Tag Archives: Realtors

Forced MLS membership no more? The time for ‘choice’ is now

This article was originally published on Inman News:

  • Under “MLS of Choice,” brokers and agents would only pay for the MLSs they choose to access and use. But the question is not “if they choose an MLS;” it’s “which MLS(s) they choose.”
  • MLSs engage in a value-driven service model that encourages customer focus and competition.

MLS of Choice

The committee with the longest name in real estate — NAR’s MLS Technology and Emerging Issues Advisory Board — has posted its solution for creating what some are calling “MLS of Choice.”

This solution will be put up for a vote of NAR’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies (MLIP) Committee in November. The MLIP Committee makes MLS policy recommendations to NAR’s Executive Committee, which then chooses whether to pass them up to the NAR board of directors for final approval.

Proposed policy change synopsis: Brokers and agents need to participate, subscribe and pay dues to at least one MLS. But brokers and agents can’t be charged fees by MLSs that they don’t wish to access and use.

Changes to NAR MLS Policies 7.42 and 7.43 would allow a broker to participate in multiple MLSs, while the broker’s agents only pay dues to the MLS(s) that they wish to access.

This is accomplished by requiring MLSs to give fee waivers to agents who are already paying subscriber dues to a different MLS (where the broker also participates). The MLS can require the waiver requesting that the broker and/or agent sign a certification of non-use.

In effect, principal brokers choose which of their offices will operate and pay dues in each respective MLS service area. Brokers participate in the MLSs their agents want to access. Agents subscribe to one or more MLSs that best fits their needs.

Intended consequences:

  • MLSs engage in a value-driven service model that encourages customer focus and competition, much like the environment brokers work within.
  • Brokers are no longer prevented by artificial geographic boundaries or financial obstacles from joining additional MLS service areas and bringing on agents who work in those markets.
  • Agents are no longer prevented by artificial geographic boundaries or financial obstacles from joining brokerages with the best support model for their businesses.

Questions you may have

“Won’t some of my MLS’s agent subscribers stop paying for services? Will my headcount go down?”

Subscriber count could go either direction, but there likely won’t be much of a shift. Remember that this change allows brokers to join more MLSs without prohibitive costs. So some MLSs will likely see subscriber and participant counts go up. The vast majority of agents that want/use their local MLS’s services will continue to pay. This isn’t “if MLS,” but “which MLS(s).”

“What if agents try to cheat the system?”

What would be new about that? This was a bigger problem in the past with agents sharing listing books. Today, we have the luxury of software that can verify who’s logging in and using MLS services. Cheaters will always exist. We have to prioritize improving business conditions for great brokers and agents, and not let a minority of bad actors overshadow their needs.

“What if a broker from another area joins my MLS, and her agent wants to sell a property in my area? He doesn’t know my town well enough to be qualified.”

There are always unfit agents. Some are unfit to sell their own backyard.

The MLS doesn’t exist to keep agents and brokers “over there” from selling “over here.” It exists to foster greater cooperation. It is the job of brokers and agents to prove their superior knowledge and value to clients. As we’ve seen in countless consolidations, the fear of “agents coming over the hill” or “across the water” is overblown. It just doesn’t play out in any significant numbers.

“What if that broker joins my MLS, but her agent doesn’t subscribe? Does my cooperation/compensation still go to that agent if he writes a contract on my listing?”

Yes: Cooperation and compensation will continue to flow to the broker participant and, subsequently, to all of the participant’s agents. That won’t change. More brokers joining more MLSs will create an even broader broker cooperation network.

Certainty makes for healthier marketplaces. Sellers will know that even more brokers and agents will be confident in bringing buyers and not be held back by boundaries.

Agents will have certainty that compensation agreements are in place across MLSs. They’ll be confident to occasionally sell a home in another MLS (where their broker is a participant) that just happens to perfectly fit their clients’ needs best. This brings buyers and sellers together in situations that might not occur in a less cooperative environment.

Greater market exposure and certainty are created via the MLS. It’s a win for consumers and the industry.

A request to brokers and agents: Engage with your company’s leadership, your local association and your MLS’s board of directors. Let them know how this new flexibility of choice will improve your ability to do business and grow.

MLS leaders and directors: Let us know your concerns now. We’ve spent much of the past year discussing this issue with your colleagues, brokers and agents. We’ve surveyed membership for feedback. CMLS published a white paper summarizing the issue. It would be a shame to have this policy come to a vote in November without your questions being answered long before then.

MLS policy committee members, and NAR directors: Find out from the MLS’s primary customers — brokers — how they feel about this new potential policy. Ask us questions about the specific policy changes now, so we’re all on the same page in Chicago.

If you’ll be at the CMLS (Council of Multiple Listing Services) conference this week in Austin: Read the MLS 2020 Agenda prior to your arrival. Some of the industry’s smartest leaders are refining the direction that MLSs must take to be relevant and valuable in an industry experiencing dramatic change. Updating the MLS business model was a frequently mentioned concern.

Take it from one of MLS modernization’s master planners, David Charron:

“The moment of truth for MLS leadership must be in understanding that much of what has gotten us here will not carry us further. Much of what we created 10 to 20 years ago is worthless. Dead. So, standing down, or worse, building walls of protectionism, in the face of such enormous change does not properly depict who we are or what we aim to be.

“Successfully innovating on our base and our business model is a tricky maneuver. We have worked so hard to get here! But our primary mission is helping brokers succeed! It’s on us to band together; be that small group that enacts the change that advances our industry.”

NAR’s November vote on MLS Policy Statements 7.42 and 7.43 will be another moment that provides clarity as to whether we’re ready to embrace this kind of change. Let’s move forward.

See you in Austin.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group, VP of Strategic Growth for Coldwell Banker Danforth, President of Seattle King County Realtors, and 2018 Vice Chair of the National Association of Realtors’ MLS Policy Committee. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com

The future of NAR: Action will be the measure, not words

This post was originally published on Inman News:

Key Takeaways:

  • Fat cats don’t have time to write key takeaways.

I just spent a few days in Chicago with the National Association of Realtors. During my travel, I thoroughly enjoyed Brad Inman’s description of our “fat cat (leadership) gathering.”

As I dined on velvety cream cheese airline crackers aboard the luxury Orange Line into town, I thought about how thrilling it was. I was in the company of the “thousands of NAR ghosts who love the suite life, sometimes travel first class and are experts at finding the best restaurants on their member-paid boondoggles.”

Sitting through a 90-minute working lunch on better engaging our members and supporting our volunteer leaders, I surveyed my conference chicken and steamed broccoli feast. I reflected on the free drink ticket in my jacket pocket for the evening’s festivities. I had to admit that this really was the Ritz.

Speaking of Ritz, even the snack crackers seem to be material evidence when NAR’s new CEO, Bob Goldberg, is discussed these days. Inman said Goldberg’s suite was “larger than an average apartment in New York City and was stacked with more treats than a 7-Eleven. It looked out over the Chicago River with Lake Michigan views that might give rise to grand visions, delusions or both.”


Bob Goldberg’s fat cat candy suite

I imagine that Goldberg’s suite was bejeweled in Reese’s Pieces and Diet Cokes that glittered in the lake’s reflection. If anything signaled delusions of grandeur, the snack bar was it.

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This event might not have compared to the big-ticket galas or the six-figure checks that certain portals lavish on MLSs, but the shiny cardboard cylinders filled with savory oval potato crisps were some kind of wonderful.

Disruption: What’s in a word?

Goldberg has been talking about “disrupters” frequently, and there’s been an attempt by some to paint it as a show of fear or a victim mentality. I’m not sure if these folks actually listened to his interview with Andrew Flachner or his address to the Leadership Summit.

Goldberg’s message was to embrace the disrupters, the innovators, the change agents — and bring them into a bigger tent.

I don’t know Goldberg well enough to tell you exactly how his tenure will go as NAR’s CEO. Action will be the measure, not words. But as of right now, he’s saying all the things that membership is asking for.

There’s another notion making the rounds that we should stop saying “disruptor” because “innovator” is a better philosophical choice. Although I appreciate the intent, it’s a bit like me telling my kids that crying never fixed anything, so we’re just not going to have it in our home any more.

