This week, I was presented with one more bit of evidence that our industry, my career, is like none other. It’s unique in a lot of good ways, yet some not so good.
In response to my rhetorical yet obligatory how-was-your-day query, my 16-year-old tax deduction shared how a woman had happened to sit in on her high school drama class this particular afternoon. My logical and immediate response was, "Why?" According to my own thespian-wannabe, the woman, a fan of the arts, was there to take notes. Although this didn’t entirely satisfy me — I have never personally felt the urge to audit woodshop, although I am pretty handy with a glue gun — I suppose it’s plausible. At any rate, it was the ensuing conversation recounted by my daughter that I found sadly amusing. In the course of idle conversation, she learned that this out-of-context stranger was in fact a real estate agent.
"My parents are real estate agents, too," Emily shared.
"They are?" replied the honorary understudy. And then, with a sense of urgency, she added, "Do they have other jobs?"
"Nope, just real estate! But I hear the market is really tough. How you doin’?" taunted my loyal and snarky adolescent, one who has always been short a few trailing g’s.
With head hanging, the woman confessed, "Not so well."
I had to surmise that she did, in fact, have one of those "other jobs." Now, I know that having more than one job is not the stuff of headline news, particularly in today’s more challenging times. It’s just that to successfully pull it off, it’s kind of important that the jobs involve very definite start and end times. This is where it gets tricky, so try to stay with me. It’s a scheduling thing. If I have to be at T.G.I. Friday’s at 8 p.m., it helps that my shift at Home Depot ends at 7:30 p.m. Any overlap, and somebody’s job is not going to get done. Last time I checked, there was no time clock in my home office.
Strange times we are living in. Strange that strangers a generation apart are chatting about the real estate market. Stranger yet that so many consider a real estate license circumstantial evidence that one really does something else for a living.
I can’t fathom asking my accountant where else he works. How ludicrous to think that my attorney is moonlighting — as an attorney — just to make ends meet until his plumbing business takes off. As agents, why should it be different? We are not clock-punchers, and full service cannot be delivered part time, yet our industry practices, from licensing to hiring, tend to ignore this little detail. It’s as if we are double-daring the consumer to take us seriously.
Economic cycles and free market forces dictate that there will be glory days and harder times. But in real estate, we seem to have this tendency to taunt the supply and demand laws. When work is plentiful, we multiply like bunnies. Yet, when the business slows, the open-door policy remains in full force, except that the door is opened a little wider yet. It’s counterintuitive, and the result is that too many find themselves in a job-share program, not fully present, to the detriment of the consumer and our image.
If I work for an automaker and orders are down, workers get laid off. If I work for the auto dealer and sales are down, we don’t just all continue to hang around the car lot in our spare time while the boss keeps on hiring and until we outnumber the customers by a factor of 10. At some point, you can’t afford to have all of those people drinking from the water cooler, not to mention it just looks bad. Good business practice dictates that companies keep only the best, the most productive, when business slows. In difficult times, it is survival of the fittest — in seemingly every industry and profession but ours. We are not wired that way, and maybe that is our one fatal flaw.
My husband rhetorically asked what happened to our broker’s policy of only hiring full-time agents. After all, this was the proud mantra just a few years ago. Well, the market downturn happened, which reminds us that the policy was never about the consumer and about providing excellence at all. When every desk is occupied, it is easy to be discriminating in the name of excellence. When times get tough, there is no hiding that it is all about the balance sheet. Rather than retool the model, principles tend to get thrown under the bus. It’s quantity over quality, and we all suffer as a result.
I am finding myself surrounded by more bit actors lately. We encounter nearly as many part-time dabblers in our transactions as we do full-time committed agents. Lax licensing laws allow this to happen by giving anyone willing to take the time to fill in the bubbles the entrance ticket. Too many brokerages allow this to happen by playing the role of enabler, inviting them all on stage. We need a big-time intervention, but I am not optimistic. The National Association of Realtors wants more members, my local board wants more members, and the brokers want more agents. Their models depend on it. Like those subprime teaser-rate loans, the industry seems focused only on what the bottom line is today and not what it will cost us in the long run. For every one of us who is full-time committed, committed to improving our value, improving our reputation and improving our industry, for every one of us who recognizes that our current myopia could ultimately prove incurable, there are currently a dozen other character actors shooting us in our proverbial feet, treating real estate like their "other job."
And when the part-time gig doesn’t quite work out, there is always the referral fee to fall back on. We were speaking to a friend this week who finally decided to give up on the real estate show altogether. Instead, she is going to get her broker’s license so that she can just "refer out" all of her friends for a fee. It’s not a big deal really — just a couple of online courses and a multiple-choice exam. The sad thing is that it will work.
Real estate is my only job, but I am feeling like an anomaly today. I see too many signs. Perhaps they are just signs of the times, but they sadden me nonetheless. When we recently noted in a listing that the "seller would cooperate with a 1031 exchange at no cost to buyer," we fielded no fewer than four calls in the first week. "What’s a 1031 exchange?" the agents asked. Three times this week I have had to brief a cooperating agent on either a new form or on a new law that made an old form obsolete. Trying to negotiate an offer with an agent’s full voicemail box is becoming a routine frustration. Blame it on those other jobs.
Times are trying, and we are all learning to adapt and cope. I just wish more people would take their roles more seriously. Be either fully committed to this line of work, or do something else entirely. Anything in between is a disservice to your clients and to our collective reputation.
As for me, the day my accountant tells me that he is referring out my business so he can pursue his "other job" I will fire him.
And when that happens, won’t he be glad he has that real estate license to fall back on?
Kris Berg is a real estate broker associate for Prudential California Realty in San Diego. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.
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