by equal housing opportunity laws. This means that a kindly worded love letter to the seller are off the table for tactics to win a home. The builder usually has an interest list and any newly available properties are offered to those on the list using a first-come-first-served basis. There’s no way to buy your way to the front of the line and sales staff are salaried meaning that their ability to take a shady financial incentive from a homebuyer is essentially zero.

Furthermore, because the sales staff is a step removed from ownership, they have no incentives to select buyers planning to build more expensive homes. As long as the lot is sold and a house is built, then the sales staff is happy whether the ultimate price of the home is 400,000 or 550,000. Meanwhile, if it was a seller selecting offers there’s a clear winner in that race.

Buying new construction also means that there’s more than one home for sale, so if your first choice of building lot happens to be scooped up, there are still other options for you. If you miss out on a re-sale home there is no true backup plan and your house hunt begins back at square one after losing the bid.

With new construction homes and especially those built by larger companies the pricing is more streamlined. It doesn’t always feel like that when you make what you think is a small tweak in the design showroom and it hits your bottom line hard, but it’s true. Shifts in pricing take a while to take effect in larger companies, so their pricing for an equivalent home on the resale market can actually be substantially less. Also, with multi-state builders pricing is often calculated for an entire region, so whether you’re in a big city or a more rural location you won’t see a tremendous jump in the price to construct a home. The majority of the pricing difference is due to the cost of the land itself and not much else.

Getting on a builder’s VIP list can feel daunting because there might be a ton of names on the list ahead of you, but try not to worry. With so many people looking for homes it’s easy to see a really large interest list but then because of the time required to complete the construction process the majority of those who were originally interested either found a home by other means or decided to exit the homebuying market all together. A lot can happen during the time a community opens and a certain home is ultimately built, so try not to feel discouraged.

If you’re sick of getting beat out in multiple offers, you don’t have a ton a money to put down on a house, or you have a difficult form of financing, then it’s time to look at new construction to see what options might work better for you!

New Construction… Now What?

The purchase of a new construction home is exciting, with lots of time for anticipation of moving in to your new home. It feels like the builder rep becomes your new best friend, you get to pick out your packages and upgrades so everything can reflect your style (if the home isn’t already built or spec’d of course!), so with all of the excitement it’s important to keep in mind that there are pitfalls that you’ll want to avoid along the way.

Builder-Specific Contracts

Most if not all builders in the area use their own purchase contract forms. Why? Because it allows them to closely control the process, while being very forgiving to the builder and not very friendly towards the homebuyer. Example, there’s often a clause that the builder can delay construction for any reason and must simply begin the construction process on your lot within one year. That does not read that they’ll hand over a fully constructed home in one year, but merely start the build in one year. Regardless of when they tell you that the expected completion date is.

It’s extremely important to know and understand the contract terms that you’re signing and what your rights are if something goes wrong. Many builder contracts mandate the use of arbitration instead of legal action in a court of law. It’s important to know what this means before you find that you need to sue the builder. This might seem like something that wouldn’t happen often, but there are some very good lawyers here in Charlotte that spend their days only litigating with residential new home builders.

If you decide that the contract is too skewed in the builder’s favor and don’t want to agree to the contract there is little that you can do to still purchase the home. Using their contract is like the price of admission to the ballpark just to play the game. If you want the house, you will have to take on the risk.

Homeowners Inspections – pre and post drywall

Even if you’re buying your home new, there could still be issues that you would want to be aware of before closing, so I always, always, always recommend having an inspection done. And not just one inspection for new construction but TWO. The first is called a pre-drywall inspection. This is when everything has been framed, utilities have been installed and the walls are just about the be closed up. Having an inspection completed at this point allows the inspector to view areas of concern that are normally hidden behind drywall, meaning that they can see more potential issues. Just because a home is new doesn’t mean that it was built correctly, so buyer beware.

Once everything is completed I recommend having a traditional homeowners inspection. This is when the inspector will go through and look at everything they can to ensure it was built the way that it should’ve been. They will also find things like loose door molding and other random things that you’ll want the builder to fix prior to closing.

Environmental testing

Though a house might be new there’s still good reason to test things like water quality and whether or not the home has high levels of radon gas. Even if a geographical area isn’t know to have issues with radon there are some building materials that may be included in the house that might spike levels and that’s an important thing to know before you move in. Example, granite, though trendy in both kitchens and bathrooms, can be known to emit high levels of radon, so know your stuff and get a test.