Great leaders don’t create SWOT analyses and refuse to fill in some of the boxes. Sometimes disruption is elegant innovation that should be embraced and partnered with. Sometimes it’s just cheapness at scale or brute force taking market share.

Sometimes disruption is an unending airport serpentine of passengers waiting for a single dog to smell their bags because somebody at TSA said, “today, let’s do it differently.”

This the other part of the disruption conversation: disrupting the status quo of your people. Goldberg has tasked the NAR staff and leadership to get out in the field and serve members, to know members and to measure members’ satisfaction with the trade organization.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, watch Goldberg’s speech. Listen to the promises, and hold him to them. Hold us to them. We want nothing less.

Focusing on people

Two consecutive Ubers canceled my 6 a.m. trip back to the airport because they couldn’t find one of the biggest hotels in Chicago. I swallowed my fat cat ego and hailed an old-fashioned cab.

It gave me a minute to conjure up the kind of big shot figurehead quote that I read every morning in my Wealth Magazine at the spa: “If your people don’t understand where they’re supposed to be going, all of the technology in the world won’t get them there.”

Excuse me while I light up a Cuban and sign some royalty checks.

All kidding aside with Inman, his final conclusion is spot on and actually much like Goldberg’s philosophy.

“With no shortage of good intentions, big ideas and devoted volunteers and staff, my advice is to stop asking your members to ‘support NAR.’ The slogan should be flipped: How is NAR supporting the everyday Realtor?”

We’re starting off on the right foot. Those who’ve already written Goldberg’s chapter may be in for a bit of disruption themselves.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group, VP of Strategic Growth for Coldwell Banker Danforth, President of Seattle King County Realtors, and 2018 Vice Chair of the National Association of Realtors’ MLS Policy Committee. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com

Defensible Business Strategy for Uncertain Times

This article was originally published in RE Magazine:

Defensible strategy for real estateThe speed with which our world is changing seems to be quickening. Whether technological, political, or economic, the forces that surround the way we live our lives and run our businesses are shifting swiftly.

This environment can be exciting and frightening when trying to run a stable business with a predictable income stream. As real estate professionals, we know there is no such thing as a “normal” year or a “steady” revenue model. But building in some insurance can reduce uncertainty.

What can we focus on to secure the core of our businesses when new tools and models seem to attack our value proposition from all sides?

The answer is often clouded by the frenetic activity in industry media. Bots with artificial intelligence are answering buyer inquiries. Tech startups are buying properties sight unseen with automated valuations. Investment capital is funding companies who list properties with new and unheard of commission models.

They all miss the REALTOR’s most defensible and foundational asset: personal relationships.

The answer is obvious with a bit of reflection. There is no technology that will steal away your neighbor whom you helped replace her mailbox. There’s no texting service that will have a draw stronger than your monthly happy hour connections. A personal call and conversation with a friend-of-a-friend about his son’s recent graduation will always trump an automated purchase offer from the new “I buy ugly houses” guy.

There’s a reason we have coaches, classes, and conferences to remind us of these things. If every REALTOR heard it one time and focused on growing a sphere for the rest of his/her career, we’d all be building the strongest businesses possible. We are human, though—we get distracted. That’s easier to do today than ever.

Every chance we get to remind ourselves is a good time to re-focus our efforts on building human relationships.

So here’s just another reminder if you’re feeling unsettled about the future of your business: connect.

Call, email, get toe-to-toe.  Schedule it. Without a system, it won’t work. If it’s not repeatable, it’s not a plan. If you don’t have a plan, you don’t have a business.

It’s not flashy, but there’s also very little barrier to entry. Identify your system for connecting with more real people, and put it on your calendar. Find your wheelhouse. Whether it’s networking, chit-chatting, volunteering, cold-calling, praying, or happy-houring, put the value into your sphere that they give back to you.

For the REALTOR who is concerned with what politicians, technologists, disruptors, and the economic winds of change have in store for the real estate market, this is the path to some peace of mind. You can’t control which billionaire takes a stab at your livelihood next, but you can be sure you’re building up your interpersonal defenses. That’s concrete, it’s straightforward, and it provides some certainty in an uncertain occupation.

Your defensible business advantage is your people. Support them and they’ll do the same for you.

Sam DeBord is Managing Broker for Seattle Homes Group, President of Seattle King County REALTORS, VP of Strategic Growth for Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2018 VP-Elect of Government Affairs for Washington REALTORS. His team sells houses and condos in Seattle and Bellevue.

Shortcuts: Zillow Group’s power play, actual intelligence, and NAR’s next move

This article was originally published on Inman News: 

  • Zillow Group’s agent input ban will improve accuracy and squeeze brokers.
  • Its Premier Broker program and data management tools are taking aim at teams and Upstream.
  • Redfin uses agents to create better Zestimates, and no one should be surprised.
  • “Realtor” has immense value. NAR’s CEO search should keep D.C. in mind.

Zillow Group has been using its leverage in more dramatic fashion recently. The headline this week is an upcoming moratorium on agent-posted listings.

Beginning May 1, agents’ listings will only be allowed on the company’s portals if they come via a broker or MLS feed.

This is a power play, and one that the company has every right to make in its quest for a better product. Zillow Group is willing to crack a few eggs to make this omelet.

It’s being sold as an improvement to accuracy, and that checks out. Manually input listings are notoriously error-prone. (Of course, that’s not the only benefit.)

800-pound strategy

The ban creates an immediate friction point for agents whose brokerages and MLSs don’t feed to portals. It puts a wedge between agents and clients, and ergo, agents and brokers.

When clients find out that their agent literally cannot put their listing on Zillow, and their broker can’t fix it before open house weekend, the situation is going to get white hot.

A little message for Jay Thompson, Zillow’s director of industry outreach — please take some vacation and rest up now. May is going to be the season of 1,000 wildfires.

The move will create more feeds for Zillow, and some resentment. Strategically, though, it makes sense.

The big brokers won’t squawk. Most of the country has already signed on. Only the stragglers and iconoclasts will feel the squeeze.

Some agents will continue to be indifferent, some will demand their brokers create a feed — and those whose needs go unmet will find a new brokerage.

The 800-pound gorilla is tired of asking. Independent and holdout brokers: You’re going to feel the weight of its thumb coming down soon.

Premier Broker vs. hiring a team

Meanwhile, the concierge service for the Zillow Premier Broker program is the back end of a team in a box.

Lead generation, text/email/phone conversion, distribution, tracking and management — it’s done. Just answer the phone when your concierge wants to hand off a live one, and you, the solo agent, now have team support.

The program has huge upside. It’s not perfect. Many Zillow consumers have a bad habit of contacting a new agent for every listing and rerouting themselves into spirals of increasing contacts and annoyance from lead converters and concierges.

Those leads are not happy campers when they get an agent on the phone.

The back end works well, though. It affords brokers some shortcuts to team efficiency without all of the hiring and testing of products.

I’m surprised that Zillow Group is using a third-party CRM for tracking; they’ll probably have their own soon.

This program will be popular as long the pricing keeps brokers’ ROI (return on investment) in the black.

The data management arms race

Somebody recently told me to stop writing so much about Zillow. I will when ESPN stops covering the Patriots.

Build or buy? Zillow Group has clearly been leaning toward buying for its data management platform. Paul Hagey (of Inman fame) and I took a deep dive on the developments in this year’s Swanepoel Trends Report.

Jack Miller, president and CTO of the Swanepoel T3 Group, did an outstanding job fleshing out the entire industry’s competitive data management tools.

Bridge Interactive, Retsly and dotloop, when combined with Zillow Group’s in-house tools, could satisfy a wide range of broker demands. The real estate behemoth is buying up a set of tools that cross paths in major ways with Upstream.

Whether that’s the intention, the positioning, or the marketing angle doesn’t matter. The tools being purchased by Zillow Group are designed to solve some of the problems that Upstream solves — albeit perhaps in a way that’s less logistically elegant.

The company is shortening its timeline to a user base by spending instead of creating. We will see quickly whether or not that pays off.

AI (Actual Intelligence)

Inman reporter Teke Wiggin’s piece on a study of Redfin vs. Zillow online valuations sparked some interesting debate.

