Articles Posted in Real Estate

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If you have sold or purchased a home recently, you might be under the impression that real estate commissions—the price to engage a real estate broker—are fixed or otherwise set by law in different geographic markets. They aren’t—to do so amounts to price-fixing, which is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Like any other competitor—professional or not—real estate brokers and agents must compete for customer business on price, quality, and everything else. If competing professionals were to join together to fix commissions at a set price, they would violate the antitrust laws. And since it would be a per se violation, there are potential criminal penalties.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, is engaged in prosecuting some other real-estate participants for per se antitrust violations—bid rigging: Several Northern California real-estate investors have pled guilty for bid rigging public real estate foreclosure auctions. Similar bid rigging of foreclosure auctions apparently occurred in Georgia, as well. We wrote about these bid rigging investigations long ago when DOJ’s antitrust activity was in its early stages.

But let’s return to real estate brokers and commissions: It is true that in most geographic regions, you see commissions at around the same level, no matter who you hire as a real estate agent. That will sometimes happen in a market; there is a rate that is around the market rate and most will price around that rate.  We wrote a prior article about this situation, where real estate commissions ended up at the same level, but not due to any agreement. This was not an antitrust violation.

For some reason, however, there is an impression with real estate commissions that there is a “standard” or “legal” rate that real estate agents must price. If you are a consumer in this industry, it is important that you know that this is absolutely incorrect. If your real estate broker tells you otherwise, have them read one of our most popular articles: Five Antitrust Concerns for Real Estate Professionals.

Then, go ahead and negotiate. That is your right. You don’t have a right to win the negotiation, but real estate agents don’t have a right to agree among each other on prices either.

If you are a competitor for real estate services, it is particularly important that you understand that you can’t fix prices with other agents. If you do, you might find yourself on the wrong side of an antitrust lawsuit—possibly even brought by Bona Law—as we receive a lot of calls and emails about these issues. Or, worse, you could receive a call from a Department of Justice lawyer that opened an investigation into you or your company.

My interest in this issue goes beyond my role running a boutique antitrust law firm: I am also a long time real estate investor and I have a California real estate license. To capitalize on that background, we recently started a new blog directed at real estate investors, called Titles & Deeds. If you want to learn more, you can read about our real estate blog here.

This, of course, leads us to Kansas. I bet you didn’t see that coming. Let me explain.

Are the Kansas Real Estate Commission and its Members About to Violate the Antitrust Laws?

On June 16, 2017, Andrew Finch, Acting Assistant Attorney General for DOJ, wrote a letter to the Kansas Real Estate Commission expressing concern about a regulation the Commission is considering that would make it easier to fix prices by forbidding real estate brokers from competing on price by offering gift cards or similar items.

Apparently, according to the DOJ law, Kansas state law forbids real estate brokers from offering rebates, but doesn’t define the term “rebates.” The Kansas state ban, of course, is highly anticompetitive. It directly restricts price competition and harms consumers in Kansas. The Kansas government has unfortunately chosen to protect profits in the real estate profession over the well-being of its citizens.

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Takings and KoontzIf you read The Antitrust Attorney Blog regularly, you might have noticed that I think that the governments—federal, state, and local—tend to overreach into our business, our pursuits, and our lives. And I have strongly advocated that we apply the federal antitrust laws to counter the bloating influence of governments everywhere into our markets.

You may have also noticed my interest in property and real estate. Part of that is personal—I believe that real-estate investing is a great idea. There are many advantages to it. And my wife and I are real-estate investors. Besides antitrust, my firm offers real-estate litigation (in addition to appeals, business litigation, and challenges to government conduct).

Well, these interests have collided into a massive project that I just completed with Luke A. Wake of the National Federation of Independent (NFIB) Small Business Legal Center. We finished the initial version of a law review article entitled Legislative Exactions After Koontz v. St. Johns River Management District.

Update: We are excited to announce that the Georgetown International Environmental Law Review published our article.

This isn’t the first time that Luke Wake and I have written something together. Last year, we published an antitrust article entitled The Market-Participant Exception to State-Action Immunity. Back when I was with DLA Piper, we also worked on an amicus brief together for the NFIB in the U.S. Supreme Court case of FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc. Luke is a rising star in the legal world, so you should remember his name.

