Big things in little packages

Letters From the Home Front

Our family has it backwards. Every year, about the time the mall queues its first seasonal song track (August) — the one about the being home for the holidays — we start plotting our exit strategy.

And by early December, when normal people (normal people being defined as "people who don’t consider lockboxes fashion accessories") are in Code Red socializing readiness, we are holding a family meeting in which we map the emergency exits and review the evacuation checklist.

It’s not that there isn’t a certain appeal to living the dream of the sparkling beverage commercial — the one where the 257 handsome friends meet in the lucky hostess’s living room to share the love, laughter and cheese spread.

And it’s not that our family is an antisocial bunch by nature. Rather, sometime during the third quarter of each fiscal year, the real estate family has met its social quota. We are cooked.

For the real estate agent, every day is a party. We mix, we mingle and we meet new friends. We share anecdotes, kiss the babies, and deck the halls. We cherish our friends, of course — our clients — and like good friends, we are there for all of life’s ups and downs six days a week and on Sundays.

Dinnertime, during Superbowl overtime, and on my birthday, time is of the essence. Just like our purchase agreements, days mean days; they all count, and we are always required to be on-call and on.

But sometimes you just need to disappear.

Vacation. Here we go again.

The plan this year, like every year before, is that the nuclear Bergs will pack up the essentials and retreat to someplace far away — if not a different time zone then a different multiple listing service region. And the plan is that on departure "D-day," we will seamlessly transplant our immediate kinfolk to the remote location and embark on a carefree week of downtime involving nary a property tour or termite inspection.

It’s what we call "The Real Estate-Free Zone," and it’s a thing of myth.

This past weekend, on cue, everyone who has ever contemplated living someplace other than where they do now heard their egg timers go off. I’ve come to believe it’s a nesting thing triggered by holly and half-off sales.

If scientists ever decide to study the phenomenon, I’m certain they will find the culprit to be a mutant DNA strand that looks suspiciously like a gift receipt with my phone number on it.

Undeterred, we continue our push to clear the decks. We know you can’t truly relax with loose ends dangling, but it becomes an avalanche we can’t outrun. …CONTINUED

So when I proudly told one client that we would be on vacation this week, and when her expression suggested I had just told her there was no Santa Claus, I found myself doing it again.

"You won’t even know I’m gone!" I blurted. "I will have my laptop and my cell phone and my MLS password and your file and my power drill and a framed picture of your loan officer and …"

And I will, because you can take the girl away from real estate but you can’t take real estate out of the girl, although I do try. As I assemble my vacation-wear and my power cords for our little field trip, I will also be packing plans for some serious fun time.

There are some ideas for our blog that have been simmering on the back burner, and I have a couple of new, wacky business development concepts I’ve been toying with and want to test. I need to do some tidying up of our contact management database, and I have a business plan I have been meaning to put a bow on.

I recognize that this inability to detach is my personal incarnation of closed-system entropy, and not the good kind of which Seth Godin writes. Chaos breeds chaos, and my internal randomness tends to reach a crescendo this time of year.

As I prepare to leave work in order to go to work, albeit in a new location, every facet of my life tends to careen out of control.

My goal is to leave for vacation with the worry scale reset to zero, unfinished business suddenly finished, having archived one year and ready to take on the next. But suddenly the Tupperware cabinet which hasn’t been cleaned since the fall of the Roman Empire, the one now home to 82 bottoms but no tops, several dish towels, a coffee cup and John Grissom’s third novel, is bugging the hell out of me.

I’m no longer able to string words together to make a fragmented sentence because I can’t find the lid to the crock pot — the one that has been missing since Custer’s first stand. And this molecular chaos builds until paralysis sets in and I am unable to tackle the truly important things like studying the flashcards with the names and likenesses of my children.

Chaos creeps into my business life as well. Little to-do nits and big ideas tend to collide, and while the state of disorder creates a lot of energy, the resulting heat can be overwhelming.

