Tag Archives: Technology

technology

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

NAR politics, Instant Offers and a noisy week in real estate

This article was originally published on Inman News:

  • Credit unions are buying brokerages and bundling services.
  • Zillow isn’t a broker but its toes are deeper in the transaction.
  • Alexa’s going to serve you listings.
  • Upstream’s pragmatic pivot is causing a stir.
  • Your choice of MLS may be growing in the future.

NAR’s midyear meetings took place in Washington, D.C., last week. I was just finishing up a recap when two other big stories dropped.

Credit unions are buying up brokerages

Banks are prohibited from opening real estate brokerages. Credit unions, on the other hand, are not. Steve Murray of Real Trends says credit unions are rapidly purchasing brokerages and bundling services.

“Buy from us. Borrow from us. We’ll rebate 20 percent of the commission to you, and we’ll give you 20 basis points off your mortgage’s interest rate. Oh, and we’ll also make your agent whole on the rebate.”

To me, that’s the biggest news of the week. On to that other story you may have heard about:

Zillow Instant Offers

Zillow’s pitch to agents: We’ll facilitate direct purchase offers from our identified investors/venture capital firms/flippers to potential sellers. We’ll let you deliver a CMA to the same folks.

C’est la vie; it’s a business decision. Consumers are given options to work with agents, but some agent-free transactions will occur via Zillow initiation. Offers and transactions are managed in Zillow’s transaction management software.

Zillow’s not technically becoming a broker with this move, but it’s taking on every activity it can that doesn’t require a license — smart. Some agents are screaming. Some are yawning. Let’s just not pretend that initiating a purchase offer for a buyer, providing the forms for the contract, and directing the services upon which it will be transacted isn’t a big shift.

Some agents will love the seller leads. Some are just fed up with the long-running tap dance act of Zillow’s messaging to the industry. Brian Boero distilled it perfectly.

In the latest scene, we’re told, “It’s just a test.” This is apparently supposed to educate us that transactions happening in the real world are none of our concern until the “test” label is removed by the marketing department.

Of course it’s a test, one that management approved, to see if it’s worth expanding nationwide and monetizing. Just tell us, “Shareholders want profits so we’re looking for new revenue streams, and dipping our toes a little further into the transaction looks like a good direction.” We already know.

The Opendoor in the room

Opendoor is the Instant Offers precursor you’re probably most familiar with. While it was reported on Inman that I “chided” Opendoor previously, I’ll note that I commended Opendoor’s leaders and technology. I merely chided the media fawning over a supposed huge new value to consumers.

Flippers are not new, they’re just better financed with better tools, and now they’re getting better access to sellers.

Opendoor’s folks are genius, just as are Moneytree’s founders. They’re doing transactions with massive short-term fees and significant time savings, and putting their services in front of people who may want them. My opinion that these transactions make financial sense for a scarce few doesn’t preclude the businesses from selling them to whoever will buy them.

Alexa’s hawking listings

Back to NAR midyear: voice activated systems (like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home) became officially approved technologies for brokers to use for delivery of IDX listing data.

While there was some concern about the ramifications, brokers are already using this technology in the field. We want to ensure that the spirit of IDX cooperation and attribution continues, but not hold back innovative brokers.

Will this tech become popular? Spencer Rascoff said at the T3 Summit that he didn’t think it would be a big deal in real estate search. It’s difficult to say, but imagine what it could do to help folks with visual disabilities interact with brokers and agents.

The technology will change by the day. So maybe Rascoff’s right, or maybe brokers have an opportunity. He does have a lot of other things on his plate.

Upstream

Upstream had two big stories last week. First, more NAR funding was approved for RPR to build out the project. Second, instead of only allowing broker/agent listing input at Upstream’s interface, it will now accept a broker’s feed of listing data from the MLS itself.

Spending a week with much of the industry in one place reminds you how much you don’t know. The politics surrounding this initiative are staggering. There are plenty of folks proclaiming Upstream’s “pivot” as a sign of failure.

It’s a pragmatic swallowing of pride. Many insiders will tell you that the divide created by the unfortunate tone of UpstreamRE’s ancestors’ original messaging to the MLS community made this move a necessity. It’s also a big shift from the ideologically pure original intent.

