Technology has made drastic changes in how Americans shop for real estate. You can see all the homes for sale in a neighborhood with the click of a mouse, and information about nearby home sale prices is easily available.
But little has changed in the way real estate is actually bought and sold. According to 2015 statistics from the National Association of Realtors, 87 percent of buyers purchased their homes through an agent, and 89 percent of sellers were assisted by an agent. The industry may be slow to change, but new services that use technology to revamp what "for sale by owner" means are seeking to rewrite the rules.
These services are a bridge between the traditional commission-based model of real estate agency and the old-style FSBO, in which the seller has to do everything from marketing the home to negotiating the deal. Rather than charging a flat percentage of the sales price, most of these new companies allow sellers to buy the services they need a la carte.
"They don't want to pay a real estate agent. They want to do it using their own knowledge and using the Internet," says Lisa Edwards, director of business strategy at the Tribune Company's ForSaleByOwner.com. Her company's research found that about half of consumers would consider selling their homes without an agent, with millennials particularly likely to go that route because most are tech-savvy and like handling their business online.
The service offers real estate marketing packages starting at $99 a month for a basic listing on selected real estate portals to a one-time $519 flat fee for a listing on all the major websites plus the multiple listing service. The company offers add-ons such as a professional photo and video package starting at $149 and a comparative market analysis from a licensed agent.
Julie Garton-Good, a real estate broker in Idaho and founder of the International Association of Real Estate Consultants, wrote a book called "Real Estate a la Carte" in 2001 advocating the unbundling of real estate services, which she has been doing since the 1980s. Her organization trains agents who would like to work as consultants, offering their help on a per-service basis.
For example, professional agents can be of help at common issue areas during the selling process, such as the inspection or the appraisal. Rather than listing a property with an agent, a seller can contract with an agent solely for negotiation help.
For those seeking to sell property on their own, "The most problematic is the meat in the middle," Garton-Good says. "It's basically troubleshooting, and you don't know what kind of problems you're going to have until you're in the middle of it."
In New York, Doug Perlson operates RealDirect.com, a hybrid of FSBO and traditional real estate brokerage. Sellers can choose an owner-managed plan that starts at $395, which includes online listings and advice from a real estate agent, or an agent-managed plan, for a 2 percent commission.
All the plans via RealDirect.com include a seller dashboard for scheduling showings, inquiries and offers. About 80 percent of the clients choose the owner-managed option, Perlson says, with professional photos and floor plans being the most popular add-ons. Even with the owner-managed plan, an agent makes recommendations.
"Our system will flag listings with fewer showings and make recommendations," Perlson says. "There's actually a fair amount of discussion."
If you're a seller who wants an alternative to the traditional commission-based plan, ForSaleByOwner.com and RealDirect.com are just two of many services offering options they say will save you money on the commission. Most of the services also offer options for buyers, but since the traditional model is free to buyers, they may have less motivation to experiment.
Here are questions to ask if you're considering a nontraditional approach for selling your home:
Are you familiar with the home-selling process? Selling a home without professional advice is difficult if you've never sold a home and don't understand how the process works. At a minimum, you need to know your state laws about seller disclosure, what should be included in a contract and what time frames are normal for inspections and other appraisals.
Are you comfortable letting strangers into your home? If you don't list with a traditional brokerage, you will be the one showing the home to prospective buyers. That means you'll have to be available when people want to visit and willing to usher strangers through your home and encourage them to open your closets.
Will you be able to screen buyers? Some agents don't show homes to buyers who have not been prequalified for a mortgage or otherwise demonstrated that they have the ability to get a mortgage and buy the home. When someone submits an offer for your home, will you be able to tell whether the person actually has the ability to get a mortgage and close the deal? Asking for a mortgage preapproval or prequalification with the offer is a good start, but you may also want to set a deadline in the contract for mortgage approval and/or ask to see proof of funds for the down payment and escrows.
Can you draw up a contract or have someone do it? In most states, there is a standard real estate contract used by agents and/or drawn up by the state bar association. Some states require owner disclosures of certain items. If your buyer is using an agent, he or she can draft the contract. You can hire a real estate lawyer or consultant to draft or vet a contract. This needs to be done right if you want to avoid problems that will derail the closing, such as arguments over what happens if there are issues with the inspection or appraisal. "A good agent or consultant will say which are the things that could be deal-breakers," Garton-Good says.
Can you negotiate issues that arise, such as problems with the appraisal or the inspection? Buyers will often seek repairs, concessions or a lower price after an inspection. If the appraisal is lower than the purchase price, the seller either has to lower the price or the buyer has to pay the difference in cash. Good negotiating skills may be essential to save the deal.
Can you make your house look good online? Now that most real estate searches start online, the quality of photos matters more than ever. If you're not capable of taking high-quality photos, you may need to hire a professional photographer. Don't forget that you need a description that makes your home appealing.
Are houses like yours in demand? In many parts of the country, inventory is short and any habitable house in a good neighborhood sells quickly. That's a good scenario when selling your home without a traditional agent. "There are going to be those [homes] that will sell themselves," Perlson says. "All you're going to have to do is look respectable and let people in."
Are you willing to pay a commission to the buyer's agent? You think that selling your home yourself will save you the 6 percent commission, but most buyers will have an agent. You'll need to pay that agent 2 to 3 percent. That means your maximum savings is 3 percent, minus whatever you pay for advertising, photos, consulting and other services.
Can you pay for services before your home is sold? In a traditional sale, the cost of selling the home is deducted from the proceeds at closing, meaning a seller pays nothing until the home is sold. Many a la carte services require payment upfront. "There's still a certain amount of resistance for paying upfront for all of these services," Perlson says. "A lot of people would prefer to pay a success fee, in terms of commission."