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How buyers’ agents have learned to live off of listing agents’ hard work

A changing industry

Back in the days when brokers were in charge, agents knew their place, and NASA’s scientists were the only folks we knew for sure using that thing called a computer, life was simpler. Today? A few generations of weak broker/owners have pretty much capsized the ship, having first capitulated to their so-called top producers eons ago. Having the crazies runnin’ the asylum isn’t a business model. Think I’m being harsh? Ask anyone who’s been a real estate brokerage owner the last 35 years what they think of agent splits — then sit back, be quiet, and wait for the rant to commence. And it surely will.

But let’s narrow things down a bit. Since I’ve been able to see the evolution of the American real estate brokerage up close, personal, and from both sides of the table, my perspective might be of some useable value. Let’s start out with some naked truth. Most in the business hate it when anyone says this out loud. Why? Cuz most know the speaker has found them out, and they can no longer pretend, at least to themselves, that they’re all that valuable to their brokerage.

First, let’s review what our industry looked like as we finished the 1960s.

History lesson: there were once two classes

Those whose desks had a sign saying ‘The buck stops here” — and everyone else. There were two ways to make more money, at least potentially. You could become a more productive agent. Or, you could take the risk and open your own shop, becoming a broker — the ‘go to’ guy. 99% of folks opt to let somebody else be the boss and run things. Nothin’ wrong with that whatsoever.

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Within the agent class, there were, again, two basic species. Those who represented buyers only, unless a buyer forced them into listing their home. The other were the listers. Listers tended to hang out together, as did buyer agents.

There were then two things separating those two classes. First, listing agents as a group tended to make far more money than their counterparts. Second, listers entered the arena as gladiators regularly, facing the chance of failure daily.  Buyer agents? They pretty much made their living off of the listers. Listers have always known this. Buyer agents have always denied this, but also always knew deep down it was accurate — and resented it deeply. Not all of ’em mind you, but most. They loved the idea they were perceived to be of equal value to the brokerage.

Buyers’ agents are not of equal value to a brokerage

Yet, how could they be? Any lister, in fact most listers, did both, and still do. See, their listings produced buyers. I know, cuz back in the day, during the nearly seven years I toiled on the house side of the biz, that’s how I worked. When I turned 16 I was told I could be a producer (gladiator/lister), or I could be a pilot fish.

That one empirically inarguable truth — that listings, and therefore listers, attract buyers — is why buyer agents by definition, feed off of listing agents. Listers don’t need buyers’ agents, but buyers’ agents perish without listing agents.

Why do you think it’s so easy for a dynamically productive listing agent to hire buyers’ agents for 30-50% commission splits? Don’t say this too loudly, cuz it’s politically incorrect, but it’s cuz that’s what they’re worth. Remember, our worth in the free market is pretty much dictated by the ease or difficulty in replacing us.

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There is no arena for the buyer agent. The listing agent enters the arena every time they ask for a listing appointment and/or make a listing presentation. The competition is fierce. Why?

They’re facing other fearless gladiators in front of God and everybody — risking total failure every time out. That’s why.

How the process works now

If they’re on a team, they show up for work, are given the day’s leads — by the lister in charge — then begin making contact. They show property to those with whom they connected ’til the buyer basically says, “I’ll take that one!” 

That’s not how it works for you? Yeah, I know, you work by yourself or on a team made up of buyers’ agents exclusively, making excellent use of technology, specifically an IDX set up. Good for you. The only thing of value on that IDX are the listings the gladiators won from the arena. You’ve merely figured a way to live off their production without them in the room.

Back to the basics

There’s only one causative reason that matters as far as the negative trend real estate brokerages have been experiencing since the early 70s. Those who’ve not taken the capital risk the owner has taken have successfully taken over.

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The only fly in that ointment is that those who took over are not those who take risks. They prefer to blackmail those who do. Oh, does that offend thee? My mentors told me back in 1971 when most of ’em retired, many of them WAY too early, including Dad, that the agents were gonna take over. They shouldn’t, I was told, but they accurately predicted they’d succeed. It would be due to the majority of company owners who were both shortsighted and who’d become fat and lazy.

Before we saw the first one, they told me of the franchise concept. It would further destroy what had succeeded for decades. The commission splits for woefully mediocre agents would skyrocket. It would be the end of brokerages as they knew it, and would take less than 20 years. They were off on that last one. It’s been 40 years since that day over fries and a Coke, when they told me my future.

