What about tipping an agent?
Q. We are buying our first house, and we're both so pleased with the extra help our real estate agent has been giving us. She will be paid by the sellers, and we won't have much spare cash, but are there any guidelines for tipping?
A. Depending on the law in your state and the type of license she has, she might not be able to accept anything valuable except through her supervising broker.
Agents are used to taking buyers out to lunch. Perhaps you could invite her out instead. Any small token -- a bottle of wine or a plant for her desk -- would be a welcome surprise. If you wrote a letter of appreciation addressed to her company, it might be posted on the office bulletin board. So might an invitation to your housewarming party.
And the classic real estate agent answer to "What can we do to show our appreciation?" is "Just send me a referral!"
Q. My partner and I am looking to buy a house. The broker we contacted showed us several houses. She recently wanted my partner to sign an exclusive contract with her in order to show us any other houses. No matter what type of house we buy, and whether we were to buy it through an agent or FSBO (for sale by owner), we'd have to pay her, and we wouldn't be allowed to work with any other brokers.
My partner elected not to sign the contract, and the broker basically ceased all contact with us. Should we have signed it? Are such contracts common? What are the pros and cons of signing? Furthermore, would it be more beneficial to have our own broker, or would it be OK to just go through the individual listing agent for the house we finally settle on?
A. You've run into the law of agency, which occupies hours of instruction in any real estate classroom. State laws can vary. But the following are general rules:
• An agent owes the principal, the client and certain legal duties. These fiduciary duties boil down to one thing: The agent must put the principal's interest first, above anyone else's including the agent's own. To the other party in a transaction -- the customer -- the agent owes only honest treatment.
Among the specific duties of a seller's agent are the following:
• Obedience to the seller's lawful instructions.
• Loyalty, which when properly observed includes obtaining the highest possible price for the property.
• Confidentiality, which would prohibit the agent -- unless previously authorized -- from revealing that the sellers are in a hurry or that they have refused previous offers.
• Notice, which obligates the agent to forward any fact it would be in the principal's best interest to know. If the buyers, as customers, confide that they'll pay full price if they have to, the broker must relay that information.
Never tell a seller's agent anything you wouldn't want the seller to know.
That broker has probably been acting as an agent for sellers. If you were to ask, "Why are they selling?" she might properly say, "I really can't say."
What she's asking now is that you hire her as your exclusive buyers' broker. All those fiduciary duties would then be owed to you. You'd be entitled to know anything she learned about sellers' situations. She would be legally obligated to help negotiate the lowest possible purchase price. And your information would be held confidential.
It's not necessary for a principal to pay commission in order to establish buyer-broker agency. Usually, if you end up buying a multiple-listed property, the buyers' broker is still paid through a share of the seller's commission. Take another look at that provision in the proposed contract.
The arrangement can work well -- unless you find yourselves tied to an agent who does not serve your needs in the end. But your parents' method, in which they dealt entirely with sellers' agents, has been around for a long time and can also bring satisfactory results. These days, you can contract for complete loyalty if you choose to, but there's no one right way to go.
Q. My husband heard there's something called streamline refinancing that can make your mortgage payments better. We could really use that because money is tight, and we've been slow with some of our bills. How do we learn about this?
A. Streamline refinancing allows many borrowers to refinance their mortgages at lower rates, with much less paperwork than was originally required.
I hope your mortgage payments haven't been among the bills you've paid slowly. Requirements vary depending on whether your present loan is a Department of Veterans Affairs loan, a Federal Housing Administration loan or a conventional loan. But you'd need an up-to-date balance on your current mortgage. Start by inquiring with your current mortgage company. Good luck!
• Contact Edith Lank on www.askedith.com, or 240 Hemingway Drive, Rochester NY 14620.
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