Wouldn’t every valuation improve with a human-derived “condition” factor added to the algorithm? Forget artificial intelligence, this is actual intelligence in the machine.

A real person’s insights about current condition would be an invaluable addition to an otherwise computer-driven model.

Redfin took the shortcut. Agents are already scoring these homes based on today’s condition. They even have market knowledge. Redfin simply leverages their insights via list prices and adds context to current data.

The results of the study were clear. When listing prices are available, Redfin incorporates them, and its estimates become significantly more accurate than Zillow’s. But Zillow’s estimates for unlisted properties are still more accurate than Redfin’s.

It seems obvious that Zillow could win in both categories by incorporating list prices on listed homes’ Zestimates.

Zillow argues that consumers don’t want that. They want “independence” in their estimates.

No, they don’t. Consumers want the right price — remember that accuracy we were striving for earlier? It’s right in front of you.

Save our CRM

Vendors at Inman Connect New York repeated a phrase to me that I don’t hear often enough: “We integrate with your CRM.”

For all of the tools offered to agents, too many are built as standalone or loosely connected functions. CRMs with APIs, and vendors willing to use them, are taking away major pain points.

Brokers want our agents focused on their database, in their CRM. Some vendors are getting this.

Aiva, the AI-powered assistant by Deckspire; “First,” featuring predictive analytics (guys, you’re killing our searches with that name); and Cloud Attract from W + R Studios were just some of the product folks I talked to that understood this concept as a core issue.

Don’t build another CRM. Build something that works with our current CRM.

Goggling vs. feeling

News Corp. has helped realtor.com do some leapfrogging in the virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR) world. Their work with Matterport and REA Group has provided the foundation for VR and AR in apps for goggles or the good old-fashioned mobile device in your hands.

They are a nice step forward, if VR’s where you think the industry is headed. Some of the hype is overblown, but it will be a nice a supplemental tool to increase conversions of internet traffic to in-person showings.

Buyers will love VR for property introductions. But when you think about downsizing mom and dad into a condo for their “final home,” or buying that first bungalow to raise children in, goggle-and-buy rings hollow. We want to smell how that home feels.

What’s in a name?

Marc Davison took us on an entertaining creative journey about the name “Realtor.” What’s the value? It depends on your audience.

When I go to Washington, D.C., in May and walk into a Senator’s office, you can be sure they understand it.

When our state’s legislative leadership calls us for insights on a policy negotiation, it’s clear that they know who we are.

Broker-owners ask us to come talk to their agents about what we do because they understand the value.

There is a disconnect with the public. It’s clear that they don’t distinguish between a licensee and a Realtor. But that in no way diminishes their knowledge of a Realtor’s value.

This isn’t a term that grew organically out of a need to describe a category of professions, like a doctor. It’s a trade organization being so effective with its label that its name has superseded the commonplace occupational designation.

The Realtor moniker being indistinguishable from a real estate salesperson makes us victims of our own success.

There’s clearly some frustration about the lack of distinction from consumers. We can continue to work to improve and distinguish Realtor members. But this is not such a bad problem to have.

Top job

National Association of Realtors CEO, Dale Stinton, responded to a reader letter on Inman. Read that twice.

Going forward for NAR, getting the right mix of transparency, accessibility, focus and resoluteness won’t be easy.

Kudos to Dale for being a leader willing to engage membership in an introspective and stout discussion about the association’s outlook.

Choosing the next CEO will be difficult. The right candidate needs a keen understanding of technology, communications, public policy and — most importantly — organized real estate’s multifaceted bureaucracy.

Somebody who knows D.C. pretty well just stepped aside from an MLS CEO position to allow the formation of a better marketplace for members.

That kind of leadership deserves a spot on the interview short list.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and President-Elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHomes.com and BellevueHomes.com.

We Need Much More Honesty on Upstream

This post was originally published on the Notorious R.O.B.:

bogeyman2

Well, this should be fun. After Rob’s critique of my last piece about Upstream, I thought it would be appropriate to step into the Notorious octagon. Considering I’m not a trained attorney, that’s probably a mistake (yes, that’s the first of many self-deprecations to bloat my handicap on his turf). I once put a foot into law school before I realized I would likely work even more hours and earn far less than I could in real estate (cue the Raise the Barconversation), so that’s going to have to do the job.

Rob is a friend, one of the most precise analysts in the industry and a kind purveyor of a 3,000 word skewering. Though it’s outside my normal comfort zone (self-deprecation #2), I’ll try to adapt to the informal, irreverent, “quote and dissect” style employed here. Some of the best discussions in real estate happen here, and I’m honored to share with the Most Informed Readers in the industry. Enough of the lovefest—let’s get started.

I’ve made the case that a significant portion of pushback against Upstream is self-serving. Some of that comes from the MLS sector. Before the accusations of an MLS-hating broker begin, I think I’ve proven my bona fides in the past with love letters I’ve written to the MLS like this one. I’m not always right, but I have gotten guidance over the years from some of the smartest MLS leaders across the country and have great respect for the institution.

Digging in to the first grenade that Rob lobbed against my piece yesterday:

Rob: “he tries [to] position anyone who questions Upstream, criticizes it, or even questions it as some sort of a retrograde self-serving cabal of people desperate to stop progress”

Sam: “There are viable arguments against Upstream and its potential for success, but they seem to be the exception.”

How much of the industry is conscientiously against the business model, and how much is in self-preservation mode, we may not agree upon. But there’s definitely some of both. I’ve heard some really thoughtful arguments against the structural setup of Upstream, here on the Notorious blog, from some folks at HAR, and even my own NWMLS.

I’ve also heard arguments which have a primary goal of protecting the status quo. They may not be trying to stop progress, but their efforts would, nonetheless. The tone of the conversation is important. Here’s Rob, after a CMLS event that discussed Upstream at Midyear in DC:

“Then… the sessions end, people file out into the hallways, and… it’s ‘f**k them’ muttered sotto voce… I literally had one MLS exec say to me, ‘You know, I looked up the dictionary definition of “collaborate” — and we’re talking about the second definition here.’ For your edification, Merriam-Webster: (#2) to give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during a war.”

This doesn’t downgrade anyone’s argument for/against Upstream, but it adds clarity for the reader who may not wander those halls. I spoke on one of the Upstream panels at that CMLS. The reception was chilly. Being from a well-run regional MLS territory where we really like our MLS, it was eye opening to see the tension. Only my friend Carl DeMusz from NORMLS was willing to give me an alternate, yet reasoned MLS perspective afterward. There’s a history that has created a feeling of invasion in some of the MLS community. That’s partially brokers’ fault (we’ll get to that), but it also generates a defensive posture that lends itself to unnecessary skepticism in some.

“Perhaps the whole brouhaha would benefit from a little more honesty, that everyone involved kind of understands and acknowledges, but refuses to say for a variety of reasons.”

Let’s have that conversation. Rob apparently doesn’t care if he keeps his job, but I’ve always tried to avoid making enemies. Hopefully this conversation can be viewed as simply saying the things that we all hear in the hallways, but rarely make it into print.

There are self-serving interests on both sides of this conversation. Rob’s piece spells out some very real concerns that MLS interests might have, but doesn’t seem to touch the fact that we know some are merely holding back change that’s coming their way.

“There are brokers, nationwide, who will benefit from Upstream’s ability to reduce their costs of data input, normalization, delivery and storage. Instead of another set of Band-Aids, it delivers a cure for the mish-mash data delivery system the industry now employs.” – Sam

“Every single person involved with the MLS or with MLS technology supports those goals…Quite contrary to Sam’s assertion that there are these nefarious self-serving pricks who want to throw shade at Upstream because their salaries depend on stopping progress, every single person I know in the MLS industry, in the MLS technology industry, and in the Association world support the goals of Upstream.” – Rob

LOL. Can I write that here?

I’ll admit that I’m more than uneasy with the translation of my piece into calling MLS folks “nefarious pricks”. These things can take on a life of their own. So I’ll call it like it is, an inaccurate bastardization of my comments to support a point. (I was told that I needed to use many big words from leather-bound books.)

