After looking at listings online, a prospective homebuyer typically reaches out to a real estate agent who then gives them a list of recommended lenders and LOs. But three multibillion-dollar class action antitrust lawsuits looming over the real estate industry may soon reshape how buyers interact with agents.
Some of the nation’s largest real estate brokerages, including Keller Williams, RE/MAX, HomeServices of America as well as the National Association of Realtors, are facing three class action lawsuits (NAR is only named as a defendant in two lawsuits) that could result in the industry paying out tens of billions in damages. Anywhere Real Estate just settled two of the cases for a total of $83.5 million, which suggests major changes could be on the horizon.
The three class action suits Moehrl, Sitzer/Burnett, and Nosalek, named after their lead plaintiffs, take aim at NAR’s Participation Rule, which requires listing agents to make a blanket offer of compensation to buyers’ agents in order to list the property on a Realtor-affiliated multiple listing service (MLS). According to the plaintiffs, commission sharing inflates the costs for consumers, in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. NAR, however, contends that the current commission structure, which has been in place for over 100 years, actually benefits consumers.
“The buyers want the listing brokers to pay their buyer representative so they can have the most money invested in their down payment and get the best loan terms and rates possible,” Katie Johnson, NAR’s chief legal officer, said. “Sellers want their listing broker to pay the buyer broker’s compensation because it will result in the most buyers being able to afford their house.”
At a time when affordability is constraining first-time buyers from entering the market and interest rates are still expected to climb, “it’s going to do nothing but hurt the potential buyer,” argued Michael Borodinsky, a vice president and branch manager at Caliber Home Loans.
“You’ve got current economic conditions that are not opportunistic for a homebuyer right now, inflation is still out there and it’s all constraining buyers’ ability to spend. So, if you take that, you add that to where mortgage rates are, which are currently at 20 year highs, you add that to the fact that as of today, there is a still a very, very big problem with housing inventory, which has put prices artificially higher than they probably should be in terms of valuation, the buyers are just going to be saddled with more pain”
It will be months or years until the final verdict in the three lawsuits comes out, but there will be clear winners and losers from the outcome, loan officers and housing industry experts said in interviews with HousingWire. If the traditional practice of sellers paying for both sides of the agents ends, housing agencies will have to weigh in to determine ways for buyers to finance their agents’ comp, LOs noted.
Reshaping the home selling and buying process
Although Johnson anticipates a lengthy appeals process with all of these lawsuits, round one of the fight is quickly approaching. Sitzer/Burnett is scheduled to head to trial in mid-October and Moehrl is expected to head to court in the first half of 2024 with Nosalek most likely following shortly thereafter.
When the day comes that a final verdict is reached, Steve Murray, the co-founder of RealTrends Consulting sees three possible outcomes.
“Worst case scenario, the broker representing the buyer will have to negotiate their own fee with their client and the seller can no longer be compelled to make a blanket offer of compensation in order to list on the MLS,” Murray said.
“The second thing that could happen, is that more and more buyers will go directly to the listing agent, in which case they are clearly unrepresented. The third thing that would happen is a whole new kind of buyer brokers arise that charge an hourly flat fee to represent buyers,” according to Murray.
In light of Anywhere’s recent settlement, Murray believes the other defendants may also consider settling the suits.
But Ken Trepeta, the president of RESPRO, is holding off on making any predictions. It might depend on the terms spelled out in the settlement agreement, which still aren’t public yet, he said.
“If they are settling this and it goes away and they don’t admit wrongdoing and there is no requirement to change policies,” he said. Potential damages in the Sitzer/Burnett suit are anticipated to be up to $4 billion, while damages in the Moehrl suit could reach up to $40 billion.
(An attorney for the plaintiffs in the Moehrl case said Anywhere will be making significant changes to its policies, but did not offer specifics.)
For its part, NAR says it is not giving up the fight.
“Settlement is always an option for any party in litigation. NAR’s commitment to defend ourselves in court remains unchanged and we are confident we will prevail in proving the lawfulness of the rules under attack. Pro-competitive, pro-consumer local MLS broker marketplaces ensure equity, efficiency, transparency and market-driven pricing options for home buyers and sellers,” Mantill Williams, NAR’s vice president of communications, wrote in an email to HousingWire.