At the same time, it removes the most significant hurdle to access for nearly every broker/agent in the country. There’s no retraining on listing input. You want Upstream? You got it.

The Upstream direct input (which is necessary in its system to solve multi-MLS overlap) requires technical development at the MLS level to accept the listings.

If multi-market brokers like what they see in the Upstream hybrid input product, they may eventually work with their MLSs and vendors to employ the single input solution. In the meantime, vendors may proactively develop software updates that provide faster Upstream implementation options on the most common MLS software platforms.

RPR in the mirror

It seems that someone whispers “National MLS” nearly every time RPR (Realtors Property Resource) is mentioned. If you’ve done the committee circuit for a few years, you know the routine.

Competitors have reason to keep looking over their shoulders, but this particular fear is tiresome. It’s as if we’re in the horror flick where the victims chant, “Candyman…Candyman…Candyman…” into the mirror to summon the Bogeyman.

Only in this version, the bogeyman RPR comes crashing through the mirror to take our cooperation and compensation agreements if we don’t keep whispering “National MLS…National MLS…National MLS…” to keep it at bay.

RPR has contractually agreed to never become an MLS. MLSs have been consuming each other at the rate of around one every four days. 100 have disappeared in one year. How many has RPR replaced?

‘Coming soon’ listings

MLSs across the country are trying to develop “coming soon” statuses. It seems like a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, but agents want another marketing angle. So MLSs are obliging.

Currently, any MLS could accept an active listing, allow for a restriction on showings for two weeks while the seller fixes things up (with a seller’s signed consent), and create the “coming soon” buzz without adding a new status for MLSs and standards developers to deploy.

If a new status is the hoop everyone wants us to jump through, though, we’ll probably do it. So let’s define it.

If the property is shown, it’s not “coming soon,” it’s active. If it starts as “coming soon,” then goes active, and one minute later goes pending, it probably wasn’t ever “coming soon.” It was active.

We can do “coming soon,” but only if we’re going to be honest about it — not to promote double-sides, in-house sales or preferred buyers.

Politics at midyear

There’s a lot of talk about tax reform. As we hit the hill in D.C., our message was as clear as ever. No matter the tax policy coming forward, it should incentivize investment in homeownership, much like we incentivize investment in health care, retirement and education. That’s a tough message in a D.C. atmosphere that’s very loud, but we’re still carrying it.

Some members want us out of politics, but today’s reality is that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. We’ll be at the table for our industry.

Can the Voice for Real Estate come through a revolving door?

I’m a local association president. Our board’s CEO relays media calls and interviews to me. I appreciate the deference and the recognition it creates, but I can see how it weakens the continuity of our voice as an organization. The tradeoff is difficult to swallow.

At NAR, we hoist a new name up for the media once per year and hope that it sticks. This is our tradition, and it’s a great gift to our presidents, but it’s probably time to take a hard look this practice’s effect.

Our voice needs to recognizable to stay on top. Our new CEO, or someone she/he hires, needs to be consistently in front of the media.

Is the board too big?

Most dare not even whisper these words, as a position on the board of directors is a sacred cow, not to be touched. NAR has about 900 directors on its board. What’s the ideal size of the board? Maybe it’s exactly what it is today, but it shouldn’t be heresy to ask.

Our volunteer members do amazing work supporting leadership from the committee levels. Can we have a real, effective debate at our current board of directors’ meetings with our current size?

Our data divisions make us vulnerable

Realtor members have less than ideal access to our data. Between NAR data, nationwide MLS data and RPR data, we have the opportunity to meld these resources into an incomparable asset for use by our membership. Yet we let it sit in artificial silos to protect our territories.

Meanwhile, innovative data companies create tools to aggregate and repurpose such data while we sit on our hands and watch or, better yet, cut them a check to buy it back.

There’s a lot of distrust within our organization. While there are many reasons for it, they make us weak relative to outside forces.

Legacy

Multi-generational Realtors are often the most devoted and knowledgeable leaders. I’m continually impressed when I travel to events at the percentage of committed volunteers who are second, third or even fourth-generation Realtors.

