Jennifer Alter Warden talks about consumer expectations, agent success and her reasons for being optimistic about 2015.

Jennifer Alter Warden is the chief operating officer and executive vice president at Baird & Warner.

Are you optimistic about 2015?

Yes, I believe that 2015 will be another good year. I’ve been speaking with our top agents, and most of them are what I would call “cautiously optimistic.” They are still busy and going into 2015 with a strong pipeline. Also, we will have hired more than 450 new and experienced agents in 2014, and they will obviously contribute to our positive momentum. Our mortgage and title operations are on good growth curves as well.

Are you optimistic about the economy?

Yes, the economy has been on an upswing for some time now, and I think it will continue to improve throughout the year, barring unforeseen global events. All year, there have been reports of a number of sectors improving in 2014 — housing, unemployment, etc., and the most recent jobs report was especially encouraging.

Are you optimistic about the housing market?

I am cautiously optimistic about the housing market, too. I think we will see slow and steady price appreciation and buyers who will continue to take advantage of low interest rates. That said, in our market we still have a reasonable amount of distressed property in the system. While there has been a big focus on inventory for the past few years, I do think we could end up in a buyer’s market.

Are you optimistic about your success?

Baird & Warner is on a great trajectory. As we enter our 160th year, we grow stronger every day. We were just named the No. 1 top workplace by the Chicago Tribune, our third consecutive top workplace award, and our entire team is empowered to be better. We launched a suite of tech tools in 2014 that we anticipate will help fuel our growth significantly.

What are you worried about?

I worry about homeowner affordability. There are still many concerns and misconceptions out there about the housing market and whether or not one could or even should purchase a home. More broadly, I also worry about education.

How much do you fret about global events?

I do worry about some global events, but in the long run I worry the most about climate change.

Will mortgage rates go up or down next year?

It seems like every year we proclaim it to be the year that mortgage rates will start to go up. I do believe that we will see a slight uptick in 2015, but not huge jumps.

Will home prices appreciate next year?

Yes, I think that conditions are right for home prices to go up in 2015, and they will continue to appreciate slowly in years to come.

Will agents be more productive next year? Why or why not?

I absolutely think that agents will be more productive. At our company, we’ve introduced a suite of mobile tools and services designed around helping agents work from anywhere at any time. Additionally, our noncompeting sales managers are currently working closely with agents on aggressive 2015 business plans. As I mentioned, Baird & Warner has hired nearly 450 new agents in 2014. Together with our current sales force, our new broker associates will use our training and new technology to drive increased productivity.

Will the portals play a bigger role in real estate next year?

I would say the answer to that is yes, but 2014 was full of surprises and you never know what is on the horizon.

What will be the biggest source of real estate leads next year?

Our biggest source for real estate leads in 2015 will continue to be After a complete redesign, our newest website is better than ever. It has even been named the No. 1 real estate website by Chicagoland Realtors for the third consecutive year.

Are you making plans to expand, contract or maintain your business this year?

We plan to expand our business in 2015. All three of our companies — mortgage, title and brokerage — have significant growth plans.

What is the biggest challenge for the industry in the coming year?

Keeping up with the consumer. The consumer has expectations we need to be sure we attend to. One example would be response time on Internet leads. You’ve seen the averages for our industry. Can you imagine a Zappos customer waiting 24 hours for a response? Also, we need to continue to work to make the transaction experience easier and more transparent for consumers. At the same time, every agent I talk to says they are working harder to close deals, so we need to see what we can do to simplify their lives.

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