Unclogging the Foreclosure Market
. . . on the Cheap

Want to fix the economy? First you have to address its Achilles’ Heel, the weak national housing market. In turn, that means addressing housing’s Achilles’ Heel, the burgeoning number of foreclosures.

Instead of throwing tens of billions at former investment banks, Washington would do well to enlist — for a fraction of the cost — an entity that’s much better situated to directly help the housing market. That’s because it conveniently already has thousands of local housing experts strategically located in dozens of the hardest-hit U.S. markets.

Who’s that? The National Association of Realtors, and, at least at the moment, its distinctly underemployed one-million plus members.

View from the Trenches

It’s no secret among realtors working with “lender-mediated properties” (foreclosures and short sales) that bank response times are terrible. Weeks can go by without hearing anything, by which time any serious Buyer has likely lost patience and moved on.

No wonder so many distressed properties are languishing on the market.

However, clearly another aggravating factor in the dysfunctional, molasses-like foreclosure market is the overloaded listing agents representing such properties — and the cut-rate commissions the banks are offering them (hmm . . . maybe there’s a connection??).

It’s not unusual today to find one realtor representing dozens of foreclosed properties. Indeed, a few minutes searching on MLS popped up at least four Twin Cities agents whose current listing inventory approaches or exceeds 100 foreclosed properties.

To put that in perspective, the average realtor closes anywhere from 8-12 “transaction sides” a year. Assuming those are evenly split between sales (representing Buyers) and listings (representing Sellers), that translates into 4 to 6 listings annually. Factoring in average market time, you’d guesstimate that at any given time, the average realtor has 1-3 active listings.

Nobody Home . . in Every Sense

So what happens when a realtor has ten — or one hundred — times that number of active listings? Not surprisingly . . very little.

Calls and emails from Buyer’s agents get returned slowly, if at all. There’s little or no information available about the home, either online or in the home — never mind fancy color photos or any other marketing materials. You can also forget about Seller disclosures, municipal inspections, or any of the myriad other “trappings” of a listing not in foreclosure.

Even such basics as a functioning lockbox on the front door, to permit access, aren’t a given (any idea how much 100 decent lockboxes cost??).

Such are the hallmarks of a low fee, high volume business — which is exactly what brokering foreclosure sales is.

Real Estate “Combat Pay”

Instead of around 3% per listing, it’s typical for foreclosure agents to get paid half of that, if not just a flat fee. Factor in the asking price of many foreclosures — often under $100k — and the listing agent’s take may come to as little as $500 per house after subtracting their expenses and the listing broker’s cut. That’s not much for the real estate equivalent of combat pay.

Industry-wide, realtors are suffering from a triple whammy of shrinking volume, dropping prices, and shrinking margins. Bottom line: realtor commissions have dropped from almost $100 billion in 2005 to about half that this year.

That $50 billion pie is split amongst 1.2 million realtors. To put that in perspective, the top 25 hedge-fund managers earned $16 billion in 2007. The top-ranked manager, John Paulson, personally made $3.7 billion. How? . . . . drum roll, please . . . by essentially shorting the housing market.

Cheap Solution(s)

The foregoing suggests that, instead of throwing mega-billions at Wall Street, policy makers who want to stabilize housing could get a lot more bang for their buck doing something about the anemic commissions associated with foreclosures.

For a measly $5 billion — half of what Goldman Sachs just got, or what AIG is getting weekly — Washington could dangle a $5k carrot in front of every realtor selling a property in foreclosure. In turn, that money would ensure that realtors selling foreclosures can do their jobs properly. In other words, serve as liaisons to the bank-owners; attract and convert surprisingly strong Buyer interest in foreclosures into offers and closed deals; and otherwise make sure that someone competent is “minding the store” (the banks themselves clearly aren’t).

Meanwhile, local governments could also help clear the foreclosure market by not heaping fees on foreclosed homes to recoup their increased expenses.

It’s one thing to hike fees 10% or 20% — but double or triple smacks of opportunism (and frankly, idiocy, given the consequences — the fees usually become a lien against the property, which has the same effect as a tax. Aren’t we trying to stimulate sales right now??).

Finally, the banks themselves may want to reconsider the wisdom of paying realtors as little as possible to urgently attend to what should be their highest priority. Perhaps a certain large new, taxpayer-supported shareholder can help in that regard.

Oh . . and banks with lots of foreclosures on their books may also want to re-think whether a local realtor who’s currently sitting on 156 unsold properties (no, that’s not a typo) should really be hired to list number 157.

About the author

Ross Kaplan has 19+ years experience selling real estate all over the Twin Cities. He is also a 12-time consecutive "Super Real Estate Agent," as determined by Mpls. - St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business Magazine. Prior to becoming a Realtor, Ross was an attorney (corporate law), CPA, and entrepreneur. He holds an economics degree from Stanford.
5 Responses
  1. Matt

    Nice posting!!!
    Real estate is versatile, can be customized to fit any objective and is capable of yielding steady and multiple streams of passive income.

  2. Ned

    Great point. I thought the governments idea of financial assistance was to inject cash into the system to lubricate the economic process. It only makes sense for the mortgage holders of foreclosed properties to increase the volocity of cash flow. The property is worthless to them. It seems like their only prospect of profit in any form right now is velocity.

  3. Ross Kaplan

    You’d guess some of the bank foot-dragging has to do with not wanting to take the accounting hit associated with each foreclosure — the problem the original version of TARP ran into, plus 5 zeroes.

    If the bank has got a $200k mortgage on its books, but the property is only worth low $100’s, it can defer a $75k (ballpark) write-down by sitting on it.

    In some cases, the banks even add the unpaid interest to the principal, which has the effect of showing the “asset” increasing over time!

  4. Ned

    I understand the retail principle that “the more you can sell for less than you paid for it, the quicker you can go out of business” is generally true. However, if you’ve bought a great deal on snow shovels where the buying decision was based on a low price, and you’re business is in Arizona, maybe it’s not the snow shovels that are the problem here.

  5. Realtor

    These are several of the most common terms you will hear from your realtor while you’re shopping for a property. If you want to find the property that will best fit your needs your needs find a realtor who specifically handles and nowhere else. Someone who knows about it from front to back will be able to get you the best deal on the best property for you.

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