Banks Selling Real Estate – A Real Bad Idea

Is it my imagination, or did I hear somebody out there complaining about real estate commissions?

Anyone who complains about real estate commissions now, is not going to be thrilled if banks have their way and are allowed to sell real estate, something that the American Bankers Association (ABA) has been tried to do by lobbying, pressuring Congress – and paying millions of dollars in the process by way of special contributions – for the past seven years. And it does not matter if banks are not allowed to share commissions. All banks simply need to do, once they are permitted to step into real estate, is to buy brokerage firms and they can share all the commissions in the world without ever once breaking the law. They do not even need real estate licences.

In fact, since we are on the subject of commissions sharing, let’s do a little numbers crunching to find out the ‘commissions’ banks are charging consumers today. They do not call them ‘commissions’ – they call them ‘interest charges’, but fact of the matter is that a fee computed on a percentage basis in payment for a service is a commission. So therefore, the user’s fee charged by a bank to a borrower on a percent basis for the use of a certain sum of capital is nothing other than … a commission.

Banks base mortgage rates on a variety of indexes. Among the most common indexes are the rates on one-, three-, or five-year Treasury securities. Another common index is the national or regional average cost of funds to savings and loan associations. A few lenders use their own cost of funds as an index, which gives them more control than using other indexes. To determine the interest rate on a mortgage, bankers add to the index rate a few percentage points, cumulatively referred to as the ‘margin’. The amount of margin may differ from one lender to another, but it is usually constant over the life of the loan. The formula therefore, is: Index Rate + Margin = Mortgage Interest Rate. Most banks use a 2 percent margin minimum. When they offer ‘special packages’ to consumers, they typically apply a 3 percent margin, and then offer a 1 percent ‘special’ discount or rebate.

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But let’s take the 2 percent typical margin. To all those readers who think that 2 percent sounds better than the 6 percent commission commonly charged by real estate brokerage firms, let me point out that the 2 percent margin charged by the banks is per year! So, if it is true that the average consumer keeps his property for seven years, the ‘commission’ charged by the banks is really 14 percent. The only difference is that the margin applies to the principal of the mortgage, i.e. the amount borrowed as opposed to the real estate brokerage commission, which applies on the full sale price. But this is of little solace if one considers that almost fifty percent of all mortgage transactions involve 95 percent financing.

Banks have come to the realization that the U.S. real estate brokerage market amounts to some $61 billions, a sum that, if attached to a single firm, would rank 19th on the Fortune 500, ahead of Boeing, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase. To paraphrase Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, this is a market that’s ‘worth fighting for and worth dying for’. To be sure, the tactic adopted by ABA is that of nonchalance. ABA is trying to convince Congress that banks are not really interested in pursuing this line of business even if they were legally able to do so, but that they would like to be able to pursue it … just in case.

The truth, of course, is much different and deeply rooted in the economics of real estate. Brokerage firms charge commissions to Sellers, the recipients of the money proceeds in a real estate transaction, and only when Sellers have received those proceeds. Banks, conversely, charge interest rates to Buyers. What ABA is aiming and attempting to do now, is to charge both Buyers and Sellers. Sort of like eating from two dishes at the same time, so to speak. Give the money to the Buyer to complete the transaction, and charge the Seller for completing it.

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So again, how much is the real estate commission ABA would like its members to charge, were they allowed to get into real estate? Let’s see: there is the 14 percent from the Buyer over seven years, there is the 6 percent from the Seller at the time of closing, and then, of course, there are ‘minor’ commissions like appraisal fees, set-up fees, administration fees, loan initiation fees, loan cancellation fees, front-end fees, and then, of course, there is the loan insurance.

Boy, that’s a lot of commissions!

No wonder that Consumers Union (, publisher of Consumer Reports, the independent, non-profit testing and information organization serving only consumers, is strongly lobbying Congress to conduct further studies on this issue.

But besides the added cost to consumers, letting banks into real estate would not only be bad for the industry and bad for consumers – it would be bad for the economy at large. In fact, the notion of a ‘free market’ where all economic decisions regarding transfers of money, goods, and services take place on a voluntary basis, free of coercive influence, is commonly considered to be an essential characteristic of capitalism. But in the eventuality of banks dominating the real estate industry, how free would consumers really be to choose, for example, how to sell their homes, or to negotiate a commission, or to counter an offer to purchase, or to change agent if they do not like one, or to even try to sell their properties themselves?

Did anyone ever attempt to negotiate something – anything at all – with a bank? I have, several times. And I have witnessed personally and can report first-hand on a variety of responses from bankers, ranging from the amicable “no .. no .. no”, to the tap on the shoulder and nod of the head, to the sarcastic smile, all the way to the glacial look and the beyond-the-grave silence. However, I still cannot report a single ‘Yes’ from a bank, after nineteen years in the business. Banks understand negotiating not as a give-and-take, two-way process but, rather, as a one-way street – going their way, that is, only their way. And this is today, when consumers still have the option to walk away. What will happen to consumers when that option will be taken away from them?

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Banks getting into real estate? Do not let that happen to you.

Luigi Frascati

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