Realtor Jeffrey Samuels stands in front of a home he is selling for a client in Aiea. Samuels' pricing policies anger real estate agents who charge commissions. Photo by: Richard Walker

$3,500 Listing Fee Agent

Jeffery Samuels' approach to home sales is popular with clients, but not with peers
Owner-seller process daunting; Tips for going it alone

Jeffrey Samuels is Oahu's highest-selling real estate broker. But it's lonely at the top.

"Everybody hates me," Samuels says of his fellow real estate agents.

That's because Samuels charges a flat fee of $3,500 for his real estate services, which has allowed him to pump up the business volume at the expense of other agents who still adhere to the industry-standard 6 percent commission.

"I'd go to these Realtor gatherings in the past and people would say hi and be nice. But now the mood is ... like a glacier," he says.

But Samuels doesn't mind the cold shoulder because it means business is heating up. Since launching Jeffrey Samuels Real Estate Services in late 2002, Samuels has found a ready market among cost-conscious home-sellers unwilling to pay the usual commission, which runs to $30,000 for the sale of a $500,000 home.

In the first quarter of this year, Samuels handled $28 million worth of home resale transactions, according to Multiple Listing Service data, the second-highest of any agent on Oahu. Representing mostly sellers, he has about 60 properties listed each month and 15-20 transactions in escrow.

But Samuels, is the only full-service broker offering a true flat fee that is not tied to a home's sale price, and his success may be sign of things to come.

"We're still going to see people who want all the normal services that standard brokers provide," says Calvin Kimura, executive officer of the Hawaii Real Estate Commission, which oversees the industry.

"But today, more than ever before, people are willing to go through a cafeteria line of services and may even want to do some things themselves. It's a new generation."

Samuels sees himself as less a cafeteria than a Wal-Mart, calling his business philosophy the "Sam Walton approach": low prices, good service and high volume.

"It's all about volume. That's how I can do this," he says.

Samuels spent 14 years as a sales trainer with Circuit City in Washington, D.C., before moving to Hawaii in 1995. He worked for Coldwell Banker for five years before opening his own commission-based business.

"One day I was sitting in my office and started thinking, 'what am I doing?' I can never compete with Coldwell Banker," says Samuels, who noticed a Real Estate ad and decided to charge a flat fee, choosing $3,500 "because it seemed like a nice number."

Unlike the cut-rate chains, Samuels has one fee that gets clients the full range of services, including entering a property in the MLS database for other agents to see; advertising in local media; and handling all contract, escrow and other paperwork.

"A lot of people ask me 'what's the catch?' But there's no catch," he says. "I offer full service, the same things other Realtors do, despite what they say."

What "they" say is that while Samuels charges a low rate, you get what you pay for.

"Certainly, brokers are upset about him taking their commissions, but they also question his ability to serve the client," says Robin McCann, an agent with Coldwell Banker, who says a real estate sale is a "tricky process" fraught with potential legal and financial risks that requires an attentive agent.

Some of Samuels' previous and current clients say they have been very pleased with the service that has been provided them, even with the flat fee.

Weingart's Mariner's Ridge home is now in escrow after he sold it in April for $760,000 -- in three days and at $10,000 over the asking price. He says Samuels was there during the entire process, and  happy with the sale and the money he saved on commissions.

"The way the market is now, with homes selling so fast, I just could not see paying a full commission that would have been close to $50,000," Weingart says. "That doesn't seem relevant anymore."

Sellers have traditionally paid 3 percent of the sale price each to their agent and to the buyer's agent. However, many people don't realize that the commission is not set in law and is negotiable.

Mary Begier, president of the Honolulu Board of Realtors, says Realtors will often lower their fee to get a client's business or to offset an unexpected expense to the client.

"Realtors will give up things to make a deal happen. No two instances are the same," she says.

However, Weingart says he was initially approached by other brokers who wanted to handle his sale but it was "like pulling teeth" to bring the commission down even a little.

"I would have used regular agents if they were more willing to negotiate. Maybe the competition (from cut-rate brokers) will be good in that sense," he says.

Samuels flashes an impish grin about the stir he's caused, saying that real estate is a "dog eat dog" business.

But he says competitors are spreading "false rumors" about his service capabilities and notes that he won't put a listing in the MLS database unless his client is willing to pay a 2.5 percent courtesy commission to any Realtor who brings in a buyer. About half of the properties he sells go to buyers represented by an outside broker, he says. But in the other half of his transactions, when Samuels represents both the buyer and the seller, he makes no money beyond the $3,500 flat fee.

He's building on his operations to make sure he can handle his growing volume.

He recently moved into a new Kapiolani Boulevard office that is three times the size of his previous location and he's adding another person to his full-time staff of four. Earlier this month, he launched his own in-house mortgage company called Hawaii Lending Service.

He also has about a dozen real estate agents that work for him as independent contractors and more are on the way, he says, which could make him even less popular with his peers.

"The only people who really like me are the title and escrow companies because I bring them business," he says.