There’s a quality turn of phrase here, as “those goals” are supported by “every single person”. Based on our experience, that seems to be true only if he/she is allowed to control the process which governs those goals.

Let’s get to that honesty. I did call a portion of the industry self-serving. I meant that for the broker side as well the MLS side. Self-serving is natural. Business people should be seeking greater profitability, efficiency, etc. Brokers are self-serving in the pursuit of Upstream because it will benefit organized real estate, and themselves in particular.

Self-serving in a way that protects individual status quo and damages overall progress, on the other hand, can’t be allowed to drive the conversation. Letting grievances stall industry innovation while the organized sector of real estate continues with outdated, inefficient processes and falls behind the outside forces in real estate technology, is not acceptable. Yes, those “outside forces” include the Cthulu’s evil elder god (later).

“The first and biggest problem which I have raised ever since the first details about Upstream were made public is that Upstream wants to create its own database of property listings outside of the MLS.

I keep asking, Why?

Sam doesn’t address this. I’ve asked Alex Lange, CEO of Upstream, Cary Sylvester, the architect of Upstream and a Board member, and everyone else who would actually speak to me about this Database issue, and… well… the answers are unsatisfactory.

Except that we live in 2016, not 1970, when the whole concept of proprietary walled-garden databases is not exactly progress. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of progress.”

This is a stretch. Accessible data is the future, but proprietary systems that strictly limit access to and use of that data are employed by some of the world’s most successful companies, e.g. Apple. They may pull in outside data sources to supplement their applications, but they restrict the hell out of their proprietary pathways and their repositories.

There’s nothing in a technologically advanced world that impedes the use of data on multiple databases, with a single database as the verification point or key. Though not the same as new technologies like blockchain, there’s an ideological similarity in having an Upstream database that assures all downstream databases that they have a source of data to trust.

Sure, some MLS vendors today can call APIs to dynamically generate data from central databases, but many MLSs still use antiquated systems which require vendors to replicate and store a copy of their database for end user functionality. The MLS in its current form is not a pure database available to all who need its information. Upstream does not add a layer of complexity on top of a seamless, pure listing input and distribution system. It adds a layer of uniformity and clarity on top of a tangled web of disjointed nationwide databases.

“Words and phrases like ‘nuclear option’, ‘push the red button’, ‘don’t plan too many more of these CMLS events into the future’, and of course, ‘You have ten days’ are… shall we say… attention-grabbing? … Have the brokerages behind Upstream — particularly the Realty Alliance and LeadingRE — ever publicly stated that their beef with the MLS was done, over with, and behind them? That thanks to the conversations that the ‘You’ve got ten days’ and ‘Don’t plan too many more of these CMLS events into the future’ sparked, they’ve buried the hatchet, smoked the peace pipe, and sang kumbahya with the MLSs?
If they have, I missed it.”

We are 100% on the same page here. I think most of us were shocked by the nature of the comments at that event. They’re still burned into our memories. In hindsight, it was probably the worst way to introduce what would become a project like Upstream.

This may be the single most influential and damaging moment in the industry relations history between MLSs and the not-yet-revealed Project Upstream. There are some unbelievably intelligent and talented people running the organization. That day at CMLS probably haunts some of their dreams.

MLSs should have been brought into the conversation early, consulted often, and been party to decisions. Yes, many would have pushed back heavily. Many still will. But the acrimony of that day will live in Upstream infamy.

“So, the truth is that Upstream needs its own database to serve as the nuclear option against the MLS. Having its own database makes it possible for Upstream, and its brokers, to cut off the problematic MLS so that its listing count goes from 100% of a given market to something like 50%, thereby rendering it more-or-less useless.”

No, no, no. I haven’t spoken (or whispered) with a single broker nationwide who wants to cut off the MLS. Of course they want to add efficiency to those that need it, and many support consolidation of MLSs in “overserved” markets. So do many of the top MLS leaders. They’re on stage at Inman talking about how many consolidations we can make happen and how quickly.

“But one of the most read posts on this blog is the one where I talked about the announcement of RPR back in 2009. Yes, it was rather laden with hyperbole… it’s how I write… so sue me. What I didn’t even mention in that post, however, is that the origins of RPR was in a NAR Presidential Advisory Group that seriously discussed the creation of a single national MLS under NAR’s control and ownership. Their ultimate recommendation was somewhat short of that, but read between the lines and you can see why the MLS people might be a bit nonplussed about this ‘Gateway’ that ultimately took form as RPR:”

“RPR partnering with Upstream to the MLS looks like a backdoor strategy to create this ‘national gateway’ from the 2006 PAG which differs from the MLS not at all. A rose by any other name….”

This is my realtor.com trigger, when I lose my ability to politely defer away misdirection. It’s akin to the unending drone of arguments that attempt to shut down any progressive ideas from NAR with reticence about a decision that happened in the 1990s.

Here are some honest questions: How much relevance would a thoughtful leader give to a domain name agreement 20 years ago in his/her decision making about other initiatives today? How much weight should an industry executive put in the words of a volunteer PAG in a 10 year old brief? Would you trust your technology strategists if they kept talking about Yahoo and AOL instead of focusing on Google and Amazon?

This strand of an argument goes from volunteer committee prognostication to RPR as vendor for Upstream that becomes the national MLS. I can’t tell you that a national MLS will never happen–who would’ve thought banks nationwide would give loans to people with no jobs, credit, or assets? Crazy things happen in this world, but casting shade on Upstream because of a 2006 PAG isn’t passing the smell test.

These kinds of things can not drive our strategic vision today. It is the worst kind of grudge that allows a decade-old perceived threat to cause industry members to undercut one another in case those old feelings might still reside.

“I asked this question on stage at CMLS Las Vegas this year to a room full of MLS executives and MLS leadership:
‘If Upstream had chosen Corelogic or MRIS as its technology partner, would any of you here have a problem with Upstream?’ Not a single hand went up.”

Now, we’re getting somewhere. I’d love to point out the self-selected evidence and the expected lack of hands in a situation like the one described. But let’s take the situation as truth.

If so, then the MLS world and Upstream would be singing harmony, if only RPR wasn’t the vendor. Would MLS folks really undercut a broker initiative that would offer a streamlined industry data system and financial benefits to the brokerage community—its core customers, members, and creators—just to make sure that RPR isn’t successful? Is this actually the enigma in the room that no one will speak about?

(*Update – I neglected to mention that I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, but we’re working with the scenario that was presented.*)

MRIS was on board as a potential vendor for Upstream, for god’s sake. If, as this conversation seems to insinuate, MLS support existed before the vendor choice, but not after RPR’s selection, we are drowning in a quagmire of self-preservation.

There are MLSs with outstanding administrators, high quality products, and very happy customers. Then there are others holding down a geography. If they’re afraid of another company overtaking their business because they’re not providing a superior value to their members, they should be. That’s how brokers live. The focus on the RPR national MLS bogeyman is a distraction from the priority of running a competitive business. It just reinforces stagnation.

Next. Small vs. big brokerages is always a good way to divide and conquer.

“In every MLS in the country, the vast majority (I’m talking 70+%) of the Participant brokers are not HomeServices of America, NRT, or giant brokerage firms that belong to Realty Alliance. They are mom-n-pop shops with zero to five agents. They don’t work cross-market. They don’t have ‘overlapping market disorder’ problems. They don’t worry about flow of data into their back office systems, because they don’t have a back office system. In what conceivable way are these mom-n-pop brokerages in the same ‘broker sphere’ as the one Sam keeps insisting exists?”

At NAR’s MLS Technology and Emerging Issues Advisory Board (name dropping), we hear stories about small brokers who travel across state and county lines in rural areas. They do suffer the inefficiencies of overlapping market disorder and artificial geographic restrictions.

The follow-up conspiracy says that only big brokers will really benefit from the technological advances available from Upstream because they have more resources to build new tools and access the new functionality. Remove the word “Upstream” and replace it with anything else of value. Of course big brokers with more money will be able to leverage the tools more effectively. That’s how scale works. This has nothing to do with Upstream itself.