If buyer brokers and agents are no longer involved in most real estate transactions, as Murray suggests is a possibility, LOs and lenders who rely on agent referrals for transactions could have a smaller target group to focus on.
“There will likely be fewer Realtors, the sales volume will be handled by fewer Realtors. But if you’re an originator, that simply means that your target group is now smaller,” said Brian Hale, CEO of Mortgage Advisory Partners. “If you’re not dealing with the top producing agents or teams in the industry, you may find that your client has gone away.”
Loan officers may increasingly place more importance on reaching consumers directly especially when a buyer takes initiative in the homebuying process rather than relying on agents.
“If there isn’t a buyer’s agent involved – who’s just going to oversee step-by-step – I think consumers are going to take a little bit of that control back because they’re not willing to pay an agent for that level of hand holding and walking them through. So, they’ll reach out and they’ll find the companies that are publicly known as consumer-direct lenders,” said Mike Roberts, the co-founder of City Creek Mortgage.
TV, billboard and radio ads are traditional ways to reach consumers directly in hopes that borrowers will think of the lender when it’s time to buy a home, Roberts explained.
As industry players have begun preparing for a variety of potential outcomes in these lawsuits, some agents say they have seen lenders work to develop their consumer-facing marketing.
“I have seen some of the top loan officers go much more direct to the consumers,” said Gretchen Pearson, the broker-owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Drysdale Properties. “One of the top loan officers in the nation has set up webinars that he does four times a week and he is building up his own pipeline.”
Finding a way for buyers to finance their agents’ commissions is one of the critical issues that loan officers raise should the traditional practice of sellers paying for both agents’ commissions goes away.
The government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would likely have to weigh in, loan officers said.
“I think that’s the most important thing so that these buyers don’t get impacted negatively by their inability to have sufficient funds for a down payment,” Borodinsky said. “Because otherwise it’s going to sort of end the whole concept of how we define closing costs, because now we’ve got to add that in as almost as another tax or a fee.”
If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were to count the buyer’s agent fee as a seller contribution, listing agents would have more power in the homebuying and selling process, Roberts noted.
“I think listing agents are going to win. Agents who know how to get listings are going to win because buyers are gonna go straight to the listing agent and ask the listing agent to write a contract to present to the seller,” Roberts said.
Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t respond to HousingWire’s questions about whether they would come up with a mechanism to help buyers finance agent commissions.
“There is a potential of buyers having to directly pay buyer brokers and that could impact the lending side, and I know they are aware, but I am not aware of them taking any action,” Johnson said. “And maybe that is intentional because there might not be an immediate need for action.”
HousingWire reached out to the top 10 mortgage originators to comment on the impact commission lawsuit results could have on the mortgage industry. Wells Fargo, Pennymac, U.S. Bank Home Mortgage and Planet Home Lending declined to comment. Others didn’t respond.
Plenty of buyers still want a personal advisor
Although buyer’s agency commission may disappear or greatly slowdown, Murray believes the relationship between real estate agents and LOs will remain integral to the transaction.
“If buyer brokers agency goes away, I am not sure that the habit of referrals will go away or change too much,” Murray said. “Buyers will still rely on an agent, whether it is a listing agent or their own buyer broker to get a recommendation on mortgage companies.”
A significant number of consumers want a trusted advisor, Patrick Lamb, CEO of On Q Financial, said.
“They want somebody who knows the market, they want somebody who is advocating for them, and who is going to coordinate and go, drive around town and look at all these houses and do all the legwork. There’s some value in that,” Lamb explained.
A conclusion to these three lawsuits is not expected to come for several years. Industry experts believe there will be multiple appeals, giving real estate brokerages and lenders time to consider their options.
“I think it’s a tangential benefit. Whatever ruling likely comes out of this, you can’t change the world in 24 hours. It’ll take time for this to evolve through, there will likely be challenges, there could be appeals. You don’t know how all this goes,” Hale said.
What is certain is that many current LOs would have to reconsider how they get referrals and leads if the environment changes, he explained. And not all would fare well.
“[Only] a minority of LOs are very savvy and very smart about how they pursue referrals. If many of the current LOs in our industry don’t change the way they’re searching for referrals and/or leads in this kind of an environment, they have a high likelihood of becoming extinct.”