John J. Long says he works in a business plagued by duplicity and crawling with secret agents.
It's not the CIA -- it's real estate.
The secret agents, he says, are the real estate agents who chauffeur home buyers around in their cars, win their confidence and then allow sellers to have their way with them at the bargaining table.
While they may build a rapport and spend more time with the buyer, agents in all but a few sales are bound by law to represent the seller.
But Long and partner Sandra Blaker, are gearing up the Columbia-based Homebuyer Advocacy Group, a company that will represent prospective home buyers exclusively. The two say their customers are likely to save thousands of dollars in commission fees and inflated home prices.
The idea should work well in the current buyer's market, he said. January single-family home sales in Howard County were down 42 percent from January 1990, said the county Association of Realtors.
It will be the second such business Long has aimed at home buyers.
His existing real estate business, Creative Real Estate Consultants,is set up to serve both buyers and sellers. Long said the buyer brokerage part of it has flourished in the difficult market, while his home listings for sellers have dwindled from 45 percent of his businessin 1989 to 22 percent in 1990.
"So far in 1991, everything I've had has been on the buying side," he said.
The problem, he said, isthat too often, prospective home buyers looking for deals hook up with real estate agents who can't negotiate the best price for them because they technically and legally work for the seller.
"If you're in a buyer's market, you need a buyer's broker," said Long.
But traditional real estate agents bristle at the insinuation that their relationship with the seller translates into raw deals for their customers.
"I don't think that buyers are treated unfairly or unethically, no matter which way they go," said Diana M. Miller, sales manager at Long and Foster Realtors' Ellicott City office.
The difference,however, is that a buyer's broker has a contract to represent the buyer's interests in the home selection, negotiation and sale process.
From the buyer's perspective, the differences may be invisible, but they are significant nonetheless, Long says.
When Ken Clark cameto Columbia from El Paso, Texas, he had no idea whether the split-level single-family home he was looking at last May was worth its $142,000 list price. Back in El Paso, such homes sold for between $80,000 and $90,000.
After consulting Long, who represented him as a buyer's broker, Clark offered $127,000, which the seller accepted. Long and Foster paid half of its 7 percent commission to Long, who gave Clark credit of more than $1,000 toward the purchase price.
"He was able to give me what I felt was objective feedback" about the price andthe condition of each home he looked at, said Clark.
A buyer's broker does much of the same work that a traditional real estate brokerdoes. He or she determines what the buyer is willing and able to pay, goes through listings to find homes that fit the buyer's needs, shows homes to the buyer, presents offers to the seller or seller's agent, and helps put together the sale contract.
But the buyer's broker also may advise the buyer in ways not available to a traditional broker, such as by commenting about whether a home is overpriced, or volunteering evidence of defects in a house.
Blaker, who owns Homeowner Consultants Inc. in Columbia, a discount home seller's brokerage,is new to representing buyers.
"I've done some of it, but I've been interested in it for 10 years," she said. Blaker noted that a 1989state disclosure law requiring brokers to tell buyers whom agents represent has sparked more interest in the idea.
But with the current scarcity of buyer's brokers, it's difficult to find them in a sea of mega-Realtors such as Long and Foster, Shannon and Luchs, and O'Connor, Piper and Flynn.
Such companies may shy away from representing prospective home buyers because such representation would disqualify the client from buying any homes that company has listed for sale.State law prohibits a real estate agent from representing both the buyer and seller, a situation called "double agency."
One prospective buyer recently approached Long and Foster about acting as his broker but decided against the idea, Miller said, because he would not have been able to buy any homes listed with Long and Foster.
Buyer brokerage is easier for independent brokers with small listings and consequently less chance of running into a conflict of interest, Long said.
The Homebuyer's Advocacy Group provides buyers with a place to find their own real estate brokers, he said, and a way to clear theconsciences of real estate agents who prefer representing buyers' interests.
The practice, which is fairly common in commercial real estate and in residential real estate in California and Hawaii, is nearly unknown in Maryland, said Barry M. Miller, president of Buyer's Resource Inc., a Denver-based franchiser of exclusively buyer-broker real estate companies.
Of about 7,500 trained buyers' brokers nationwide, only about a dozen in Maryland are listed by the Buyer's Resource referral service, he said.