Agents of Chaos
TWENTY-SEVEN. That’s how many homeowners filed complaints to the Washington State Department of Licensing about Pierce County brokers Michael and Tara Hellickson over the last two years. And these weren’t the misplaced ravings of underwater borrowers beat down by the recession. They were eyebrow-raising accusations from distressed-property owners who had reason to believe they’d been scammed: The Hellicksons allegedly promised to buy homes in 30 to 90 days if they failed to sell them, but then reneged; listed short-sale homes for less than homeowners had agreed to; and even counseled clients to stop making mortgage payments. And on September 2, after almost 18 months of digging into the allegations, the DOL suspended the Hellicksons’ real estate license. A judge was expected to decide whether or not to revoke the brokerage’s license in mid-October.
But according to local brokers who’ve dealt directly with the suspended agents, the Hellicksons’ business practices have been alienating their peers for years. One in particular, who requested anonymity, represented a buyer in an early-2000s transaction in which Michael represented the sellers. Typically a listing agent collects a 6 percent commission and splits it evenly with the buyer’s broker, but in this case Hellickson charged 7 percent and gave only a third of it to the other agent. The lopsided share was by no means illegal, but it soured this agent on ever working with him again. “My philosophy is that real estate agents are your customers and clients, as much as buyers and sellers are,” the agent says. “Agents who treat each other well have much smoother transactions for their clients.”
And that agent’s experience wasn’t an isolated one. The Northwest Multiple Listing Service has fined Hellickson and his brokerage tens of thousands of dollars over the last several years for a host of non-consumer-related infractions, including failing to obtain the proper documents for a price change on a house he’d listed and leaving behind business cards to advertise his services at homes already listed by other agents. Representatives for the NWMLS won’t say how many times it has cited Hellickson or for how much, but all agents have access to its monthly disciplinary reports, and those who’ve read them say he’s received between $50,000 and $70,000 in fines just this year. So why didn’t the organization—as it watched him break rule after rule—nip this in the bud months, if not years, ago? NWMLS CEO Tom Hurdelbrink says it will kick out members for business practices that are “so detrimental [to other members] and so consistent,” but in this case those criteria hadn’t been met.
On the other hand, Marlow Harris had a much easier time meeting those criteria—by trying to out Hellickson. The Coldwell Banker Bain broker was threatened with expulsion from the NWMLS earlier this year for publishing a list of Hellickson’s infractions on her blog, 360digest.com, because, as she was told, “those fines were internal and could be misunderstood by nonmembers.” She removed the list but struck back with the title of her latest post on the topic, dated September 15:
“Told you so.”