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What can you do if your Realtor doesn’t return calls or pushes you to buy a “fixer-upper” that looks like the house from Psycho? It is possible to fire your real estate agent, though it’s not exactly simple. Remember these three things:
- Although you can fire a real estate agent, breaking up isn’t like switching dry cleaners
- Because most agent-client relationships involve a written contract, you can’t just walk away
- In some cases, you may have to prove that the agent breached your contract. Even then, you may still owe money
For these reasons (and more), it’s best to carefully screen real estate agents before you hire one. But if you end up with a lemon despite your best efforts, here’s how to keep a “divorce” from turning into a legal quagmire.
When to get rid of your real estate agent
The #1 reason for dissatisfaction with agents is poor communication. The agent doesn’t return your calls, emails or texts in a timely manner - or at all.
To prevent this, set the communication ground rules at the start of the relationship. Discuss how often you wish to be updated, and what forms of communication you prefer - phone calls, emails, texts or a combination.
If you do this, and the agent goes MIA, you’ll have a stronger case for ending the contract.
Other common causes for concern include:
- The real estate agent pressures you to buy a particular house
- The agent doesn’t tailor her schedule to fit yours
- He makes little effort to help you find a new home or sell your existing one
- You discover that the agent doesn’t know much about your neighborhood or other neighborhoods in which you’re interested
- You have frequent (even heated) arguments about pricing and other key issues
When good relationships go bad, it’s not always somebody’s fault. And it may not be a good enough reason to fire your real estate agent.
For example, you might initially look for a home in one neighborhood, and then search another area - one the agent knows nothing about.
In this situation, honesty is the best policy. Raise the issue with the agent and her brokerage firm. Then request a new agent with more knowledge of your desired neighborhoods.
Before you fire your real estate agent
Before you fire your real estate agent, try to rescue the relationship.
If you have problems with the agent’s style or performance, express these concerns to the agent. Tell the agent what you expect from her, and determine if she’s willing to meet those expectations.
If that doesn’t work out, strive for an amicable parting of the ways. Ask the agent to cancel your contract.
Agents don’t like working with disgruntled clients, so many will readily agree to this, especially if you’re a buyer. (In general, it’s easier for buyers to get no-fuss cancellations than sellers.)
And if that doesn’t work, go over the agent’s head. Contact the head of the brokerage. Make your case to the boss to see if you can terminate the contract or get a new agent from the agency.
Before you hire a real estate agent
First, don’t choose an agent because she’s married to your cousin or because you went to college with him. You want someone experienced and professional with a good reputation. And the pickier you are, the more time you’d better invest in choosing the right representation.
You can choose a Realtor, a member of the National Association of Realtors. You may want someone with special credentials if you’re buying or selling a particularly high-end property, or something like a farm or combined residential and commercial space.
Interview more than one, and when you get an agreement, don’t toss it in a drawer unread. If “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” the “ounce” in this case is to read the contract before you sign.
If you sign a buyer’s agent agreement, you are legally bound to the agent until the contract is canceled or expires. If you decide to terminate the agreement, make it official by sending a letter of cancellation or termination.
Or, if you’re the patient type, you could simply wait until the term expires (typically, six months).
Don’t “ghost” the agent and hope he gets the message. That may work in the dating world, but it could land you in legal trouble in the real estate realm.
It’s tougher for sellers
As noted above, however, canceling an agent contract can be much trickier for home sellers.
That’s because agents and agencies tend to make bigger upfront investments in selling homes - e.g., listing, marketing, staging and showing properties - than they do representing buyers.
As a seller, you’ll probably be asked to sign an exclusive right-to-sell listing. This is the most common contract used by listing and selling agents.
It gives the agent the exclusive right to earn commissions by representing you and by bringing buyers to see your property.
Unless there’s an exception in the contract, this document makes you responsible for paying a commission. In some cases, you may still owe this fee even if you sell the house yourself.
Hedge your bets with a short-term contract
Listing agreements come with a variety of conditions and terms. Typical terms are 30 days, 90 days, six months and a year. Be sure to read the fine print, especially regarding cancellation.
If the contract allows you cancel at any time, the term doesn’t matter so much. If the agreement makes termination difficult, consider opting for a shorter term (say 90 days).
Requesting a short-term may signal the agent that you don’t trust him, but it’s better to hedge your bets than lock yourself into an “unhappy marriage.”
However, even if you terminate the contract, or it expires, you may still owe money to the agent. For example, if the selling agent gives you a list of buyers, and one of them buys your home later, you could still be obligated to pay some or all of the commission.
If all else fails, you could hire a lawyer to help extract you from the agreement. But given how much attorneys charge, this should be a last resort.
Unless a brokerage firm believes you’re trying to rip them off, most will let you off the hook if you’re truly dissatisfied. Otherwise, they risk becoming known as firms that won’t guarantee their customers’ satisfaction.