What Are Subagents in Real Estate? A Buyers Guide

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You found a promising home for sale online. You contact the broker and receive a reply from an agent who provides a showing appointment date and time. But when you arrive, there’s someone else showing you the house. This person may be a subagent.

But what are subagents in real estate? Are they working for you or the seller, and how might a subagent impact your purchase?

In this post, we explain the role of a subagent in real estate, and how there is more than one definition within the industry. Who they work for can make a big difference in your home-buying journey.

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What is a traditional subagent in real estate?

If we look through the lens of past housing market models, a subagent is someone who works with a listing agent to help sell a property but does not have a direct contractual relationship with the seller. A subagent can show you the house, but they typically don’t work for you as the buyer; they owe fiduciary duties to the listing broker and the seller.

This allegiance is important to be aware of if you’re working with a traditional subagent. Historically, all agents involved in a real estate transaction represented the interests of the seller, including the subagents.

In today’s real estate playing field, it’s unlikely you will work with a subagent in this sense. If you’re looking to buy a home, you’ll most likely hire a buyer’s agent who works directly for you, not the seller. The primary duty of a buyer’s agent is to find a home that fits your parameters and guide you through all the steps to closing the deal.

Today, the specific duties and loyalties of subagents can vary based on local real estate practices and state laws. Subagency relationships have been made illegal in some states. Later in this post, we’ll look at a more modern definition of a subagent.

What does a traditional subagent do?

The primary role of a traditional subagent is to assist in finding a buyer for the property. They earn a portion of the commission, but they are not the listing agent. Here are some key responsibilities:

  • Help market the property: Subagents help increase exposure by sharing the listing with potential buyers who might not be reached by the listing agent alone.
  • Facilitate showings: They arrange visits for interested buyers, providing access and information about the property.
  • Assist in the selling process: Subagents can help with tasks like presenting offers to the seller and helping during the closing process.

What are these subagents not allowed to do?

Traditional subagents operate under strict guidelines, primarily to protect the interests of the seller, which can limit their interactions with buyers. Here are some key restrictions:

  • Cannot represent the buyer: Subagents are not allowed to provide advice or negotiate on behalf of the buyer since their loyalty lies with the seller.
  • Limited confidentiality: They must avoid sharing confidential information from the buyer that could negatively impact the seller.
  • No disclosure of seller motivations: Subagents cannot disclose reasons why the seller is disposing of the property unless authorized by the seller.

These limitations underscore the importance for buyers to have their own representation in the transaction to protect their interests fully. However, traditional and modern subagents are still bound by the same standards and ethics as all real estate professionals. This means they must:

  • Be transparent: Subagents are required to disclose their fiduciary duties to you in writing. There should be no question about who they represent.
  • Obey established laws: As with all real estate agents, subagents must follow the law as established by the state’s real estate commission and other regulatory agencies.
  • Abide by local Realtor rules: Subagents are also expected to follow rules set by the local board of Realtors. If the subagent is a member of the Nation Association of Realtors, this includes a strict code of ethics.
  • Maintain confidentiality: Maintaining confidentiality is important for any professional service. It builds trust and avoids conflict with the law. 

Example of a traditional subagent in real estate

Molly and Randy are interested in a home listed by a real estate company. They attend an open house hosted by another agent from a different firm, who is cooperating with the listing agent. This agent, who shows you the property, is a subagent.

While the subagent can provide general information about the home, such as square footage and amenities, they cannot advise Molly and Randy on offer strategies or disclose specific details, such as the seller’s urgency to sell.

Subagent vs. buyer’s agent

Understanding the difference between a traditional subagent and a buyer’s agent is important when navigating the real estate market. Here are the key distinctions:

  • Loyalty: A subagent’s loyalty is to the seller, as they are aligned with the listing agent’s obligations. In contrast, a buyer’s agent owes their fiduciary duties entirely to the buyer, advocating for their interests throughout the transaction.
  • Confidentiality: Buyer’s agents will keep your information confidential and work to secure the best deal for you. Subagents, however, protect the seller’s information and interests.
  • Advice and support: While subagents can facilitate viewings and provide information about the property, they cannot guide you on negotiations or offer insights that would benefit you over the seller. A buyer’s agent will negotiate on your behalf, aiming to secure the best terms and price.

