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LEVITT, Steven & DUBNER, Stephen


It is the quintessential blend of commerce and camaraderie: you hire a real-estate agent to sell your home. She sizes up its charms, snaps some pictures, sets the price, writes a seductive ad, shows the house aggressively, negotiates the offers, and sees the deal through to its end. Sure, it's a lot of work, but she's getting a nice cut. On the sale of a $300,000 house, a typical 6 percent agent fee yields $18,000. Eighteen thousand dollars, you say to yourself: that's a lot of money. But you also tell yourself that you never could have sold the house for $300,000 on your own. The agent knew how to -- what's that phrase she used? -- "maximize the house's value." She got you top dollar, right?


A real-estate agent is a different breed of expert than a criminologist, but she is every bit the expert. That is, she knows her field far better than the layman on whose behalf she is acting. She is better informed about the house's value, the state of the housing market, even the buyer's frame of mind. You depend on her for this information. That, in fact, is why you hired an expert.

As the world has grown more specialized, countless such experts have made themselves similarly indispensable. Doctors, lawyers, contractors, stockbrokers, auto mechanics, mortgage brokers, financial planners: they all enjoy a gigantic informational advantage. And they use that advantage to help you, the person who hired them, get exactly what you want for the best price.


It would be lovely to think so. But experts are human, and humans respond to incentives. How any given expert treats you, therefore, will depend on how that expert's incentives are set up. Sometimes his incentives may work in your favor. For instance: a study of California auto mechanics found they often passed up a small repair bill by letting failing cars pass emissions inspections -- the reason being that lenient inspections are rewarded with repeat business. But in a different case, an expert's incentives may work against you. In a medical study, it turned out that obstetricians in areas with declining birth rates are much more likely to perform cesarean-section deliveries than obstetricians in growing areas -- suggesting that, when business is tough, doctors try to ring up more expensive procedures.

It is one thing to muse about experts' abusing their position and another to prove it. The best way to do so would be to measure how an expert treats you versus how he performs the same service for himself. Unfortunately a surgeon doesn't operate on himself. Nor is his medical file a matter of public record; neither is an auto mechanic's repair log for his own car.

Real-estate sales, however, are a matter of public record. And real-estate agents often do sell their own homes. A recent set of data covering the sale of nearly 100,000 houses in suburban Chicago shows that more than 3,000 of those houses were owned by the agents themselves.

Before plunging into the data, it helps to ask a question: what is the real-estate agent's incentive when she is selling her own home? Simple: to make the best deal possible. Presumably this is also your incentive when you are selling your home. And so your incentive and the real-estate agent's incentive would seem to be nicely aligned. Her commission, after all, is based on the sale price.

But as incentives go, commissions are tricky. First of all, a 6 percent real-estate commission is typically split between the seller's agent and the buyer's. Each agent then kicks back half of her take to the agency. Which means that only 1.5 percent of the purchase price goes directly into your agent's pocket.

So on the sale of your $300,000 house, her personal take of the $18,000 commission is $4,500. Still not bad, you say. But what if the house was actually worth more than $300,000? What if, with a little more effort and patience and a few more newspaper ads, she could have sold it for $310,000? After the commission, that puts an additional $9,400 in your pocket. But the agent's additional share -- her personal 1.5 percent of the extra $10,000 -- is a mere $150. If you earn $9,400 while she earns only $150, maybe your incentives aren't aligned after all. (Especially when she's the one paying for the ads and doing all the work.) Is the agent willing to put out all that extra time, money, and energy for just $150?

There's one way to find out: measure the difference between the sales data for houses that belong to real-estate agents themselves and the houses they sold on behalf of clients. Using the data from the sales of those 100,000 Chicago homes, and controlling for any number of variables -- location, age and quality of the house, aesthetics, and so on -- it turns out that a real-estate agent keeps her own home on the market an average of ten days longer and sells it for an extra 3-plus percent, or $10,000 on a $300,000 house. When she sells her own house, an agent holds out for the best offer; when she sells yours, she pushes you to take the first decent offer that comes along. Like a stockbroker churning commissions, she wants to make deals and make them fast. Why not? Her share of a better offer -- $150 -- is too puny an incentive to encourage her to do otherwise.

The strongest evidence for this argument comes from an unlikely source: the long-loved American tradition known as the family reunion. Every summer around the Fourth of July holiday, Washington Park is thronged with families and other large groups who get together for cookouts and parties. For some of these visitors, catching up with Aunt Ida over lemonade isn’t quite stimulating enough. It turns out that the demand for prostitutes in Washington Park skyrockets every year during this period.

And the prostitutes do what any good entrepreneur would do: they raise prices by about 30 percent and work as much overtime as they can handle.

Most interestingly, this surge in demand attracts a special kind of worker—a woman who steers clear of prostitution all year long but, during this busy season, drops her other work and starts turning tricks. Most of these part-time prostitutes have children and take care of their households; they aren’t drug addicts. But like prospectors at a gold rush or Realtors during a housing boom, they see the chance to cash in and jump at it.

Out of a worldwide fleet of 900 whaling ships, 735 of them were American, hunting in all four oceans. Between 1835 and 1872, these ships reaped nearly 300,000 whales, an average of more than 7,700 a year. In a good year, the total take from oil and baleen (the whale’s bonelike “teeth”) exceeded $10 million, today’s equivalent of roughly $200 million. Whaling was dangerous and difficult work, but it was the fifth-largest industry in the United States, employing 70,000 people.

And then what appeared to be an inexhaustible resource was—quite suddenly and, in retrospect, quite obviously—heading toward exhaustion. Too many ships were hunting for too few whales. A ship that once took a year at sea to fill its hold with whale oil now needed four years. Oil prices spiked accordingly, rocking the economy back home. Today, such an industry might be considered “too big to fail,” but the whaling industry was failing indeed, with grim repercussions for all America.

That’s when a retired railway man named Edwin L. Drake, using a steam engine to power a drill through seventy feet of shale and bedrock, struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The future bubbled to the surface. Why risk life and limb chasing underwater leviathans around the world, having to catch and carve them up, when so much energy was just waiting, in the nation’s basement, to be pumped upstairs?

Oil was not only a cheap and simple fix but, like the whale, extraordinarily versatile. It could be used as lamp oil, a lubricant, and as a fuel for automobiles and home heating; it could be made into plastic and even nylon stockings. The new oil industry also provided lots of jobs for unemployed whalers and, as a bonus, functioned as the original Endangered Species Act, saving the whale from near-certain extinction.