Back to school — three little words that delight and at the same time take a few years off a poor parent’s life expectancy.

Back when my children were young, before they thought they had rights or could even conceive of a day that they would see me — not as a larger-than-life beacon of authority and truth, but as an unenlightened, not-so-bright, general poster child for all that is wrong with the world — I at least felt in control of the back-to-school process. This is because they needed me.

I had a few critical proficiencies they hadn’t yet mastered. I could read, a skill that came in mighty handy when it was time to complete the teacher’s "Things you must bring to school lest arms start growing out of your ears and you are mercilessly mocked and ridiculed by your peers" list.

I was wise, at least relatively speaking, wisdom born of having filled more than a few shopping carts with glue sticks and Hello Kitty folders. And, of course, I was the only one in the bunch who had both a driver’s license and a credit card. Advantage: Mom.

A dozen years later, things have changed. They still need me, but all I’ve got left in my corner is the charge card. Advantage: still Mom. The irony is that the brain damage associated with mobilizing the troops for another year of learnin’ hasn’t diminished — it’s just different.

Armed with car keys and a sense of omnipotence, my little soldiers are empowered. They can find the "Pencil Pouches Backwards ‘R’ Us" store without my help. They can fill their own carts without any assistance.

What they lack, though, are my experience, my systems and my subjective reasoning skills. Consequently, I still have a big old mess on my hands come August.

At last count, Daughter No. 2 has made 23 trips to the "Two-Inch Binder Barnyard." She forgets something, or she forgets she bought something on her last trip, and has to return it. In short, she is just plain overwhelmed.

I am expecting a call from the credit-card company any day. "We have reason to believe that your card is subject to fraudulent activity. Did you recently purchase 16 backpacks and a stylish modular credenza in the honey oak finish?"

The back-to-school mom — it feels a lot like the real estate agent. In the beginning, when our clients needed to go shopping, they turned to us in wide-eyed anticipation. We had the list of properties, and only we could read the list. Heck, we owned the store!

I seem to recall a lot less distrust in those days but, if I’m honest, the wagging finger of distrust still existed; the circumstances were just different.

Back in the good old days, we were personal shoppers, and home offerings were necessarily spoon-fed to our clients. Even then, I remember being occasionally challenged by the customer brave enough to speak up. "Are you showing us everything?" they would ask, eyebrow squarely raised.

Then, their only weapon to ensure that we were being diligent and thorough was the weekend open-house pilgrimage, a mission intended to uncover "the one" that we undoubtedly overlooked. Now, they can find the store on their own — in their fuzzy bunny slippers and without leaving their keyboards.

And I love this. In theory, it is a newer, more efficient form of checks and balances. But don’t believe for a minute that this makes our jobs any easier. Our roles are just different now. Our customers are in their teens. …CONTINUED

When I read Tara-Nicholle Nelson’s article this week discussing this very predicament, I was already too many words into my own stream of consciousness to abandon ship. So, I’ll risk redundancy and offer my spin on the empowered homebuyer and seller.

We get calls about the 4,000-square-foot home offered for $4,000, and we have to explain that it is an input error or a lease offering. We get calls on a "new listing," which isn’t a listing at all but a notice of Trustee Sale.

In San Diego, we have a "contingent" category for listings — those homes have accepted offers but are awaiting bank approval. They aren’t really available, yet they show up as active on any site populating through an Internet Data Exchange (also known as IDX — a platform for brokers to share property information online) feed, thus we have more explaining to do.

When providing comparable pricing for our clients, we have to explain that the home down the street really didn’t sell for $1.95, at least not in an arm’s length transaction. We are beat silly with automatic valuations that make no sense, either to the high or low side. And sometimes, we have to defend against indictments that we aren’t doing enough to find the needle-in-haystack, smoking deal of a dream home for our clients.

Two months ago, while sitting at my computer at 5:30 a.m. feeling under-caffeinated and questioning the existence of a just and righteous god, I received an e-mail from a buyer client.

Referring to a new listing that had been entered into the multiple listing service sometime during the wee hours of darkness (a listing I had not yet brought to his attention, because I had foolishly associated darkness with a time to sleep), he proceeded to call me to the carpet. "I feel like I’m both the buyer and the agent. I had to do the home search myself. Can I get some cash back after the home is closed?"

Ouch. What we had here was a trust issue. More importantly, I had failed. I had failed not by failing to monitor the MLS on a 24-hour watch, but by failing to effectively communicate the process and to establish expectations early on. It was time for me to go back to school.

Now, at first contact, I tend to engage in a lengthy discussion with our clients of the tools at their disposal. I recommend a half-dozen sites where they might view homes for sale including my own, and then I remind them that my list isn’t exhaustive — there are approximately 3,500 other sites that might serve their purposes as well.

I explain that oftentimes the data they see will have a goofy factor that will need some ‘splaining, and that I am available to clarify, interpret or even start the engine when they find what looks like a "winner."

I advise on the importance of mapping the contenders to confirm that those panoramic views aren’t of buzzing electrical transformers or of the interstate sound wall. We talk about "too good to be true" pricing often associated with short sales where the list prices are determined by multiplying the birthdays of the loss mitigator’s children and dividing by a random number between one and 10.

And we talk about how the sellers of these homes are probably already sitting on 67 offers, half of which can’t see the original list price through the clouds.

Most importantly, I remind them that when they are in full-red-alert-home-search mode, they will undoubtedly find themselves resting on the reset key at times of day that I might not, like darkness. Finding candidate properties is not an arms race; it is a cooperative venture — a partnership. They have the car keys now. I am here to help them sort through the process and make some sense of it all.

It’s time-consuming to be sure, this partnering stuff, but they’ve grown up. And as our clients are doing so much more on their own now, my involvement is still required. They still need me, just in a different way.

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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