Industry Info October 21, 2022

How do real estate agent commissions work?

When I first started working in real estate, I had to get used to the fact that I’d have to talk about how I get paid all the time. In my previous career in corporate tech, salary and compensation never felt like topics to be openly discussed outside of hiring interviews and performance reviews. When I became a realtor, I realized agent commissions are a hot topic for everyone, real estate professionals and consumers alike. Real estate commissions can be confusing, so let’s break it down.

In real estate, sales commissions are the primary, and oftentimes only, compensation earned by real estate agents. Earnings are based on sales, and agents typically don’t get paid unless a sale closes. (Some real estate agents are salaried, i.e. Redfin agents, but most agents must close sales to earn any income.) 

That said, a real estate agent’s income fluctuates based on their client’s needs and timelines. An agent could work with a client for weeks, months, or years before they close a sale – IF they close. Almost every agent I know has had the misfortune of a client or sale not panning out; it’s a risk of doing business. There have been times when I’ve worked with a buyer client for years before we found the right property. Sometimes the stars align and my client lands the first house they make an offer on. In either scenario, I don’t earn a commission until escrow closes on that property.

Commissions: Amounts and splits

Typically a real estate commission is 5% to 6% of the home’s sale price, though commissions are always negotiable. In Santa Clara County, I’ve observed total commissions as low as 4% (i.e. discount brokers) to as high as 10% of the sale price (i.e. land sales, highly unique properties). In real estate transactions, the commissions are paid out to the listing side and split with the buying side.

First, let’s get some terms out of the way. For simplicity, we’ll use the term broker and brokerage interchangeably.

Commissions – the fees paid to real estate brokers and their agents in a real estate transaction

Listing broker – the real estate company or firm under which the listing agent works

Selling/cooperating broker – the real estate company or firm under which the selling agent (buyers agent) works

Listing agent – the real estate professional who represents the seller in the sale

Selling agent (buyers agent) – the real estate professional who represents the buyer in the sale

Between seller and listing broker

The listing agent and the seller agree upon the commission amount at the time of finalizing the listing agreement. The seller pays the commission at close of sale, and the commission is split between the listing broker and the selling/cooperating broker. (Notice I said listing broker and selling broker, not listing agent and selling agent. That’s because every broker-agent commission split is different.) The split is oftentimes 50/50 but not necessarily. In some cases, the seller and listing agent agree on a higher percentage going to the listing side because of the costs associated with listing property. For example, if the total commission is 6% then the listing and selling brokers may each get 3% (50/50 split) or the listing broker may receive 3.5% and the selling broker 2.5% (or some other split adding up to 6%). 

Between listing broker and selling/cooperating broker

When the sale closes, the listing broker compensates the selling/cooperating broker with a percentage of the total commission as outlined in the listing agreement. Listing agents disclose these percentage allocations when inputting listings into the MLS. Usually in Santa Clara County, I see 2.5% going to the buy side, but sometimes I’ll see 2%, 2.25%, or 3%. A listing with a lower commission percentage could deter some agents from showing the property just as one with a higher commission might motivate agents. (Ethically speaking, agents should show properties that fit their clients’ criteria, but behavioral economics have proven time and again just how powerful incentives can be.)

Between broker and agent

The listing broker compensates the listing agent at close of sale according to their broker-agent split. A 90/10 split means the agent earns 90% of the commission and the broker earns 10%. Top producing or high volume agents see 90% while most agents see somewhere in the range of 70-80%. These splits vary from brokerage to brokerage and depend on a variety of factors. 

That said, if the listing broker receives 3% from a sale, then the agent receives their split percentage of that 3%. The same goes for the selling/cooperating broker and selling (buyers) agent. If the selling broker receives 2.5% from a sale, then the agent receives their split percentage of that 2.5%.

Between selling agent (buyers agent) and buyer

The buyer does not pay the selling agent (buyers agent) a commission as part of a home purchase, though the buyer does need to pay closing costs. The seller pays the real estate commissions. Of course, the buyer and their agent can always negotiate a separate fee or bonus for superb service (the same goes for the seller and their agent).

What if the same agent represents both seller and buyer?

In this dual-agency scenario, the listing broker earns the total commission. Sometimes the seller and listing agent agree to a specialized commission rate in anticipation of this situation. For more reading on this topic, see my post on variable/dual rate commissions.

Now for some commissions math

Let’s take an example of a property listing in which the seller and listing agent agree on a total commission of 6%, split 50/50 between listing broker and selling/cooperating broker. The property sells for $2,000,000. The total commission comes out to be $120,000 (6%).