Our incoming president, Elizabeth Mendenhall, is a sixth generation Realtor. There’s no replacing that institutional knowledge. Kudos to those of you who carry that torch.

MLS of Choice

I’ll introduce this topic with the moniker it has taken on in the media, but this issue’s logistics are significantly different than Board of Choice. Yet, its intent is similar: to serve broker and agent members with a better, more flexible service model. Giving brokers and agents more choices in the MLS services they pay for is the path forward.

We’re looking into ways to incentivize brokers to grow and join MLSs without cost prohibitive policies holding them back.

The issue is complex and I won’t attempt to define all of the parameters here. Just know that we’re working with all of the stakeholders — MLSs, brokers, agents, associations — and trying to find a policy solution that positions all groups to be prepared to thrive in a changing marketplace.

You can contact us with your stories, concerns, and suggestions at mls@realtors.org. We’d love your feedback.

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

Homesnap + Broker Public Portal: The Unofficial Why and How (and the case for more PR)

homesnap and broker public portalI’ve been seeing a lot of questions about the direction and makeup of the Broker Public Portal and its relationship with Homesnap. I have no direct influence or investment in either group, but plenty of interest.

Let’s clear the table first—some of these questions come from a great post/discussion earlier here on GeekEstate, others I’ve heard out in the field.

Unofficial answers about the Broker Public Portal and Homesnap (caveat emptor):

Why?
Brokers want a national search experience for consumers in which the brokers control the display rules. Partnering with their MLSs, they hope to create a clean, easy-to-use search and display that delivers leads back to the listing brokerage and is free of other commercial shenanigans. It doesn’t need to be the biggest, it just needs to return more traffic to brokers.

Does NAR run BPP?
The National Association of Realtors does not run or own the Broker Public Portal. Brokers developed the organization, and they run it in partnership with Homesnap. The MLS partners, in some cases, are owned by local Realtor associations, but NAR isn’t directly involved in BPP directly.

Who pays for Broker Public Portal?
MLSs who sign up with BPP pay $1 per member per month.

Why would agents want their dues dollars to pay for another portal?
The agent benefit is getting access to Homesnap Pro tools. By joining BPP, the MLS’s members get one of the best MLS apps available. Its integration of agent-only information, mapping, rapid CMAs, and direct client interaction will make most agents who see it open up their pocketbooks happily—for a buck.

As for dues: if your MLS passes the cost on to the agent, these would be MLS dues dollars (not NAR). Depending on your MLS, those dues may go to your association, a separate for-profit company, or a broker-owned conglomerate. So the BPP portal is the primary broker benefit, and Homesnap Pro is the primary agent benefit.

Is BPP a “for profit” initiative?
*Update: Via Victor Lund, it is a “for profit” corporation, but all profits are rolled back into the corporation.* I think the more appropriate label is a “for profitability” initiative. The BPP members and Homesnap could directly profit from 1.5 million $1 monthly fees from the entire nation of Realtors. But snaring a greater percentage of internet traffic and leads on a cost-controlled platform is the real goal for brokers. This is about greater leverage in online real estate. Commissions dwarf subscriptions. Brokers, and agents, want more closings with lower acquisition costs.

What if Homesnap wants to break away after BPP becomes popular?
We’re told that the operating agreement has fail-safes, or a pre-nuptial, built in. It’s a private venture. Everyone on this board knows about the NAR/realtor.com/Move deal 20 years ago–they don’t need another reminder.

Why would a consumer use BPP/Homesnap (vs Zillow et al)?
Consumer-driven traffic is just one part of the equation. Agent-driven traffic is a very different animal with a much higher correlation to closings. Don’t ignore the potential of MLS-wide adoption of an agent-to-consumer mobile search tool.

In 2012 I thought Realtor.com might nail this strategy with its app, but the adoption just didn’t take. It made even more sense to me in 2014 when Homesnap came on the scene. (Maybe that just means I’m repetitively wrong.)

