The problem with not having all of the facts is that you can end up feeling pretty stupid. And for the record, Steve is wearing an "I'm With Stupid" t-shirt as we speak. (Also, for the record, he rarely has occassion to change out of it.)
When I first heard that our Sandicor MLS was going to be adding an “advertising remarks” field to our listing input forms, I silently criticized them of being all-over-the-place-inconsistent.
First, here is the idea. Beginning this week, when agents input listings in the MLS, they will now be able to include advertising remarks — remarks like, "Hey! Look over here! I'm the listing agent, and here is my phone number and website address!" These remarks will in turn be included in the listing feed provided to third-party syndication sites (think Zillow and Trulia), should agents opt-into syndication.
Now, I get that this is a good thing in at least one respect; it means the right guy just might have a fighting chance of being picked out of a line-up on third-party sites as the one who is actually representing the property owner. This is in fact one of the many arguments against syndication — that the agent or brokerage providing the data lost in a sea of competing agent advertisements or worse. Listing agent information is absent altogether.
But the very idea that Sandicor, with this new advertising remarks field, seemed to be at least tacitly supporting syndication by enabling it smacked of hypocrisy in the wake of the recent debut of their own front-facing consumer website. That’s the website, you might recall, they described as designed to capture the consumer traffic from the Zillows and Trulias of the world while protecting agents from third-party evil-doers out only (at least for now) to grab their advertising dollars.
In other words, it sounded like they were saying, “We are helping Zillow and the likes (by making it easy and attractive for our agents to send their listings on over), but we really want them dead.” So, my knee-jerk reaction was, “Dudes. Do we have a plan?”
I think we might.
I admittedly didn’t have all the facts (and probably still don’t), which is an unfortunate side effect of being a working girl. So, what I was not aware of until this morning was this: While I was scanning my client's disclosures and meeting the photographer, Sandicor also had decided that as part of their little data feed remapping effort, they would be limiting the number of photos included in the third-party feeds — to four. Compare that to the twenty-five photos we can actually upload in the MLS, and consider that photos are king. Now, who's your daddy? Take that, syndication sites!
Seriously, I may feel differently when I have had time to sleep on it, but right now I am standing on my chair and offering a personal round of applause. This was bold and rather creative. Maybe it’s not “No more syndication. Period!” uber-bold, but I can think of about forty reasons why it was a smart middle-ground approach to take. I can start with the simple argument that not all of Sandicor's subscribing agents and brokers are on my side of the syndication argument and, while I might lack polital acumen, they must be political; I could end with the idea that our MLS would probably have a hard time defending a position of telling us where and with whom we can and can't advertise our listings.
But, I hold firm to my belief that third-party syndication is run amok. In it's present form, it benefits neither the consumer nor the agents and brokers. It benefits the third-party site holders and, in one case, their shareholders. And I do not believe, as some have suggested, that we are too far down this road to reverse course. Apparently, neither does Sandicor.
I will indeed sleep on it. In the meantime, I'll give credit where credit is due. For now, this feels like a good move.
Note: If you are a non-real estate type, you may find this post only mildly interesting; it’s an important topic nonetheless. If you are a real estate type, chances are you have probably already written on the subject. It turns out at least four of my buddies – Jay Thompson, Rob Hahn, Drew Meyers and Jeffrey Douglas — are on the other side of this issue. Et tu, Brutes?)
As reported by Inman News (“Premium” content – sorry), Abbott Realty Group (ARG) recently announced that they will no longer syndicate listings to third-party aggregators. Subsequently, a big ol’ agent food fight ensued. OK, it’s more of a heated debate. But there are definitely two camps in the syndication discussion, and it’s an important one for buyers and seller, as well as agents, to understand. If affects us all.
If you are one of the three people remaining who hasn’t seen Jim Abbott’s video on the subject, here it is:
ARG’s decision followed a similar announcement by Edina Realty back in November. At the core, the arguments against syndication involve two issues: Data integrity and data control.