But let’s just include the next portion as we get to the bigger point:

“In Cthulu mythology, Hastur the Unspeakable is a mysterious evil Elder God also called ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’. Well, in the context of Upstream (and possibly in real estate industry in general), that role belongs to Zillow, ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’. [DISCLOSURE: I have a business relationship with Zillow, but obviously, they have nothing to do with this post or these opinions. I sell my time, not my opinions. In fact, I may get in trouble with them for this post….]
The uncomfortable, unspoken truth about Upstream is that it is part of an overall strategy by the largest brokerages and national franchise companies to ‘take back power’ from Zillow.”

It’s funny, because in my household, we actually refer to someone as “He who must not be named”. He’s a tailback from USC who wore #5, whose family greedily ruined the football program for years by taking improper benefits and lost his Heisman trophy…but I digress (did that suffice as a “Rob tangent”?).

Honesty:

Rob says Hastur is Zillow. I’d say, for brokers, it’s Zillow, Move, Homes.com, and anyone not involved in the actual sales transaction who profits from it. Brokers don’t want or need to shut them down. They simply want more leverage over the data they’re creating. Whether big or small, brokers’ margins have been shrinking over the years. They didn’t have the impetus or foresight to create a collective, broker-controlled platform together at the dawn of online real estate. They see its value now. In one arena they’re competitors, but in this sense, they are are aligned.

Of course we have moments like Realogy’s Alex Perriello questioning the value proposition. Brokers are only aligned in some facets of strategy, and their other responsibilities will overlap and create tension. Upstream’s eventual adoption rate won’t prove or disprove that there is a “broker sphere.” The fact that these companies came together and built a beta version of the platform has already proven it to an extent.

As a reminder, supporters include:

  • Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate
  • Berkshire Hathaway Home Services (HSF Affiliates LLC)
  • Coldwell Banker
  • ERA
  • Keller Williams
  • NRT
  • Realogy
  • Re/Max Holdings Inc.
  • Realty Executives
  • Sotheby’s International
  • Leading Real Estate Companies of the World
  • The Realty Alliance
  • HomeServices of America
  • Baird & Warner
  • Long & Foster
  • Real Estate One
  • William Raveis Real Estate
  • Northwood Realty
  • Shorewest, Realtors
  • Pacific Union
  • Private Label Realty/Tenura Holdings
  • Century 21 Real Estate
  • Crye-Leike Real Estate

Controlling data: this is where we often hear clichés about the cat already being out of the bag, or “that time has passed.” Poppycock. We are in day 1 of the internet. For anyone who believes the current power structure is set in stone, it’s time to retire. We are living in the wild west of real estate data management. Things will change more in the next five years than they have in the last 20.

Brokers want more power, relative to the organizations which use their data for profit. Call it “taking back” if you must look at the world in the past tense, but it’s merely a strategic push in one direction in a landscape where power has recently shifted to the opposite direction.

Should brokers assume that they’ll never have control, standards, or rights to all of their data in perpetuity? Shall we accept that we’ll never capture a larger portion of the value created by listing data? Is there some Great Wall of China that’s been built in the middle of the cyber world that can’t ever be budged because someone said “Zillow has already won”?

It’s ludicrous. Yes, brokers want to gain more power, leverage, and potential profitability relative to their current position. They’d be negligent business people if they didn’t. The other benefits of Upstream do not preclude it from also creating greater leverage. There is no sin in wanting both.

When brokers are given a dashboard with the ability to opt-out or turn off their syndication to portals, less than 1 percent hit the off switch. They don’t want to cut off the flow. They just want to know that they control the switch, because things will change. Owning the switch allows greater control as to how they change.

“It is entirely possible — hell, I’ll even say it’s likely that I’m wrong for the sake of discussion. Upstream and the MLSs can prove me wrong very, very easily in a few steps.
1. Tell all of your CRM, CMA, back office, Accounting vendors to start coding against Retsly. They’re your vendors; they have to do what you ask, or you’ll find another vendor who will.
2. Go to the local MLS and tell them to install Retsly and Bridge.
3. Ask Zillow to build a non-listings database for all of the data that Sam and Alex insist are far more important than listings data, and to do it for free, in exchange for access to data.
But once we get honest about what’s going on here, and get real about the unspoken, unpublicized issues behind the scenes, then I think we see that most of the ‘shade’ is actually justifiable concerns on the part of people who don’t want to see the baby out with the bathwater.”

Quickly on these steps:

1, 2, 3: Why would brokers ask their MLSs and vendors to build these tools with a publicly-traded company they don’t own, when they can do it themselves and direct it going forward?

Change is inevitable. Much like the “taking it back” conversations, there seem to be so many arguments that assume players in the industry will in the near future be what they are today. Imagine just five years ago thinking that Rupert Murdoch might own realtor.com and Zillow would be doing transaction management and translation/aggregation for MLSs.

The industry is transforming rapidly, and the entities that brokers get into bed with today might turn out to be totally different in the morning. This is why they’re building their own platform. Yes, the brokerage and NAR-owned vendors could change in time, too. But at least we know that our core, simplest missions are driven by the same fundamentals: real estate salespeople earning commissions. We can never be fully sure of our future, but we can certainly buckle in with partners who need the same foundation.

We can agree that there are “justifiable” concerns from some in the industry about Upstream. At the same time, the idea that “RPR the unspeakable”, 2006 PAGs, and uncomfortable words are driving resistance to Upstream’s progress is painfully depressing for the future of the industry.

So if competition is the main concern of MLSs who are wary of Upstream, so be it. Find your core value proposition and own it. Find the services that someone else can do better and let them. Don’t hold back industry progress because some poltergeist from a volunteer committee or a hot-headed panelist put a decade-long burr in your boots.

We know that there are many MLS industry members who want to work together with us on this initiative. It can’t happen without quality MLS organizations’ support. These folks shouldn’t be drug down by the fears from the past or their cohorts who can’t keep up.

We do need more honesty in the Upstream conversation. We need it from all sides.

This is business. Speak the names out loud, or hold your peace.

Provoking, flipping and dropping bombs (Inman Connect Speed Wrap)

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

Last week was Inman Connect in San Francisco, one of the best events of the year (and no, not only for the parties).

I’m writing to you from a campground in the Cascade mountains, so I’ll try to wrap up a lot of content quickly.

Bots taking over

Connect is always looking for the leading edge of tech. Bots are right at our fingertips.

Amazon’s Alexa was on stage at #ICSF answering Brad Inman’s questions — the way lead management software will in the near future.

A number of companies are already providing a combination ofhuman/bot lead conversion that works for agents while they sleep. Those conversations are digitally stored.

The human concierges likely won’t last long. Machine learning and that database of interaction analyzed against conversion rates will create a finely tuned sales bot in no time.

It won’t replace the agent in the transaction, but it could replace the inside sales lead conversion/appointment setter. I’d hire one. (And this week, Inman launched its own bot for readers, too.)

The software has eyes

Speaking of machine learning, RealScout has nailed it. Millions of human eyes interpreting real estate images have been transformed into a software intellect.

The machine can read images more accurately than its human counterparts. It sees the open layout and the box beams, even if the agent doesn’t identify them in the listing.

Consumers use natural language search and enjoy a curated discovery process, free of the artificial constraints of archaic code.

This is where the real estate experience improves. MLS and agent/broker inefficiencies are overcome by intelligent investment. Technology and capital come together to add value to the process.

We need more of this.

‘MLX > MLS’

That headline on W + R Studios’ website might be unnecessarily provocative, but that’s pitchman Greg Robertson’s style. Cloud MLX won the Inman Innovator Award, and it’s better than any MLS interface I’ve seen.

Like RealScout, it breaks free of traditional MLS search constraints.

With instant search suggestion feedback and past favorites/saved searches built into real-time interaction, the user’s efficiency grows with continued use. It’s a secondary or complementary MLS interface (there’s no “add/edit” listing feature). For now, it’s not a direct competitor to the big primary MLS providers.

This company is doing CMAs better than MLSs. It has better listing alerts. Now it has a superior user interface. What’s next?

The arms race

Congrats to the entrepreneurs who are being acquired in this bubbly market. Commissions Inc, a little startup out of Atlanta, sold for $250 million. That’s one-quarter of what News Corp paid for Move/realtor.com.

Leads and customer management software are still the story, no matter how many speakers try to shout it down.