Won’t this, effectively, be a “consumer facing MLS website” on a national scale?
If it gets national adoption, it would be in a way. Importantly, though, brokers initiated this project, not the MLS itself. The likelihood of all 700+ MLSs signing on anytime soon is low. But let’s be honest, there are already a handful of consumer facing MLS websites on a national scale. They’re just run by “media companies.” Almost all MLSs, brands, franchisors, and brokerages are feeding them MLS listings somehow.

If my MLS joins, does this mean my MLS will be competing with my local website for traffic?
There’s some nuance in this answer. A local MLS with a public facing website creates a clear competitor to a broker in local search. A national portal also competes, but on a bit of a different playing field. Brokers/agents with quality websites can still compete for local traffic because of their unique local status.

Truth be told, though, everyone’s competing with everyone. Once in a while a large portion of the brokerage sphere is in agreement, and it’s worthwhile to seize that momentum if that’s the “big picture” side you’re on.

So how does Broker Public Portal + Homesnap succeed?
Gradually: MLSs join, brokers push adoption of the tools for their utility and cost savings, and agents start using the app as their primary interaction with their MLSs. In turn, they share listings and the search experience with their clients. 1.5 million real estate professionals become the boots on the ground “selling” the product to actual real estate consumers.

Ideally, more consumers stay inside this sphere. Agents and brokers take home the same commission splits, with lower acquisition costs because advertising fees are lower/cut out.

Think of it this way: Homesnap getting into an MLS is like a software company becoming the only music app provider in Apple’s app store. Other companies can buy all of the Android and Microsoft user traffic they’d like, but everyone on Homesnap’s platform is protected in the walled MLS garden.

What’s next?
There’s no guarantee that any of this comes to fruition. But this is a very pragmatic approach at leveraging brokers’ greatest strengths—the MLS and their agents—and focusing them on building media exposure that they couldn’t otherwise achieve by simply trying to buy it.

Brokers don’t have to build their own mobile search–Homesnap has already done it. There’s already a significant base of traffic using their systems, so there’s no starting from scratch.

Finally, a respectful suggestion: The folks at Homesnap have always done a great job of getting media exposure as a lean startup. Now it’s time for brokers to give the joint venture some more financial horsepower to proactively answer these kinds of questions on a broader scale.

In the absence of immediate answers, wild conspiracies spring up. I can’t overstate how difficult PR and industry relations are in real estate for a new initiative. Just ask the folks at Upstream. Let’s get the story straight for our industry, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Comments? Fire away.

Sam DeBord is a former management consultant and web developer who writes for for Inman News and REALTOR® Magazine. He is Managing Broker for Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2016 President-Elect of Seattle King County REALTORS®. His team sells Seattle homes, condos, and Bellevue homes.

Is Opendoor the payday loan of real estate?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

  • According to research, median Opendoor homesellers give up 14 percent of their homes’ value through equity and fees.
  • The results for homeowners are like a payday loan: Some scenarios could push seller loss percentages into the 20s.
 Opendoor is a venture-capital-financed property flipper with a $1 billion valuation.

Inman had a fantastic piece last week by Mike DelPrete analyzing Opendoor’s progress in its first two years. Read it.

Quick observations based on Mike’s piece:

  • Opendoor buys and resells homes. Sometimes it fixes them up a bit, but its average relisting time is just 20 days.
  • More than half the time, the gap between the price Opendoor pays sellers and its resale price on the flip is 5.4 percent or greater.
  • On about 1 out of 5 resales, Opendoor pockets price gains of 10 percent or higher.
  • Consumers are also charged 6 to 12 percent in fees, averaging between 8 and 9 percent.

To Opendoor’s credit: There is a need in some specialized cases to turn real estate into a liquid asset in short order.

Even if the assets are heavily discounted in the process, there’s a niche audience that requires this service. Opendoor’s founders are brilliant in creating and selling this marketplace, and the company’s growth is evidence of that.

There’s good cause for some buzz, but the fawning over Opendoor’s value to the consumer seems off-key.

Forget the buyback options, warranties and unmanned lockboxes — these flashy headline-grabbers distract from the meat of the story. The shine on this unicorn is blinding some to the casualties of its financial mechanics.

Friction and leverage

Much of the excitement around Opendoor is in its removal of “friction” from a home sale.