Koontz v. St. Johns River Management District

In 2013, the Supreme Court enhanced property rights in the United States when it decided Koontz. It was a sharply split decision that included an expertly written dissent by Justice Elena Kagan, who in my view is coming close to equaling Justice Antonin Scalia as the Supreme Court’s top writer.

As an aside, Justice Kagan (then Professor Kagan) was my Administrative Law professor at Harvard Law School and the wit that you see in her opinions was on full display in class. (She did, by the way, mention one day in class that Justice Scalia was her favorite Justice; I don’t think she meant that from an ideological perspective).

Koontz arose in the context of what is called the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, as applied to Takings law. If you don’t know what a Taking is, you can read this short article distinguishing eminent domain and inverse condemnation (takings).

First, some quick background. In 1987, the Supreme Court held in the case of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission that governments cannot attach conditions to permit requirements unless the condition bears a “nexus” to the impact of the proposed project. In 1994, the Supreme Court in Dolan v. City of Tigard further held that such conditions must also bear a rough proportionality to the harm from the proposed project.

The names of the plaintiffs in these cases conveniently rhyme, so people in the takings arena refer to this doctrine as the Nollan and Dolan requirements.

Here is what happened: Coy Koontz, an entrepreneur in the Orlando, Florida area, sought to develop some property that he held. Sounds reasonable enough. The property was zoned commercial and he sought a permit for its development.

Florida, however, had enacted comprehensive environmental restrictions that required a state agency to review any such applications to determine whether the proposed project will reduce wetlands. So, in this case, Mr. Koontz couldn’t develop his land unless the St. Johns River Management District blessed the project.

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real estate agent antitrustI’ve often written about real estate on this blog. There are two reasons for this.

The first and most important reason is because my wife and I invest in real estate and thus talk about real estate, so it is on my mind. In fact, I have my California real-estate license. Bona Law PC also offers real-estate litigation services.

The second reason is that real-estate, in addition to its many advantages, creates many unique competition issues. Real-estate agents often engage in cut-throat competition with each other, sometimes even within the same brokerage firm. Yet, the nature of their job requires them to work together for almost every transaction.

In addition, the markets to sell real-estate are primarily local, even though national brokerage firms may dominate each individual geographic area. Within each locality, there are often a handful of large brokerage firms.

Finally, the market for real-estate services and commissions suggests some supra-competitive pricing in that most firms in a certain area will charge approximately the same commission. And the splits between the buying and selling agents are often equal as well. In the Minneapolis, Minnesota area for example, at least as of a few years ago, selling agents would often receive 3.3% and buying agents 2.7% of the purchase price. In my current market, a small village in North San Diego County, the buying and selling agents typically split the 5% commission.

Suspiciously, while technology and other competition has reduced relative prices for many professionals, commission percentages have held relatively steady for real-estate agents, despite the fact that buyers and sellers (especially buyers) can do much of their own homework online. How many of you have purchased a house without spending a lot of time online yourself looking at listings?

So does that mean that real-estate brokerage firms and agents are violating the antitrust laws all over the country? Should we coordinate a dramatic—made for the movies—event whereby federal agents knock down the doors of real-estate firms all over the country one morning, handcuffing and booking the agents that would do anything to get you in their car to show you some houses?

Probably not yet.

In November of this year, the Sixth Circuit decided a case called Hyland v. Homeservices of America, Inc. that nicely illustrates the line between antitrust violation and what is often called conscious parallelism or oligopolistic price coordination.

In Hyland, a class of people who sold residential real estate in Kentucky and used certain real-estate agents sued several real-estate brokerages as a class action under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants participated in a horizontal conspiracy to fix the commissions charged in Kentucky real-estate transactions at an anticompetitive rate.

Like agents in many localities, defendants each charged a typical or standard commission rate of 6%, and mostly resist any attempts to negotiate a lower rate. The buying agent’s commission is typically 3%. These numbers may look familiar to you if you bought or sold real estate recently, as real-estate services for most residential real-estate markets are similarly priced.

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MonopolyYou may have noticed Peter Thiel’s provocatively titled article “Competition is for Losers” in the Review section of last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. Since we extol the virtues of competition here at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, perhaps you are bracing yourself for me to rip into his article?

No way! It is a great article. And his discussion is not only a good antitrust primer—without the jargon—but is also absolutely accurate. Thom Lambert at the excellent blog, Truth on the Market, seems to agree.