Bridge Interactive Group was just acquired by Zillow. If you’re not familiar with them, have a look at their services, then look at Project Upstream’s. There’s no cold war here, just some friendly comrades building agent tools and ad platforms.

 

Bridge Interactive Group

 

Flips, bidding wars, and discounts

There are a lot of new business models getting airtime at Connect.

Haus is a bidding war platform that promises transparency. The legend is that an Uber founder got angry when he was outbid on a home, so he started a new company where everyone can see everyone else’s offer.

It’s going to be as hot as the taxi business. The potential user base is sellers in hot markets who want to give away their strategic advantage. Why would listing agents encourage their sellers to dump their informational leverage? How did this question not come up immediately to the founders?

Knock is another startup. It flips homes by giving sellers a guaranteed price. The property is listed publicly, and either Knock buys it at the pre-arranged price, or the seller gets a premium if it sells for more to another buyer. Knock takes some kind of fee, which should be front and center on its website but isn’t.

Transfer taxes limit some flip models. They can be up to 2 percent of the purchase price. In a traditional flip with two sales, that 4 percent really squeezes the profit margins.

Opendoor is taking a strategic approach by traditionally buying/reselling flip homes in states with low/no transfer taxes. They’re pretty successful so far. Homeowners are willing to forgo the money available on the open market for a guaranteed price/easy closing. It will be interesting to see if they can scale in other states.

I have an uneasy feeling about how well these sellers are informed about the value of their homes. It’s one of those uncomfortable topics like pocket listings: consumers have free choice, but the quality of advice they receive from their advisers has a great effect on those choices.

SoloPro came to talk about its limited-service model. It embodies the philosophical disconnect between many outsiders and industry insiders.

The company “unbundles” real estate services. Its marketplace lets consumers meet licensees for flat fee, discount services. Open a door for X dollars, write an offer for Y dollars, Agent Z who happens to be available today will serve your needs.

The agency relationship can’t be dismembered without losing value. Piecemeal representation is lesser representation. Continuity creates value. Inexpensive is sometimes just cheap.

Hobbled-Leigh

You’d think the cast Leigh Brown had to lug around as MC of Connect would have slowed her down, but she came out swinging. Her performance was edgy and smart, in classic Inman style.

In a departure for Connect, she pitched politics and the Realtor PAC from the stage. Some cheered, some grumbled.

This is a pretty simple one, folks. You might not like politics, but we all enjoy the extra money RPAC is putting in our pockets. Anyone who sells, owns or vends to those who do, is benefiting from those carrying the water.

Dropping bombs

I don’t mind when speakers use off-color language, but it’s painful when they don’t know how to wield it. It’s a lot like a weapon. If you’re going to take it on stage, you’d better have a really good (expletive) handle on it.

A few wannabe gunslingers put us all through some pain last week. Don’t be one of them. If you’re not sure, don’t try it.

Startup Alley

Agents don’t want more tools. They want fewer, better tools, and First promises that.

Instead of adding a new CRM, First simply monitors a user’s social networks. Using predictive analytics, its algorithm identifies moments in your sphere’s lives that may signal a move. The agent is alerted to make contact.

Just keep doing what you’re doing on social media and your vendor will do the rest. We need more of this: horsepower on the back end, simplicity for the user.

Unsolicited advice

I’m always struck by the number of entrepreneurs that appear to not have sought broad guidance before launching. There are some really smart folks who could simply sit down with some savvy brokers and agents to find out that their product is functionally obsolete in this industry.

They might save themselves the first failure or pivot.

This isn’t about discouraging innovation. Push the edge, but first ask a few people if it’s just a cliff.

It’s not just the old stodgy guard that’s saying your product/model won’t work. It’s often someone who wants you to improve the experience but can already see what you can’t.

We just might save you a lot of time and money.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and President-Elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

How long can aging agents dance on the bar?

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

  • “Raise the bar” is more bullhorn than boots.
  • Incremental change is insufficient.
  • International regulation should focus our industry on prompt action.

I’ve been trying to write this for some time, but it’s difficult to put a positive spin on it. I’ve put it back on the shelf a half dozen times, but after having a chat with Brad Inman in Seattle this week, I thought: “This is Inman. Just let it rip.”

So, here goes:

The real estate industry has a perpetual ritual. It’s titled “raise the bar.” After a decade of observing it, I wonder whether it’s a choreographed song and dance rather than a call to action.

The lyrics come from rote memory: “More education! More training! Higher barriers! It’s too easy to sell real estate!”

Self-flagellation follows: “There are too many bad agents. It’s our fault. It’s our brokers’, our licensing boards’, our associations’ fault. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

Feeling relieved to have aired our indignation, we return to the status quo until next year’s performance.

Paved with good intentions

To be fair, expressing our desire to better our industry is valuable. There are many people who have devoted their efforts to improve our practitioners.

That the progress is so slow is perplexing, though. With countless voices proclaiming to be the prophets of professionalism, there are far too few putting those words into action.

“Somebody should do something.” This is our usual unenforceable delegation. The National Association of Realtors, brokers, the state licensing board — someone else should raise the bar and shrink the pool of ill-equipped agents.

I’ve had the privilege of sitting through the conference calls and meetings with committees, task forces and licensing boards that intend to raise real estate standards. There’s a revolving door of well-intentioned people who express their viewpoints but won’t endure the process.

There’s little continuity. Little moves forward. The stalwarts become jaded and begin to give up (mea culpa). The bar remains the same. More untrained agents get licenses, write contracts and balloon the already overcrowded rolls of consumer complaints-in-waiting.

 More agents, not fewer?

A counter-narrative to the overpopulation of agents has popped up recently. It strikes me as bizarre, and it goes something like this:

There’s a problem with the aging population of agents. The boomers will retire, and we won’t have enough knowledgeable practitioners available. The public will be underserved. Unfit entities will fill the void.

The real estate market must be booming if this is our current concern. There are roughly 1.5 million agents today. There are 5 million homes sold annually.

Retiring agents will train their successors. Larger, more efficient teams will take up the slack for those that don’t. If we cut the agent population in half, we’d still have plenty of manpower to handle consumer demand.

The demographic trends are an interesting study. The aging population won’t create a shortage of competent agents, though. Let’s put that distraction to bed.

NAR membership: Crutch or benefit?

There’s also been talk of NAR’s compulsory membership being an impediment to its members. Its revenue would suffer if it supports barriers to membership that reduce headcount.

It could, however, gain a more selective group of members as its distinguished Realtor representatives, according to a thought-provoking piece by Russ Cofano. If NAR didn’t compel membership, maybe only the best and brightest would rise to the top, uniquely identified as Realtors for all consumers to see.

That’s an engaging topic for the trade association. It won’t change the landscape of the overall sales force, though. We will only improve the industry’s reputation by creating standards that ensure all salespeople, Realtor or not, have the proper training and experience to do business with the public. If that means fewer members and fewer licensees, so be it.

Winter is coming

If we needed a wake-up call, the winds of change are storming in from the North. British Columbia, Canada, is attempting to put its real estate industry into a regulatory stranglehold. Canadian real estate has been dancing on the bar as long as we have. The Crown is tired of waiting for it to get down.

Rob Hahn put together a thorough breakdown of the potential changes. The regulations potentially placed upon B.C. real estate practitioners and the powers stripped from their associations would be sweeping.

Whether those winds spread to the U.S. is still in question. That we should be prepared for the possibility is not.

The essence of the government’s argument is that the real estate industry was allowed to self-regulate. It was given time to work out issues. It failed to act.

Our regulatory environment is significantly different, but we’d be foolish to ignore the implications.

Raise the bar: Brass tacks edition

We have reasons to improve. We have the motivation to improve. So, what would it take to discourage the hobbyist agent from dabbling in real estate?

Incremental changes won’t work; 200 hours of annual education isn’t enough. We all know about those online education schools (wink, wink). Licensing fees of $1,000 aren’t enough; $5,000 Realtor dues might not even be enough. Agents can make five-figure commissions on a single transaction. Two to three sales a year is a significant second income for many.

Higher education requirements and fees are popular suggestions, but they miss the point. Only training and on-the-job experience teach an agent how to run a business and act like a professional.

