As you read this today, Nov. 5, there is only one topic being discussed around the water cooler. The subject is so timely and historic, that to write about anything else this morning would be irresponsible. I’m talking, of course, about the challenges facing today’s real estate agent.
OK, the big talk today is something about a new president. Unfortunately, as I pen this, "today" is actually sometime last week. Even though you know who our next president is (unless, of course, Florida is showing reruns), I do not. It seems I am the victim of a really bad time slot.
So, in honor of our new president (what’s-his-name), I will stay on topic and share my hopes for the next administration. These are just some of the issues most important me, "Joe the Real Estate Agent":
I want some of that health insurance stuff I am hearing so much about. I am a member of the National Association of Realtors, an organization with clout whose current dues-paying headcount represents a big, fat chunk of the voting-age populace. Why is it, then, that in four years my coverage has been cancelled three times? My current provider (as of this writing, knocking wood) generously stepped in during my most recent time of need and offered me a policy with a deductable that makes the most recent federal bailout plan look like chump change.
I pay my premiums on time and have done so for more than a decade without incident, yet I am inclined to take my children to see an actual physician not when they are slightly feverish but only when they are glowing in the dark or spontaneously combusting. In the case of a true emergency (somebody is choking on their co-pay), the doctor can usually squeeze us in — in 2012. Mostly, though, we are learning to be brave. If we are well enough to get to Urgent Care, then maybe we are just not sick enough to go.
Enough with security, already. The security of our multiple listing service has certainly been breached. Our trade secrets have fallen into the hands of evildoers, those rebellious consumers intent on getting their eyes on our listings. Admittedly, our founding fathers when drafting our original Constitution could not possibly have conceived of our current Web-based world — a real estate Second Amendment where every citizen now has the right to form militia — but let’s acknowledge it and move on. My clients have access to the same homes for sale that I do, and in many cases more.
A national MLS essentially exists, albeit scattered over hundreds of very public sites. So I beg the next administration to make it official. I know the bill is being debated. It’s time to get it out of committee.
While my clients are out there enjoying their freedom of information, I would like my own closed-system MLS to be one I can actually break into. Access shouldn’t require an act of Congress. This past weekend, as we traveled from one showing to the next, my client was banging away on her Blackberry frantically searching for homes I might have missed. This is what we call checks and balances, but when she finally did hit pay dirt, I was again reminded of the flaws in our current system.
Needing the one thing that my client didn’t have at her disposal — show instructions — I sprang into action. I parked the car, grabbed my own Web-enabled phone, and attempted to capitalize on my special closed-system security clearance. It was time to show off. User ID? Check. Special password? Check. Secret decoder key fob?
Digging through the depths of my purse, I successfully isolated the government-issue device, next to the checkbook, behind the utility bill I forgot to mail in August, and beneath the set of keys to my last broker’s office (the one which through the miracle of right-sizing no longer exists). I scraped the old M&M off of the little screen (a blue one), and pushed the button. I quickly entered the magic number that appeared, quickly because the number is fickle. It comes, it goes. Time is of the essence.
I made the cutoff — so far, so good. Except now my phone displayed a new screen, one I had never seen before, and I was being asked for yet another user ID and another password. Two more security levels? Authenticators for my authenticator? I was tapped out. I had nothing. "Would you like to use my phone?" my client asked. The problem is that it’s not the phone; it’s the system. Given enough time and enough passwords I might have claimed victory but, on this day, the "terrorists" had won.
We’ve been told why the heightened security is necessary. Too many agents were abusing our own system. I’m wondering, though: In an industry constantly touting a Code of Ethics, might we just enforce the ethics? Might we simply punish the abusers rather than the entire membership? Abuse the system, lose your privileges. Just sayin’.
Free trade or trade restrictions (pick one)
As our fragmented MLS system limps along, we are starting to see reciprocal agreements between many local boards. "I’ll let you see mine if I can look at yours." Détente is good, but unless an agent joins multiple boards and pays multiple dues, our shared access is read-only.
Twice this week I had separate clients ask about local homes they had seen online, homes I could not find in my own MLS. So I did what any diligent agent with top-level security access does. I Googled. Both were listed, not in our MLS, but in an MLS two hours away by agents with offices two hours away. Maybe they were just watching the bottom line, not wanting to pop for the extra fees to enter their listings in the correct, corresponding database. Or maybe they were aware of the power of the Internet and, by inference, the increasing antiquation of our own government system. Come on, people!
If we are going to allow our own products to be sold abroad, at least require that those same products be available at home. Two misfiled homes may not be epidemic, but it could be symptomatic. I should not have to search on five different sites covering half of the state to find properties available in my ZIP code and I should not be relegated to using a third-party search engine to do my job. It’s inefficient and it’s embarrassing.
Equal pay for equal work (and the other way around)
Argue if you will that the free market will weed out the lesser agents and reward the exceptional, but I will argue that it’s time for some government oversight. On the listing side, preconditions to the offer of compensation are strictly forbidden. So when we close this week on a home for which the buyer’s agent spent a good portion of the escrow period in Hawaii while we, back on the mainland, opened escrow, shuffled paperwork, and accompanied her clients, their friends and both sets of in-laws to two inspections, one appraisal and one extended visit for "measuring stuff," she will receive a paycheck identical to our own.
Except we incurred all of the costs. And she has a nice tan. We are happy escrow will be closing, however. The first time this home was under contract, the buyer cancelled — a buyer we showed the home to because his agent "lived too far away." I simply can’t see any injustice in permitting a few preconditions. For instance, prior to allowing an agent to cash his commission check, I think he should be required to know roughly where the home he just "sold" is located, and he should be able to identify his clients in a lineup, even if relying on the "best guess" method. This entitlement test could be administered in a simple multiple-choice format, kind of like the test we took to get our licenses.
There is more, of course. I want someone to find a way to legislate common sense. I don’t want to rely on an executive order to show your listings. When the instructions say that I must make an appointment with a minimum 72 hours’ notice, and that I may only show on Sundays between 1 p.m. and 1:07 p.m. unless it is overcast or we have a Republican-controlled Congress, at least return my call during the current administration when I do want to bring my client by on your terms. And I don’t want to dress for combat every time I take a buyer out. When I arrive at a multi-unit building as I did Saturday to find 17 lockboxes shackled to the same gas meter, as my clients hold frantically to my nape lest I topple off of my big-girl heels head first onto the sprinkler valve, I expect to resurface from within the hedge of death stylishly covered in cobwebs and with an impressive wad of gum stuck to my shin, having at least found that your lockbox bore some distinguishing mark or that it actually contained a key to the property or, on a good day, both.
These may seem like trivial issues to our leaders, but they are the issues that affect "Me the People" every day. Our new president may not care, but maybe our own industry representatives are listening. It’s time to make history and form a more perfect union.
Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.