The listing broker and selling/cooperating broker each make $60,000 (3%). For this example, we’ll say the listing agent stands to make 85% of that 3%, so $51,000. The listing broker earns the remaining $9,000. The selling agent (buyers agent) stands to make 70% or $42,000, with the selling broker earning $18,000. 

Why agents earn their commissions

Unless you’ve worked in the industry yourself, it might be difficult to imagine all the effort that goes into successful real estate sales. So much happens behind the scenes, not just the work itself but also the costs. Every real estate agent is working for themselves, running their own small business. Just like any other small business, there are baseline costs to keeping the lights on. Additionally, we have industry- and brokerage-specific costs to cover: license fees, office fees, association fees, MLS fees, transaction coordination fees. Because of the constantly changing environment, we invest in continuing education, training, networking, industry events, and conferences. Many agents invest in software and marketing tools to enhance various aspects of the client experience. 

Successful realtors invest heavily in the client experience

In addition to expertise, the greatest value I provide to clients is the time I spend with them throughout the entire sales or purchase process. Clients have access to me and the critical resources necessary to stay informed and make smart decisions. I’m always scanning and gathering data to stay on top of the trends so I can give my clients every advantage. Most clients work 9-5 schedules, which means I often meet with them during evenings and weekends. 

In addition to time investment, each transaction incurs specific financial costs, too. When I take on a listing, I cover many costs associated with marketing and advertising the property. Here’s a shortlist: photography, videography, 3D virtual tours, floor plans, digital marketing (social media, emails), physical marketing (flyers, mailers), broker tours, and open houses. There may be other costs I incur upfront and get reimbursed after closing, such as staging, cleaning, painting/repairs.

With buyer clients, I invest large chunks of time previewing and showing properties. I get to know the listing side if I’m not already acquainted. If my clients want to explore a property’s potential or upside, I offer design ideas and vendor referrals. I carefully pore through disclosures and other documents to ensure my clients can be as informed as possible prior to making a purchase decision.

From negotiating the best price and terms to overseeing the transaction through closing, I advocate for my clients until they have keys in hand or see money in the bank. Even after closing, I make myself available to assist with post-transaction tasks, such as referring movers, cleaners, contractors, or property managers. Work with me and you get real estate guidance for life.

Successful clients work with savvy realtors

As people say, the devil’s in the details, and there are so many details involved with a real estate transaction. The right information can make or break a deal. When your realtor knows what information to look (out) for, how to obtain it, and how to use it to your advantage in negotiations, you know they’re earning their keep. Working with a skilled realtor with strong business acumen and intuition means you can save money and time, avoid regret, and have peace of mind. 

My clients know the value of working with a competent and responsive realtor. They realize the value in their net proceeds from the sale, in the smoothness or swiftness of escrow. Perhaps, most importantly, they feel it in the joy of having achieved their real estate goal.

Want to experience the value I can add to your home sale or purchase? Contact me or email me at for a consultation.

Buying StrategySelling Strategy September 30, 2022

What is a variable rate commission?

What is a variable rate commission? Clients never ask this question, but I want you to know the answer. 

Per MLSListings,

“A dual or variable rate commission arrangement is one in which the seller agrees to pay a specified commission if the property is sold by the listing broker and a different commission if sold by a cooperating broker, and it must be disclosed in the MLS (7.22) and the amount differential must be disclosed when asked by a cooperating agent.”

More simply put, the seller pays a different commission (i.e. reduced amount) if the listing broker/agent procures the buyer for the sale. This happens in cases of dual agency, when one broker/agent represents both the buyer and seller. Dual agency applies if I, Frances Sun, represent both the buyer and seller. Dual agency also applies if two different Intero agents represent both sides.

Variable rate commissions can put buyers at a disadvantage

Variable commissions incentivize sellers to allow dual agency because they’ll save money on the property sale if the listing agent procures the buyer. That said, buyers with their own agent representation may find themselves in a disadvantageous position in these situations.

Note: A variable commission does not necessitate dual agency, and dual agency does not necessitate a variable commission. Even when a variable commission applies, the listing agent may not procure any buyers, resulting in a typical commission split. A listing agent may still operate as a dual agent under a typical commission structure. If the agent double-ends a deal, then they receive the total commission at the full percentage.

Example: Home sale with variable rate commission

Consider two offers at the same price, one presented by the listing agent (dual agent) and the other by a buyers agent. With the variable commission set at a 1% differential, the seller nets an additional 1% of the purchase price if they accept the dual agent’s offer.