Turns out they were seers. To all those agents, who’re shortly about to learn about new market trends on the brokerage front, how’s it been workin’ out for ya lately? Yeah, thought so. The model calling for the gladiators to do most of the fighting while the onlookers take home over half the bounty was doomed to failure from Day 1. Duh. Just as buyer agents live off of listers, the majority of agents who’re mediocre or worse, have killed off one of the best workin’ models in our lifetime. And the worm is about to turn — and sooner rather than later. We’re reapin’ what we’ve sown.

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Written By

Jeff Brown specializes in real estate investment for retirement, has practiced real estate for over 40 years and is a veteran of over 200 tax deferred exchanges, many multi-state. Brown is a second generation broker and works daily with the third generation. With CCIM training and decades of hands on experience, Brown's expertise is highly sought after, some of which he shares on his real estate investing blog.



  1. jay Great Falls VA

    October 31, 2011 at 6:49 am

    The arrogance and delusion of "listing agents"–aka glorified data entry specialists–never ceases to amaze me.

    1. Sellers no longer need the "gladiators" anymore. They can list for $500 and get all the attention the home merits. They can even have the home staged on their own by googling staging city state. And of course they get a good list price by interviewing agents.

    2. The "harsh reality" is the following:

    a. Listing agents almost never bring the buyer to the table, but rather buyer agents do. So why are they being paid commissions?

    b. Commissions have on average dropped far more on the listing side than the buyer side. WHY? ****Because when a seller lists his intention is to pay somebody for bringing a buyer to the table. Thus listing commissions have come down with more options for sellers to sidestep the gladiator listing agent who does not usually bring a buyer to the table.**** The commission on the buyer side is holding up very well.

    3. Most "listing agents" including powerhouse gladiators have lost much credibility doing their own pathetic photography with dark and small pictures, having listing signs that are all about the brokerage rather than custom signs for the house, promoting falsehoods that open houses sell houses as do pictures in the newspaper to justify 6% commissions.

    a. for the select few percent of listing agents that do not settle for such mediocrity they are of great value to the seller–the great majority of listing agents are not however.

    4. Both listing agents and buyer agents and their brokers really screwed up by giving up their data to 3rd party sites. Zillow and and and trulia SHOULD NOT EXIST with our data. Unbelievable. A buyer should have to go to an agent or its franchise website for information on homes– not the above mentioned sites.

    5. Most listing agents are oblivious to 1-3 above and in denial that they are quite unnecessary. However thanks to #4 above, buyers are now able to do MUCH of the process on their own—albeit not as effectively/efficiently. Now the main goal of buyer agents is negotiating 1-3% below market value in a way that floaters usually cannot.

    So, Jeff, the awesome blogger I love to read who motivates me regularly, you Greg and others need to take the realities above and shove them you know where 🙂

    • David Pylyp

      October 31, 2011 at 9:56 am

      OJ Simpson could have had any lawyer… But Cockrane charged millions and succeeded.

      Millionaires and Business people… Commercial Real Estate… They can all work a computer and Sell themselves as mere listings … Right?

      Seems that I have a few skills that I bring to the table beside Google Map Views Or Google Homes west Toronto.

      There is so much data online and so much garbage, so much out of date, so many half truths. The more clutter, the more gifted the guide.

      Thank you to the internet

      David Pylyp
      Living in Toronto and Loving it!

    • Jeff Brown

      October 31, 2011 at 12:46 pm

      Readers: I consider Jay and I to be buds. We've already spoken at length on the phone about this, and frankly, he's mostly in agreement with me on this. He's free to reply here, but we've already spoken. Jay's one of those who really understands what works.

  2. Michael McClure

    October 31, 2011 at 8:36 am


    The worm is certainly turning, my friend.

    Brilliant post.

    Michael McClure

  3. Atlanta GA Homes / Chris K.

    October 31, 2011 at 9:02 am

    IMHO it is much easier to take a listing and service a seller than it is to represent a buyer. With the internet being such a major force in advertising listings (enter a listing and in most cases the listing gets syndicated to 1000's of websites)the listing agent need not spend as much time or resources on marketing the home. I have been in the business for over 12 years and would venture to say I spend about 5-10 times more time with a single buyer than I do with taking a single listing.