One minute I am thinking like an agent, the next I am wearing my broker hat, and the next I am confusing the two. I find myself bouncing between dreams of intergalactic real estate domination and goals of market share in a four-block subdivision.

It’s not that I don’t have a plan; rather, I have too many plans — visions of sugar plums airing simultaneously on too many channels. This sends me drifting off to the dangerous land of big thinking again. I think this entropic state is becoming an issue for our entire industry, agents and brokers alike.

It’s moved beyond a giant spark of innovation; now we are just running around trying to extinguish too many four-alarm fires that we are told threaten to extinguish us. Only I am reminded again this week that they won’t. …CONTINUED

I met with a seller yesterday. And we met, as crazy as this sounds, in person. It was one of those increasingly rare real-life encounters where we addressed each other by name, not our screen names.

Yet, I was visibly astonished when he confessed he had never heard of Zillow. When I recounted the story during a subsequent appointment with a buyer, she admitted that she wouldn’t have heard of Zillow either except that her sister had recently purchased a home and had mentioned the site.

So while the National Association of Realtors is busy perfecting HouseLogic and Google is rumored to be dating Trulia; while ZipRealty, Redfin and a bevy of other big brokerages are jockeying to dominate the home-search experience and win the lead-generation war, agents’ clients — the end users — are only really paying attention when they get the seven-year itch. What this means for the individual agent, and even the small brokerage, is that the big picture matters much less than the Tupperware cabinet.

Search-engine optimization, unique visitors, lead generation, followers and friends — the how-to-succeed noise in this new frontier of expanded reach and opportunity — is deafening. The one thing the well-financed folks who are dominating the consumer search space have in common is that it is I, the broker and agent — not the consumer — who is the end game.

As for me, the one sitting squarely at the bottom of the food chain, my party is being thrown for the consumer. It’s a significant distinction, and if I can keep this in perspective, the to-do list is suddenly a lot less daunting.

Shifting back to my weekend clients, one a buyer and one a seller, each found me in the ‘hood. Each said they have "known me" for years, having seen my signs and marketing. For the half-dozen other clients with whom I interacted this week, it was no different.

Even the gentleman who toured homes with me while glued to his iPhone real estate app, provided compliments of a national brokerage company, had called me when it was show time because he reads my local blog. According to him, he had been doing so for three years before he made the call.

Buyers and sellers start with a lot of big ideas. They travel, they visit, and they window shop, but ultimately they surf their way back home. Think of it as the beautifully trimmed tree turned on its head. There are so many bright lights and too many shiny ornaments, but agents are still the big bow at the bottom.

I have one more prediction in me for 2010 and beyond. The search experience will be owned by those who feed off the agents. Buyers and sellers will be increasingly bought and sold like trading cards, and the victors in the online war will ultimately be those who are not one, but two degrees removed from the actual business of representing home buyers and sellers.

Meanwhile, successful brokers of all sizes will be the ones who can help their agents succeed in the smaller theater of operation: real life. And successful agents will be the ones who get a little more myopic. After all, home is where the heart is. …CONTINUED

While agents will continue to need an online presence with the requisite Internet Data Exchange (IDX) Web solution and a healthy dash of SEO, we shouldn’t forget that our party is a more intimate one.

Allowing ourselves to be distracted with the idea that we are meant to throw a grand, global gala is a mistake. Let the big guys do their thing. For the agents who rely on the homebuyers and sellers for their milk money, the best things will come in the little packages.

Beyond social media and maintaining a robust Web presence is that other job, so our focus has to be at home. Our clients are around the corner and on our block. The last brokers standing will be the ones who help their agents remember that and wrap a strategy around it — both online and off.

I could be wrong, of course, but this year, as an agent, I am going to redirect my energy to that four-block area. As a broker, I am going design a plan to help our agents do the same.

And then, I am going to come home and clean out the kitchen cabinets, because it’s ultimately the little things going on at home that matter most.

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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