A system for rating real estate agents is being tested by the National Association of Realtors, the trade association for realty pros and, at more than a million members, the largest trade group in the country.
Under the pilot program, clients of participating agents are being asked by a third-party vendor to complete a survey about their experiences in the transaction. Brokerage firms sign on to the program, but their agents are not required to participate.
Even those who decide to take part have the authority to block the results from being posted online. At the same time, though, agents cannot pick and choose which results they want posted. It's all in, or all out.
To some, the NAR program smacks of the proverbial wolf watching the hen house. To others, it is seen as a thinly veiled attempt to get ahead of the private market, where there is no shortage of ratings websites. There's even a site that offended agents can use to remove complaints from popular consumer site RipoffReport.
But NAR officials say the rating service is just one aspect of a larger "Realtor Excellence Program" designed to help brokers identify agent shortcomings and provide whatever education is necessary to bring them up to industry standards.
"Everyone seems to be focusing on the rating service, but I'm focusing on getting good consumer feedback," says Laurie Janik, NAR's chief counsel. "The bigger picture is that this is a way to enhance professionalism and have more satisfied buyers and sellers. Using the surveys, brokers can spot problems and weaknesses early on and get the agent the help or training they need."
Under the pilot program, brokers are able to use the survey results solely as internal feedback. But agents are given the choice of whether to participate or not. And they also are given the choice of whether to allow the results to be made public on the website RatedAgent.
In and of themselves, those parameters seem to limit the rating system as a true and open measure of an agent's abilities. In addition, the surveys are being sent only to participants of closed transactions, meaning that buyers or sellers who are dissatisfied with their agents' performance and failed to close a deal for one reason or another are left out of the loop.
But Janik says that is an effort to make sure survey respondents are truly clients. "This program is set up so that it can't be gamed," she says. "It's real buyers and sellers rating the agent they worked with in a transaction that has closed. Therefore, the ratings have validity. We don't want agents' mothers and friends rating them."
While NAR's general counsel plays down the ratings aspect of the excellence program, Quality Service Certification -- the San Juan Capistrano, Calif. company that designed the survey and sends it to participants -- says "agent ratings are coming," whether agents like it or not.
Agents ratings "are an important element of the decision-making process," says Larry Romito of Quality Service Certification in a white paper. "Denial of consumer interest or an unwillingness to participate will not change what's happening or even slow it down."
Consequently, the white paper says, realty professionals can "take the ball or give it to someone else." Either way, it adds, "the game will go on."
In an interview, Romito says the purpose of the surveys is to make real estate transactions more about buyers and sellers and less about their deals. "Currently, there is no measure, no common standards for feedback," he says. "So this is a provider-centric business that is only incidently about consumers."
Unlike other ratings systems, NAR's is designed not only to shed light on bad practices but also reinforce good things, according to Romito. "When agents know their brokers are seeing real-time data, it dramatically changes human behavior. Then, it becomes not 'because I say' but 'because consumers are saying so through an independent source.'"
Romito defends the decision to survey only participants in completed transactions, saying that agents' behavior is "fairly consistent," whether the deal closes or not, because they "have no way of knowing" in advance whether a transaction will lead to a successful outcome.
To date, the nearly year-old experiment has had mixed results among the 20 or so participating state realtors' associations and multiple listing services.
The Mainstreet Organization of Realtors (MORe) was one of the first to sign on to the Realtors' Excellence Program. But only about 3,000 of MORe's 14,500 member-agents have agreed to participate in the ratings aspect, according to the group's chief executive officer, Pam Krieter.
Krieter says the hot real estate market has hindered development of the ratings system. "It's a great time to launch something like this," she says. "But it's also a tough time because the market is good and agents' main focus is there."
The MORe executive said educating agents on the program's benefits is an ongoing effort. "It's going to take time to get this in place," she says. "But as we get the word out, more companies will see that this is the way to go."
Don Faught, president of the California Association of Realtors, NAR's largest state affiliate, is also "a big proponent" of the program. But, he concedes, there "hasn't been a whole lot of acceptance" among CAR's 155,000 members, either.
"It's been a struggle for us," says Faught, who works for Alain Pinel Realtors in Pleasanton, Calif. "Some (agents) like it and some don't. But whether they like it or not, this is the way people find out about you."
Meanwhile, there are any number of sites that purport to rate and/or review realty professionals, including Zillow, Redfin, ZipRealty, Homethinking, AgentRank and Yelp, among others.