Why consumers don’t trust us

Realtor Notebook

Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living they make a face that is more of a grimace. I think it is involuntary — at least I hope it is.

Consumers don’t always trust us or like us and they don’t understand us. We use little deceptions in our advertising and rely on real estate mythology to bring in some or our business.

Recently some young first-time homebuyers they told me that picking an agent is scary. "Scary" is their word, not mine. They had started their home search on the Internet and then began calling the numbers they found on for-sale-signs around town.

They told me about the agent pictured on the for-sale flier next to the dogs and some other characters they came across. They were leery of the guy in the baseball hat too.

The buyers told a friend about the house they wanted to see, and that friend sent them to me. They lurked on my blog for a few weeks before they worked up the courage to contact me.

One of the benefits of blogging is that I can demonstrate my knowledge, and in doing so I become less scary. My description, not theirs. They wanted to make sure that I really knew my area and that I actually work with first-time homebuyers.

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We talk about raising bars, and good agents or bad agents, with an emphasis on returning phone calls and giving feedback to the listing agent after the showing. We have bigger problems if consumers are afraid of us. I don’t mean hiding under the bed kind of afraid; I mean they worry that we are incompetent or dishonest or both.

Consumers and real estate experts sometimes have unrealistic expectations of what kind of services we provide. But it isn’t unrealistic for them to think that we should be experts in the kind of housing we sell and the neighborhoods we work in.

Neighborhood expertise has to pertain to housing and real estate, and not places to go and things to do and where the food trucks stop. A potential seller may expect us to be experts on interior design and landscaping, and want us to paint their basement and supervise carpet installation. There are agents who will do all that, and become the sellers’ best friend for life, but it isn’t necessarily part of the job or what makes an agent a good one.

I asked a group of people at the local collaborative what their biggest concern is about choosing a real estate agent. The words dishonesty and incompetence kept coming up. No one said they preferred a Realtor over a real estate agent, and no one mentioned a real estate company brand or designations.

When I asked for specifics about dishonesty I was told that real estate agents overreach. I would have said we exaggerate and embellish our expertise and house-selling skills. We tell prospective clients that we are experts in areas that we know so little about that our advice could actually be dangerous.

The agent biographies on the Internet will list 10 suburbs and three cities as areas of expertise or even an entire state. Consumers don’t believe us anymore. Is it really possible to be an expert on 30 communities or an entire state? Real estate is local. How many neighborhoods can these experts even find? How can they be experts on real estate in communities where they have never sold a home? What makes them experts?

I have worked with agents who have overreached particularly when it comes to short sales, selling condos and working with investors. Each are specialties that require training and experience. Yet it isn’t all that unusual for someone to get a real estate license and become "your condo expert" a month later.

No wonder consumers are afraid. Would you want a buyer’s agent representing you on the purchase of a condo that had no experience with condos? We may be overreaching with investors when we go outside our role as a real estate agent and sell ourselves as investment experts.

Agents pay to be listed as neighborhood experts for neighborhoods that they have never done business in because it is the only neighborhood left on the site, or the only one they could afford. While homebuyers are looking for help, agents are looking for ways to capture leads.

We know that people want agents who are experienced, and they want agents who have experience in their neighborhood. We need to do more than advertise that we are neighborhood experts. We need to become neighborhood experts.

Think of it from the consumer’s point of view: It’s scary to choose a real estate agent and trust that they know their stuff and are not overreaching.

Teresa Boardman is a broker in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the St. Paul Real Estate blog.

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