I’ll start with the issue of data integrity, because that is the simpler of the two. Sites like Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com – let’s call them the troika – display loads of inaccurate data. There is no argument there. Because many of their listings are manually entered, many are outdated. I can point to numerous examples of homes being displayed as for sale that sold six months, or more, ago. I have seen my own listings entered by other agents as their own. There are foreclosure sites who routinely list homes by street – no address – that are not for sale but simply have had a Notice of Default filed, with the idea that buyers might contact their agents or sign up for there foreclosure listing services.
Some have argued that the likes of the troika do not have a corner on the inaccurate data market – that MLS listings are, too, fraught with errors. And while this is true, MLS errors represent agent input mistakes, oversight, or mere sloppiness. You won’t find double entries or intentional deceptions – or scams.
And then there are the rental scams which not only pose an inconvenience to our clients but present potential security risks. Where Craigslist used to own the rental scam space, we now see our listings appearing on the troika sites as rentals, and this happens nearly every time we list a home. One of our clients learned that he was our latest victim when the first of a series of would-be renters knocked on his door – this one a Highway Patrolman who caused our elderly client much undo anxiety. Another client learned of the rental posting at the conclusion of a showing and from the showing agent who, having seen the listing on Trulia, was there only to help her client secure a six-month lease.
Absent syndication, would we eliminate rental scams? Of course not. The photos and listing information can be lifted just as easily from my site or any site with an IDX feed. But eliminating the ability for the scammers to do their one-stop shopping will make things a little more difficult.
Let’s talk about the larger issue of control. It’s about our information being hijacked for fun and profit and, yes, we handed them the keys. It is about extortion. You gave us the car, and now you must pay for the ad, the enhanced positioning or profile, if you ever want to drive the conversation again. We are starting to see what this means for the agents and brokers. What does it mean for the buyers and sellers?
Let me share a story, a story that most agents have no doubt heard before. Our listings are on Realtor.com (no, we haven’t opted out), but we discontinued paying for the “special premium featured titanium agent” package on Realtor.com years ago when the bounty got a little too pricey and, philosophically, we got a little irked. So when I visited the page for one of our listings this week and filled out the contact form for more information, I wasn’t surprised by the outcome.
First we received an auto-generated response ensuring us that our inquiry had been sent to a “local area expert.” The “expert,” I’m sure, is a very fine company. It just happened to be one I had never heard of, with an office twenty miles away, and one who to my knowledge has never sold a home in this particular area. Next came another email informing us that an account had been set up for us on the referral agent’s website (“Our website has every listing in the San Diego area and it is updated daily”).
The next email was short and sweet; it gave us the name of their preferred “partner” lender who was standing by to help with all of our financing needs. It was the fourth and final email that finally hit on the subject at hand. “I have checked the status on this home and it is currently available. It is a traditional sale with no banks involved (like on a short sale or bank owned home). Did you have some particular questions about the home that I can answer for you?”
That’s it. Now with several hours and two pots of coffee separating me from my original query, I have a mortgage broker referral, I have an account on an agent’s IDX site, yet I still don’t have any answers nor have I been offered an opportunity to view the home I have expressed interest in. This is what we call a buyer left behind. The seller’s home was exposed, all right, but had I been a real buyer, the system failed him.
Further, relinquishing control of the conversation surrounding your inventory violates the most basic principle of Real Estate Career 101: The most valuable thing to a real estate agent is a stick in the ground. This is because listings breed listings, listings breed buyers, and listings build reputation. So when we “virtually” hand third party aggregators our body of work that took years and boatloads of money to cultivate, we slowly erode our own future growth potential – unless of course we pay for the opportunity to redirect the fruits of our labors back home.
