The e-mail was titled, "What is your communication method to the customer?" That alone left me shaking my head. Did she say "to" the customer?

And communicate to me, she did, but it was the message to follow that I found most offensive.

"I spoke to the receptionist at your office and she said you were "unavailable" to speak with me. Perhaps you were out taking a listing or showing a home?

The e-mail was titled, "What is your communication method to the customer?" That alone left me shaking my head. Did she say "to" the customer?

And communicate to me, she did, but it was the message to follow that I found most offensive.

"I spoke to the receptionist at your office and she said you were "unavailable" to speak with me. Perhaps you were out taking a listing or showing a home? I realize you are very busy and respect your time," read the first paragraph.

Now, if there is one thing I dislike more than being communicated to, it is being lied to. I have no receptionist, unless you count the chipper lady who lives in my cell phone and reminds me to start speaking after the tone. No, wait — that’s me, too.

What she was peddling was cutting-edge technology — a drip marketing e-mail campaign — because "creating top of the mind awareness is needed in a market like today," I was reminded.

And don’t get me wrong; at this point, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the "hundreds" of e-letters "waiting for (me) to send to the consumer." With revolutionary stuff like "Five reasons you need me as your agent" and "I’ll negotiate your home purchase offer!" I was certainly just one mouse click away from intergalactic domination.

The problem here is in the value of free.

The e-letter campaign will not be free to me, of course. It will cost me $35 a month. Someone has to write allof those thoughtfully crafted messages, like the one on "Thank you for doing business with me." As my receptionist will tell you, I am too busy, unavailable to write my own thank-you notes.

No, the issue is that my courter’s own drip campaign is essentially free to her, so she has no respect for "the me" or the message. She can send out thousands of these queries with a single keystroke. So what if the message isn’t fully developed or is slightly disingenuous? The price is right.

On the other hand, if my inbox charged a $1 entrance fee, she might have put a little more thought into it and made it count. As it was, I was a throwaway. …CONTINUED

Free is rarely a good thing because when something is given to us we don’t have any stake in the game. How many people might have fought a little harder to keep their homes if they hadn’t been given the downpayment, the closing costs and perhaps another late-inning freebie in the form of a cash-out refinance?

These are now what we call strategic foreclosures, and while we can argue that walking away is philosophically wrong, it is hard to argue that it doesn’t make the most financial sense. There was nothing to lose.

How much does this concept of free affect an agent’s success or failure? Last week I wrote about (see "Leaving the real estate nest") the traditional brokerage model in which everything is given to the agents. It doesn’t matter if an agent is offered a 90 percent split or only stands to make 50 cents on the dollar.

Playing with house money is much less risky. With little or no personal investment, by having a business capitalized by the broker and not myself, I might find it easier to work a little less hard or less smart and, ultimately, to walk away if things aren’t working out.

If you are an employee, salaried for doing prescribed tasks, it makes sense that your company pay for your office, your furnishings and your fixtures. It makes sense that they give you the two-hole punch.

If you are an independent contractor, it makes no sense. Our industry has spent so many years blurring this line that I wonder how we can fix it without starting over entirely. I don’t think we can, which is why I chose to start over with our little brokerage.

As an agent, I too am guilty as charged for not charging. Other agents have fallen into this trap of offering something for free, and this one is a tougher nut to crack. "Call me for a free comparative market analysis!" or "Get your free list of homes!" we say. Over time, we have made ourselves so darn "free" that any perception of value or respect is lost in the message.

Both pre- and post-hire, I find myself struggling more with the idea that I have become so free in the name of service that I am effectively shooting myself repeatedly in my commission-based foot. So much of this is because we are victims of a back-end compensation arrangement. Until the fat lady closes escrow, it’s not over. It’s just free, bankrolled by the house on the come.

If I show up late to an appointment with my doctor or even the cable guy, I’m out of luck. My buying customers show up late all of the time, and I wait. The sellers pay the real estate fees, after all. I am free.

Last month, I was driving to a listing appointment 10 minutes away from my would-be client’s kitchen table when I received a call. "Our plans have changed," she said. "We’ll call you when we are ready."

With a day of preparation under my belt and an expensive listing package in my passenger seat, I made a U-turn. Yesterday, the would-be client’s home made its debut on the market with another agent. Call it disrespect or call it dishonesty, but what the heck? …CONTINUED

It’s not like it cost the seller anything — I was only filling my well-publicized role of purveyor of the free market analysis.

Post-hiring, as a listing agent, the idea of free still haunts us. Selling a home is necessarily a partnership. I can hire the photographer, print brochures, syndicate the listing, and sit at open houses until the cows come home.

I can’t make the beds, do the dishes, or remove the brochures from the flier-holder when the sprinklers come on. And I can’t make sellers adjust the price when market trends suggest they should.

"We’ve got time," they say. "We’re patient," they remind us. "Maybe we’ll just rent. Oh, and please bring another box of brochures. The old ones are wet."

Then, when there are no offers, or the offers aren’t quite good enough, we are easily replaced despite our best efforts. That’s the great thing about free. It doesn’t cost much.

As a matter of full disclosure, most of our clients are quite respectful and committed to the process and to us. But getting from customer Point "A" to client Point "B" seems far more difficult lately. Whether the relationship is based on a verbal or a written contract, there is simply no penalty for early withdrawal.

My daughter has a guitar. She bought it with her own money, saved up from months of babysitting random, diaper-clad short people when she would have rather been at the beach. Google "Three-Mile Island" and you will find a picture of her bedroom. Yet, if you look closely, in the far corner you will also see her guitar neatly tucked in its case protected by a 1-foot clearing as a monument to its awesomeness.

It’s her investment and, unlike all of my own investments in her lifestyle, this one has value. If they had made her pay for it only after she learned a few chords, or if I had paid for it, she would now be using it as a step ladder to hang another poster of Nick Jonas. Instead, she can channel Sheryl Crow like nobody’s business.

As agents, we could charge a retainer, or even require installment payments, but good luck with that. Someone else will still be free, and free is always better. Only, it’s not. And, when I think of it in these terms, I can appreciate the difficulties that the traditional brokerages face in retooling their free model.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. We just need to find a way to convey that success is more certain when there is a personal investment involved. Or, we can just keep being free and pretend that free is worth something. The problem is that the return on a zero investment is not infinity; it is nothing. You simply can’t divide by free.

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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