Editor’s note: Inman News is profiling agents at real estate companies to give readers a behind-the-scenes view of their jobs and their companies.
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s 2 p.m. and Jim Holt is helping a colleague on a computer in Redfin’s 10th-floor suite on California Street.
The desks are pushed together into three long tables, each semi-separated with partitions, making it easy for the agents to communicate and get to know each other. Along the wall are three offices, one where the Northern California team lead, Ernesto Pineda, is holding a meeting.
Redfin’s San Francisco office is one of eight offices that the low-cost brokerage company operates. A sitting area of couches occupies the suite’s entrance. Amid agents and engineers is Holt, one of the city location’s nine agents.
Holt says, "The office is relatively young and upbeat; it’s really fun. People get along really well, there’s a good dynamic, and everyone is very close to each other."
Holt starts his day with a survey of his new e-mails. After sifting through and prioritizing his messages, he makes his "To Do" list for the day.
At Redfin, the tasks are split up between two types of agents. "Direct agents" draw up contracts, handle negotiations, and start working with the client from the point they find a house they would like to place an offer for. The company’s "field agents," meanwhile, are solely responsible for providing access to properties for inspections and appraisals, and they concentrate on touring houses.
Although Holt is a direct agent — the more experienced of the two agent types — he also has an active role in touring. He typically spends the afternoons out in the field and a couple of hours in the evening making phone calls and catching up on correspondence. His communications are roughly split between phone and e-mail, and sometimes he uses instant messenger. Redfin helps buyers and sellers, but Holt works only with buyers in the Silicon Valley region, most of whom are seeking single-family homes.
The Seattle-based real estate brokerage company Redfin provides buyers and sellers with technology, search capabilities, and an agent team to assist and direct them with the buying or selling process. The Web site, at Redfin.com, contains sophisticated property-search tools, like a map-based search that labels property types with colored icons and information on each one. Users can submit offers for homes through the site and are matched up with a Redfin agent who handles the contingencies, paperwork and negotiations with the other party.
The company offers heavy discounts on commission to buyers and flat-fee services for sellers. Sellers work with Redfin to prepare their home, set the price, negotiate an offer, and handle paperwork. Clients can search for properties and open houses, schedule tours, and complete transactions on the Web site. Holt says that customers literally hit a button labeled "start offer" to begin the online process to make a purchase offer on a home.
From that moment the client is matched up with an agent, who is determined partly by the agent’s familiarity with the region and partly by the agents’ schedules on that day.
The week is busiest Monday through Wednesday, as most purchase offers come in on Sunday night or Monday morning, he says. Holt spends a lot of time on Monday and Tuesday talking to those clients who have already found a house they would like to make an offer for.
"Most offers are looked at in the middle of the week. Usually I’m in the field presenting them," he says. "Towards the end of the week I’m winding down."
Holt, who now lives in San Francisco, goes out in the field on days he is working from home because it is easier to travel to the South Bay from his home. Parking near the office, for one, is "horrendous," he says. With a parking fee of $30 a day in the city, Holt opts for the 15-minute walk to work.
"I work from home two days a week," he says. "But I always come in on Monday and Wednesday because we get free lunch."
Fortunately, unlike traditional Realtors, Holt does not have to work on weekends.
Holt’s specialty is mainly the mid-Peninsula region of the San Francisco Bay Area, from the Cupertino area up to San Mateo, because he worked there previously and grew up in the area. His second area of expertise is properties with multiple offers.
"When there’s a house that has multiple offers, I’ll be the one that handles that first," he says.
Redfin’s agents are on salaries with quarterly bonuses based on customer service.
"Usually as a Realtor it’s not like that," Holt says. "Here we are actually employees." At most real estate brokerage companies, real estate agents work as independent contractors.
According to the National Association of Realtors’ 2007 data, there were about four home sales for every Realtor in the nation, or about eight transaction "sides." There are two sides to each home-sale transaction — the seller’s side and the buyer’s side — and when there are two agents involved they share in the commission from the sale.
Holt says he participates in about eight to 10 home-sale transactions each month, which amounts to at least 50 properties sold so far this year.
Redfin clients receive significantly less face-to-face contact with Redfin agents than they would with traditional agents, but at a large discount.
Redfin has received much attention in the past by critics and supporters. Some critics find its business model, and similar ones like ZipRealty’s, controversial. In May 2007, the CBS news show "60 Minutes" featured the company in a segment that addressed traditional real estate commission models and cited Redfin as an example of a low-cost brokerage company. Some said the show was slanted toward the discounted commission model, while others were pleased in the insight the segment offered.
Redfin’s open approach to business has run afoul of multiple listing service rules — its Sweet Digs blog, which reviewed properties for sale, led to a $50,000 fine for violating MLS regulations relating to the advertising of other brokers’ listings.
Many of Redfin’s clients are tech-savvy — and Redfin.com welcomes this specialized audience. Eighty percent of Holt’s clients come to him from the Redfin.com Web site and others are referrals from people he has previously worked with, he says.