Defenders of syndication say that an argument against syndication is an argument for dual agency. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much like you can opt out of syndication, you can opt out of dual agency. Take the call, answer the questions, and then send the buyer to the nearest competing brokerage to view the home and write the offer if that helps you sleep nights. At least by having had the conversation, you haven’t opted out of your role as the champion for that home you signed on to sell, because that would not be in your client’s best interests.
Both Rob Hahn and Jay Thompson pointed out that Internet Data Exchange (IDX) sites like yours, mine, and the sites of every brokerage in the country, are no different than the Troika sites. I don’t agree. The data accuracy issue becomes a relative non-issue where IDX is concerned save the MLS input errors. Even then, the MLS's have procedures in place for policing and ultimately ensuring compliance. More importantly, IDX sites lack the resale component of the troika sites. While an inquiry on my listing may in fact go the agent-owner of another IDX site – and often does – consumers are generally clear on the fact that they are on a particular broker’s or agent’s site. And while some ambiguity may still exist where an IDX site is concerned, they are not simply trying to sell the customer to the highest bidder.
On a larger scale, this is about an industry handing over the car keys. We moan about the flaws in the Zestimates and then we send Zillow the eyeballs. We gripe about how Trulia and the likes are using our data to redirect our customer contact opportunities (what some agents might call “leads”) and spawn their own IPO’s, yet we continue to click the submit button. We lament the fact that buyers are confused and that the best interests of buyers and sellers alike are not necessarily served by the pay-to-play lead generation model. We defend syndication by saying that our sellers demand it, but our clients in fact look to us to explain what works and doesn’t in marketing their home. If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself when the last time was that you promoted your extensive newspaper advertising program to a would-be seller. Just because it is “free” does not make it a beneficial marketing strategy.
Sure, some sellers may not get it, and therein is the conundrum for both the agent and the brokerage. That’s also the genesis of our fear, our inaction, and our continuing down this dangerous road.
You see, my client’s home does not really need to be on 400 national websites. That is just a myth we have propagated out of convenience and our desire to win listings. It is rhetoric we bought into, rhetoric delivered by those who are in the business of profiting from our business. My client’s home does need to be in the MLS, because it is through that platform of broker cooperation that the overwhelming majority of sales still take place. Of course, through the miracles of IDX, my client’s home will still be exposed far and wide on sites other than the MLS and my own. But those sites are owned and operated by other agents and brokers, not by those who are in business to repurpose and profit from my efforts.
When Brad Inman opened the New York Real Estate Connect conference with a clip from the movie “Network” in which the news anchor shouts, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore,” he was talking about prevailing consumer attitudes in our “cottage economy.” It will take this same kind of outrage within our industry to reverse this trend toward putting distance between our customers and us. Taken to the extreme, this road could be leading toward a destination of disintermediation. In its more basic form, it is a flawed delivery system that benefits neither the customer nor the real estate community.
And it will take more than one ARG with 25 agents or even an Edina Realty with 2100 agents. One little San Diego Castles Realty with 11 agents would most certainly go unnoticed. But, I suppose, that is how big changes start – with little ripples. I, for one, applaud ARG’s move. It was bold and, in my opinion, it was right.
As a little background, I am a proud member of the National Association of Realtors – and the California Association of Realtors and the San Diego Association of Realtors. Forget that I have to be a member if I want access to the MLS. That’s just minutia, and that is certainly not why I choose to pay my dues to each every year. Oh, no.
The point is that my membership is a testament to my agent awesomeness and my commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards. That! Oh, and the fact that I find it helpful to have access to show instructions or to be able to upload a listing when need be.
But it’s mostly about what my membership means. Because, as we all know, only ethical agents can write checks. Only ethical agents can call themselves Realtors (little “r”).
And as if I wasn’t getting my money’s worth before, things have just gotten better. Today I heeded the call to action in my inbox:
California REALTORS® have another way to differentiate themselves and show consumers they maintain a high level of knowledge of the home-buying and selling process and are bound by a strict code of ethics by using the REALTOR® Badge, a free C.A.R. member benefit recently introduced by Real Estate Business Services® Inc. (REBS®).
