At the turn of this decade, unease was a state of mind. In 1999, change was accelerating and danger was lurking, but not where we expected. Disaster was purportedly coming from "Y2K," the computer-programming glitch in the digital rollover from "99" to "00."

Y2K paranoia fizzled within a few seconds of this New Year, new decade, new century and new millennium.

What no one predicted 10 years ago was the coming financial cataclysm. At the time, subprime loans did not go by that name and represented less than 1 percent of new mortgages. If you were not qualified, you could not buy a home.

We entered the U.S. debt decade, in which the good life was associated with extravagance vs. prudence, debt trumped savings, big bested small, and strutting reigned over humility. Leverage equaled luxury.

The results: The ’00s will go down in economic history as one of the worst decades of the last 200 years — proof that financial innovation can be very dangerous.

The market’s boom and bust was not confined to real estate; it reverberated throughout the global economy. Rising house values spawned bloated refinancing and lines of credit that accelerated consumer spending, aiding the ever-rising Chinese economy, which purchased mortgage-backed securities in record numbers to keep the cycle going.

The debt load tripped off a global economic collapse. Government intervention was required to prop up the system, which has led to another bubble in government debt. This problem will not jolt the economy but instead create long-term suffering such as higher inflation.

Early on, Inman News used the term "subprime tsunami" to describe a domino-like meltdown in this segment of the mortgage market, and this term caught on as the problem mounted. Unraveling the causes seemed complex at first, but in fact the explanation was simple:

1. Greed;
2. Reward through debt;
3. A reckless compact between the private sector and the government to promote homeownership.

During the past 10 years, a raft of technology innovation flew above the muck of a crazy real estate market.

In the real estate sector, government intervention played an important role in removing barriers to innovation. Throughout the decade, the U.S. Justice Department was investigating, coercing and intervening to prevent the real estate industry from engaging in anticompetitive practices, including the unfair hoarding of home listing data and discouraging new business models. …CONTINUED

The music and movie industries learned that they could not curb new forms of creativity and music sharing. It took the power of the U.S. government to teach organized real estate that it could not control the flow of housing data and thwart different ways of conducting business.

Clouding the vision of the National Association of Realtors during the decade was its investment in Homestore, a company that was mired in controversy and engulfed in scandal, including a series of criminal indictments, class-action lawsuits and finger-pointing. For all sides, that partnership was a case study in what not to do and how not to do it. Though I suspect there was never a thorough and thoughtful review of how the culture, decision-making and governance of NAR should be overhauled to prevent such scandals in the future.

Pushed in part by eRealty, a small and courageous startup from Texas, the Justice Department let organized real estate know that the industry powers could no longer do whatever they wanted in trying to control how technology would influence the housing market.

Indeed, small startups and entrepreneurs, often backed by venture capitalists from California’s Silicon Valley, inspired most of the early innovation in real estate. Many of these firms failed, but their risk-taking contributed to innovation in data search, new business models, mapping, home data, social media and new local services. Big franchises and brokers at first resisted, then scrambled to keep up, as tens of thousands of agents adopted technology with a fury.

The next level of innovation, later in the decade, was more fragmented, brought on by free open-source tools and cloud computing, and inspired by an exciting new generation of bloggers, one- or two-man engineering shops and social networkers. These change agents were less confrontational, more modest in their ambitions and declarations, and were real estate agents in several instances. A community formed around them as they innovated.

The result: Technology changes from the bottom up were more relevant and meaningful, and resulted in wide-scale tech adoption.

Through it all, the traditional real estate services model has been tested, and trashed and confronted by critics, but the role of the commission-based real estate agent has never been stronger.

When people buy and sell a house they still hire a real estate agent, by and large.

What has changed is how people find houses, how they find agents, what they expect of agents, and how agents necessarily use technology. Consumers are smarter, markets are more dynamic and all parties are less secretive and more straightforward.

For the first part of this decade we will be recovering from the economic wreckage, but we will benefit from a new wave of technology. The barriers are down, fear is dissipating, conflicts are fewer, most everyone has lightened up (including me), and collaboration is a state of mind. What is next? Lots.

Brad Inman is the owner and publisher of Inman News, and the founder and owner of TurnHere and Vook. He founded and sold HomeGain.


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