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.

Expect A Slower Market Until February

Question: Does the Arlington market change in the winter?

Answer: November marks the start of the traditional “winter market” in Arlington that is defined by fewer homes being put up for sale and homes sitting on the market just a bit longer than they did earlier in the year. The decrease in new inventory will be obvious to anybody who has been searching for a home in 2019, but you’ll barely notice the increase in how long homes are taking to sell because the market is moving so quickly that even a slowdown will mimic spring markets in previous years.

Sharp Decrease In New Inventory

Historically, the fewest homes hit the market in Arlington from November-January, with the pace of new listings in December coming in at nearly 1/3 the rate of new listings from March-May. With inventory levels in 2019 already at historical lows, this winter will feel especially short on housing supply.

Month Contribution to Total New Listings
Buyer Demand Cools Off

Historically, the percentage of homes that go under contract within the first ten days decreases from November-January, with November and December (holiday season) having the most noticeable reduction in quick sales. However, with the pace of the Arlington market at all-time highs in 2019, you can expect the drop in demand in November and December to feel like peak spring demand in previous years.

Percentage of Homes Under Contract in First 1-10 Days
Is The Winter The Right Time For You?

The winter can be a great time to buy if you’re more focused on value because demand decreases so you may pick up some negotiation leverage.  However, if you’re searching for something unique and struggling to find properties that fit your criteria, the odds of the perfect place hitting the market in the winter decreases.

Given how low inventory is heading into this winter, I’m not sure buyers will find as many deals as they have in previous years. Demand is still strong from buyers who haven’t found a home yet in 2019 and low supply makes it a strong market for sellers, even during the holidays.

If you’re considering buying or selling in Arlington or the surrounding DC Metro communities and would like to learn more about the impact seasonality will have on your process, feel free to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Question: We are planning to buy a home in the DC area sometime in the next 12-24 months and want to make sure we take that time to prepare. What should we know before buying a house that we can get started with now?

Answer: Whether you’re a first-time buyer, experienced buyer relocating from out-of-state, or moving locally here’s a list of things I review and plan out with clients before getting into the full swing of house hunting:

Local Customs, Requirements, Timelines, and Contracts
The home-buying process varies greatly across and within states. I think the most important thing you can do as a buyer is take an hour at the beginning of your buying process to become educated on the process, timelines, and key contractual terms/obligations in the area(s) you plan to search. This is also a good way to meet and vet different real estate agents early on to get a feel for who is willing to spend time with you up-front on education and planning vs pushing immediately for a sale.

Choose the Right Financing, Get Pre-Approved
Not all lenders offer the same loan products so it’s important to identify a lender who not only provides high quality service, but also has access to loan products that fit your profile (down payment, credit score, job industry, etc). Real estate agents, friends, and co-workers are all great sources of recommendations.

You’ll also want to get a pre-approval from at least one lender, one that actually reviews and verifies your financial documents, income, and employment instead of just running credit and reviewing an information sheet. This will decrease the chances of you being rejected from a loan, allow the lender to provide the most accurate recommendation, increase your leverage in contract negotiations, and reduce the amount of work required of you once you’re under contract.

Don’t Forget A Monthly Budget
I find that most people qualify for more than they actually want to spend, especially dual-income buyers, so budgeting is important. The biggest mistake most buyers make is budgeting strictly around the sale price, which is often driven by the amount you have for a down payment. It’s just as important to set a monthly budget for total housing expenses including mortgage, taxes, insurance and if applicable Association fees and/or mortgage insurance. Your lender can help you project monthly expenses at different price points based on different down payment amounts.

Do You Want Representation?
Determine if you want to have a real estate agent representing you in the transaction (breaking news…I highly recommend it) and, if so, what level of service you’re looking for. In most cases, the seller pays commission to their representing broker and the buyer’s broker, so representation often comes at little or no cost to buyers.

Push Yourself on Your Criteria
It’s very easy to come up with your top 3-5 criteria for a home and rare for most couples to disagree on the short list, but push yourself/yourselves to rank your top 10-12 criteria. This list can and will change as you search for homes, but it pushes you to think about more than bedroom count, schools, commute, and an open kitchen. This is especially valuable for couples. Just because you have the same taste in music, food, and TV shows that brought you together, doesn’t mean you’re on the same page about housing criteria.

Cash Needs + Savings
You need cash savings to pay for your down payment + closing costs of 2.5-3% of the sale price (in the DMV). Within a few days of your offer being accepted, you’ll have to transfer 1-5% (negotiable) of the sale price into an escrow account as deposit to secure the sale. You’ll spend about $1,000 out-of-pocket between contract and closing on inspections and the appraisal. Don’t forget how expensive moving is either, so keep enough savings for incidental moving expenses, new furniture, painting, etc. You should aim to haver 3-6 months of emergency savings tucked away after everything is paid for.

Other Key Providers
Most buyers are familiar with the role real estate agents and lenders play in the transaction, but don’t forget about the importance of working with a quality title attorney and home inspector. Your agent should be able to make a great recommendation.

How Long Will You Live There?
This is probably the most underrated conversation for buyers to have when they’re setting a budget and determining criteria. Your home-buying strategy should look very different if you’re planning to own for 3-5 years vs 10-12 years so give it serious thought and be realistic.

Deadlines and Lease Terms
Figure out if you have any strict deadlines for the move and iuf there are direct or indirect costs of buying before or after that deadline. It can be difficult in a low-inventory market to time a purchase, so make sure you’re aware of the pros and cons of purchasing before or after your deadline. If you’re renting, make sure you find out the cost of early termination or if month-to-month leasing is an option.

Reason for Your Purchase
I still haven’t met somebody who asks for a bad investment when they buy a house, everybody wants their home purchase to be a great investment, but you have to define what a great investment means to you. Does it mean your home appreciates in value well above the market over a certain period of time? If so, you’ll likely be in under-developed areas or in a house nobody else wants. Does a great investment mean you wake up every morning so happy with your home and neighborhood that the money is a secondary concern? I often remind clients that sometimes the best investment is buying a house that allows you to live there longer and eliminates one or more real estate transactions in your lifetime. In other words, the value you get out of being in a home for 10 years vs 3 years far surpasses a small increase in your budget.

I hope this list is helpful not just for local DC Metro readers, but for anybody getting started with their home search and wondering what you should know before buying a house. These are the conversations and steps I take with my clients every day to make sure they’re prepared, educated, and have the right strategy in place before we even step foot in a house together. I’m sure I left a few things off this list, but this should get you 95% of the way there. Feel free to give me a call or send me an email at Eli@EliResidential.com for the 5% I missed.