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Straddling the awkward line between friend or family and client

As realtors, our sphere of influence can reach as far as across the globe with social media or as near as your neighbor across the street. Leads appear anywhere nowadays, be it at the grocery store or from your Facebook page. These encounters are chance meetings that you can’t really predict, so you are not that disappointed if they don’t convert into a deal. However, there is one group of people from your sphere who are not chance encounters: friends and family.

This group is arguably your core. They have known you the longest, you have stuck by them through thick and thin, from high school, marriages, kids, divorces, surgeries. You have history. So is there a reasonable expectation they would be your clients too? Or is it presumptuous to think they are your clients by default? The distinction of whether your friend is a potential client or not is often blurred.

Questions abound! Is there an unstated expectation your amigos will use you as their agent? Do you feel slighted if they don’t? If so, is that possessive? And let’s assume they do want you to represent them. Can you stay objective with someone with whom you have a long personal relationship? (Try telling your best friend that her home, that you have visited for years, is not fit for public viewing!) If your transaction goes down the tube, does your friendship go down the tube too? Don’t get me wrong. I have sold property to friends and family (who, ergo, become clients), but I will admit I still have mixed feelings about straddling that fine line.

For instance, a couple years ago, I found out from a mutual acquaintance that one of my good friends had put an offer on a property in my neighborhood. Unbeknownst to me, he was shopping for a while. Given that we had gone to university together and still hung out regularly, I was a bit taken aback. But I swallowed my pride and didn’t say anything. After all, he has a right to work with whoever he wants, right? He is not obligated to me.

What irked me later was that during his escrow he grilled me for my professional advice. (His agent apparently wasn’t very seasoned). On one hand, I wanted to help out a friend who really needed my expertise. But on the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel a bit used. Maybe I was sore or maybe he felt embarrassed, but after he closed escrow, we drifted apart and haven’t really spoken since… Sigh…

Every agent has stories about a terrible client or transaction from hell. We brush those off more easily because they are practically strangers and there is emotional distance. But sometimes those terrible clients and transactions from hell are our own friends and family. How have you handled those awkward moments dealing with friends and family as (potential) clients? Please share.

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Watch Real Estate Expert Herman Chan put the REAL back in REALTY. In his show Habitat for Hermanity, Herman skewers the real estate business and pokes fun at his fellow agents, all the while empowering buyers & sellers with behind-the-scene tips & secrets of the industry! Get a glimpse beyond the glitz & glam of real estate. It's a hot mess! Featured on HGTV, House Hunters & other media outlets, Herman is the undisputed Real Estate Maven whose helpful & hilarious commentary you just can't live without! In fact, his real estate TV show has just been optioned in Hollywood!



  1. Erica Ramus

    August 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    It is akward. I had a very good friend for years and years (we had lunch once a month and she had picked my brain every lunch for business advice). She wanted a particular property and told me to watch for it. She called me nights, weekends over this one that she was watching to come on the market. It hit the MLS 10 am on Monday and I called her, excited! She told her secretary (avoidance) to tell me she had it “covered”. WHAT?

    I called her again and asked what does that mean?

    She called back and explained she saw the sign go up so she stopped the listing agent at the house and told her she wanted it. Kicker: her husband told her to wait, not to do it, but to call me first. She replied “I want this house and I don’t care how I get it.” (yes she told me her husband said this and told me what her response to him was)

    I was stunned. I gave free marketing advice to this friend for years to help her in business. When I told her this is how I pay my bills she replied “I just wanted the house and really didn’t care about you at that moment.”

    It totally soured our friendship. Perhaps I should not have let it get in the way, but her callous disregard for me — and feeling used about it — really hurt.

  2. Ken Montville

    August 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Excellent topic!

    I used to take it very badly when someone I knew used another Realtor. I was hurt more deeply when, on a couple of occasions, people I had known for decades and shared Thanksgiving dinner with for years, started out with me (asking some questions, doing an Internet home search) but ended up in the arms of another.

    I’ve also worked with close friends and “just regular” friends that have worked out extremely well complete with good PR afterward.

    I’ve tried to immunize myself against the friend or family member who chooses to work with someone else. If they end up asking for advice, I tell them there’s an ethical consideration I need to keep in mind and they should, perhaps, talk to their chosen real estate agent or their manager.

    What’s really tough is when an acquaintance or friend says they’re definitely going to use your services while they ask for advice and maybe look at a few places and then find out that they’ve used another real estate agent for both buying and selling —– on their Facebook page!!!

    I “un-friended” them immediately. That taught them! 🙂

  3. Vicki Lloyd

    August 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Unfortunately, this in pretty common, and falls into the category of S—Happens!