    • Jeff Brown

      October 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      Hey Chris — We're in complete agreement. Thanks for makin' my point. Have you ever considered taking a lot of listings, making more money, and working the same or less?

  4. CJ Johnson

    October 31, 2011 at 9:08 am


    I "list" my buyers just like I "list" my sellers ergo I am still a "lisitng agent" at my firm. I have done this since 1992. You are 100% correct about all the changes over the past few years but you never mentioned placing buyers under contract which levels the playing field. A Buyers Agent can prospect just like a seller agent for clients. As a matter of fact it is easier and much less expensive to do so at social functions, economic conferences, business to business events, etc. A good qualified trained Buyers Agent is now worth just as much as the old fashioned Sellers Agent when they learn the importance of any client that is under contract. If the brokerage spent as much time, money, and attention to training their buyers agents as they do their listing agents perhaps they would increase their contribution to the firm. Listing Agent vs the Buyers may be a more level playing field than you think. My favorite read this month…Change Is Good You Go First.

    • Jeff Brown

      October 31, 2011 at 1:17 pm

      Hey CJ — That's the only way to fly, isn't it? Been doin' the same since the mid 80s. By the way, love the 'chang is good' quote at the end. It's perfect.

  5. John Rickmon

    October 31, 2011 at 9:56 am

    With no mention of all things REO, Mr. Brown truly shows that he is a child of the sixties Real Estate market. In our association (Pensacola, FL), roughly 30% or more of all listings are categorized as "distressed." These REO listings are generally the most accurately-priced listings. The actual percentage of distressed listings is much higher if one factors short-sales.

    Sorry, but the good old days of sinking your sign in anyone's yard that you can, in deference to value, is the major reason the models for listing agents have changed, and made 40 year-old marketing plans as relevant as a T-Rex.

    With REO brokers currently managing (poorly) roughly a third of our local listings, the burden of work most definitely lies with the buyer's agent. This blog would have been fantastic if we had a time machine and could return to 2005.

    Big-box Realty firms have an inherent aversion to REO dealings (See Keller Williams), and Mr. Brown is clearly no exception. This editorial is angry and out-of-touch with the Real Estate market of late 2011.

    • Jeff Brown

      October 31, 2011 at 2:01 pm

      Hey John — More accurately put, I'm really a child of the 50s. 🙂 But I get your point.

      The percentage of REOs is beyond irrelevant. Somebody listed 'em, right? Right.

      The old canard about puttin' a sign in the yard is also mostly sour grapes, usually mentioned by buyer agents who don't make money equal to their listing colleagues. Truly professional expert listers don't merely ''sink a sign' and collect a check, but you already know that, don't ya?

      I'm not in the least bit angry, John. If you can tell me where I'm wrong, I'm all ears.

      Fact: Prolific listers make far and away more than prolific buyer agents, when comparing apples to apples — i.e., agent to agent or team to team.

      Fact: Listers can operate in a literal vacuum if they so choose, using only the buyers their listings and online efforts produce. Buyer agents are 90% reliant on listing agents producing product.

      Fact: I have nothin' against buyer agents whatsoever. Some of 'em are my best friends. 🙂 But let's stop playin' pretend here, and admit that listing agents make things happen, while buyer agents take what comes their way.

  6. Leo Linn

    October 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

    As a former listing agent, buyers agent,and office owner I have to say that there is very little that Mr. Brown says that I agree with. If you take a listing, put it on the MLS, and wait for someone to burn up their gas and their time working with buyers, how exactly is that being taken advantage of? The reason listing agents make more is that you can work with 50 listings. Anyone out there try to work with 50 buyers at the same time? Not possible. Working with buyers who would run you around for months and then buy a FSBO or an open house is not my idea of a good time. It is very, very hard work. Buyers are not generated by listings. They are buyers because they are buyers. The trick is to FIND them and get them what they want, and listings do help to do that, but there are certainly other ways. What do many top agents do? Farm their buyers out to buyer's agents for profit. It is too time consuming for them to be bothered. Being a listing agent is nice work if you can get it, but begrudging buyer's agents as a group is a little like killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

    • Jeff Brown

      October 31, 2011 at 2:07 pm

      Hey Leo — Please show me where I said that as a lister I felt 'taken advantage of' by buyers' agents? The exact opposite has been true since I was 18. I listed properties so the pilot fish WOULD feed of what I provided, which was something for them to sell.

