Want to Avoid Real Estate Agent Commissions? Not a Good Idea!

Over the years, I’ve met a number of people who, when they want to sell their home, try to do it without the help of a real estate agent. From personal experience, I’ve learned that this is not such a great idea. Good agents are worth every penny of the commissions they earn.

Here’s how I found this out.

Back in 1990-91, between jobs, I was crazy enough to try working as a real estate agent myself. Let’s just say I spent a year chasing transactions that, like a mirage, never materialized. I didn’t earn a nickel. However, I did learn a couple of things:

First, I learned — or more accurately, relearned — what a saint my wife is. Although Sandra had told me at the beginning she didn’t think real estate was a good fit for me, when hard-earned experience finally brought me to the same conclusion, she never said “I told you so.” Had the shoe been on the other foot, I feel sure I couldn’t have resisted the temptation.

Second, I learned something about my colleagues. From listening to their tales from the “front lines,” I came to appreciate the thoroughgoing professionalism of a couple of agents in my office. This proved extremely helpful when, several years later, Sandra and I found ourselves in the fortunate position of being able to buy a house. We enlisted the help of one of those agents — Mary Robb, formerly of Locations in Honolulu — and found a wonderful home.

Some years later, in 2013, Sandra retired from her professorship at Leeward Community College and, because I can do my Pen-for-Rent work from anywhere with access to a phone and the internet, we were free to follow our three kids to the U.S. “mainland” (as people in Hawaii call the rest of the country).

Since Naomi and Adam live in “sweaty summer/snowy winter zones” (Michigan and the Washington, D.C., area, respectively), we chose to settle in lovely Santa Rosa, Calif., where Melissa lives. Not only do we now find ourselves in a delightful community just a few miles from one of our kids and her family, we’ve halved the distance to our other two kids and their families. Hawaii is about 5,000 miles from the East Coast. California is just 2,500 miles distant.

But first we had to sell our home in Hawaii. Mary Robb had by then left Hawaii, but another colleague I’d valued, Ann Cuseo, was available to help us.

This is what Ann did for us, and it’s the reason I began this piece saying that a good real estate agent is worth every penny of his/her commission.

  • She gave unstintingly of her time, responding promptly, by phone or email, to questions we had throughout the process.
  • She sat with us as we began planning our move, listened to our needs and concerns, shared her knowledge of the market, and helped us figure out how best to get the highest price for our home at the least cost both in dollars invested in sprucing it up and in the time and effort required to do so.
  • She advised us not to spend a lot on major kitchen and bathroom upgrades, as she felt these would not likely pay for themselves in the sales price.
  • She told us, much to our relief, that we would not need to prepare the house for showing while we were still living there. That saved us a tremendous amount of time, effort and angst. Instead, she suggested that we simply move out, after which she would send in the professionals she regularly works with and trusts (carpet man, interior painters, fix-it guys and cleaning lady) to make the house “show” to its best advantage at minimal cost. (Our investment in this spruce-up came in under Ann’s estimate, and far less than a significant kitchen-bathroom upgrade. For every dollar of this investment, we generated an extra five dollars in the sales price, compared to what we’d have received if the work had not been done.)
  • She recommended first-rate, reasonably priced professionals for the carpeting, painting, fixing (including installing a new oven, refinishing kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors, installing new doorknobs and other simple touches) and cleaning. And she kept an eye on their work as it proceeded, all of which took place after we had left for California. Their work was excellent — we saw the house again on a short trip back to Hawaii just as it was about to be listed. It looked great! (And it showed wonderfully, due not only to the spruce-up, but also to the various objects and artwork Ann tastefully placed around the house.)
  • She devoted a lot of thought to the listing price, suggesting a price that would not scare buyers away and might even result in a bidding “war” and quick sale, yet net us the most we could expect under prevailing market conditions. In the end, Ann’s efforts paid off in a sale above asking price. We were impressed not only with the final result, but also with the way Ann repeatedly checked her assumptions about the listing price — not only running it past her own colleagues for their thoughts but also discussing it with other agents as they came to see the house, getting repeated reassurance from all that it was well and fairly priced.
  • She cleverly put the house on the market just a day or two before the next brokers’ open, which maximized its exposure.
  • When no offers were received shortly after listing, she found a great way to highlight our home’s value by conducting several open houses concurrently with those of an agent who was listing a nearby home that compared unfavorably with ours.
  • She followed up every showing by talking with potential buyers’ agents, and she kept those agents whose buyers had expressed tentative interest informed whenever a new potential buyer seemed interested. These efforts were designed to turn mere interest into an offer.
  • She kept us informed with phone calls and emails almost every day.
  • When one potential buyer expressed strong interest but was unable to make an offer right away because she was involved in a divorce-related contingency situation, Ann followed up repeatedly with her agent in an effort to hasten the removal of that contingency.
  • When, finally, two offers were received almost simultaneously — one with a contingency and one without — Ann conferred with both would-be buyers’ agents to generate offers at the listing price. She counseled us through the negotiating process and wound up getting two offers above asking price.
  • Ann bird-dogged the escrow process every step of the way. We were particularly impressed by her knowledge of the various inspectors who would be involved and, especially, by her readiness to take the unusual steps necessary to avoid an inspection by an individual who had often been an obstacle to a successful closing.
  • She facilitated the signing of documents electronically, so the sale could be completed easily despite our being in California.
  • When actual signatures were required, the escrow company Ann chose found a notary in Santa Rosa who came to us with all the documents.
  • The escrow company Ann chose wired the proceeds from the sale to our bank just a few hours after closing!
  • Finally, Ann also helped us find an excellent Santa Rosa real estate agent, Ron Larson, who helped us find a new home. Because we were new in this community and didn’t know any agents here, we asked Ann to do some research and “find us someone who is as savvy as yourself.” Not only did Ann do the preliminary research, she interviewed three agents here by phone to make sure they had the knowledge and experience needed to serve us well. We are delighted with Ron, who similarly moved heaven and earth to get us into the home we are now enjoying.

In our experience, magnificent work like this shows that savvy real estate agents truly earn every nickel of their commissions. Trying to “do it yourself” looks to us like a penny-wise and dollar-foolish gamble.

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