    Over the years I’ve provided advice for several friends, relatives, or neighbors on real estate questions believing they appreciated and respected me and would ask me to represent them when they were ready. Then “something” happened! A relative ended up listing with the random agent who knocked on his door (with client in car) a few days before our appointment to write up the listing. Another close friend that I had been showing property to for several weeks ended up buying a FSBO from a co-worker’s relative. Another listed her condo with the agent she met at open house when she stumbled in to check out the decorating.

    I try to explain that I don’t get paid by the hour to offer my knowledge, and that I will advocate in their best interests at all times, but there are too many ways that people just lose their minds and forget how valuable your services really are to them.

    We can’t dwell on these disappointments, so just set it aside and say “Next!”

  4. Charles Mackenzie-Hill

    August 1, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I think if your in a different industry, it’s a mystery the outsider how things should work. Maybe if one took the time to understand why you weren’t approached from the beginning will help to explain a lot. Could be for the strangest of reasons. Try making a light about being pushed for details, by a comment like, I Hope your not just going to drain for me advise, as were on the same side, you know. Might just save a friendship.

  5. john glynn

    August 1, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    We work in a trade where we provide a service to our community. You can definitely cross this line, and probably in fact can’t avoid it. It is inevitable. Some clients turn into friends, and some friends come to you for business, and become clients. You have to keep the friendship in front of the business. Make your decisions with that in mind, help them get what they want, and it will work out just fine. They’ll refer you to people you don’t already know.

    We all have stories (like in this post, and the comments thus far) about friends who have abused our services, taken free advice and leveraged it to their advantage, and in essence put their business in front of the friendship. In those cases, you may see a change to the ‘friendship’. And who cares? True friends wouldn’t take advantage of you, and as long as you remain cognizant of the friendship first, those breakdowns are on their conscious, not yours.

    And then you move on…

  6. Lani Rosales

    August 2, 2010 at 12:55 am

    I don’t think this is exclusive to real estate, it’s a hurtful time when any business person relies on referrals. But sometimes, there’s a good reason outside of being frivolous or thoughtless…

    My grandmother chose another agent over my husband and I called her to frantically ask why? I took it very personally as we’d put our own elbow grease into the house and laid the slate floors in 1200 sf of the house ourselves! We loved the home and had actually considered putting in an offer ourselves. Why would she arbitrarily pick someone else? The answer was one I hadn’t expected, “she’s been my Realtor for 30 years and she sold me this house in 1977.” You just can’t be mad at that. We assured her she was in the right and things stayed cool, but imagine if we’d just assumed that she was a jerk!?

  7. Tom Bregman

    August 2, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    What a great topic! Of course this has happened to everyone who works as a real estate professional or in a similar capacity.

    When my sister in-law and her new husband purchased their new house in an area that I service, and used another agent, I was quite upset. According to my wife, her sister, she did not want to use me because she and her new husband wanted to keep their personal information private. Never the less, I was very upset with her for a long time and I still retain some mixed feelings about her choice.

    I have taken the philosophy that “it is what it is” but my parents and siblings still resent my wife’s sister for not using my services. In all honesty, I know that I would have provided my sister in-law and her husband with better representation than they received from their chosen agent. Truth be told, I still harbor a certain amount of resentment toward them.

    Thank you for letting me vent! :~)

  8. stephanie crawford

    August 2, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    You’ve got to have thick skin in this business. Sure, I’ve been hurt, angered and rejected, but over time I’ve learned to let it roll off my back. Recently I fired a buyer (who wasn’t a friend, but I had spent MONTHS searching for in person and online) and that was even more traumatic for some reason. You can’t be everything to everyone. And some people have unrealistic expectations. I take my commissions where I can get them. I’m grateful to still be standing in the biz right now. I’ve seen some mighty fall.

  9. Debby Crane

    August 2, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Thank you all for your candor! I agree, you do need a thick skin in this very competitive business to deal with all of the ups and downs. I think many people not in real estate don’t understand how long it takes, expensive and time consuming it is for us to develop a business and that we do need help from those closest to us to be successful in a timely manner if we want what I consider to be the best possible business, a referral business.
    Perhaps we need to continually remind people as Brian Buffini suggests ” I’m never too busy for your business or your referrals”, so that they know we have some needs and expectations”? I do agree if you are passed over or slighted by a friend or stranger it is best to try to pull yourself together as quickly as possible and remind yourself that “It’s just business”.

  10. Dan Connolly

    August 3, 2010 at 11:57 am

    One of the best things for me about learning how to find clients online is that I no longer need to worry about my sphere of influence staying loyal. One of the things I have always tried to strive for is not being the “salesman” at parties. I have asked well meaning friends not to introduce me as their friend “the Realtor”. I think it puts up a wall. Just introduce me as your friend and if the subject of what I do comes up, the information will be more natural and less forced.

