Home Brokers & Agents Why Are Referrals Still Legal?

Why Are Referrals Still Legal?

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A brief question, born out of discussions online and offline in the wake of the Zillow-Trulia deal…. Let me set the stage.

More than a few people think that Zillow will ultimately want a piece of the commission (as evidence, they point to the brokerage licenses that MarketLeader once owned, which then Trulia owned, and in the future, the combined Zillow-Trulia entity will own). But no one thinks that Spencer Rascoff is going on listing appointments. The thought is that Zillow will just charge 25% referral fees for sending a lead to one of its Premier Agents.

That 25% referral fee, of course, is standard industry practice. Your seller is moving to another state? You find an agent, refer your client, and you’ll get 25% of the commission if/when she buys a house.

In fact, this practice is so common that it is widely abused by “paper brokerages”. (See Inman’s excellent coverage of the issue starting here.) From Inman:

“Paper brokerages” — companies that join multiple listing services in order to access and display MLS listing data online, but don’t provide brokerage services to consumers — could be the next big thing in online real estate. But only if the traditional brokers who control the nation’s MLSs continue to tolerate them.

The missing piece from the Inman story is how these paper brokerages make money: referrals. I mean, why else join MLS’s and display listings online while not providing any brokerage services if it weren’t for the fact that they can make money simply from referrals?

Thing is, once upon a time, these kinds of referrals were commonplace in the larger real estate industry as well. Mortgage companies, title companies, escrow companies, etc. all routinely paid referrals to real estate agents for sending them business. Until Congress passed RESPA (Real Estate Settlement Practices Act) in 1974 banning pretty much all such practices. Sure, there are narrow exceptions today (affiliated businesses, etc.) but for the most part, it is illegal for a mortgage company or a title rep to provide anything of value to a real estate agent for sending leads their way.

So… the question is, given the obvious problem of paper brokerages, and given that the spectre of Zillow-charging-referrals would be eliminated overnight by extending RESPA to agent-to-agent referrals… why aren’t we advocating for this as an industry?

Well, yeah, sure, the obvious answer as to why not: it’s all about the Benjamins. I get that. But is there any reason that isn’t patently self-serving not to prohibit referrals altogether?

If what’s good for the goose (the title companies, mortgage banks, and escrow companies) is not good for the gander (real estate agents paying 25% of the commissions to each other), I’d like to understand why. I think I’m pretty knowledgeable about the industry, but this is one of those practices that has me scratching my head….

-rsh