Across the country, the National Association of Realtors and the 6 percent commission that most of its members charge to sell a house are under assault by government officials, consumer advocates, lawyers and ambitious entrepreneurs. But the most effective challenge so far emanates from a spare bedroom in the modest home here of Christie Miller.
Ms. Miller, 38, a former social worker who favors fuzzy slippers, and her cousin, Mary Clare Murphy, 51, operate what real estate professionals believe to be the largest for-sale-by-owner Web site in the country.
They have turned Madison, a city of 208,000 known for its liberal politics, into one of the most active for-sale-by-owner markets in the country. And their success suggests that, in challenging the Realtor association's dominance of home sales, they may have hit on a winning formula that has eluded many other upstarts. Their site, FsboMadison.com (pronounced FIZZ-boh) holds a nearly 20 percent share of the Dane County market for residential real estate listings.
The site, which charges just $150 to list a home and throws in a teal blue yard sign, draws more Internet traffic than the traditional multiple listing service controlled by real estate agents.
Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin and a city where the percentage of residents who graduated from college is twice the national level. It is also a hotbed of antibusiness sentiment, which turns out to be the perfect place for a free-market real estate revolution. Bucking the system is a civic pastime here.
Elsewhere, the Justice Department, free-market scholars, plaintiffs' lawyers and countless entrepreneurs are vowing to make real estate more competitive and to bring down sales commissions. To do that, they advocate forcing the Realtors' association to share control of its established listing services. Those critics seem to view the listings as an unassailable monopoly.
And who can blame them? Those 800-plus local listing services, controlled by local branches of the Realtors' association, help dole out about $60 billion a year in commissions to real estate agents and the firms that employ them. Despite numerous attacks, the association has been remarkably successful to date at protecting its turf. Through lobbying, litigation and legislation, the Realtors' group has managed to keep control of the crucial listings.
Ms. Miller and Ms. Murphy, however, built a separate and alternative listing service - a parallel market, much like the Nasdaq, which rose in recent decades to challenge the New York Stock Exchange's dominance and sparked competition that eventually reduced transaction costs for all stock investors.
The price competition is startling. FsboMadison listed about 2,000 homes in 2005 and said that about 72 percent of its listings sell. If those 1,440 houses averaged $200,000 per sale, the real estate commissions under the 6 percent system would have been about $17.3 million. Ms. Miller and Ms. Murphy collected about $300,000.
William A. Black, a lawyer for the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, says he does not think consumers who bypass real estate agents are missing much. "The majority of residential transactions are very simple: 99 percent can be done without a broker. And the 1 percent screwed up - the broker couldn't have prevented it."
Alternative listing services would need to reach a combined 50 percent to 60 percent of a market to topple a multiple listing service, Steve Murray, an industry consultant, guessed.
That is what David B. Zwiefelhofer, Webmaster for FsboMadison, would like to see, and he constantly encourages Ms. Miller and Ms. Murphy to expand. "I think this is the one place in the country where FSBO could overtake" the multiple listing service, he said.
His clients, not surprisingly for a social worker and a nurse, are embarrassed by their success, Mr. Zwiefelhofer said. "It bugs me to no end," he said. "The Web site still looks like it was designed by some high school student five years ago."
This is the future. The 6% that realtors have been raking in is what economists call "economic rent." And it's a bad thing. Economic rent is basically when consumers are paying more than they should be because of a lack of competition.
Real estate agents simply collect more than they should, and somehow the market hasn't yet adjusted. But it will.