Of course, you have to read beyond the headline, which is, like most headlines, meant to grab your attention. Peter Thiel in his book “Zero to One,” makes a lot of great points, from both the macro and micro level. I’ll focus on the micro level here.

Thiel contrasts perfect competition with monopoly. In the typical perfect-competition scenario, many firms will sell the exact same product, like a commodity. The market, at least theoretically, will achieve equilibrium, and there is no market power. The market sets the price. The profits for the sellers are minimal—zero if you are talking about economic profit (which assumes a modest rate of return).

In a typical monopoly market, by contrast, the seller is the primary or only firm that offers the product and can determine its own price and quantity produced (of course, even a monopolist can often reach the edge of its own relevant market by setting a price too high). A monopolist usually has a high-profit margin and very healthy profits.

Of course, perfect competition and monopoly are endpoints on a continuum, with lots of room between.

There is a lot to say about the article, but I am going to limit myself to the micro level—the perspective of the individual business not the overall economy.

Thiel develops the unremarkable proposition that it is much better to go into business as a fancy monopolist than a perfect-competition soldier. Thiel says “If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.” That’s right.

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We are proud to announce that we filed an amicus curiae brief with the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of the Minnesota Vacation Rental Association last week in Dean et al. v. City of Winona, a case concerning municipal power and the right to rent out one’s residential property.

Four property owners represented by the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter challenged a City of Winona, Minnesota ordinance that caps the number of rental licenses per residential block to thirty percent (“the thirty-percent rule”). In other words, if you live in one of Winona’s low-density residential districts, your right to rent your home is subject to your neighbors’ exercise of theirs.

Here’s the background:

The City of Winona, Minnesota was unhappy with parking, density, and aesthetic issues in the residential areas near the Winona State University campus. Rather than enforce existing laws against problem residents (students), the City of Winona decided to expropriate its residents’ property rights by restricting the number of homes that could be rented out to 30% of the houses on a given block.

Thus, if six houses comprise your block, owners of only two houses on the block could obtain a license to rent to tenants.

Four homeowners challenged the thirty-percent rule after facing ruinous financial consequences as a result of the rule. One homeowner, who was deployed to Iraq, almost lost his home because the city wouldn’t let him rent it, thus depriving him of rental income to cover the mortgage payment.

Another couple bought a home in Winona for their daughter to live in while she was in college and as an investment that would provide rental income. After their daughter left, the home sat empty on the market because they couldn’t rent it and interested buyers backed out when told of the rental restriction.

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Real EstateI had the honor to speak on “Antitrust and Real Estate” to the Legal Affairs Forum of the California Association of Realtors at their meeting in downtown San Diego shortly before posting this article.

Putting aside the substance of the talk for a moment, I enjoyed the experience immensely because (1) the Realtors’ association was both welcoming and accommodating; (2) the audience was engaged, and asked questions such that we could delve into a little bit of advanced antitrust; and (3) my wife and I invest in real-estate, so the topic of real-estate investing is an interest of mine. Thank you to the California Association of Realtors for the invitation.

As we discussed at the conference, antitrust is especially relevant to real-estate professionals because (1) competitor brokers both compete and cooperate on a daily basis; (2) prices, and commission splits, are often announced and well-known; (3) there is a history of tension and battles between a traditional business model and new business models (this can create antitrust litigation in any market); (4) associations and cooperative Multiple-Listing Services (MLS) play large roles in the industry; (5) US antitrust enforcers, like the Department of Justice, have seriously scrutinized the real-estate industry.

If you are a real-estate investor, you might enjoy our new blog “Titles and Deeds.”

Here are five antitrust issues that real-estate professionals should understand:  Continue reading →

For SaleWhen you think about a government antitrust investigation, you probably picture monopoly accusations against large companies like Microsoft in the 90’s and early 2000’s or AT&T in the 70’s and 80’s. Or perhaps you imagine a global price-fixing cartel like that depicted in the movie The Informant.

In any event, the target in your mind is a big company, along with their officers and executives, and perhaps some sales people.

The Department of Justice actions against individual real-estate investors in Northern California should shatter those preconceptions. Over the last few weeks, the Antitrust Division of the DOJ has announced a series of plea agreements arising out of its antitrust investigations into bid rigging at real-estate-foreclosure auctions for certain Northern California counties.

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