That’s right. I didn’t have to pay a thing for that badge; it’s free! And those folks at REBS are really something. Not only were they commissioned to create a badge – with embed code and everything – but they delivered!
Why do I need a badge, you might ask? Well, duh. You weren’t paying attention. I need to differentiate myself. I have integrity, dang it. Just look at my badge!
CAR says that “the REALTOR® Badge is an easy way to add value to your reputation and online presence.” And on the badge website (yes, they have their own website), consumers can learn the power of this little guy – as if it isn’t immediately obvious.
You want someone that you can trust. Did you know that a REALTOR® cannot mislead a seller as to the value of the property just to get the listing? REALTORS® cannot accept a rebate or commission without the client's knowledge and consent. And your REALTOR® will submit all offers and counter-offers as quickly and objectively as possible as mandated by the "Code of Ethics."
Wow. That’s powerful. Yet I must ask, can a designation portrayed as a widget really assure all that?
If you are an agent, an exalted Realtor (little “R”), I don’t know about you, but I don’t stay up nights worrying about undesignated licensees perpetrating crimes of negligence and dishonesty against the public. What does bother me is when any licensee is incompetent, negligent, or unethical. I run into them frequently, and they are always members of NAR; I know this because I see their lockbox keys.
If not for a prominently displayed digital impression, how is the consumer to know that their agent is living up to their obligations? Alas, it is often difficult, if not impossible.
These are just a few of the usual suspects:
The agent who knowingly took a listing priced obscenely over market value. The seller trusts you to honestly advise. They are looking to you for counsel. The adage about things that are too good to be true is lost on someone who is short on equity or long on hope and far too emotionally connected to be objective. Yes, this agent may ultimately spend time and money on a listing that won’t sell, but just as often we see them ride the tide of price reduction until their “buy a listing” strategy is rewarded with a paycheck.
The agent who talks smack about other agents to anyone who will listen. Other agents know you are breaching ethics when you do this, but the client will never know. Because ethical agents will never tell the customer that you are a weasel. Ethical agents know that bad mouthing other agents is not only poor form but a violation of both common decency and the Code to which they chose to actually subscribe.
The agent who makes false claims about experience, abilities and past production. Did your parents not teach you anything? Don’t say you sell more homes in a given area than anyone else when you don’t. Don’t say you have the best marketing plan in the tri-state area and then rush out the door, your first-ever listing contract in hand, to buy a camera and take a Photoshop class. And don’t have your cousin write fictional testimonial letters. These are all real examples, and they all constitute lying. Be honest, and sell your enthusiasm if that’s all you have. We all started somewhere, and your clients just might respect you for it.
The common thread is that these agents are primarily concerned with competing against other agents to get the business, when what they should really be focused on is doing the business. Once an agent is in your employ, they have a fiduciary duty to place your interests above their own. But even before that, they have a moral obligation to act with honesty and integrity.
The Realtor Code of Ethics Preamble says:
The term REALTOR® has come to connote competency, fairness, and high integrity resulting from adherence to a lofty ideal of moral conduct in business relations. No inducement of profit and no instruction from clients ever can justify departure from this ideal.
OK, that sounds a little silly given the generally reputation of our industry. But if you are going to toss around commemorative virtual plaques, shouldn’t this whole higher ground stuff be at least sort-of true? I understand that CAR is trying to further the reputation of our ranks (and, perhaps, the reputation of the associations), but just saying so won’t make it so.
Departures can “never be justified,” yet departures we see. And, sadly the customer may never have knowledge because of their own expectations that dealings are honest – because of their expectations that their own best interests are at the center of the real world discussion.
So I guess a little self-policing is in order. To all of the agents who can’t or won’t do the right thing, I hereby call on you to turn in your badges. I’m keeping mine because, every day, I at least try to earn it.
