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Can Free Entry be Inefficient? Fixed Commissions and Social Waste in the Real Estate Industry

  • Chang-Tai Hsieh
  • Enrico Moretti

Real estate agents in the US typically charge a 6 percent commission, regardless of the price of the house sold. As a consequence, the commission fee from selling a house will differ dramatically across cities depending on the average price of housing, although the effort necessary to match buyers and sellers may not be that different. We use a simple economic model and cross-city data to measure the effect of the fixed commission rate on market entry by real-estate agents. We show that if the commission rate does not vary and if there are low barriers to entry to the real-estate brokerage business, the entry of real-estate agents into cities with high housing prices is socially inefficient. Consistent with our model, we find that when the average price of land in a city increases, (1) the fraction of real-estate brokers in a city increases; (2) the productivity of an average real-estate agent (houses sold per hour worked) falls; and (3) the real wage of a typical real-estate agent remains unchanged. We can not completely rule out the alternative explanation that these results reflect unmeasured differences in the quality of broker services. However, we present evidence that as the average price of housing in a city increases, there is only a small increase in the amount of time a buyer spends searching for a house, and the average time a house for sale stays on the market falls.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 9208.

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Date of creation: Sep 2002
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Publication status: published as Hsieh, Chang-Tai and Enrico Moretti. "Can Free Entry Be Inefficient? Fixed Commissions And Social Waste In The Real Estate Industry," Journal of Political Economy, 2003, v111(5,Oct), 1076-1122.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9208
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  1. H. Peyton Young & Mary A. Burke, 2001. "Competition and Custom in Economic Contracts: A Case Study of Illinois Agriculture," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(3), pages 559-573, June.
  2. N. Gregory Mankiw & Michael D. Whinston, 1986. "Free Entry and Social Inefficiency," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 17(1), pages 48-58, Spring.
  3. Steven Berry & Joel Waldfogel, 1996. "Free Entry and Social Inefficiency in Radio Broadcasting," NBER Working Papers 5528, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Spence, Michael, 1976. "Product Differentiation and Welfare," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 66(2), pages 407-14, May.
  5. David Genesove & Christopher Mayer, 2001. "Loss Aversion and Seller Behavior: Evidence from the Housing Market," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(4), pages 1233-1260.
  6. Jeremy C. Stein, 1995. "Prices and Trading Volume in the Housing Market: A Model with Down-Payment Effects," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 110(2), pages 379-406.
  7. Sirmans, C. F. & Turnbull, Geoffrey K., 1997. "Brokerage Pricing under Competition," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 41(1), pages 102-117, January.
  8. Geoffrey K. Turnbull, 1996. "Real Estate Brokers, Nonprice Competition and the Housing Market," Real Estate Economics, American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association, vol. 24(3), pages 293-316.
  9. Michael A. Arnold, 1992. "The Principal-Agent Relationship in Real Estate Brokerage Services," Real Estate Economics, American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association, vol. 20(1), pages 89-106.
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