I asked a real estate agent to find me an apartment to rent. He gave me two addresses and we started working on the first one, but the deal fell through. I then looked into the second apartment and found it to my liking. I then contacted a second real estate agent and he began negotiating on my behalf. The first agent got wind of what was transpiring and he called me to tell me that I had to work with him since he started. I feel that I started now with the second agent and it seems he can do the job for me. Can I end my relationship with the first agent and in any case what do I owe each of the agents?
Before beginning we should mention that this issue could have been avoided if the agent had done what all agents should do: sign a clear contract with anyone who requests his services and spell out his terms, which invariably state that if the customer eventually rents one of the properties the agent tells him about, he must be paid in full no matter how it came about.
This a good question since there are a few basic principles which determine the answer.
The first point is that when one asks an agent to find him a property to rent he is hiring the agent to perform a job for him. Translated into halachic terms this means that we are in a situation of sechirus poalim and the general laws of sechirus poalim will determine the answer. Since people generally understand that the job of an agent entails finding a suitable property and expediting the rental in whatever manner is needed, then this is what you hired the agent to perform on your behalf.
In general when one hires someone, from a halachic perspective there are two stages. The first stage is the time before the worker actually started working. In this stage, if an employer discontinues his employee’s services he will be involved with two issues. The first is that the employer who does this is considered to be a mechusar amono – an unreliable person. This is because he led the worker to believe that he had a job and in the end took it away.
It is important to be aware that being a mechusar amono is a serious issue. According to some poskim (Nemukei Yosef Bava Metsiyo 29A and others) such a person is even called a rosho and he can be publicly embarrassed for it. The Maharam Mintz (101) actually did so. The Mishna (Shvi’is 10, 9) states that this behavior is frowned upon by the Rabbis. We should note that some opinions maintain that if circumstances changed, sometimes one may change his mind but a competent halachic authority should be consulted before doing so. Based on this issue alone, even though it is improper, you can terminate your relationship with the employee and he would have no legal claim on you. Nonetheless, you would be well-advised to reach some sort of accommodation with him so as not to be considered a mechusar amono.
The second issue that can be involved at this stage is that sometimes one who hires a worker caused the employee to lose other opportunities. For example, if one hires a babysitter and then backs out, he can do so but he will still have to pay the babysitter if she turned away others because she thought she would be working for the one who hired her.
However, both of these issues would not have applied in your case. Mechusar amono would not apply since when one asks someone to find him a property it does not imply that he will not ask another person to do the same. The issue of causing a loss also does not apply for the same reason, and also because agents don’t turn down customers since they can always take more work.
However, in your case, the agent actually began working on your behalf when he gave you the two addresses. Therefore your relationship entered the second stage of sechirus poalim.
Once an employee begins working his employer cannot terminate him (Choshen Mishpot 333, 1) unless there is a very good reason. For example, if the agent is unable to make progress after a significant amount of time one may hire a new agent. (For shidduchim some communities had fixed periods of time which were allotted to a shadchan.) However, if there is no reason to terminate the first agent, you are bound to continue with him.
It is true that there are three distinct parts to the job of an agent: beginning the contact (in this case telling you about the prospect), conducting the negotiations, and completing the transaction, in this case finalizing the rental of the property. Nonetheless, one may not terminate the employment of an agent upon completion of one of these parts. The reason is that when one hires an agent and does not specify that he is only hired for one part, the default assumption is that he is hired for all the parts.
Since you were not allowed to terminate the employment of your first agent, you will have to pay him the entire fee even if another agent finished off the transaction. The only reduction you are entitled to is the amount that an agent would normally reduce his price if he didn’t need to do any work.
We should note that when you take a second agent you will also have to pay him as per your agreement with him, or at least for whatever he accomplished on your behalf. For example, if he negotiated on your behalf and saw the deal through until you signed a contract, you will be obligated to pay him two thirds of the entire fee.
The custom in Israel is to pay an agent a fee of one month’s rent. If you use a second agent for two stages you will have to pay the second agent two thirds of a month’s rent and you will also have to pay the first agent an entire month’s rent. Therefore, it is not advisable to switch agents in the middle without the first agent’s agreement.
In conclusion: The agent who gave you the address is entitled to complete the job and if you use another agent you will have to pay two agents for one job.