Real (Estate) Rent Seeking

The Justice Department may file suit against the National Association of Realtors (NAR) to prevent them from excluding discount brokers from access to the regional MLS systems.  I’m hardly a fan of antitrust but the market for realtors is a racket.  Six percent to sell a house?  Outrageous!

Putting aside the outrage the market for realtors is terribly wasteful.  Consider, house prices are much higher in California than in Idaho but commissions are stable at around six percent.  Thus, even though the realtor’s job, brokering a deal, is the same in California as in Idaho, a realtor in California will make much more per-house.  As a result, there are far too many realtors in California and many of them will spend an entire year selling only a handful of houses.  Indeed, many realtor’s spend most of their time prospecting for clients rather than actually selling houses – this is a huge waste of resources. 

The same relationship holds over time as over space.  That is, when house prices go up we don’t see a fall in commission rates.  Instead, we see more entry.  Since the same number of houses are being bought and sold, the extra realtors don’t make the buyer or seller better off and sadly the realtors aren’t better off either – instead the excess return is siphoned off in wasteful prospecting for clients.

Unfortunately, no one really understands why commissions are stable.  The answer is not monopoly.  It’s very easy to enter the market for realtors.  So why don’t commissions fall?  One can certainly point to some restrictive practices by the NAR but I don’t think that is the whole or even the major part of the story.

A clue to the puzzle is that we also see stable commission rates in law (contingency fees) and in services (tipping).  Why is the appropriate tip 15% at an expensive restaurant and at a cheap restaurant?  Does the tuxedoed waiter really have a harder job than the diner waitress?  Maybe (indeed, I have argued along these lines elsewhere) but the commonality across these very different markets tells me something else is going on.

Is it signaling?  Would you distrust a realtor offering lower commissions?  Again, maybe, but it’s hard to believe that with so much money at stake there aren’t enough people willing to take a risk on a discount realtor for long enough for reputations to be established.  I think part of the problem in the realtor market is that other realtors can easily discriminate against discount brokers by pushing their clients one way or the other – that says the antitrust actions will probably not be very effective.  But this doesn’t explain stable commissions in law or waiting.

It’s a puzzle and one worth solving.  Comments are open.


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