Choosing to work with a buyer’s agent ensures you have a professional in your corner, fully committed to your real estate success. HomeLight can connect you with the highest-rated, most experienced buyer’s agent in your selected market.

Are traditional subagents common in real estate sales?

Subagents, as described above, used to be more prevalent in real estate before buyer representation became widely recognized. A big reason for this decline is the risk of legal liability that subagents can introduce into a transaction. If a subagent makes a mistake or violates a disclosure law or other legal obligation, the listing broker and seller can be held responsible, which can cause complications for everyone involved.

Today, their prevalence varies significantly by region and local real estate practices. In some states, these seller-loyal subagents are still commonly involved in transactions, especially where traditional methods prevail. In other states, subagents are banned by law.

As buyer awareness has increased and more home shoppers choose to have exclusive buyer’s agents, the role of traditional subagents has diminished in many markets.

What’s the more modern definition of a subagent?

To see past the outdated role and definition of a subagent, we spoke to Larry Mastropieri, a top agent and broker/owner in Boca Raton, Florida, with more than 20 years of experience.

“How we think about the definition of subagent is, it’s a person that is hired by myself (the broker) to help me support our clients — both buyers and sellers,” Mastropieri says. “In most cases, these are licensed agents who might be newer in the business or older in the business, but they work to help us open doors.”

Mastropieri explains that this definition represents the modern role of a subagent. “They’re boots on the ground helping clients get access and facilitate the necessary things that are needed on the ground in a real estate transaction. These agents show up for inspections or handle other fieldwork that I don’t have the  bandwidth to do.”

What does a modern subagent do?

“We use a real estate agent for a subagent in our day-to-day business,” Mastropieri says. “They are part of the whole experience at the client’s home when we’re listing a property.”

He provides this list of example duties that a modern subagent might handle:

  • Help prepare the house for photos and showings
  • Meet with photographers and ensure photos are handled properly
  • Attach lock boxes and confirm the keys are correct
  • Add sign riders (smaller signs that attach to for-sale signs)
  • Meeting a service vendor at the property
  • Attending open houses and showings

“On the buy side, when a buyer calls us and wants to work with me directly and doesn’t want to work with one of the other agents, I tell them, ‘Okay, no problem, but I will not likely be showing you all the properties. I might be showing you some, but my subagent will be facilitating and opening the door for some of the showings, be at the inspection, meet vendors…anything that’s required at the property to make sure the deal gets done.’” Mastropieri says.

Mastropieri differentiates his definition of subagents by using the term “primary agent” to describe the agent with direct responsibility for the buyer or seller.

“A primary agent is the one typically managing the relationship with the client,” he says. “The primary agent is responsible for closing that deal, and they’re responsible for the subagents. The subagent has less responsibility…they update and notify the primary agent responsible for moving the transaction forward.”

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New commission rules may impact subagent roles

In March 2024, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) announced a landmark lawsuit settlement that is expected to change the way agent commissions are handled. These changes will “decouple” seller and buyer agent compensation. Industry experts predict that this decoupling will reshape how agents get paid and how brokers like Mastropieri run their businesses.

“As the market changes with the new rules and regulations for real estate agents, it’ll be interesting to see how subagent roles change,” Mastropieri says. “We’ll see where this all goes. There’s a possibility that there will be more subagents in the market — but there’s also the possibility that there will be less.”

Partner with a trusted buyer’s agent or team

In today’s housing market, subagents — in the traditional sense — are much less common. Homebuyers today can hire specialized agents and even teams to represent them directly. In addition, new commission rules on the horizon will allow buyers to negotiate commission amounts directly.

If you’re using a team with modern subagents, as Mastropieri describes them, these professionals can work together to help you land the best deal and improve your entire experience.

“From a buyer or seller’s perspective, the client experience is better when a [modern] subagent is involved,” Mastropieri says. “They follow the same rules in the agreement that we’ve signed with the buyer or seller.”

He adds, “It’s going to vary between states, but our subagents are not getting into negotiating contracts. As the broker, I’m the one that’s going to be getting into the details.”

At HomeLight, we’ll be happy to connect you with a trusted top buyer’s agent or buyer team. We analyze over 27 million transactions and thousands of reviews to determine which agent is best for you based on your needs.

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