First Year Warranty

Many builders will offer a warranty on their homes at the 12 month after closing. The builder will do a walkthrough with the owners and fix anything that may have broken or settled during the first year that you’ve lived there. This is another GREAT time to get a full home inspection. This gives you a full report with issues listed and pictures provided for the builder to then go and fix. I recommend scheduling a home inspection around month 11 so you’re prepared for the builder’s walkthrough. I also recommend keeping a running list of items you corrected taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet. You might forget about that kitchen cabinet that doesn’t close quite right and miss having it fixed without you needing to call a fix-it person.

Sales Process

For builders this is a business, and they treat it as such. They are very savvy, so it’s important that you have someone on your side to represent you and your interests. Plus, it’s good to have someone that understands the builder’s sales process. Sales people have quotas to meet on a monthly and quarterly basis, so sometimes there’s more wiggle-room in the price than people realize. They have a purchase price listed but what they don’t tell you is that they likely have a range of prices they’re willing to accept if it means making a sale. You’ll have more luck negotiating on price if you buy already built inventory home, but if homes are slow to sell they might make an exception if you’re looking to go under contract on a to-be built home. You never know, so ask! And if you have any questions or changes that the sales staff agrees to, be sure to get it all in writing before signing and giving your deposit.

Tax Time is Coming!

It can be daunting to figure out what documents you need to give your CPA or tax preparer in regards to your home, mortgage and real estate investment properties, so I’m here to make your preparation a little bit easier by answering some common questions I get.

Q: I own a house that I live in full-time as my primary residence, what are the basic documents you need each year?

If you have a mortgage, you should get a form 1098 from your mortgage lender showing the total interest that you paid during the year in Box 1. If your lender pays your property taxes on your behalf (aka you ‘escrow’ for your taxes) then your real estate taxes for the year should also be on this form (check out Box 10).

If you handle paying your own property taxes then you’ll also want to locate a copy of your tax bill. If you can’t find the original copy that was mailed to you around September, then you can look it up on the county website by your address.

Q: I bought or sold my house in 2020, do you need anything additional?

Yep! We’ll want a copy of the Closing Disclosure (CD) that you signed at the Closing Attorney’s office when you bought and also when you sold. Your costs to close on the home may be deductible on your taxes whether you are the buyer or the seller in the transaction. Also, depending on when during the year you purchased or sold the home there may be some information relating to the proration of property taxes that we’ll need to take into account when preparing your taxes.

If you sold your home we may ask you for a copy of the CD from when you originally purchased it. This can appear tedious, but please know that if we’re asking for this it’s very-very important. We’re calculating how much gain you earned on the sale of your home. If you sold your home for much more than you originally purchased it for, there are exclusions for the gain with the amount of the exclusion being tied to whether or not you’re married for tax purposes. We may also ask you for a listing of improvements you made to the house during the time that you owned it. These expenses can help to minimize how much of the gain you have to pay taxes on.

Q: I refinanced my house, how does this impact my taxes?

The costs you paid to close on the new loan may be deductible for tax purposes, so please provide a copy of the Closing Disclosure (same as above). If you took out a line of credit (also known as a second mortgage) on your home, the costs to set this up and the interest you pay might be deductible for taxes but only if you used the money to expand or substantially improve your home.

Did you take a LOC on your home to pay off credit card debt or something outside of home improvements? Then it’s not deductible on your taxes.

Q: I have a rental property, what do you need to include it on my taxes?

Assuming that you don’t own the rental property within another entity, the income and expenses will be included on your personal tax return. We’ll want a schedule showing all of your rental revenue and all of the related expenses you paid for the property during the year.

If you made any improvements or repairs that cost over approximately $500 and have a useful life greater than one year, (for example: a kitchen remodel, a new furnace, new roof, etc.) we’ll want a listing of those items and amounts paid as well. Instead of claiming the expense deduction all in one year, we will claim the expense ratably over the next few years that you theoretically use the improvement.

Q: I currently rent, does this impact my taxes?

Nope, renting does not give you any tax benefits. There are no writeoffs for renters like there are for people who own their home. This could be a really good reason to look into buying a home instead of dealing with increasing rental prices on a yearly basis.

Q: I have a question about real estate and taxes that you didn’t answer here. What do I do?