I just returned from my semi-annual pilgrimage to the Inman News Real Estate Connect conference. Defying logic and laughing in the face of all that is good and decent, the event planners decided years ago that the January installment should be held in New York City. And each year I am reminded why New York is the “City that never sleeps.” That’s because they have to keep moving lest they freeze to death.
Truthfully, this year I lucked out, as they were having a bit of a warm front. I generally enjoyed balmy 40-degree weather. And it’s a good thing, because I was pulling double duty. Not only was I there to do a little panel moderating and to keep abreast of the latest business and technology trends in real estate – all within the warm confines of the conference venue – but I was also the advance party for my daughter’s own Manhattan Project.
My oldest daughter relocated to the big city yesterday, one day after I returned, for an editorial gig at New York Magazine. Through luck of timing, I was charged with leading the reconnaissance mission to meet the new roommate and attend to a few last minute details. Let me tell you that nothing says fun like hauling an end table five blocks through Chelsea in casual business attire and four inch heels.
First let me say on a minor real estate note that, despite the warnings, you really can use Craigslist to find rentals. But you have to do your homework. Trust no one.
Her new home was in fact secured from a Craigslist ad, site unseen, and she did send money in advance. This, however, occurred after a joint forensic investigation of the neighborhood, the property and (most importantly) the landlord that left us knowing more about this poor, unsuspecting coop owner than she knows about herself.
Thanks to the power of the search box, we knew how old she was, where she was born, where her parents live, her familial status, employment history, and even the fact that she contributed $200 in 1993 to the Bush-Cheney campaign. (Admittedly, this last one might have been a deal breaker for some, but if you really need a place to live, you must be willing make some compromises.)
The point is this. Whether you are looking for a rental or a home to purchase, you have nearly unlimited resources at your fingertips which will allow you be entirely informed. From property details to neighborhood culture — and, yes, the profile of the guy who might be sitting at the other side of the negotiating table — you owe it to yourself to do your homework.
It was interesting, then, that I was introduced to a snappy little neighborhood profile site, PicketReport.com. It’s a tradition at Inman to feature a handful of start-up companies in the real estate space – as they call them, “New Kids on the Block.” I love this site. The screen shot above shows their neighborhood information for Scripps Ranch.
It’s in Beta, which means there are still some glitches. For instance, if you are familiar with Scripps Ranch, you will note that the Middle School that was relocated several years ago is still plotted in its former location, as is the elementary school that took over their lease. Oh, and then there is the lifestyle profile for my 92131 Zip code that, apparently, consists of “flourishing families.” Flourishing families are defined as “affluent, middle-aged families and couples earning prosperous incomes and living very comfortable, active lifestyles.”
I am relatively comfortable, writing this in my jeans and sneakers, and I do happen to fall into the “families and couples” category. The prosperous, active and middle-aged parts, however, are subject to some serious debate.
I sure wish I had known about this site prior to moving my daughter to Chelsea. By comparison, I now know that these are my daughter’s people:
Power Elite: The wealthiest households in the US, living in the most exclusive neighborhoods, and enjoying all that life has to offer.
And as I glance at my account balances, I suddenly know this to be true. I think PicketReport.com can safely drop the “Beta” now.
Beginning with the 2012 tax bill (the one due in April 2013), the state Franchise Tax Board will require property owners to break down their property taxes into deductible and non-deductible portions.
That means property owners who have been deducting their Mello-Roos fees — often running into thousands of dollars — will no longer be able to deduct those or any other special assessments like vector control or mosquito abatement.
I am not an attorney or tax dude. Having said that, it has sort of been conventional wisdom to date that while Mello Roos is not "strictly speaking" tax deductable, it conveniently shows up on the property tax bill so, hey! It's deductable by association. No longer.
(Did I mention that I'm not an attorney or CPA? You should consult one of those guys before you go taking tax advice from me or the Orange County Register — just to be safe.)