To say that real estate is in a state of deep reinvention is like saying the market is bad. We all know it. We’re all looking for ways to start over and build anew.

Yet, when I suggested in a previous guest article the notion that brokers should rethink their real estate office space and get rid of it to cut costs, many protested.

Editor’s note: The following is a guest essay related to the Inman News Roadmap to Recovery editorial project, which is focused on choosing the best footholds as the industry attempts to redefine itself and climb out of this severe economic downturn. Click here for more details.

To say that real estate is in a state of deep reinvention is like saying the market is bad. We all know it. We’re all looking for ways to start over and build anew.

Yet, when I suggested in a previous guest article (see "Brokers, change your ways") the notion that brokers should rethink their real estate office space and get rid of it to cut costs, many protested.

Some said we need space to show that we operate a professional business.

I say, if you’re looking at space as a sign of professionalism to your consumers it’s really time to rethink what the word "professional" means, and how that might be illustrated today — especially within the context of what a real estate office is and should be going forward.

Space, a final frontier

If you believe in a consumer-centric business model rather than or in conjunction with an agent-centric model, then the question remains: Do consumers need four walls in order to be convinced that a brokerage is a legitimate operation, and do agents need space or order to feel professional?

We learned from the exhaustive surveys performed by both the National Association of Realtors and California Association of Realtors that consumers judge agents based on whether they meet their service needs or not, rather than where agents spend their day. This much is crystal clear as indicated by survey respondents’ expectations for quick responses from agents.

Possessing a cubicle, on the other hand, rarely if ever shows up as an indicator of professionalism or a customer need.

So where does space enhance the experience for both parties? We know that a cool, clean, unencumbered space — conveniently located and designed to optimize your services, extend your brand position and build a culture — is critical to any organization.

But the old model — that catacomb-of-cubicles-that-barely-sees-human-life space; the maze-of-PCs-printers-phones-and-fax-machines space; the back-office-conference-room space; the uninviting-waiting-area-toward-the-front-door-with-a-couple-of-chairs-for-visitors space — is for the most part expensive, useless and enhances little for your agents and the consumer.

Turning space into a great place

Let’s look at how a consumer-centric broker might approach space for their real estate office today. For that preview, I offer you a look at one of the world’s brand geniuses: Apple Computer.

Apple did not start out with retail stores in every major city, but it has them now. Why? Because its executive team thought about what a consumer would need in a retail space. More than just a cash register where you purchase your Mac, iPhone or iPod and then leave until next time, Apple stores indeed have become consumer-centric hangouts.

From the Genius Bar, where you can take your laptop to be examined or get help with a particular problem, to the simple treat of being able to stop in and check e-mail on a glorious new machine, to the space dedicated to teaching users about new Mac applications — these stores are packed daily.

Yes, real estate is to computers what apples are to oranges, but your customers are the very same people and I can’t imagine them not being intrigued by real estate providing a very similar type of experience.

By building consumer-centric stores, Apple took whatever brand experience they had to levels unheralded in retail. I believe this model translates well for real estate brokers who constantly struggle for meaning in their brands, loyalty among consumers, and their agents as well.

Transformation

If you’re looking to cut costs, think about the possibilities. Either keep the large museums filled with old machines and empty spaces that draw little interest and hardly leverage the treasure inside, or build and occupy sleek destinations that offer insight, hands-on touch, a "genius bar" of local agents who waft interest into the street.

Bricks and mortar for real estate need not be cold and boring. Dismantle the cubicles. Install a free wireless network and a corner of computers where people can come in and surf the Web for new real estate listings. Add couches where consumers can feel relaxed while discussing the type of home, neighborhood and future they want to build for their families. Turn your place into a living room rather than the clinic so many offices look like today.

Ashfaq Munshi is the co-founder and CEO of Terabitz, a real estate technology company.

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