I may live in San Diego, but I have a down coat. I have several actually, but only one I really wear. And wear it, I do. It has gotten so much use over the years that it has begun to spring leaks. First, fuzzy white stuff started appearing at one sleeve. "Nothing a little duct tape can’t handle," I decided, vowing to find a more permanent solution someday when I had a needle and an inclination.

But what started as some minor molting has become full-blown failure. No number of thoughtfully applied swatches of silver tape can make it stop. Now, when the temperature approaches California-freezing (60 degrees), I tend to look like I inadvertently flew into the engine of a prop plane.

But it’s comfortable and familiar, so I continue to wear it. It’s far easier to reach for the duct tape than it is to break in a new coat. Rest assured; I know it is not something I should be seen wearing in public so when a trip to the grocery store or a state dinner is on the agenda, I make a concerted effort to select outerwear that doesn’t suggest I was recently serviced by four sight-impaired HVAC technicians who were late for dinner.

Sometimes I forget. Old habits die hard. Yesterday, my husband looked on in horror as I returned from running a few errands wearing what can now be easily mistaken for a space shuttle flight suit. "You didn’t!" he said. Oops, sorry Darwin. It seems I forgot to change.

We fancy what is comfortable, and we are comfortable with what we know. Right now we have an entire industry of real estate professionals operating outside of their comfort zone. Sure, real estate is cyclical and, yes, if you have been in the business for any length of time, you have seen both ups and downs.

But few veterans will argue that this isn’t that "event of rarity," which Robert Shiller spoke of at the Inman Real Estate Connect conference in January.

We have been awfully concerned lately about business models and, more recently, what and how we are paid. All of these discussions are great, but it doesn’t matter how you dress it up. Beneath all of the rhetoric is the fact that it is the conduct of business, not the broker’s organization chart or their fee structure, which is at the heart of the issue. Fix this, and you will fix the industry.

The crisis, for lack of a better word, which we find ourselves in has very little to do with the nature of the brokerage or the fees we charge. Those are just symptoms of what really ails us. We number too many. Period. Much like homebuyers and sellers thought there was no end to home-value appreciation, we became a supporting cast that couldn’t expand fast enough to fill the space.

And much like so many consumers who were left scratching their heads and mourning a loss, so too is our industry. Where did all the bison go? We are at a crossroads. We can take this opportunity to retool and reinvent, or we can propagate the conventional notion that we are carpetbagging opportunists who see the consumer only as a short-term meal ticket (and then run them all off a cliff).

We can be smart or we can be desperate; either way, a large portion of our species is going to die out. It can’t be any other way. It will happen through natural selection, and it will be the consumer who decides who will stay and who will go.

When I started writing this, it was going to be an indictment of lenders’ (and their agents’) handling of foreclosed property sales. My husband calls it "compounded disinterest," and having just experienced a tortuous weeklong experience trying to simply submit a client’s offer on a bank-owned home, I was loaded for bear.

The story was going to be one of call centers for buyers ("If you are a buyer, press ‘1’ ") and e-mail-only for agents ("If you are an agent, press ‘2’ so our virtual receptionist can hang up on you"). It was going to be a story about nonresponses and abuses of the system, about an agent who didn’t know the difference between a condominium and zero-lot-line (single-family) development, about who isn’t minding the store, and about overextended and underengaged lenders running our market into the ground.

Then I remembered. There have always been bad agents along with the good, and there will always be clients who don’t know the difference. There have always been different models and price structures and levels of service offered up to the customer, and it is the customer who will ultimately decide who among us will thrive and who will not. Call it natural selection.

Opportunists exist and even thrive in any market; they come and they go, and then they reinvent themselves when the going gets tough — kind of like Britney.

But with business being slower (hey, even agents have to eat), and with everyone teetering on the ragged edge, the thing I find most exasperating is that otherwise-amazing agents are compromising their principles in the name of survival. They are treating each other and the consumer with a level of disrespect I have never before witnessed.

I read a lot — a lot — online, and over the past three years I have seen the conversation shift dramatically along with the market. At first, the talk at the virtual watercooler was a deafening tribute to transparency and honesty among agents and with the consumer.

Then I saw things moving in a different direction. It was subtle at first, but it has been picking up steam. The talk shifted to "leads" and "conversions," to "hits" and "ROI," and of course to which of us was Google’s favorite. The problem is that the consumer is still watching this conversation, and we forgot to change coats.

A real estate trainer called me recently, and we were chatting about my approach to business in a tough environment. "How do you get leads?" he asked.

"You mean clients?" I shot back. "I don’t get them — they get me."

He followed with another question, "But how do they find you? You said you don’t use drip marketing."

And this is where I found myself again climbing up on my battered little soapbox, talking about a bunch of silly things like "thinking like a consumer," "the golden rule," "pull vs. push," and "respect for our work even above respect for the bottom line."

"But how do you get them?" he asked again, forgetting for a moment he was wearing the same old coat.

For the record, I use drip marketing, alright. I drip every time my sign goes up in a yard or a buyer takes a brochure from the box. I drip every time I write a blog post or every time my client tells a friend how satisfied they were with their transaction. I just don’t beat them over the head with my message. None of this makes it right; it just means it is right for me.

And for every "me" there is someone who is trying to make a living another way, whether it be through phone banks or as a foreclosure specialist who doesn’t return phone calls unless he senses you are unrepresented and wildly waving a stack of hundred-dollar bills, or through selling "leads" from my own listings back to me.

And it is the latter that is fast becoming the front-runner in the "favorite ways to stay solvent" race. The commodity in our business used to be the home. Now, the client has become the commodity, and interloping on a grand scale is the new Big Idea.

Each potential buyer or seller has a bounty on his head, and millions of struggling agents are all too eager to pony up the reward. The prize is offered by third parties and even by other agents who see this approach as involving less friction than doing the actual work.

It’s free enterprise born of an Internet age and, as my children would say, "I’m down with free enterprise," but in this case it may be taking us down a dangerous path.

At a time when the customer is onto us, when they are no longer good with being "got," we have an opportunity to offer something better — to change. We are competing for survival in our overpopulated niche, and there will be no quick fixes.

Neither a new fee structure nor a new office configuration will offer the panacea for what is, at the core: a worn-out way of thinking on an island of too few resources to feed too many hungry hunters. The way in which we conduct our business in a changing environment will determine our continued existence, and change is a process — not an event.

But change we must. How we change is up to each of us individually, and it will ultimately be the consumer who makes the selection.

Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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