Reach out to your tax professional or shoot me an email at erincoffey@kw.com I will try to answer general questions as best I can. Please note that anything I say here is not to be construed as tax advice. If you have a question about your specific tax situation it’s best to reach out to someone who has all of your details, I’m only discussing general ideas and information here.

Know Thy Neighbor… and Neighborhood too

When searching for a home it’s great to shop online, and honestly, that’s the only way to be successful these days for the average homebuyer. While you can find out many details about the house you’re interested in, it’s almost impossible to learn about the area and the neighborhood unless you KNOW the area and the neighborhood. In Charlotte, one street can make all the difference between luxury living and “wouldn’t walk my dog there on a dark night,” so what can you do?

Many of my clients will ask my opinion, which I am always hesitant to give out for two reasons: one, anything I can say can be construed as trying to steer you one way or another (which is illegal), and two, I don’t have a good baseline of what you consider “safe” or “good” so any opinion I have might not align with what you’re looking for.

Case in point: I had a friend live with me for a few months and after the first week she said that she couldn’t believe that I lived in such a “rough” area. For context, I do live on the edge of two distinct neighborhoods, if you turn one direction out of my driveway you will see new homes ranging from 600-800k, and if you go out the other direction you will see questionable characters standing on street corners. I generally understand where my friend was coming from, but I also don’t agree with her. Alas, this is why I am so finicky about sharing my personal opinion, and instead I offer some options for my clients to make their own best decisions.

Safety

As with my friend, one person’s “safe” is another person’s “no way” so there are tons of online resources that I give to my clients including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department website, CrimeMapping.com and AreaVibes.com. It’s important to know that negative reports will always outweigh the good and it’s equally important to see what a rating would be for a city you know and are familiar with. You might just see that your lovely hometown doesn’t fair as well as you thought it did in these website ratings.

What’s most important, and something I stress that all of my clients do, is to drive around a neighborhood that they may be interested in. And I don’t just mean a quick drive on a sunny Sunday afternoon. What I actually mean is go there around dusk on a Friday night, drive through at midnight, take an extra few minutes one morning and drive what your commute to the office would be from that neighborhood. You would be surprised what you can find out about a neighborhood by taking a few extra minutes there.

Also, during your drive through I recommend taking a walk down a few streets during a time when people have just gotten out of work and will be the most active outside. This gives you an opportunity to say hello to the neighbors. While it can be a bit uncomfortable to speak to someone, most people are happy to talk about their neighborhoods and to connect over the mutual interest. They will also tell you the good and the bad, and will be much more candid with you than the sellers or their agent will be with me.

Fun example: in that 600k-800k part of my neighborhood there are a few older homes sprinkled throughout. One of those homes illegally keeps chickens on the property. This is a well-known detail within the neighborhood, they’ve been there for eons but how would you feel if your first Saturday morning in your new half-million dollar home started with a rooster crowing at 6:30am? While I’m certain it’s against city ordinances to keep farm animals within the city limits, there’s also something to be said for getting grandfathered in because you’ve been around for the last 25 years living your best chicken-keeping life in the same house, on the same block. Who are we to stop them?

Schools

A parent’s choice for their child’s education is deeply personal and has a hefty impact on that child’s future, so it’s a big deal. I have had appointments on the same day with different families, and one family thinks school X is absolutely amazing but only a few minutes later I hear that school X is absolutely terrible and this second family only wants their child to go to school Y. Both sets of parents are right. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone is entitled to pick their child’s education. Do not give me or any other real estate professional the power to tell you otherwise. Again, jump online and look at some school ratings, find the PTA and parent groups on social media, and talk to someone who has their kids in that school. You can ask all of the questions and get the unfiltered answers from the people who really know, and then make the best decision for you and your family.

It’s also important to note that school districting lines change every few years around here, so if there’s a school that you would like your child to be in it’s imperative that you go the extra mile. I can confirm with the seller’s agent and call the school district to double-check, however, there may be changes in the future that I’m unaware of. Parents and students that are going to be directly impacted by a change are the best to know details, so again, talk to your school’s PTA and parent groups for any pending details.

Here are some additional school resources, and of course there are more out there depending on where in Charlotte you’re interesting in buying:

  • Greatschools.org – widely known for rankings
  • MeckEd – shows some additional statistics for rankings in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and where they’re expected to go over the next few years
  • SchoolDigger – includes data from National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Census Bureau and the North Carolina Dept of Public Instruction
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District