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Judge Approves $418 Million Settlement That Will Change Real Estate Commissions

BusinessJudge Approves $418 Million Settlement That Will Change Real Estate Commissions

A settlement that will rewrite the way many real estate agents are paid in the United States has received preliminary approval from a federal judge.

On Tuesday morning, Judge Stephen R. Bough, a United States district judge, signed off on an agreement between the National Association of Realtors and home sellers who sued the real estate trade group over its longstanding rules on commissions to agents that they say forced them to pay excessive fees.

The agreement is still subject to a hearing for final court approval, which is expected to be held on Nov. 22. But that hearing is largely a formality, and Judge Bough’s action in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri now paves the way for N.A.R. to begin implementing the sweeping rule changes required by the deal. The changes will likely go into full effect among brokerages across the country by Sept. 16.

N.A.R., in a statement from spokesman Mantill Williams, welcomed the settlement’s preliminary approval.

“It has always been N.A.R.’s goal to resolve this litigation in a way that preserves consumer choice and protects our members to the greatest extent possible,” he said in an email. “There are strong grounds for the court to approve this settlement because it is in the best interests of all parties and class members.”

N.A.R. reached the agreement in March to settle the lawsuit, and a series of similar claims, by making the changes and paying $418 million in damages. Months earlier, in October, a jury had reached a verdict that would have required the organization to pay at least $1.8 billion in damages, agreeing with homeowners who argued that N.A.R.’s rules on agent commissions forced them to pay excessive fees when they sold their property.

The group, which is based in Chicago and has 1.5 million members, has wielded immense influence over the real estate industry for more than a century. But home sellers in Missouri, whose lawsuit against N.A.R. and several brokerages was followed by multiple copycat claims, successfully argued that the group’s rule that a seller’s agent must make an offer of commission to a buyer’s agent led to inflated fees, and that another rule requiring agents to list homes on databases controlled by N.A.R. affiliates stifled competition.

By mandating that commission be split between agents for the seller and buyer, N.A.R., and brokerages who required their agents to be members of N.A.R., violated antitrust laws, according to the lawsuits. Such rules led to an industrywide standard commission that hovers near 6 percent, the lawsuits said. Now, agents will be essentially blocked from making those commission offers, a shift that will, some industry analysts say, lower commissions across the board and eventually force down home prices as a result.

Real estate agents are bracing for pain.

“We are concerned for buyers and potentially how we will get paid for working with buyers moving forward,” said Karen Pagel Guerndt, a Realtor in Duluth, Minn. “There’s a lot of ambiguity.”

The preliminary approval of the settlement comes as the Justice Department reopens its own investigation into the trade group. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a lower-court ruling from 2023 that had quashed the Justice Department’s request for information from N.A.R. about broker commissions and how real estate listings are marketed. They now have the green light to scrutinize those fees and other N.A.R. rules that have long confounded consumers.

“This is the first step in bringing about the long awaited change,” said Michael Ketchmark, the lawyer who represented the home sellers in the main lawsuit. “Later this summer, N.A.R. will begin changing the way that homes are bought and sold in our country and this will eventually lead to billions of dollars and savings for homeowners.”

Under the settlement, homeowners who sold homes in the last seven years could be eligible for a small piece of a consolidated class-action payout. Depending on how many homeowners file claims by the deadline of May 9, 2025, that could mean tens of millions of Americans.

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