Tuesday, January 22, 2008
From a NY Times article; particularly notable for the impact of the recent shift to buyer's agents:
Marty Ummel believes she paid too much for her house. So do millions of other people who bought at the peak of the housing boom.
What makes Ummel different is that she is suing her agent, saying it was all his fault.
Ummel claims that the agent hid the information that similar homes in the neighborhood were selling for less because he feared she would back out and he would lose his $30,000 commission.
Real estate lawyers and brokers say the case, which goes to trial in North County Superior Court on Monday, is likely to be the first of many in which regretful or resentful buyers seek redress from the agents who found them a home and arranged its purchase.
"When your house appreciates $100,000 in the first six months, you're not quite as concerned that maybe the valuation was $25,000 or $50,000 off," said Clifford Horner of the law firm Horner & Singer. "But when your house goes down, you ask: 'Who might have led me astray here?'"
Agents representing buyers rarely had the opportunity to make mistakes during the last real estate boom, in the late 1980s, because the job hardly existed then. For decades, residential transactions almost always involved brokers who, whatever assistance they gave the buyer, legally represented only the seller. The long boom that began in the late 1990s put an end to that one-sided world. As prices spiked, buyer's agents and brokers became popular as sounding boards, advisers and negotiators. The National Association of Realtors estimates they are now involved in two-thirds of all residential purchases.
That makes this the first housing collapse in which large numbers of buyers had a real estate professional explicitly looking after their interests. The Ummel case poses the question: In a relationship built on trust, where promises are rarely written down and where -- as in this case -- there is no signed contract, what are the exact obligations of these representatives in guiding their clients through a sizzling market?
"Agents have a lot of fiduciary duties, but they don't make money unless they close the sale," said Joel Ruben, a real estate lawyer in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "In an inflated market, there are built-in temptations to cut corners."
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