Mandated mentorship

A required apprenticeship would be a beneficial barrier and a boon to the real estate sales profession. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that is usually passed over for easier so-called fixes. That’s probably because this kind of radical change would require immense, broad support.

Before licensees ever work solo with a client, they should work as an apprentice to an experienced agent for a significant length of time.

This isn’t a manager signing off on contracts. It’s a mentor required to train an apprentice in the full world of real estate. That’s more than paperwork. It’s interacting with clients and customers, marketing, business building, conflict resolution, etc.

Of course, this won’t affect the legions of hobbyists who already have licenses. When you’re in a flooding boat, though, your best bet is to plug the leak before bailing water.

Boots on the ground

Are we dancing or are we lifting? Our actions will make the answer clear. If you feel the need to talk about raising the bar, take the next step.

Engage your local Realtor association, your MLS board, your brokers and your managers. Prepare for a long haul. It’s not glamorous, but it’s necessary.

The irony doesn’t escape me — I’ve been dancing while you’ve been reading.

So I’ll shake off the cynicism and get back to work. I hope to see you there.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and President-Elect of Seattle King County REALTORS. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in real estate: Negating or monetizing an agent’s experience?

This article was originally published on The Real Daily:
by Sam DeBord

Have you ever emailed or texted someone, and subsequently opened Facebook on your phone to immediately see that person in your news feed?

You read the entire terms of service when you downloaded that app, right? So you remember agreeing to every bit of your phone’s hardware and software recording and interpreting the signals that your everyday actions are creating (just nod your head yes—it’s watching you right now).

Artificial Intelligence is seeing tremendous growth in consumer-driven industries. It is the ability for software to learn and adapt to consumer behavior via live feedback. Cars, websites, wearables, and apps are becoming more intelligent and adaptable.

We’re seeing huge advances in the affordability of AI software that match the exponential growth of hardware’s computing power.

bar
Simultaneously, human labor in developed countries is increasing in cost. Minimum wage laws, increasing liability, and rising health care costs are pushing employers to replace labor with technology. McDonald’s employees become kiosks that order Big Macs. Chase Bank tellers are replaced by apps that scan and deposit checks. Companies like Circuit City and Borders Books shutter their stores as websites more efficiently serve their customers.

How AI intersects with RE

Intelligent software has massive potential for creating technology that changes labor markets. Real estate labor is a natural target, and a couple of recent pieces got the ball rolling this past week.Russ Cofano penned a broker outlook that viewed “cognitive computing” not as a threat to labor, but an asset to the baseline of real estate’s agent intelligence:

“So here’s the question. What if cognitive computing enables agents to be better professionals and make better recommendations to their clients? What if access to cognitive computing power, and the data necessary to power it, becomes the 21st century equivalent of the MLS utility?”

Further, Cofano states, “Cognitive computing has the potential to add massive value to the real estate brokerage value proposition and do for agent professionalism what no other initiative could touch.”

While the piece focused on the superior delivery mechanism (Upstream vs. the MLS), it provided support to the idea that brokers could adopt intelligent data systems to improve agent capabilities industry-wide.

Not surprisingly, a different take came from Rob Hahn, focused on the costs of repetitive labor and the likely evolution:

“The $6 billion question is where real estate brokerage services fit in the spectrum of services if we put McDonald’s order-taker on the one extreme and the Chief Engineer of Nuclear Fusion Reactors on the other extreme in terms of specialized skill and knowledge.

I think most of my readers know the answer. Real estate is far, far closer to McDonald’s than it is to McDonnell-Douglas.

…rote procedures and manual inputs are being displaced by technology. Why would it be any different for the rote procedures and manual inputs in the real estate business?

Answer: it won’t.

Those real estate agents who survive will have to be ‘upskilled’ and focus on niche areas or ‘be equipped to handle smart systems.’”

Comparing two views on AI

So we have two very different views of software intelligence’s effect on real estate agents. In one, brokers might adopt cognitive computing measures to improve agents’ core capabilities to serve consumers. They improve and survive as a unified group of forward-thinking adopters.

In another, AI wipes away the entire foundation of repetitive services performed in real estate. This debases the masses of agents and eliminates the need for their services. It leaves only the specialized practitioners above water when it’s done.

It would be remiss of me to gloss over the McDonald’s analogy. The skills that allow agents to survive in their occupation can’t be crammed into a single linear comparison. It seems prudent to point out that the comparison of rocket scientists, real estate agents, and Egg McMuffin order takers should be complex.

In recent real estate history, replacing a repetitive procedure in the sales process with software has simply changed the sales process. It hasn’t removed the sales person. There are graveyards full of real estate labor would-be disruptors who have a poignant understanding of that history.

artificial-intelligence-REAL-ESTATE

The intrinsic skills that keep real estate agents strongly entrenched in the industry seem to center on two things:

  • Personalized intelligence (unique local knowledge, negotiation, transactional experience)
  • Personal relationships (emotional IQ and sphere building)

The latter is almost invariably ignored in real estate labor disruption conversations, yet it’s probably the single greatest barrier to disruption. People list with people. Sellers’ top three requirements for a listing agent are reputation, honesty, and trustworthiness.

AI is the intrusive stalker in your phone. Thelma is the amazing woman who comes to book club and walks with you on weekends. H.A.L. 2000 can’t touch her in terms of trust. This should be the overriding theme of every disruption conversation.

On to bottling knowledge

In the future, personalized intelligence might be a different story. If part of the value of exceptional agents comes from what they know from experience, the way they negotiate, and how they interact with clients, how much of that could be learned by an exceptional AI platform?

Could exceptional agents allow themselves to be profiled by their devices and capture that intelligence to monetize it? Would brokers be able to conglomerate the practices and intelligence of their best agents to provide a unique set of processes for their agents and answers for their clients that aren’t available to the general public?

It might not be as crazy as it sounds. Think about the vast amount of information that could be gleaned from one agent over a single year with all of his/her devices in “AI learn mode.” Spoken word, tone, movement, visual cues, timing, location data, digital communication, social engagement, contract negotiation—all of these and more could be processed into a database describing when, where, and how top agents interact with their environments to close more sales transactions.

Who owns the AI?

While the aforementioned could be done on an industry-wide basis to inform brokers as a whole, it might also be led by savvy top producing agents or brokers who would profit from it as a differentiator. Melded with predictive analytics on consumer behavior and market statistics, the right set of personalized intelligence could tell an agent when and where to meet a consumer, and how to begin interacting with that person to provide a greater likelihood of a client and a sale.

Of course, until personality can be direct-ported into the agent’s brain, we still need a human with emotional IQ to show up and close the deal. The creation of a relationship might be initiated by data, but it’s going to be sealed with emotion.

ThelmaRealtor software version 2.5 could be an AI profile that’s sold to brokers or new agents as a foundational of intelligence for their careers. Whether these benefits and profits go to the real Thelma, her brokerage, or the industry depends on who adopts the technology first.

Back to the people

If that’s all a bit too much sci-fi, let’s get back to the basics. There are huge opportunities for the brokerage community to leverage greater technology and AI to improve how they do business. Those that do will have valuable differentiating tools and skills.

Still, Thelma v. 2.5 isn’t going to wipe out the physical agents on the ground. Technologists with armies of software agents will continue to stare at screens, while real life agents are cementing unbreakable relationships with real people. Consumers will work with agents they view as trustworthy, no matter what amazing intelligence is dangled in front of them by H.A.L. 2000 Realty.

It’s true that consumers want more intelligent real estate transactions. Before that, though, they want trust. AI has great prospects for helping brokers and agents improve their business intelligence, but it’s not going to take the human element out of the transaction any time soon. The real Thelma’s role may change, but she still owns the most valuable, subjective, and defensible portion of the real estate transaction: the relationship.

Culling the lazy, bloodsucker real estate agents

This article was originally posted on The Real Daily:
by Sam DeBord

Liar. Cheater. Loser. Choker. Incendiary rhetoric seems to be in vogue this year.

“The consultants are like bloodsuckers. They’re ten times worse than a real estate salesman or broker, ten times, which is saying pretty bad stuff.” This was the biting yet confusing commentary from Donald Trump, a real estate salesman himself, at a recent political rally.

