How Agents and Agent Teams Are Structured

Question: I’m in the process of searching for a real estate agent and having trouble understanding the different organizational structures. Can you explain how it works?

Answer: Most real estate agents operate as independent contractors within their brokerage (office), thus have autonomy to operate their business/service model as they choose. With over 12,000 Realtors in the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors alone, the organizational structures and business models vary widely to suit an agent’s style of business and/or target clientele.

I think it’s almost as important for home buyers and sellers to learn about their prospective agent’s operating model as it is to make sure they know your market. An agent’s operating model will impact your experience and you need to make sure it aligns with your expectations.

I’ll break down some of the organizational structures that are most common today so you have an idea of what to look for.

Brokerage

At the top of the organizational structure is the brokerage, which is best described as the office your agent works for. The brokerage is the legal entity involved in the transaction and when you sign a Buyer Representation or Listing Agreement, it’s actually with the brokerage, with your agent as the assigned representative of the brokerage.

Currently in the DC Metro, most brokerages are made up of multiple agents, often dozens to hundreds, and function like a shared office. An agent cannot operate independently outside of a brokerage, but an individual agent can have their own broker’s license and operate an independent brokerage.

Most agents operate as independent contractors within their brokerage, but there are some models, Redfin being the most popular, where agents are employees.

Agent Models

In most cases agents operate individually or within a team, structured in a some common ways:

  1. Individual Agent, No Support: Many agents work independently without any sort of support staff. The advantage for clients is that you always know who you’ll be working with and who is handling every detail of your transaction. The main disadvantage is that there is a single point of failure if that person is unavailable.
  2. Individual Agent With Administrative Support: Some independent agents hire one or more people to support administrative tasks like scheduling and marketing. Some brokerages also offer this type of administrative support to their agents. This should be an advantage over #1 because the agent has more time for high-value tasks, but it also requires the administrative support to be on top of things and strong communication between agent and admin.
  3. Team Partnership: Two or more experienced agents with strong individual businesses may partner to share some administrative support costs and build a stronger brand together. For the client, it has many of the same qualities as #2, but there’s usually an added benefit of knowing that there’s at least one other experienced agent available as back-up in case your agent in unavailable.
  4. Team Lead With Coordinators: An individual agent or partnership with a large book of business that uses specialized buyer and seller coordinators to support client activities. An advantage to clients is that the transaction is generally led/directed by an experienced agent and that there is no single point of failure, you’re working with a support team. A disadvantage is that some or many high-value pieces of the transaction are handled by coordinators, not the lead (experienced) agent.
  5. Team “CEO” With Junior Agents: An experienced agent who acts more as a CEO, overseeing the operations of a large team of agents, and personally handling very few transactions, if any. Clients should benefit from systems and processes the “CEO” agent used to become successful, imparted on the junior agents. A disadvantage is that these teams often have dozens or more agents and the experience of those agents varies widely and don’t necessarily reflect the talent of the “CEO” agent.
What Should You Ask?

It’s important for you to understand how your real estate agent operates and it shouldn’t be hard to find out by asking some simple questions.

  • Will I work with anybody else during the transaction?
  • Will anybody else work on my transaction?
  • What happens if I need something when you’re unavailable or out-of-town?

I hope this has been helpful for anybody starting out their search for an agent or just generally confused by how the industry is structured. As always, if you would like to meet with me about buying, selling, or renting in Arlington or the surrounding DC Metro communities, feel free to email me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

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