A "listing agreement" is a contract between a real estate agent or broker (the industry professional who will be listing the property for sale) and a home seller. It primarily says that the agent has the right to list (advertise and handle the sale of) the house. If you'll be selling your property, it's important to understand the terms of this agreement, because you'll be bound by them for several weeks or months, as will your agent.
Do I Really Need to Sign a Home Listing Agreement?
While a listing agreement is advantageous for the real estate agent, because it obligates you to work with that person for at least a minimum amount of time, it also protects you, the home seller. It formalizes your relationship, and explains the agent's responsibilities and what to do if the agent doesn't meet them.
Don't worry that you'll have to spend a lot of time working out the language of the listing agreement. Your agent will have a standard form for you to review and sign, containing a lot of boilerplate that's used by all agents industry-wide. Nevertheless, it's boilerplate that has been developed over many years (with a few lawsuits thrown in), and it's important.
If, for example, your relationship eventually goes sour, you'd definitely want to go back to the listing agreement to remind yourself how and when you can cancel the contract.
Key Terms of Home Listing Agreements
Here are some of the most important terms covered by the standard real estate listing agreement.
- The commission amount you'll pay your agent. For the last several years, this has ordinarily been 5% to 6% of the proceeds of the sale. Close to half of that is traditionally turned over to the buyer's agent following the sale. However, that commission figure or arrangement could shift, as recent lawsuits against the National Association of Realtors might force changes or at least a reexamination of the traditional model.
- Exclusive right to sell. This gives your agent has the exclusive right to sell your property for the duration of the agreement. Other types of arrangements with an agent are possible, but the exclusive arrangement will be your agent's first choice.
- Duration. Your listing agreement will last for a set amount of time, such as three or six months. From your perspective, a shorter listing agreement is better. If you don't like the agent's services, you can walk away and choose a different agent. (And if you're happy, renewing should be easy.) Of course, from the agent's perspective, a longer listing agreement is preferable, because the agent is going to do a lot of work to get the house ready to sell, and won't want to risk losing a commission just as the property is starting to garner real interest.
- Safety or protection clause. Even though the contract has an expiration date, it will probably also include a clause that protects the agent or broker after that date. This prevents you from trying to avoid paying an agent's commission by finding a buyer while you're represented by the agent, but waiting to conduct the sale until your listing agreement expires. You'll want an exception made within the contract if you are ending the relationship because you decide to change listing agents, however—if that agent sells quickly and your clause entitles the first agent to a cut, you could owe two commissions.
- Duties. The agreement might lay out the activities the listing agent is authorized to conduct on your behalf. Read through this carefully, making sure you understand everything. If there are specific duties you want to make doubly sure the agent will handle—for example, listing the property on the MLS, posting a yard sign, or creating a listing sheet—specify those as well.
- Representations. The agreement might also require you to verify certain facts—for instance, that you're in a legal position to sell the property and that to your knowledge, no one else has an ownership interest in it.
- Dispute resolution. The agreement will probably specify how you will handle disputes that you can't work out with the agent informally, such as through mediation or binding arbitration.
Changing a Standard Home Listing Agreement
Most real estate listing agents use standard forms created by state or local Realtor associations to create their listing agreement. Don't sign without reading carefully, however—and don't be afraid to ask for changes or amendments.
Agents sometimes resist changing their standard agreements, having used them many times in the past without incident. Nevertheless, if you're uncomfortable with something, there's no reason it can't be changed. Small changes can be written right on the contract (make sure you get a copy) and initialed, and large changes can be added on separate addendums and referred to in the contract itself.
For more on working with a real estate agent when you sell your house, see the book Selling Your House: Nolo's Essential Guide by Ilona Bray (Nolo).