Rental Dementia: Who do I work for?

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On the surface, it may appear as though I am searching for a suitable apartment on your behalf. But, in reality, I may be out searching for a suitable tenant on the landlord’s behalf. While you are out looking at apartments, landlords have contacted agents to go looking for you. It’s a rather confusing and much overlooked aspect of the rental business with only a handful of exceptions (two agents co-broking one apartment, for example). Even experienced agents often forget where their true allegiances lie.

I had just spent 20 minutes on the phone with a guy who wasn’t moving until December. When we hung up, I was feeling pretty good about offering a fair amount of helpful and honest information. He’d never come around when it was time to actually rent the apartment, and I would never get paid for my insight. He wasn’t looking for any free advice, but he sounded like a good guy, so I offered it. A minute later though, a couple walked in who was, in fact, looking for a handout.

They had already found a great place, were in the process of taking it, but wanted to make sure it was a good deal. Did I have anything they could see? Losers from the word go. They weren’t even bright enough to keep that kind of information to themselves. In fact, they acted as if needing the assistance of a real estate agent was somehow beneath them. They were invulnerable, but if I had a better place than the one they were into, well, they would be generous enough to allow me the time to show it to them. I wasn’t buying this nonsense (having fell victim to it before), but gave them a quick rundown of the market and some of our inventory, including general price-per-square-foot and so forth. It was one of those days. They were only looking for assurance and I didn’t mind offering some.

I gave them a fair assessment of the market, but they still weren’t convinced, so I asked about the specific apartment, “What’s the address?” If I knew the building, I was willing to give them my honest opinion. He answered, “No, I don’t know.” To which I responded, “You don't know the address of the apartment that you are interested in?” He continued, “Well, I know it, but I’m not telling you,” with an emphasis on you. I said fine, and sat back down, believing that we were entirely finished speaking. I had tried to help. What else was I expected to do? He grunted his frustration at such an abrupt end to the conversation, so I explained that if he wasn’t willing to share what apartment he liked, why should I tell him which apartments I liked? At this point his wife fired up, “This is ridiculous, you’re the agent. You’re supposed to tell us what apartments are available.”

She was indignant, “You’re the one working!” That got me furious, and I responded, “I work for you? You walk into my office and I owe you something?” At this point they were crumbling some paperwork and walking out. I was stunned.

The question however lingered long after the couple left: Who the hell do I work for? It’s more than a simple matter of semantics. Who is the client and who is the customer? In my early days in the business, I clearly remember being instructed that, although renters pay us the fee, we do in fact represent the landlords, and that our fiduciary obligations are to those landlords. They notify us of vacancies, grant us access, give us keys and allow us to advertise. We then work to find suitable tenants on their behalf. Furthermore, our relationship with these landlords is far more important than our relationship to the renter, for obvious reasons. We deal with landlords every single day, but do we rarely see the same renter twice.

Still stumped as to who I am more obligated to, I spent a few days calling around in search of an answer to what I thought was a pretty straightforward question. It turns out there is no general consensus on this matter and answers ranged from “ask an agent” to “whoever pays the fee is the client” to “it all depends” to “agents represent the renter and the company represents the landlord.” No one could agree.

The safest answer is, of course, that each case is different and it all depends on varying circumstances. I guess it’s therefore safe to assume that just because you walked into my office, and just because you’ll eventually pay the fee, it doesn’t mean that you’re my client. You may after all be a mere customer, but a cherished, desirable, and essential one at that. Especially if you consider the fact that my real client doesn’t pay me at all.

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