Technically, when a Realtor is engaged in a relationship with a buyer to help them find a house to buy, they are only representing them if they’ve signed an “Exclusive Right to Represent Buyer” agreement. If one of these agreements is not signed by both parties, then technically, the Realtor is a sub agent of the seller.
For many years, buyer agency did not exist. All agents were sub agents of the seller. In the 1990′s the laws were changed, and buyer agency was born.
Now many agents are lax getting the agreement signed, self included, but even when I don’t get one signed, I have never acted as a “sub agent” of the seller and have represented many buyers tirelessly, negotiating for their every need, want and desire. I make it clear up front in our initial meeting what my role is and explain that unless I happen to get a listing that is perfect for them, I am representing them alone in any transaction. I also cover the scenario in which I happen to get their dream house as a listing, and the possibility of dual agency in that situation (yes I will do dual agency, and no it is not evil, and can be done quite well as long as you are completely upfront with all parties about the reduced role and make sure all parties are on board with it).
However, I am not sure if all agents do this, buyer agency agreement or not. I recently heard story from a colleague of mine about a veteran, respected agent encouraging a buyer to sign a builder’s contract with zero negotiations. She explained that it was necessary to get the house to give the builder the exact price he was asking for, not negotiating any options or contingencies. And this was not a multiple offer, competitive bid situation. That does not sound like buyer agency to me, it sounds like a sub-agent of the builder (and this was not the builder’s listing agent).
So, bottom line is: when meeting with a prospective Realtor, if they do not explain Buyer Agency to you, and make it clear that they are working for you, just ask and make sure. Since I was not a Realtor before the dawn of Buyer Agency, you will know that I am never a sub-agent of the seller. I am not saying that you have to work with an exclusive buyer’s agent either. Experienced, educated, ethical Realtors can put on different hats, and representing both buyers and sellers helps one to understand the different perspectives and gives an advantage in negotiations. If an agent asks you to sign an Exclusive Right to Represent Buyer agreement, go ahead and sign it. It’s only going to help ensure you get the best representation possible.