"The (agents) who succeed do care. I tend to be a happy person, laid back, with a calm demeanor. A salesperson doesn’t always listen. I spend a good amount (of time) to listen and approach it in that manner."
Because much, if not all, of the relationship with his clients is over the phone, Holt says he works — and lives — by his own motto: "You can’t guide anyone if you can’t listen."
As he types up an offer on his computer, a colleague stops by his desk to inform Holt that she and her client didn’t get the house they had both presented an offer for. A few minutes later, Holt’s phone rings with the news that Holt and his client didn’t get that house either.
The next step is to inform the client that the offer was not accepted, which Holt says is the most difficult aspect of the job.
"Personally, since my area is where there are multiple offers, (the challenge) is making the phone call (to tell them) they didn’t get the house even though they really wanted it and they went $100,000 over the asking price — actually making the call and convincing the customer that we did the best we could," he says.
This particular house had six offers, which is the norm for the high-end area where Holt works. The competitive nature of regions such as Palo Alto and Cupertino rises from their coveted schools, like Monta Vista High School. Homes can sell within a week there, while the market is softer in areas like Santa Clara, where houses are on the market longer and prices are generally more negotiable, he says.
Homes in Palo Alto, an area that is more expensive to begin with, can get anywhere from six to 10 offers and often go for $100,000 to $200,000 over the asking price. Depending on the school district, prices can vary greatly. Because of district zoning, a house on one side of the street can be $100,000 more than a house on the opposite side.
Holt uses Web sites that show school ratings, like Star.com, where he can easily look up information about the neighborhood. He also uses the Redfin site often because it combines information from other real estate sites, such as Zillow.
Seattle-based Redfin has offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., with plans for more expansion. Users can search for properties in about 100 counties with expanded search tools, including for-sale and past sales information, days on market, price changes and lot outlines.
With so much information at consumers’ fingertips, Holt says this information overload can make the property search overwhelming for consumers and real estate professionals alike. Holt noted that some multiple listing services are engaging in data sharing and consolidation, with property data available for entire regions or whole states.
Some agents and brokers have expressed worries that this could lead to an overflow of agents trying to serve larger areas, and out-of-area agents may attempt to do business in areas they may not be familiar with. Holt says this is not necessarily a bad thing, though it could be difficult for agents to effectively cover a large area.
As more and more information becomes available and accessible, Holt believes that the industry will need to adapt to the fact that the consumer base is changing. Consumers are more independent than before and are more willing to play an active part in the home buying or selling process.
"Some of industry is not adapting to consumers," he says. "The industry needs to keep up with that; it needs to catch up with technology. It hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years."
Holt, who has had his real estate license for about two and a half years, entered the real estate business as an agent with Coldwell Banker before he joined Redfin. He has been working with Redfin for about a year but got his taste of the industry at an early age.
"Growing up, my parents used to take me to open houses," Holt says. "I grew up around houses so I thought I’d enjoy it. I got my license, and I do enjoy it."
Holt, a Stanford University graduate who studied math and computer science, says that Redfin’s marriage of technology and real estate attracted him to the company. He followed the Web site before Redfin became a brokerage company and he says he believes it gives consumers more power in the real estate process.
"(Redfin is) more on the innovative side of technology, where 10 years ago the Internet wasn’t a big part of the industry," he says. "Most of our clients are similar because they are tech-savvy and compelled for that reason."
Holt heads down the street to Schroeder’s Restaurant on Front Street where Redfin is hosting a monthly "Red Carpet" event. The events are designed to allow consumers to meet agents face-to-face, learn how Redfin.com works, and help them to understand the home-buying process.
Ernesto Pineda, a Redfin team leader, describes the people who work for Redfin as customer-service agents rather than salespeople. Redfin is a no-pressure sales, "customer-centric" model, he says, adding that the company promotes an environment for agents to grow and learn about their craft.
"We’re doing something people have tried to do, but we’re doing it the right way," Pineda says. "(The goal) is to take care of the customer, educate, and work in partnership to a happy goal for everybody."
At a one-hour client and agent meet and greet, Holt sits down with a young couple that has just begun their home search. The couple has numerous questions for Holt during a 15-minute session with him. When asked his opinion of their target house in accordance with their budget, Holt — who is getting married this year — assures the newlyweds he will be honest and realistic when helping them find a home. He reminds the couple that they are looking for a home first and a house second.
"They forget it’s a home," he says. "You should like what you buy."
The couple leaves the table smiling, and afterward Holt asks an observer, "Did I sound like I knew what I was talking about?"
The meet-and-greet event is followed by a home-buying class lead by David Billings, the company’s West Coast regional director. Close to 100 people of all ages take a seat in the back room of the bar and restaurant. Following the class is a party to mingle, meet agents, and talk real estate over beer, wine and cocktails.
Blackberry in hand, Holt excuses himself before the class to make "The Call" to his client who didn’t get the house they had presented an offer for. When he returns, Holt says they were disappointed but understood. As for the offers that don’t lock, there is always the possibility for next time, as the most rewarding part of Holt’s job is telling someone they got the home.
"They get excited about it," Holt says. "That’s why I love real estate."
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