Seller Sandy hires Listing Agent Lila. They decide to list the property for $2,000,000 and enter into a variable rate commission agreement. If LA Lila procures the buyer, then the total commission paid is 5% of the sale price. Otherwise, the total commission paid is 6%.

At the open house, Buyer Ben approaches LA Lila and wants to make an offer at list price. They write up the offer at $2,000,000. If Seller Sandy accepts, she pays a total commission of $100,000 and nets $1,900,000. (For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say no other costs apply.) The full commission goes to LA Lila’s broker. 

Buyer Beatrice and her agent, Buyers Agent Belinda, bring an offer at list price, too. However, in this scenario, Seller Sandy pays a total commission of $120,000 (split between LA Lila’s broker and BA Belinda’s broker). Seller Sandy nets $1,880,000—a $20K difference.

All things being equal, for Seller Sandy to choose Buyer Beatrice, Buyer Beatrice would need to beat Buyer Ben’s offer on price and other terms. Buyer Beatrice has to offer $2,021,277 to produce the same net proceeds that Buyer Ben’s lower offer presents Seller Sandy.

variable rate commission

Consider two offers at the same price, one presented by the listing agent (dual agent) and the other by a buyers agent. With the variable commission set at a 1% differential, the seller nets an additional 1% of the purchase price if they accept the dual agent’s offer.

Are dual or variable rate commissions fair?

In the above example, you might wonder how a buyer with their own representation could ever win when a variable commission exists. Either you lose the bidding war or you overpay to get the house—sounds less than ideal, right? Why would you even stick with your buyers agent in that scenario? Why not just jump ship and have the listing agent represent you instead?

It’s a tricky situation. If you’re a buyer in love with a property, and a variable commission is in play, working directly with the listing agent could be your best shot at securing the house. But there are no guarantees. In a multiple offer situation, you can’t predict how many competing offers come in or how strong they’ll be. You could be bid up. You could still go up against a buyer who presents a better offer that the seller just can’t refuse.

Variable commissions and dual agency present conflicts of interest

Dual agency and variable commissions are legal in California, as long as brokers/agents properly disclose and get consent. Both can present serious ethical concerns in terms of conflicts of interest. Why? Dual agency generally limits the agent’s ability to negotiate on either client’s behalf. Because a dual agent has the same responsibility to both parties, (whose interests are usually diametrically opposed), the agent realistically cannot advocate fully for either party. When you’re working with a dual agent you can still get fair representation—just don’t expect full representation.

To keep things on the up and up, variable commissions should be established in advance by the seller and listing agent. Also, they should be disclosed to all potential buyers as soon as practical. If a listing agent changes their commission percentage to broker a deal with a buyer, the seller should question the agent’s motivation. Is the listing agent bringing the best offer or just the offer that benefits the listing agent the most?

From the buyer’s point of view, you can’t be certain a dual agent can protect your interests. Chances are, they just met you. Will they take the time to vet the property based on your concerns? Even if they try to remain impartial, they may unwittingly prioritize the interests of the client they’ve known for longer.

Agents have differing views re: dual agency

Some agents operate comfortably as dual agents and others avoid it altogether. As a listing agent, I don’t advocate representing both sides unless it’s likely the only way the deal closes successfully. I always recommend potential buyers to use their own agent if they have one, or I refer them to a trusted colleague if they don’t.

Buyers should be represented by an agent who can truly go to bat for them. Only in rare cases do I believe dual agency can work in favor of all parties. Even if representing both seller and buyer, I don’t adjust my commission percentage. Doing so would provide an unfair and undisclosed advantage to one buyer over other buyers. 

Buyers who understand variable commissions make better decisions

Knowing that a dual or variable rate commission exists for a listing can help even the playing field during negotiations. More importantly, knowing the amount differential can help you determine what to offer to be competitive or to move on to the next property. 

Your agent should let you know if the listing you’re interested in has a variable rate commission in play. I don’t come across a ton of applicable listings, but for the ones I’ve dealt with, I always keep my clients informed. I make sure we understand the differential and whether the listing agent will be representing buyers. We plot out the various paths to take and how to best position our offer.

Buyers need timely and critical information to make decisions, especially in situations where variable commissions apply. Savvy agents help buyers purchase (or walk away) with confidence.

Do you have a realtor whom you trust to go to bat for you? If not, please contact me or email me at to see if I could be that realtor for you.