Inside the industry

The shots at real estate agents are coming from within the industry as well. Keller Williams’ Chairman Gary Keller recently said that agents who buy leads from Zillow “are lazy and don’t want to do the work.” Surely many of his top agents and teams who effectively use the leads would disagree.

Zillow’s CEO Spencer Rascoff recently told CNBC that the company no longer wanted to work with agents who weren’t “great” (they don’t spend a lot of money on advertising). So they’ll be “culling” those agents who aren’t up to snuff. While a practical business move, avoiding a term associated with slaughtering inferior or surplus animals might be item #1 for the PR team’s next executive media coaching session.

Real estate classism

Before we get self-righteous about these leaders’ word choices, though, it’s worth noting that this kind of language pervades much of the industry’s conversations on the quality of real estate agents.

There’s no shortage of snobbery and classist speech among agents and brokers.

Just ask a high volume agent how we should raise the bar of professionalism in the industry:
“Raise Realtor dues by 1000% and we’ll lose 90% of the deadbeats who bring us down.”

Talk to boutique brokers about their counterparts:
“That head shop will hire anyone who can fog a mirror. Their agents are bottom feeders who don’t sell anything and make us all look bad.”

You hear it from speakers at industry conferences:
“Let’s use the 80/20 rule. We need to get rid of the 80% of crappy agents who are making us look bad, so that the good agents who do 80% of the volume are the only ones left.”

There are some really important conversations to be had about the quality of real estate agents in our industry. We want clear answers as to how we fix them problem. We want the answers to be simple.

Unfortunately, big answers are often necessarily complex. When we group real estate agents into simplistic silos to try to fix our issues, we do a disservice to ourselves.

Volume does not equal quality

We can all agree that there are real estate licensees without the experience, ethics, education, or conscience necessary to serve their clients well. There are bad apples in our midst. They’re a poison on our reputation and should not be allowed to sell real estate.

Let’s not overreach with our reaction, though. This rhetorical journey usually ends with lower producing agents or those with non-traditional business models being given the scarlet letter and pronounced as a scourge on the industry.

Volume does not equal professionalism or quality. We’ve seen sweatshop practitioners become real estate celebrities, only to later lose their businesses and licenses when their practices came under scrutiny.

On the other hand, some of the lowest-volume agents often have the most experience to with which to guide their clients. Agents who are nearing retirement will often shrink their active client base significantly. The buyers and sellers who work with them are afforded all of the benefits of an agent with decades of experience and insight, as well as a greater share of that agent’s attention.

The client who works with an agent who has only one client at the moment may be the client who is receiving the most comprehensive personal service possible.

Then there are those “lazy” agents who buy leads, or pay fees/splits to others who prospect for them.  Since when was specialization of skill and division of labor a sign of laziness?

Selling vs. lead generation

Admittedly, this comes from my position of personal bias. We’ve brought agents on to our team who were low volume producers before they joined. Most had experience, but didn’t want to prospect anymore. They just wanted to work with clients and sell.

Meet “Jane”. She sold for 30 years before joining us. She is one of the smartest, most dependable, respectful, and effective agents we’ve worked with.

By many counts, she should have been tossed from the industry the year before because she only sold two homes. She sold 15 homes last year, a healthy business in a market like Seattle. It still probably wasn’t enough for the sales police to label her volume sufficient. She’s “lazy” because she’s relying on others to generate leads and focusing on her core skills of selling. She might just be “culled” with the other low-rung agents who provide outstanding service and consistently receive raving reviews from their clients.

It’s more complex than that

To be fair, we’re in an industry that has an unhealthy obsession with sales numbers. I’ve stopped counting the number of times someone asked me, “What kind of volume do you do?” within the first two minutes of a conversation (It almost sounds like “How much do you bench, bro?”). So it’s not surprising that an agent’s volume is often the first metric many look to for a frame of reference. Volume makes a big difference in finding out whether or not an agent is good for your team, your office, and your business model.

Let’s just not let it creep so far into the conversation about who deserves to belong within the greater industry. There are a lot of different business models, and different roles that fit within them. Not everyone needs to be a solo, door-knocking, cold-calling top producer to provide great service to clients.

“Jane” isn’t. Her clients will scoff if you tell them that her volume and prospecting system make her a bad agent. If we’re going to talk about improving the reputation of real estate agents, let’s stay away from oversimplifications.

The answer is more complex than volume or business model.

It’s about education, experience, dedication, and professionalism. Those are difficult things to measure, but improving an industry isn’t supposed to be easy.

Let’s skip the simple labels. They’re part of the problem.

Project Upstream: Tax Reform for Real Estate?

This article was originally published in Realtor Magazine:
by Sam DeBord

Business owners take risks to create valuable products and services. They drive the national economy and create jobs.

But no good deed goes unpunished. These entrepreneurs are rewarded with a slough of tax reporting requirements from a tangled web of government agencies. A single business might file fee or tax reports with its city, county, secretary of state, state department of revenue, licensing board, insurance commissioner, and the IRS.

Business owners often feel powerless, subject to countless mandates with no voice in the process. In an ideal world, the system would be reformed. A business would file a single revenue report that could be used by any agency, cut one check to the government, and get back to work. No one is holding their breath for that outcome.

Disjointed Real Estate Listing Distribution

Real estate’s convoluted listing system creates a similar feeling. Property listings, and the services that support them, are the revenue drivers of the industry. Making listing delivery efficient should be a priority. Yet a single listing might have to be input in a dozen different locations before it has been comprehensively distributed. The process doesn’t improve much after distribution. The listing creators often have little control or feedback regarding how their information is treated.

Brokers, agents, staff, and others waste valuable time entering the same listing data into multiple MLSs, vendor websites, franchisor platforms, and advertising portals. The data is the same, but each listing outlet requires a different process of delivery. It’s the definition of inefficiency.

Loss of Control, Uncaptured Value

Once delivered, the listings can take on lives of their own. Brokers and agents often sign on to agreements with little protection for their data rights. Advertising portals rework and manipulate the data and media as they see fit. Some go so far as to republish listing photos in unrelated advertising campaigns without credit or compensation given to the creators.

The single brokerage, on its own, has little ability to reform the process or negotiate a better contract. The inertia of the current system is too great. As a nationwide collection of brokers, though, a single voice like the Upstream coalition would have that power. It has the assets necessary to create a new process and the clout to motivate listing data recipients to operate on a more level playing field.

This, of course, is where fears of power consolidation reside. Tax reformers promote a streamlined system but are wary of granting a federal government agency greater powers to make it possible. Project Upstream’s goal is to streamline business and benefit the entire broker sphere. It will also be a place for brokers to manage a broad range of other kinds of information beyond listing data, including customer databases, vendor contacts, and agent rosters.

Its motivation, though, is the subject of conspiracy theories regarding elimination of small brokers and takeover of MLSs.

Us vs. Them, or All for One?

Luckily for real estate, the body with the power to streamline its processes isn’t the IRS. It’s a collection of “us.” The forces combining to support Project Upstream are the brokers who deal with the value-sapping quagmire of the current listing system every day.

These are business owners who represent over 70 percent of brokers nationwide (and growing). When we get past fear, the benefits of Upstream are fairly straightforward for brokers:

  • Eliminate redundant labor in listing input
  • Improve accuracy and timeliness of listing data output
  • Ensure broker control and choice regarding which outlets receive data
  • Establish broker rights and display rules over the data and media

Upstream’s challenge will be conveying this message to the individual. The project’s developers clearly understand the mission. Can that message be delivered in a way that motivates a broker or agent to change course in their everyday duties in support of a greater movement? Much like each individual voter must understand and believe in a cause to take the time to cast a ballot, adoption by the masses, one by one, will determine the viability of this venture.

Tax reform may be wishful thinking. Listing data reform, on the other hand, is right under our noses. There’s no czar or military coup attempting to seize power and take our autonomy from us. Brokers are merely creating better tools and more control for themselves.

Real estate brokers nationwide haven’t collaborated this closely toward a clear goal in quite some time. Let’s not allow conspiracy theories to cloud the way forward.

Sam DeBord

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King Country REALTORS®. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.