    There are several reasons why your friends don’t use you. 1) You aren’t the only Realtor they know! They don’t want to offend anyone so they use an outsider. 2) The home is most people’s greatest investment. They have been getting mailings from the neighborhood “expert” for years and they are afraid that you won’t do the same kind of job.If you do mailouts you will get some business on the other end of this thought process! 3) Many people don’t mix friendship with business because they don’t want to have to fire a friend if things go wrong. I think if you let this affect your friendship, you really aren’t much of a friend to begin with. 4) Most people don’t know how we get paid. If they are pumping you for info and you would feel betrayed if they didn’t use you get them to sign a buyer’s agency agreement before you give them the “free advice”.

  11. Relative Buyer

    August 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I’ve read all of these comments, and Dan’s rings the most true.

    As a first-time buyer, I did use my sister-in-law as my buyer’s agent, despite my better judgment. I knew a little bit about the business (my grandmother is also an agent, but lives quite far away), and I knew how agents are paid. I also knew my sister-in-law could certainly use the money.

    At first, I asked for a referral. She refused to give the referral, and insisted she “help” us instead.

    Please, if your friends or family ask for a referral, take the fee, and walk away. In fact, I believe if your friends or family ask you to represent them, you should give a referral, and walk away. She was not the right agent for me.

    Dan, regarding point (3) above: I could not fire a relative. Not three months in as a buyer’s agent, with no accepted offers, despite following every word of advice she gave us. Not six months in. And not nine months in (when an offer was finally accepted on a short sale…which led to another lengthly adventure).

    It was an awful, bitter experience, and we are doing our best not to cause or contribute to a rift in the family. While she’s a great agent, she was not a great agent to me, because we were family, and she was doing us a “favor”. In fact, in the end, it was the perception that she was doing us a favor (she received a full commission, kickbacks from at least two of her “preferred vendors”, did NOT deliver a full closing package, and, in fact, did not deliver anything to us at closing). We were certainly left feeling we would have been better off going with redfin, or another discount brokerage, and getting a small percentage back.

    We’ll never buy through family or friends again. And personally, I doubt anyone should. All of the agents above mourning the loss of the “free advice” they gave…welcome to being a freelancer. Those who still have sour grapes over someone going through another agent for a transaction (especially a relative), think about it this way:
    If they don’t use you, you are writing them out of your life for: about $5,000.
    If they use you, and something goes wrong, they are stuck paying (and resenting you for): about $500,000.


    August 3, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Thank you all for sharing/venting/devil’s advocating! Honest and with merit! i love it

    bottom line, there is just no easy way around these awkward moments/feelings w/ friends & family….agents have been going thru this for decades, and for decades to come this issue will still arise. Whatever reason, legitimate or not, why your friend/family uses someone else, it doesn’t make it sting any less. after all we are only human, not machines who can robotically move on to the next file.

    at the very least, we can get it off your chests with fellow agents on Agent Genius who can EMPATHIZE….take solace in the fact you are not alone!

  13. Nadina Cole-Potter

    August 3, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Almost everyone in my close and extended family has a policy not to do business with family. The one relative who invited us to work with him on a business adventure (which turned out to defraud him) had no business training, no business experience (he is an academician in a field unrelated to business) and is a know-it-all who doesn’t ask questions or listen because he knows it all. Thank goodness my husband has such a good cr-p detector!

    When I was in residential real estate, I received a call from a guy a knew from a couple of social groups, one who had bent my ear on some personal matters (TMI) and acted like I was his new best friend. He then sold his condo through another agent (who did not follow through on something that cost him a couple of thousand at closing) and then hired the same agent to help him and his fiancee purchase in home in a manufactured home park (which is really a land lease). He called me for advice on the transaction and I just referred him back to his agent saying I couldn’t interfere with another agent’s transaction.

    There was a woman in my church who was selling a home and then buying one with her boyfriend (liberal church). Instead of using the services of one of the experienced agents in our church — and she knew who we were, she used the services of a woman who attended a different church of the same denomination (they met during a combined choir rehearsal for a joint event) who had just received her license. LSS — The timing was off; the new house was purchased before the old one was sold. In a fast-moving seller’s market, the old house lingered on the market for quite a while, thus 2 mortgages due for close to a year. Oh, yes, she said she picked the agent because they had so much in common — singing in the choir!

    With buyers I wonder if they just don’t want their friends and family to know that much detail about their financial status. Perhaps it’s true for sellers as well.