Friction can mean the preparation, negotiation, financing and other logistical checkboxes necessary to maximize returns in a traditional sale.

Friction also includes financial transaction costs, though. The company’s median sellers appear to currently spend around 14 percent of their homes’ value between fees and equity to work with Opendoor. A significant number lose 20 percent or more in equity alone.

Of course we can look at the possibility that improvements to the property contributed to price gains. But Opendoor’s average home only sits 20 days between closing and relisting. That’s enough time for a quick shine in most cases.

We also don’t know if a full-time, local specialist agent could market and negotiate the home to an even higher price than Opendoor. Its average sale is giving a 5 percent discount off the list price to the buyer. The company’s carrying costs on vacant homes (financing 90 percent of purchases) incentivize it to be flexible in negotiations to expedite turnover.

Some have touted the model creating “leverage” for sellers, who are viewed as an underserved market.

Although it’s true that there are few other avenues for sellers to offload a home this quickly, the simultaneous decimation of equity wipes out the benefit to the vast majority of sellers. For most homeowners, it’s more of an outlet to swift surrender than a gain in leverage.

Location, location, location

Opendoor is successful so far in Phoenix, where there are no transfer taxes.

What happens when it moves into cities and states where transfer taxes can absorb up to 2 percent of the value on each sale? The seller may pay one tax directly, but the tax on the second sale probably has to be built into the pricing model, as well.

Someone eats those costs. The percentage of the home’s value being absorbed or spent in fees, taxes and equity could start reaching into those magical mid-20s for some.

There’s a sector of consumer finance that squeezes these kinds of short-term gains out of consumers. It’s not a media darling like Opendoor. Its existence is the reason for an entire category of usury laws.

Blissful ignorance?

These sales look more like payday loans than consumer innovation.

There should be no joy in watching home owners squandering so much money, so quickly. Their equity, in the homes that we’ve assured them are the best investments of their lives, is plucked away in a swift and slick transaction.

It’s clear from the numbers that most of them would greatly benefit from hiring an agent and waiting it out — if they had those numbers.

Buying and selling a home is all about informational leverage, though. Opendoor’s pricing model is, apparently, highly advanced, and the company deserves credit for its technical prowess.

The most profitable course for Opendoor would probably be targeting homes where its lowball offer price is similar to an identified, public online valuation. You can imagine the conversation: “It’s close to the Zestimate. It’s easier. Why not?”

Set an extra $15,000 to $20,000 cash in front of the same Opendoor seller in Phoenix and ask, “Can you wait a little while for an agent to get you this much more from a buyer? It’s what you, and your retirement account, deserve.”

Who are we rooting for?

When consumers have access to quick money schemes, some willfully ignore the big picture ramifications.

Payday loans are popular for a reason, and it’s not because using them is a sensible long-term decision. We may not be in the business of regulating consumers away from their own poor decisions, but cheering them seems distasteful.

I’m impressed with Opendoor’s strategy and growth. If the company’s crafted storyline continues to be more visible to consumers than the actual financial results, it could continue to make a lot of money for its investors.

Sometimes new business models just find a better way to extract more money from consumers without creating significant new value for them.

That’s fair, but let’s not canonize Opendoor just because it’s using technology to increase its margins. The new “I buy ugly houses” guy is just better-financed, with a slicker pitch — and a higher fee.

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.

Human satisfaction: Can a bot fake it?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

Excitement about new technology in real estate is usually followed by long delays in practical application. Logistical, territorial and legal hurdles often stand in the way.

Bots seem to be overcoming those barriers with ease.

How do bots work in real estate?

Bots in real estate create artificially enhanced relationship management. From conversation to conversion, nurture and management, software systems are being built to interact with end users as if there was a relationship with a human on the other end.

Sometimes these systems tell the consumer interacting with them that they’re a bot. Sometimes they don’t.

In some cases, they’re a little bit of HAL 9000, assisted by a little bit of Dave the human.

The gray area creates an interesting question: how much “faking it” is ethical — and how much does the end user care?

No doubt you’ve seen “the scene” from When Harry Met Sally. (Millennials, go YouTube it — maybe not at work.)

