My youngest daughter came to me this week and announced that she has diabetes. She doesn’t, of course, but she came to this conclusion after spending an hour searching the Internet for the truth. It seems she has been really thirsty lately, drinking approximately 27 glasses of water a day by her own estimation. Don’t worry. She really hasn’t, but remember that children deal mostly in abstracts. "Tomorrow" means sometime other than today, "no" means maybe, and "27" means a whole bunch. So, 27 it is.
"It’s been dry out. You’re just thirsty," I told her in my most comforting, I-am-pretending-to-listen-while-I-finish-this-comparative-market-analysis voice. "But I could die," Emily warned. "Did you know that if you drink too much water, your organs can drown?" No I didn’t. It seems that she (one who, for the record, is not a marathon runner or even tends to walk briskly) also found this scientific revelation online, so it must be true. Who am I to question Google?
Now, last time I checked, my daughter hadn’t completed her residency, but because of the information at her disposal, she is fairly comfortable in her abilities to self-diagnose. The result is that she is both enlightened and just plain confused. Sure, her days are numbered, but will she ultimately succumb to high blood sugar or death by drowning? It’s really anyone’s guess.
Information overload. It’s a concept my other daughter, the one who isn’t terminal, and I have been discussing a lot lately. She is a college journalism student, while I am an untrained amateur. She has her eye on a career in serious writing, and I blog as an adjunct to my real job, ignorantly dangling my participles all along the way. Her important mainstream media writers and the likes of me and my blogging buddies get equal time and ranking on the search engines, the result being a whole lot of confusing noise.
She wrote on my own blog recently:
"Currently, I think the problem with the news — and this is not the fault of anyone or anything but rather an unavoidable consequence of technological progress — is simply that there is too much. Consumers of the news have reached the point where their Google feed readers, and their minds, are simply too full of information because it is now so readily available. The task that must now be taken up by the reputable news sources is to provide context for readers rather than just reports of the news. In this way, objective guidance will be provided to those readers who are sinking beneath the weight of information overload."
Now, I know what you are thinking: "You guys communicate through your blog?" Yes we do. And on Twitter, often from the same room. But more to point, I think she has a point. And it is one that speaks volumes to the changing relationship between the real estate agent and the consumer.
Consumers have got a lot of information, arguably too much, and it’s our job as real estate professionals to make sense of it. The trouble, I think, is that we tend to confuse information with knowledge. We tend to be reactive, taking our cues instead of proactively delivering our value and our service — we effectively allow our clients to write our job description. We tend to get lazy.
The vast majority of our buying clients lately have not only wanted to perform their own home searches but have preferred that we cease and desist entirely. I get it, and I respect it. I may check my multiple listing service "hot sheet" three times a day, but this same information is available to my clients.
And when they are in "click and conquer" mode in search of their dream home, they are checking online 27 times a day (and this time I’m not exaggerating). They are using mortgage-payment calculators and valuation tools; they are studying sales statistics and school test scores; and they are generally reading everything they can get their hands on that is even remotely related to the process. Consequently, I sometimes find myself falling into the trap of giving them too much credit.
Lately I have caught myself discussing the real estate market with clients like we are two agents hanging around the production board. I have found myself spewing terms like "REO," "BPO" and "short sale" like we are all in the same honors program. Concepts so basic to me — closing costs, PMI, lender reserves and prorations — are still not so basic to the consumer who got his degree at the online university.
At these moments, the glazed stares remind me that my new role is really not so different at all, even if I am the only one who gets it. In fact, I face greater challenges. I not only have the responsibility of educating, but I have to bring value to a classroom of students who think they have already learned it all in their homeschooling.
Yesterday, in discussing a potential offer with a client, I insisted that I send them the comparable sales. They said that there was no need — they were fully informed. I did it anyway. Within moments of hitting the "send" key, I was engaged in a lengthy phone call in which they wanted to discuss this "new" information. Next, I insisted I send them an estimate of closing costs. They said that there was no need — they had "run the numbers." I did it anyway and, before I could refill my water glass, we were on the phone again talking about loan-origination fees, tax prepayments, and escrow and title costs. And we talked about what title insurance actually is.
I was quite proud of myself. This time I had not assumed too much. Sure, I had to be a little pushy, but sometimes abdicating my traditional duties, even when the clients insist I do so, is not in their best interest. Then I got the third phone call.
"By the way, we don’t see your fees on our cost breakdown," the buyers admitted sheepishly. "How much will we owe you?"
Oh, my. But you are tech-savvy! You read my blog! It seems that in the past 120 days we had been at this, I had neglected to have the little conversation with these first-time buyers about how I am compensated. While they were out performing their own home searches and I was out being transparent, I guess I just forgot. Or I assumed.
Either way, it’s a reminder that the more things change, the more I need to stay the same. Sometimes our clients just don’t know what they don’t know and, given the deluge of information and misinformation, it’s not their fault. But by assuming too much, I am remiss. Our clients are sinking under the weight of information overload, and more now than ever it is up to us to provide objective guidance — whether they ask for it or not.
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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