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A Personal Shopper For Your Dream House

Personal Business: SMART MONEY


When Sallye and Jim Ryan wanted to move from their Tampa apartment to a three-

bedroom home this spring, the busy couple used a buyer broker, Beth Tansey, to help. Within a week, they had bid on the house they now own. Sallye liked being able to delegate the house-hunting. "With both my husband and me working, it was a lot easier," she says. "I don't think I would have found this house that I really love without her. There are so many homes for sale here, I would probably still be looking."

Because Tansey is a buyer broker, who exclusively represents the home buyer's interests, the Ryans trusted her to find the best deal on a house that suited their needs. By contrast, a traditional real estate broker is legally bound to work for the seller who pays the commission and therefore may be more intent on selling listed homes than finding your dream house. Even realtors who don't hold the listing on a given house act as subagents to the seller. So unless a broker says that he or she is working for you--brokers are now legally obliged to disclose who they represent--you can assume the broker is working for the seller. Such agents must pass on information such as the buyer's income to the seller, who then has a better idea of what price to hold out for.

But the balance of power in real estate transactions is changing as the number of brokers who serve only buyers grows. The two biggest national franchises are Buyers' Agent (800 766-8728), based in Memphis, and Buyers' Resource (800 359-4092), in Englewood, Colo. Both companies provide referrals to their own brokers as well as independent buyer brokers across the country. Proof is still scant that buyer brokers are a boon. Some traditional brokers think they add little to the equation. "Basically, even though traditional agents have a fiduciary duty toward the seller, their priority is accomplishing the deal," says Dave Goldsmith, director of marketing at D.G. Neary, a New York real estate firm. "I don't know if it will change things except in people's minds."

BEST DEAL. However, there's reason to believe buyer brokers can save time and money. An informal survey by long-distance company Sprint in 1991 showed that employees who used buyer brokers saved an average of 9% off the asking price, vs. 3% for all home buyers. In addition, buyer brokers check into property values and school systems. "We make clients fully aware of areas that are appreciating, so they tend to buy in areas on the upswing," says Buyers' Agent President Tom Hathaway.

Because these brokers are obliged to get buyers the best deal possible, they approach houses with a critical eye for apparent flaws. You'll still need an inspector to uncover hidden defects, however. Buyer brokers also show properties sold by the owner, which can be cheaper because the only commission is what you agree to pay your broker. Sellers' agents usually won't show these homes because they don't make commissions on them.

Brokers representing buyers should also appraise the value of the house, negotiate the price, and prequalify you for a mortgage, sometimes at a better rate. Buyers' Agent brokers, for instance, narrow mortgage bids from 15 lenders nationwide to the three best offers--and then get those three to rebid. "A well-trained, experienced buyer broker is a great asset," says Peter Miller, author of How to Sell Your Home in Any Market ($12, HarperPerennial) and other real estate guides. "You won't do any worse, and you may do a lot better."

Usually, the buyer broker splits the sales commission with the seller's agent, just as a subagent who didn't have the listing would with the broker who did. So the fee still comes out of the sale price. Some people might assume that buyers' agents have an incentive to keep the price high. But again, the broker must get you the best deal. "In my experience, all of them do," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumers Federation of America.

STRAIGHT TALK. A conflict of interest is more likely when a real estate firm that represents sellers assigns you one of its brokers as a buyer agent. That's why many people believe an "exclusive" buyer broker is preferable. If there aren't any in your area, and you have to use a listing broker, "make sure they disclose when they are showing you properties they have a financial interest in," says Brobeck.

Unlike using a conventional realtor, you must sign an agreement to work solely with a buyer broker for a certain period of time. Don't sign up for more than three months, says Brobeck. That way, you know the broker must go all out for you rather than sit on your case for a few months. When your contract is up, you can renegotiate, find another agent, or go it alone.

Who Represents Whom?

EXCLUSIVE BUYER BROKER Aims to get best deal for home buyer. Splits commission with seller's agent.

TRADITIONAL REAL ESTATE AGENT Represents the seller and is legally obligated to disclose personal information about the buyer, such as income, that could affect the sale price. Seller pays commission, which is built into the price of the home.

DUAL AGENT Works for a listing agency, which works for the seller, but is assigned as broker to the buyer. May push homes listed with agency.


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