  14. KW Realtor

    August 6, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    LOL – yes, yes and yes,..I have this friend who has been grilling me for R.E advice for awhile. He mentioned he would like to use me to sell his place and help him buys some investment property. So, he grilled me – on issues had me send him information – called me at odd hours and had me do all the title searches for homes he liked. Only to find out he was using a very bad agent who would not or could not figure out how do do all of the work i was doing. I was steamed. Later he called again to find out about property his parents wanted to buy. I mentioned I would be happy to help them. He then told me he had a list of the best deals around. It was a list his parents had bought of REO homes. I mentioned to him that ALL homes for sale Short Sale, REO, etc are listed and I give everyone a full access pass – for free. he blew me off and said these are pre-REO and that they would use me to buy the property. OK,…so I do th leg work on a property – and find out it is NOT REO and is no where near a price of under $500,00 like they had hoped – and got all the information to them as agreed. I mentioned that we should be active and really meet and preview the property – he then tells me his parents will only work with me if I can guarantee that they will get the lowest price from me and not from anyone else. I told them that is part of the process – to work the best price. He told me they where not interested then and has not talked to me since.

    This is not the first – it is frustrating to end up being the go-to guy for everything people need except to buy a house. It is not the first and is not the last. I just take a much stronger stand on meeting and previewing before I do all the leg work. These issues even happen inside my own office. 🙁

    • Herman Chan

      August 7, 2010 at 4:54 am

      geez, it sounds like jesus could have been their realtor and they STILL wouldn’t have been happy.

  15. Nadina Cole Potter

    August 6, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Prospect Due Diligence and Commission-ectomy Prevention: To prevent being used by “friends” and from becoming a flake magnet, I learned to say, “Let’s get together to explore what you want and how we work together.” It sounds like the friends who expected the buyer’s agent to get them the “lowest price” — and you will only know that when the seller accepts the buyer’s lowest price offer — does not understand how buying real property works. It sounds like they were treating you like a car salesman.

    The question, “Are you or have you been working with another agent?” before embarking on a research project is also a good one. We already work on spec as commissioned agent/brokers. We cannot also work on spec as to whether the person asking for so much information will or will not become our client (the most freebie anyone should do before someone becomes an actual client is to send automated property searches from the MLS and to make sure they get pre-approved (not just qualified) with a local lender.

    That is another reason to have the face-to-face “how we work together” conversation — to check out each other’s expectations and clear up misconceptions. It’s probably better if the agent/broker severs the relationship when there is not a meeting of the minds then to have a commission-ectomy without seeing the possibility of being rewarded for all the research you do. If the “friend” pulls relationship as a reason not to formalize the buying relationship, then you can always use the, “my broker requires it” reason.
    My BB Agreement is exclusive only to the properties I introduce the buyer to (including listings that are sent to the buyer by automated email — I program them to be sent to me at the same time) or that the buyer consults me about. Some commercial buyers balk at BB Agreements (having seen only those where they pledge their first born child and totally indemnify the agent/broker from everything) but I have found they are willing to sign Non-Disclosure, Non-Circumvention, and Fee Agreements which pretty much amount to a BB Agreement only as to properties introduced and discussed.
    And now that I have become a maven at finding and evaluating “off market” multifamily properties, I always get a NDNC and Co-Broke Agreement with any broker who has the buyers but doesn’t know how to connect with off-market properties and their owners.

  16. Eric Reed

    April 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Wow, this is very instructive as I’m on the opposite side of the fence – a friend feeling like not using anyone who is a friend as an agent. I’m annoyed at the expectation I’m supposed to go with a friend because they’re my friend.
    First, I personally do not like mixing business and friendship. Period. It’s
    much easier to get a new agent than a new friend and going with someone you don’t know is a good way to void making that choice.
    Real estate transactions are frought with stress and I’ve experienced where that has stressed the relationship.

    I also recognize the advice thing and would never take advantage of that. I really want to have a business transaction with someone I don’t have a friendship with so that when (because it will) get messy, difficult, annoying, crazy, etc – I want nice clean lines and the allowance for me to have game face without worrying about the effect on the friendship.

    My sister is a realtor and so is one of my oldest friends it was interesting because talking to them this weekend I brought this up and they were shocked when I said I wouldn’t ever use them as agents.

    Just thought you could use this perspective so that you could understand why sometimes your “sphere of influence” balks at hiring you.

    • john glynn

      April 13, 2012 at 1:42 am

      I think that’s totally fine. A practitioner who expects their friends to use their service is as wrong as a consumer who takes unfair advantage of their friend’s professional insights. We want to be there when needed by a friend, but forcing ourselves upon them is clearly taking it too far. And you learn pretty quickly that some people will appreciate the friend factor in the equation whereas others prefer to keep a firm line of separation. I don’t resent that one bit. It’s the straddle that gets awkward.

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