More than 90% of those buying and selling a house work with a real estate agent, but state regulators aren't doing enough to help consumers choose among America's nearly 2 million licensed agents, according to the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).
Most state real estate commissions fail to provide adequate, easy-to-find information on their websites about consumer rights and protections and information about the licensing and record of licensed agents, the CFA said in a report released this week.
"The inadequate consumer information provided by most real estate commissions largely reflects the fact that these commissions were created and are dominated by the industry," said Stephen Brobeck, a CFA senior fellow who authored the study on the websites for real estate commissions in all 50 states. "Only a small number of these regulatory agencies seem aware that they have a responsibility to serve consumers as well as industry interests."
Brobeck said the state real estate web sites should help inform consumers of their rights and protections and disclose information about whether an agent is licensed or has been disciplined by regulators.
CFA said Alabama was the best state for its real estate commission website, but the consumers' group gave Tennessee a "fair" grade and rated Georgia as "poor."
The Alabama website includes a home page menu with consumer information and tools to verify information about a real estate professional and a form to file a complaint.
"It contains links to one of the best state consumer agency (representation) guides, a license database, and a complaint form as well as other helpful information," Brobeck said.
The Tennessee website lists "consumer resources" as one of seven items on a home page side menu. Under "consumer resources" there is a menu including filing a complaint, agent disciplinary actions, and license verification.
But the CFA said there is no easily found information on agent representation.
"This is especially important in Tennessee because an agent can function as a transaction broker, as an agent for the seller (or buyer), as a designated agent for the seller (or buyer), or as a disclosed dual agent," Brobeck said. "Tennessee consumers need a clear explanation of these terms and their differences."
Georgia, which was among 21 states that the CFA gave its lowest ratings, does not mention consumers, or home buyers or sellers, on its real estate commission website.
"There is not even a place to file a consumer complaint," Brobeck said. "The website was obviously created solely for the use of the industry."
According to the National Association of Realtors, Realtors are different from non-member real estate agents in that Realtors voluntarily subscribe to the NAR Code of Ethics and provide additional consumer grievance procedures not always available with all real estate agents.
"If you believe that a Realtor has violated one or more articles of the Code of Ethics, you can file an ethics complaint alleging a violation(s) through the local association of Realtors where the Realtor holds membership," the National Associaton of Realtors says on its website. "In addition, Realtors agree as a condition of membership to arbitrate contractual disputes and specific non-contractual disputes as provided for in Article 17 of the NAR Code of Ethics."
— Compiled by Dave Flessner