Whenever my husband and I see one of those telltale signs of trouble, we fall back on an old joke. "The cat is on the roof," we say. I don’t remember where I first heard it, and it has many variations, but it goes something like this.

A man is away on vacation, and his brother has been house-sitting for him. When he calls home to check on things, the brother says, "Your cat died."

"What?" the man replies in shock.

"Yep. Dead. Bummer."

Whenever my husband and I see one of those telltale signs of trouble, we fall back on an old joke. "The cat is on the roof," we say. I don’t remember where I first heard it, and it has many variations, but it goes something like this.

A man is away on vacation, and his brother has been house-sitting for him. When he calls home to check on things, the brother says, "Your cat died."

"What?" the man replies in shock.

"Yep. Dead. Bummer."

"How could you be so insensitive, so cruel?" says the man. "You don’t break bad news like that. First you might have said that my cat was on the roof. Then, the next day, you might have told me that he had wandered to the edge, but you are trying to coax him down. Next you could say that he fell off the roof, but the vet is looking after him. Then you could tell me he didn’t make it. This way, I would have been better prepared."

"Sorry," said the brother. "I should have thought of that." After a brief pause, he added, "By the way, Grandma’s on the roof."

This is only funny when it is a joke. When it is your cat up there, it becomes quite serious. I have been getting the sense a lot lately that the cat may be on the roof in nearly every facet of my real estate world. The key is in recognizing the signs and adjusting to the likely outcome ahead of the inevitable.

First, a few years ago, we began to notice that the newspaper advertising cat was on the roof. Admittedly, I was slow to process the message. I was still spending the equivalent of the population of Delaware (expressed in gold bricks) on in-line ads in the Sunday Real Estate section long after the fatal fall, but I have since adapted. Among other things, I started migrating my marketing dollars online. And, I started a little blog.

Next, we saw that old way of communicating with our clients and each other teetering on the flashing. Phone calls were replaced by e-mail, and then we learned that text messaging and micro-blogging and instant chat were more effective yet, at least when interacting with the younger and increasingly progressive demographic. Social networking became all the rage. Even my husband, Cyber-Steve, a man widely known for his two-fingered typing and computer crashing skills, is getting with the program. During a recent college football game (the one where my daughter’s Mizzou team secured their place in the postseason Toilet Bowl), he was sending text messages to the heartland like nobody’s business. Sure, in the time it took him to text his last message, a sad face, he could have driven to Missouri and stood personally frowning outside her dorm room, but he is trying. Steve won’t be found on Twitter anytime soon, but you can count on him to return your e-mail and attach a file to it (in one of several fancy formats, no less) in relatively short order.

Our MLS system is most definitely frolicking near the rain gutters. That cat has been out of the bag for awhile. I was reminded of this again this week when a home in San Diego was listed, not in our MLS, but in the SoCal MLS by an agent who said she just wanted to "see how it goes" before paying to join our board two hours away. She had multiple offers, all above list price, in three days. How did we know about this home? Our client told us; Google and an online search site told him. Call me crazy, but it kind of makes me think that someone is sending us a message that it may be time to rethink our roles.

Finally, we saw the familiar and traditional big brokerage model on the roof years ago. Not wanting to go down with the cat, Steve and I first moved our own shingles to a "boutique" company, only to find that we were still affiliated with a familiar and traditional brokerage; it was just smaller now. Smaller doesn’t always mean better, so back we went. But, that darn cat is still at it. So this morning, we have taken the bold step of declaring independence. We are going to try it ourselves.

Going broker-owner is risky business and is at the same time exciting. Our hope is that it will allow us to be more nimble, more consumer-centric, more efficient and thus more effective. Most importantly, it will allow us to be more in control. We will either reach new heights or lose our footing altogether, but our world is changing, and I don’t want to find myself doe-eyed at some future news because I failed to see the signs.

For the record, Prudential has been exceedingly good to us and good for us. Their management team is comprised of some of the finest, most dedicated professionals I have ever met, and if you are a new agent on your way home from the licensing exam, they would be a fine company with which to associate. They are supportive and agent-centric, but they are still big business. For us, we are at a point where we need the autonomy and the flexibility to turn on a dime, the ability to adopt new technologies, tools and approaches quickly, without corporate consensus. The bad news is that our new venture does not have the backing of Warren Buffett; the good news is that he won’t be calling the shots.

I could be dead wrong of course. What I think is a cat on the roof may simply be an accumulation of fall leaves that blew in during the most recent storm. But, it can’t be denied that this business of real estate has changed dramatically in the past decade, and I will argue that there is no going back. It’s how we move forward that will shape our industry and ready us for the future. I can’t save the cat, but I can be prepared to cope with what I think I’m being told. Oh, and if you see me on the roof, send help.

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

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