A friend of mine who once plied the real estate trade recently told me he left the field because “agents are treated horribly.” This surprised me. I decided to ask a few agents for their thoughts on the subject and the verdict is unanimous: my friend is right!
“Real estate is not what I would describe as an ‘honored’ profession,” a veteran broker told me. “Hopefully you have a handful of clients who like and are loyal to you, but generally speaking, real estate agents are perceived as salesmen who just want to sell you something. Television real estate shows always list the agent’s commission at the beginning of each segment, but people don’t understand how many people get a cut of that commission; this job is not as lucrative as its made to appear.”
The other thing those shows don’t make clear is how difficult it can be to wrangle the people who have the means to purchase expensive homes. The widely held perception of real estate agents as beautifully dressed women toting Hermés Kelly bags and teetering on stilettos, and tanned men in Brioni suits racing around in Porsches, belies the fact that real estate is essentially a service industry, and so, when push comes to shove, wealthy clients often put agents in the same category as their dog groomers and nannies.
“The minute a client walks into the room I can tell exactly who their parents were and how they were brought up,” said a prominent agent. “There are clients that I can immediately see will feel a need to humiliate me while they’re talking to me. Every once in a while, you get someone who walks in, buys the house, and treats you with respect, and they make up for the 30 who were complete assholes.
“A year doesn’t go by that I don’t have the experience of showing a house to a celebrity who’s there with their assistant, and they turn to the assistant and say, ‘ask the agent this or that question,’” she continued. “At that point, I always interject, ‘Why don’t you ask her yourself? I’m right here in front of you and would love to hear it!’ It’s this grand star thing of ‘I don’t know this person and they’re not in my world and I’m not going to speak to them.’ You usually see this with people on the way up, by the way.”
Famous people tend to be more hands off than most buyers and sellers, because they have people working for them to take care of those sorts of things. “There are, however, a few celebrities who fancy themselves real estate gurus and get really involved, but that’s unusual,” an agent in Malibu told me. “I recently asked a friend who’s been selling houses to famous people for decades how many celebrity clients they had who they considered friends, and the agent said ‘Oh, I don’t know – maybe four?’
“I’ve had lots of clients who were comedians and comedy comes from a very dark place,” he added. “I worked with one who bought a new house or redecorated whenever he was bored. That was his way of avoiding dealing with his relationships. He also loved firing people. You can get a little bruised in this line of work.”
Agents can get bruised, and they’re often severely inconvenienced, too. “I worked with a revered pop star who had this thing of just disappearing,” said an agent based in Pasadena. “He buys properties in his mother’s name, and he doesn’t say that it’s his mother, and you can never find this mother, it’s always care of someone, and the money is always coming in but it never comes in, and he ties up properties and will not sign off. This person is criminally insane, I would say.”
Bad manners are one occupational hazard, however, the fraudulent business practices some clients give themselves permission to indulge in are infinitely more destructive. “If, at any point in the transaction, a client says ‘Do you have errors and omissions insurance’ you dump them immediately,” said a Bay Area agent. “Errors and omissions is an insurance policy that protects you from someone who’s suing you. California is the most litigious state in the country when it comes to real estate, and if an agent has never been sued it just means they haven’t sold enough houses yet.
“It is possible to be a free agent in real estate, but you really don’t want to be a lone wolf because of the legal risks,” she continues. “A single lawsuit will bankrupt you, so you need the big companies to defend you. The main thing big agencies provide is they absorb the heat when it comes to lawsuits.
“A friend of mine sold a $30 million house to this big star, and at the very last minute the star says “I changed my mind, I don’t want it,” she recalled. “He was told he’d have to pay liquidated damages, which is 3%, to get out of the deal, and big star says ‘No, I won’t pay that. Just get me out of the deal.’ They tried, but just couldn’t do it. Everyone wants to make money from this big star, including his business manager, who made 10% on this deal, so the star turns to him and says “You pay it or you won’t work for me anymore.’ The business manager happily paid half, then told the agent would have to pay the other half. In the end, my agent friend did pay half, but when the star decided to sell his next house he brought in another agent to co-list, just as a little ‘You shouldn’t have waited a day to say yes’ dig.”
Each agent I spoke to had multiple stories along these lines, and cumulatively, they led me to this conclusion: The real estate business can foster unprecedented heights of rudeness. “There’s an Academy Award-winning actress who’s legendary for her bad behavior — everyone’s got a story about her, and mine goes like this,” a Hollywood agent told me. “We’re driving through Whitley Heights looking at houses and she suddenly tells me to stop. She points to a house and says, ‘I like that house. I might buy that house.’ I said, ‘It’s not for sale,’ and she replied, ‘What difference does that make? Get me in! I said ‘I can’t, it’s dinnertime and there’s no for sale sign,’ and she said, “Look. This is how it works. You go up there and knock on the door and you tell them, ‘I’ve got this legendary actress in the car who’s fallen in love with your house and really wants to see it.’ They will let you in. They always let you in.”
So up I go, I interrupt their dinner and give them my business card and they say, ‘Uh, okay…’ Legendary actress then ascends the stairs grandly, doesn’t look at the residents or say hello, and walks through the house. On the way out, she loudly declares, ‘This house is a goddamn piece of shit!’ At that point, I stopped returning her phone calls.”