From what i know....
There's no fixed rule for the agent's commission or what some may call as "service fee"... but i do understand your confusions as it have been a concern for many prospective tenents or buyers.
Hope these will help to clear your doubts :
1/ "But my fren discovered from the other agents that for rent above $2.5k, tenants do not have to pay anything as the 1 month fee paid by the landlord will be shares between the landlord and tenants' agents. "
in the market, all agents practice on different comm rates depending on individual agencies which means... some bigger agencies have provided a guideline for their agents to follow, so some will cut off at 2k, 2.5k or even 3k.... but pls note that these are only recommended guidelines and not a rule.
2/ "When my fren approached this agent, the new rule effected in Aug allows him to ask for a service fee and that co-broking fee has nothing to do with the tenant."
there is no "new or old rule" ever exist stating that the agents are allowed or disallowed to collect commission from tenant, nor whatsoever rules on "co-broking fees".... I believe the agent is just trying to explain to your friend that he is not violating any rules/law to collect the comm from tenant, perhaps in a "not-so-pleasing-to-ears" tone.
3/ "During the viewing, my fren suddenly ask the landlord's agent (who happened to be there) if the fee will be co-broked. The agent said yes. Thats where my fren felt ripped off and decided to walk out."
This is very often an issue where misunderstandings may arised even among the agents... Firstly, if your friend asked the landlord's agent "Is this a co-broked unit/deal?", i m sure the agent will answer "yes" but it may not equate to sharing his commission with tenant's agent... The term "co-broked unit" is usually interpreted as the marketing agent for this particular unit welcome other agents to deal with him/her. But the commissions from many of such co-broked units may not be shared. It is between the 2 agents to come to their terms of 50/50, 75/25 or even 100/0 before the deal...
The rate of the commission or service fee will be determined by :
1/ The factors of the unit/property.
For eg: If the agent knows the unit is not in a desirable condition, location or other negative factors, he/she will rather use portion of the commission from the landlord as a marketing tool. This is to tap into other agents' wider network to close the deal asap... on the contrary, for popular listings in the market, the commission will not be necessary to be used as a "bait" by the agents. Some "hotcakes" may be expecting a commission of up to 3 months.
2/ The owner of the unit/property.
For eg: Some landlords are cutting off part of the recommended 1-mth comm to the marketing agent, therefore the agent will not be possibly sharing his/her comm with the co-broking agent representing the tenant... yet for some direct landlords or developers, they are attracting co-broking agents with up to 3-months comm, especially during those very down property market days.
3/ The type of unit/property.
For eg: Lease of properties include residential, commercial and industrial. Even for Residential, it may varies from hdb, condo, apartment, landed, conservation houses, etc.
4/ The guidelines provided by independent real estate agencies.
Some agents will choose to follow the recommended guidelines given by the agencies. these are usually practice on units that are in average condition, no particular plus or minus factors. but still, it is not fixed, the cut off range from 2k to 3k.
From my point of view, i will advise your friend to leave all these above confusing factors to the property professionals
I hope that your friend can enjoy the process of unit-hunting instead of getting upset by all the miscommunications...
Perhaps by looking from another perspective, if this particular unit is "speaking" to your friend ( be it fate, an auspicious unit number, near to their family members, or a pretty sexy neighbour ), then dont get distracted by the word "rightful commission", take it as paying alittle more for an extra perks
Many such instances, becos of all the $$$ clarifications or negotiations, we may not pay attention to check on the unit condition itself... Oh, sometimes we do not even dare to take up units that are "too-good-to-be-true"
And i believe the agent representing your friend do at least deserve some credits for closing the deal on behalf.
To avoid future upsets, your friend are most welcomed to check with all the agents on the necessary commissions on those shortlisted units before wasting time n energy to arrange for viewing
Still, issue your BATNA whenever necessary