real estate

Not easy to fire a lazy real estate agent

Steve McLindenQuestionDear Real Estate Adviser,
I signed a one-year contract with a selling real estate agent in June, but she isn't proactively trying to sell my home. She doesn't show up for meetings, is slow to return calls and doesn't report to me after an open house. There isn't even a "for sale" sign posted now. What's more, the MLS hasn't been updated with the pictures I gave her awhile ago. Now, she says she's unable to sell the place and suggested I short sell. This isn't the "assistance" I expected. How can I terminate this contract with my real estate agent?
-- Renee C.

AnswerDear Renee,
A year! While there are apparently plenty of these four-seasons listing real estate agent contracts being inked in today's molasses-slow sales market, I strongly advise against signing one. I have always been an advocate of the shortest possible contracts -- typically three or four months. I do acknowledge, however, that today's longer average time on the market might necessitate contracts up to six months in some markets. But a yearlong contract is often a bad idea because it can invite apathy, procrastination and the type of give-up attitude you've apparently encountered in your real estate agent.

Agents are quick to note short-term contracts just aren't adequate today and might either quash a sale in progress or otherwise disrupt marketing continuity. However, remember you can always offer to extend a listing contract with a competent salesperson at any point in the selling process.

For any listing agreement beyond three or maybe four months, in fact, I suggest you demand an unconditional cancellation clause. Of course, I'm assuming here you listened to your agent's advice and examined supporting comps in the area in order to price your place to sell from the outset. If you didn't price it right, no amount of staging, cajoling, or other song and dance will grease the deal with so much competing inventory on the block.

Typically, you should try to rectify problems with an agent before looking for ways to bail out, but that works only if your agent is responsive. You could try to set a mandatory meeting, spell out your concerns and tell her what you need to see from her, stressing immediate action. If you still see no progress, request a "termination of agency" form and say you will need her to sign it. To avoid acrimony, most agents will comply, but certainly not all.

If she does resist and the listing contract calls for a cancellation penalty, you might have to get tough and tell her you believe she has not acted in good faith or in your best interests, and that you will be forced to file a complaint with her agency, the local board of Realtors and your state's real estate commission if she doesn't walk away. She should get the picture. Granted, she may be entitled to some small compensation for provable marketing expenses, which from the sounds of things are minimal. Check your contract carefully for these details before firing her.

And try to avoid the short sale she suggests, unless it's absolutely necessary due to imposing financial constraints. A short sale will damage your credit and may deprive you of most or all of your equity. Moreover, lenders typically won't even consider a short sale if payments are current. Have you or your agent contacted your lender's loss-mitigation department to see if a short sale is feasible under present conditions?

Once clear of agent hassles, you may need to pull the house off the market briefly and reposition it through additional improvements, restaging and possibly repricing.

Good luck!

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