Another Supply Factor in Home Sales: Who Can Broker the Deal?

America’s latest bout of realty mania may finally be dying down, as home prices and particularly sales volumes decline after a rise of interest rates. With mortgage payments more costly, and expectations of equity appreciation diminishing, the fees charged by brokers may become a rub again. Five percent off the top, a typical full transaction commission, shouldn’t escape so much notice when prices aren’t rising by double digits each year.

This brings us to one of America’s biggest and most Apple Pie guilds, the residential real-estate sales trade. A few friends or family members may be part of it. The common term is Realtor, although as the capital letter suggests, that is a membership subset of the 3 million Americans who hold state-issued licenses to sell homes. But the Realtors are a big enough subset—roughly half, and likely the most active–to provide a data window into a field that otherwise might be difficult to track.

And the National Association of Realtors latest survey finds that 2021 was a banner year, with median gross income rising 25% (off a lesser dip in 2020, when Covid lockdowns hit early in the year). If $54,430 was the midway point among the 9,220 who self-reported to the questionnaire randomly sent to 176,494 Realtors, one might guess that the better sellers skewed well north of that. And the Realtors said they could have done even better with more to sell.

What if, instead, there were more realty agents competing to do the selling? Does the supply and price of brokerage help shape the real-estate market, or is that market (as this realty consultant and surely many Realtors believe) determined solely by buyers and sellers, leaving the sales professionals simply (and fairly!) to divide a fixed pie?

Occupational licensing covers a quarter of the American workforce. Such a barrier to entry is justified as a protection against physical or financial hazard to others. In residential real estate, the handling of what is usually the biggest household investment would seem to call for a professional floor. Unclear, however, is how high that training and testing standard needs to be, and how much consumers effectively must pay for it. To put the previous paragraph’s question another way: Was the 2021 bounty a notorious rent capture, or just a cyclical blowout?

State licensure data over recent years paints a general picture of a market calling the shots: In the 22 jurisdictions I could see, the salesperson ranks varied widely and in tandem with the economy (big drops around the 2008-09 financial crash, for instance). Brokers, a more credentialed and usually senior status, show less variance and, even in the most recent bullish years, less growth. This may be related to changes in the selling-firm organizations, to “teams” built around one or two notable brokers. Overall, there’s considerable apparent capacity for expansion—Realtor membership in fact was up 50% over the 8 latest years.

Sure, obtaining a license requires instructional time, and renewing that license every couple of years or so can be an administrative chore, but so many people manage this—even part-timers who may not sell anything in a given year—that it’s hard to argue that transactions are being lost for want of agents.

Yet that is what a recent academic paper does, with respect to at least one state. Bobby W. Chung, economist at St. Bonaventure University in New York, found in a paper published this spring in Labour Economics that a tightening of Illinois’ license requirements in 2011 decidedly cut into sales. And, perhaps more significant to the core justification for licensure, his data suggest that more “qualified” sales personnel did not lead to fewer reported abuses of consumers.

Chung noted that the 2011 Illinois revision “was a rare occasion both new entrants and existing practitioners” by ending the salesperson classification and requiring broker license as a first step, while also specifying that no broker could work independently without upgrading to a “managing broker” classification. As a result, after a grace period, salespeople declined from 50,000 to zero, while the broker licenses rose by only 10,000 and managing brokers amounted to 20,000. Hence, a net loss of 20,000 in real-estate sales.

Building on a 1979 study that linked restrictive licensing to property-vacancy durations, Chung concluded, “There was a significant reduction in home sales on average, implying that the decreased agent availability had an immediate consequence on consumers.” And, there was this labor-market effect: “I find that female and novice agents are more likely not to renew the license after the policy.” The new strictures required fees and doubled the training time, some of it at inflexible hours of the day.

Chung’s analysis of disciplinary actions in Illinois real-estate sales, extending five years beyond the reforms, “does not indicate strong evidence of reducing misconduct,” although he cautions that because of statistical challenges in building a multi-state comparison set, “the quality effect warrants further discussions.” This and other work does suggest that factors other than simply adding more training time are more critical to shaping broker ethics.

A minimal competency in transaction procedure and law is desirable in housing sales. The state can certify this, as of course can employment by a brokerage or mentoring in the now-popular sales teams.. Just as is true with a paralegal or physician’s assistant, however, there are many tasks vital to sales that could be performed by someone short of full professional licensure. (Indeed, in states like New York, it is rare for a home deal to close without buyer and seller having a full-fledged lawyer present, on top of the broker and with a separate escrow officer.)

At bottom, does it matter to homebuyers (and sellers) how constrained the supply of sales agents is? Yes, it is possible for abrupt and onerous legislation to affect a state’s experience. But, over a national range, the “heat” of property markets themselves seems to regulate the sales ranks pretty well. And the mixed record so far of discount- brokerage options—some involving algorithmic transaction models, such as Opendoor—leads to doubt about how many consumers cared about breaking the 5% commission mold anyway.

But most of America has had successive generations of barely-interrupted home price appreciation. A sustained bear market might change this picture, and give regulation scholars like Bobby Chung more to reckon with.