If you're in the market to buy or sell a home, odds are you'll work with a real estate agent to help you through the process. Most make money through commissions based on a percentage of a home's selling price.
How much money agents make each year depends on a number of factors, including the number of transactions they complete, the commission paid to the brokerage, and the agent's split with the sponsoring broker. Here, we take a look at how real estate agents are paid.
- Most real estate agents make money through commissions.
- A single commission is often split multiple ways among the listing agent and broker, and the buyer's agent and broker.
- The commission split agents receive depends on the agreement they have with their sponsoring broker.
How Real Estate Commissions Work
Most real estate agents make money through commissions—payments made directly to real estate brokers for services rendered in the sale or purchase of a real property. A commission is usually a percentage of the property's selling price, although it can be a flat fee. To understand how real estate agents are paid, it helps to know about the relationship between an agent and a broker.
Agents are licensed salespersons who work under the umbrella of a designated broker. Agents cannot work independently and they are prohibited from being paid a commission directly by consumers. Brokers, on the other hand, are able to work independently and/or hire real estate agents (salespersons). All real estate commissions must be paid directly to a broker, then the broker splits the commission with any other agents involved in the transaction.
The broker's compensation is specified in the listing agreement, a contract between a seller and the listing broker detailing the conditions of the listing. The rate of the broker's commission is negotiable in every case—in fact, it is a violation of federal antitrust laws for members of the profession to attempt, however subtly, to impose uniform commission rates.
Commissions are taken out of the sale proceeds and it's usually the seller who pays the commission, unless the buyer and seller negotiate a split. Most sellers factor the commission into the asking price, so it can be argued that the buyer pays at least some of the commission in either case (due to the higher asking price).
Both agents and brokers are licensed by the state in which they work.
How Real Estate Agents Get Paid
How Commissions Are Shared
Real estate commissions are often shared among many people. In a typical real estate transaction, the commission might be split four ways, among them:
- Listing agent—the agent who took the listing from a seller
- Listing broker—the broker for whom the listing agent works
- Buyer's agent—the agent who represents the buyer
- Buyer's agent's broker—the broker for whom the buyer's agent works
Example of Commissions
To illustrate, let's assume an agent takes a listing on a $200,000 house at a 6% commission rate. The house sells for the asking price and the listing broker and the buyer's agent's broker each get half of the commission, or $6,000 each ($200,000 sales price x 0.06 commission ÷ 2). The brokers then split the commissions with the agents.
A common commission split gives 60% to the agent and 40% to the broker, but the split could be 50/50, 60/40, 70/30, or whatever ratio the agent and broker have agreed upon. It is common for more experienced and top-producing agents to receive a larger percentage of the commission.
In a 60/40 split, each agent in our example would receive $3,600 ($6,000 X 0.6) and each broker would keep $2,400 ($6,000 X 0.4). The final commission breakdown would be:
- Listing agent—$3,600
- Listing broker—$2,400
- Buyer's agent—$3,600
- Buyer's agent's broker—$2,400
Sometimes commissions are split among fewer parties. If a broker lists a property and then finds a buyer, for instance, he or she would keep the full 6% (or other agreed-upon rate) commission. Or, if a listing agent also sells the property (acting as both listing agent and buyer's agent), he or she would split the commission only with his or her sponsoring broker. If the commission were $12,000 as in the previous example, the broker would keep $4,800 and the agent would receive $7,200, assuming the same 60/40 split.
Of course, as in other professions, earnings are often eroded by taxes and business expenses. Federal, state and self-employment taxes, along with the costs of doing business (insurance, dues, and fees, MLS fees, advertising, etc.), can end up taking sizable chunks out of otherwise substantial commissions.
The median annual earnings for real estate agents in May 2019, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In general, commissions are paid only when a transaction settles. There are instances, however, when a seller is technically liable for the broker's commission even if the transaction is not closed. If the broker has an offer from a ready, willing and able buyer, the broker may still be entitled to a commission if the seller:
- Has changed his/her mind and refuses to sell
- Has a spouse who has refused to sign the deed (if that spouse had signed the listing agreement)
- Has a title that contains uncorrected defects
- Commits fraud in regard to the transaction
- Cannot deliver possession to the buyer within a reasonable time
- Insists on terms that were not in the listing agreement
- Has mutually agreed with the buyer to cancel their transaction
Listing agreements vary among jurisdictions and each is individually negotiated so sellers need to make sure to understand the terms. A contract may include contingencies requiring sellers to pay a commission even if the home doesn’t sell.
Other Pay Models
In some cases, real estate agents are employed by their broker and paid a salary. Redfin.com, for example, is an online property search site that employs a staff of full-service real estate agents who are paid a salary plus bonus dependent upon customer satisfaction ratings collected by the company. It is far more common, however, for agents to be paid a percentage of the commission.
The Bottom Line
Most real estate agents make money through commissions paid directly to brokers when transactions are settled. A single commission is often split multiple ways among the listing agent and broker and the buyer's agent and broker. The commission split a particular agent receives depends on the agreement the agent has with his or her sponsoring broker.