The conversation centers on whether participants in a transaction can really tell whether or not their counterpart received the desired experience.

Actor A may feel like he has achieved a win-win outcome, while Actor B may just be humoring his obliviousness. Not unlike a parent letting a child beat them in a game to deliver pleasure through illusion, “faking it” is sometimes the most pragmatic decision.

When Riley met Jenny

When the transaction is business-to-consumer, faking it may often be preferable. If a bot can provide a human-like experience with a fulfilling outcome for the consumer, isn’t everyone better off?

Meet Riley. He is a combination of bot and human, but he doesn’t like to talk about it.

Consumers, by and large, don’t know he’s “human-assisted AI.” An inquiry to Riley about a property may begin with some standardized questions and replies. Quickly, though, it transitions into an actual human experience.

Riley’s job is to answer questions and keep the consumer in conversation with value and time that the agent or business-person may not have at the moment.

I conversed with Riley a few times, looking for the moment where the contextual intelligence of a real person took over.

It’s a smooth transition. Most consumers probably aren’t skeptics, looking for the seams in the process.

Even if they knew, though — would they care? Probably not, if the outcome they desired had been delivered.

Call 867-5309 for a good showing

Jenny has a different point of view. She’s built on IBM’s Watson technology, 100 percent bot, and proud of it.

Not afraid to answer 20 texts or Facebook messages at 3 a.m., she wears her digital brain on her sleeve and tells consumers who she is upfront.

It’s a good bet that consumers will be more willing to barrage a bot than a human with extensive and repetitive inquiries.

Jenny’s job is to quickly dispense of the most mundane listing maintenance duties: answering sign calls about property details, showings, flyers, open houses and so on.

Her primary goal is to make the listing management system efficient. Call her Lucy, Clippy or TI-85 — it doesn’t make a difference. Consumers know she’s a bot.

Will Jenny’s upfront AI admission limit other opportunities?

She could transition to lead conversion mode mid-conversation. Already knowing that they’re talking to a bot, though, consumers would probably be less likely to answer a long string of questions about themselves.

Then there’s that nagging truth about real estate: Human loyalty generates long-term clients and referrals. Consumers who feel that their agent has personally provided his or her time to them will often feel obligated to work with, and refer other clients to, that agent.

The giving of human time — real or perceived — generates loyalty. Can a self-identified bot deliver the same feeling?

Team in a box

A team of bots seems like the ideal setup for efficiency.

Riley is mum about his AI to improve the consumer’s experience in the initial conversation. He is the lead conversion bot.

Jenny is the card-carrying bot office manager, delivering answers efficiently with a machine learning badge.

Sally is the incognito sphere nurturer who leans heavily on the real agent for support.

The level to which they support one another or reveal themselves as inhuman will depend on the ethics, perception and aggressiveness of their employers.

Of course, technically, these bots don’t have to be disconnected entities. They’ll likely be built as a single software program with different personalities for different duties.

Call it a team in a box. Defining the personalities is the key to optimizing the user’s perception.

The technology is already capable, but the personal nuances will determine consumers’ acceptance of the experience.

“You don’t think that I can tell the difference? Get outta here.”

Harry didn’t know until he was told. Will consumers know — or care?

A quick note:

CRMLS has begun passing on listing licensing fees from third-party portals to its member brokers. Bravo! The dollar amount is minuscule today, but the decision is still significant.

CRMLS can’t disclose which portals are paying for direct feeds, and how much they’re each paying, due to contractual obligations. This isn’t a surprise. I’ve been asking around the industry for years and getting jazz hands as a response.

The spotlight is beginning to shine through the smoke and mirrors of listing syndication finance. How much will portals pay for a listing? How much is that listing worth in ad revenue? How many MLSs are being paid by portals, and how many are willing to pass that revenue on to the brokers?

Why not create a model where the portal pays a referral fee to the broker/MLS based on a percentage of advertising revenue generated? Brokers know they’re not leveraging their listings’ advertising value. Creative options for greater revenue capture will continue to grow as broker margins shrink.

More exposure of these kinds of financial agreements is good for real estate. Pricing is arbitrary when sellers don’t know the market value of their product. Let’s continue to air out the details.

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.