This week, I was showing homes to a past client — a repeat offender. I helped her first with a purchase and then with the sale of that home when she relocated out of state. Now she is on her way back to the scene of the crime to do it all over again. You might say that we have a history, and we are now friends.

As we caught up and swapped stories on our respective lives, I asked her how the sale of her home in the Midwest was going. She had interviewed several agents, she told me, and just about the time she was ready to bludgeon herself with her stack of complimentary comparative market analyses, she met her dynamo.

"We found our Kris Berg!" she squealed.

"Aargh," I thought. Not good. Not good because four years ago when we were marketing her San Diego home, we sucked. And I don’t mean we were bad agents or that our marketing plan was bad, at least not compared to the other agents and other marketing plans of that era. Instead, I was thinking back to how we did things then vs. now. We’ve evolved. We’ve gotten better, but she was still using our performances of yesterday as her baseline for measuring competency today and for setting her expectations for tomorrow.

I guess all things are relative.

One agent, my client told me, was going to charge 7 percent to put copies of the multiple listing service printout in a flier box. "For that, I expect skywriting!" she said. This same agent, when asked about how she would promote the home, boasted that (insert "Big Brand Co." here) advertises nationally and has a Web site.

Cool. Another agent, dripping originality, was prepared to hold a lot of open houses and for a slightly lower fee. And, ironically, it was the agent with the lowest fee yet that offered the most in terms of service and innovation.

The punch line is that all were affiliated with the same company.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not about the fees, although my client was slightly confused as to why there was virtually no nexus between cost and service. Rather, it is about this bed we have made — one wherein we lack consistency and quality control, one in which our customers don’t expect more because we have given them so little for so long. Talk about branding …

What we need is a rebranding of our entire industry. We are an army of independent contractors acting far too independently. Taking my client’s example, you have three people presumably qualified to perform the same work, yet all they share in common is a lockbox key and an awards plaque etched with the same logo. Of course our business plans cannot and should not be prescribed, but some oversight and minimum standards on the part of the brokerages would be in order — if it is not already too late.

I asked her about the big brand vs. the small. In her town, the big brand dominates, she said. "Why?" I asked. "I suppose people know that’s the way it is done, it’s always been done. I guess they are resigned."

And then she told me how she actually looks for the agent’s reflection in the bathroom mirror now when she is scanning the property photos on the Internet, because it makes her laugh. Again, I had to ask, "Why would people accept that from their agent?" She replied, "I suspect the bar has just been set. They’ve been conditioned. They know that is just what you get."

Sadly, they may be right. That is what you get far too often. You get creative spelling in your ad copy or no copy at all. You get a picture on the World Wide Web of your family room where no one thought to turn off the television or move the motorcycle, or worse: You get no photos. You get a day laborer to perform a task that really requires a highly skilled professional. You think you don’t have a choice or that the choice doesn’t matter.

In my own little brokerage, we have standards for the agents. They are minimum standards, but they are necessary to build and maintain a solid reputation. The agents must have photos of their listings professionally taken; they must order custom yard signs with property photos and text; and they must produce the same, insanely expensive brochures — all at their own expense.

These are just marketing examples. We have similar minimum standards for contract management, client care and conduct. "But if I mandate these things, the agents will leave!" you say. Well, let them. …CONTINUED

Our company may never grow up to be a baseball team, let alone a league, but we will be able to play a mean game of doubles tennis, and we won’t be trashing the reputation of our brokerage or the industry in the process. Then as soon as I begin to consider myself noble, reality pays a visit.

We come out on the losing end of the interview, runners-up to an agent who thinks that this "shrot [sic] sale subjected to lender approval" will just sell itself but, just in case, takes a single picture of the toilet bowl with his cell phone. Meanwhile, his broker is out at a recruiting lunch, none the wiser.

It’s not how big you are, it is how big you play, but the guys on steroids do tend to get all of the attention. And too many brokers who are in a position to effect change are still playing by the old rules, clinging to the status quo, holding their breath until they turn blue, and figuring that with a little less office space, slightly higher fees to the agents and the return of a better market, things will all be just ducky again. I fear it’s a little more complicated than that.

Some days I see glimmers of hope, evidence that more agents and companies are "getting it." Most days, however, it seems futile, and I feel rather silly for even thinking any of our principles or standards can matter. We are still operating in a lawless society, the old Gold Rush mining town where too many agents and brokers armed with licenses see only the next stagecoach and not the next stage.

This morning I received a recruiting e-mail from a small, independent brokerage. I was promised low fees, the ability to work full or part time, a real-live company Web site, and "direct access to the broker." Wow! I can even talk to the broker? Mostly, I was offered the freedom to work as I choose, and maybe that’s the problem. Where’s the oversight?

And then there was the other e-mail in which the big brand offered, as evidence of their awesomeness, their production numbers and closed transactions. Yes, the agents numbered in the thousands, but having some time ago mastered the art of long division, I was able to quickly establish that each agent on average was closing about 1.2 transactions per year.

I suspect there is a management retreat taking place right now to discuss how they can improve — by recruiting more agents. And I suspect nowhere on the agenda are topics like why their agent, who I worked with on a recent closing, didn’t have a clue about how an actual real estate transaction works and left a path of destruction in her wake for 30 long days, only to be rewarded with a $14,000 paycheck for her trouble.

I received a comment on my blog this week in which the commenter was speaking to the appraisal mess, but he could just as easily have been speaking to the mess the real estate brokers and agents have made.

"Unfortunately, the pattern you tend to see is if the industry doesn’t police itself, then outsiders will step in and do it. Without any disrespect intended to the honest and hardworking (professionals) out there, (absent someone) self-regulating the industry, this kind of outcome is what you expect, isn’t it?"

That’s what we have — an agent community and, more importantly, a broker community that has not been bold enough to police itself. And the "outsiders" who are stepping in to do it for us, slowly but in growing numbers, are the customers. In my client’s Midwest town, they may not think they have a choice, but they do, and they will realize it soon enough.

Maybe it is simply a reflection of our societal mindset, this idea of working for instant gratification rather than long-term solvency and reward. And maybe I am naive to think that anything a little "indie" shop does or doesn’t do can make a dent in this image we have created for ourselves.

But, if we continue to do business in a way that suggests we really do very little and care even less, we may work ourselves out of a job. And it won’t matter how successful your recruiting efforts were when your customers stop buying what you have to sell.

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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