      As far as being able to find buyers from sources other than listings, you're correct. That approach used exclusively will, of course, limit potential income, but again, you're right about that.

      Begrudge buyer agents? Are you kiddin' me?! I love 'em. I list a ton of property, work 40 hours a week, hardly ever on weekends, have my buyer agents (if I did have 'em) work seven days weekly while payin' them half or less of the commission? Why on earth would I ever begrudge them. They're doin' work I avoid like the plague.

      I love buyer agents to death.

  7. Karen Brewer

    October 31, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Real Estate is sooo local. Here in CT buyers agents and listing agents split the commission 50/50.Furthermore, we dont differentiate between the two.Why be one or the other after all? If we get a listing we take it….a buyer…the same.Takes care of that problem.
    Furthermore,someone mentioned that OUR info shouldnt be on the Web? Really? Do you live in a cave?

  8. Jeff Brown

    October 31, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Yeah, Karen, I didn't understand that one either.

  9. Suzette West

    November 1, 2011 at 2:25 am

    Perhaps this article holds merit for buyer agents in the traditional sense (working for companies that take listings). However, there is an entirely different culture where it concerns companies that exclusively represent buyers. It's not just about the money. It is also about protecting consumers and offering them fair and equal representation in a transaction–the same as sellers would receive from their listing agents.

    An exclusive buyer agents' source of business absolutely does not depend on the production of listing agents. Especially, when many of the homes purchased by clients are unlisted.

    When it comes down to exclusive buyer agents, this article is WAY off mark. Sorry, but we bring much more value to the table for buyers than you realize. "Seek first to understand, and then to be understood,"

  10. Russell Shaw

    November 1, 2011 at 2:34 am


    I will tell you the main thing I don't like about your posts is that I didn't write them myself!

    You take ideas that are perfectly obvious (even if inflammatory) and then have the gall to actually write them in a post.

    Damn you, Jeff Brown! Damn you!

  11. paulhoward

    November 1, 2011 at 8:04 am

    I won't bother to address the points Mr. Brown made in his rant. That this is the post of an old timer looking back is obvious. That he seems to think back is better is shameful.

    He is right about one thing though. Many companies (especially larger companies and franchise companies) value 'listers' more than buyer agents – though buyer agents are the ones that have value to consumers. At least they would if they didn't spend so much time in deceptively advertising their services. Most, advertising buyer agent services fail to disclose that they might end up as a dual agent. That is bait and switch. Agents don't represent consumers – their companies do – and if they represent both buyers and sellers much of the time their value to both cancels out to zero.

    Consumers don't need 'listers'. They do need buyer agents. That is the 'truth' that Mr. Brown has ignored.

    When he talks of productivity it is with reference to real estate companies as though consumer representation does not matter. It does.

    Paul Howard, Broker/Owner Realty – Cherry Hill NJ

  12. Michael Byrd

    November 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Among the many things you overlook in your nostalgic look backwards is the difference between a so-called "buyers agent" and an Exclusive Buyers Agent. Agents in a firm that represents both sides may be worth only what they produce in the way of income. That could be why they love dual agency – double the money with little regard for clients' best interest. With an EBA, the client comes first and the quality of representation is superior because of the fiduciary relationship.

    And suggesting that the listers are greater in the hierarchal pecking order is akin to saying the fellow who owns the lumber mill is somehow more important than the carpenter who nails the lumber together.

  13. Chris

    November 1, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    so what do you picture the future of the brokerage business being? I have been saying for some time I can see the future being mega teams. Lately I can see that evolving into buyers agents being salaried or hourly employees.

    • Michael Byrd

      November 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

      Why would buyers agents be salaried or hourly employees, but not sellers agents? We contract with buyers to perform certain services just as listing agents contract with sellers to perform certain services. The only difference is our contracts always provide for exclusive representation and a fiduciary relationship. I know of only a few traditional brokers who include that in their listing agreements. Most are happy to abandon fiduciary to represent both sides for one obvious reason.

  14. Suzette West

    November 2, 2011 at 2:13 am


    Most, if not all, exclusive buyer agents I know (including myself) are entrepreneurial by nature. I believe it is this nature that has led us to break away from the pack in the first place. I don't see the field evolving into a "salaried or hourly" business model; not unless it is a consulting assignment.

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