Editor’s note: Inman News is exploring what the next decade may hold for real estate professionals in "2020 Re-Envision: The Future of Real Estate Brokerage," an editorial project that features a survey and related articles. Readers are invited to submit guest essays detailing their vision of the future for the real estate brokerage industry. Send your guest essay to future@inman.com by Feb. 28.

It was 1997, and I returned to my dedicated cubicle in the Big Broker office with my first listing in hand. At one side of my desk were my requisite marketing trappings — a cross-directory, a stack of postcards with some catchy call to action like "Call Me, Already!" and a box of those cute little miniature pumpkins sure to fill my farm with seasonal whimsy and inspire them to start packing.

This morning, though, business development would have to wait. I had a listing and it was time to fire the afterburners. Our office would be piling into the convoy soon enough to travel from one office listing to the next, a "caravan" essential to ensure that the lucky up-desk agent would be able to speak intelligently about each home when the sign calls starting rolling in.

The priority today was to get this puppy in the multiple listing service.

Our MLS system had recently gone online. This was big news, and it was high-tech, forcing many of the more veteran agents to pay someone from the administrative staff to input their own listings for them into this new, complex medium. Not so for Adventure Girl.

Having successfully located an empty chair at the Big Broker computer bank, I typed in my membership number. Voila! There were no key fobs, and no security pop quizzes asking for secondary or tertiary passwords, my favorite pet’s name or my second grade teacher’s favorite color.

There was just one friendly input screen, elegant in its simplicity, standing between my client’s home and the entire real estate community.

"Would you like a photo taken of the property?" the magnanimous machine offered, because in those days, the one property photo was a member service. Soon, the more enlightened agents had purchased their own point-and-shoot cameras in a do-it-yourself act of rebellion.

On any afternoon you could find them 12-deep at the one-hour photo, ordering 200 copies of the "money shot" suitable for affixing with a glue stick (sold separately) to their property brochures.

And we all went about practicing agency. We promoted our listings and our buyer clients’ needs to the cooperating brokers. We marketed, albeit in archaic print form, and we negotiated the agreements and navigated our clients through the transaction. More happy clients meant more business, and we controlled our own destinies.

Then came the explosion.

When I find myself grasping for an analogy, I typically think in domestic terms — the dog, the children, and meatloaf (but not necessarily in that order). My husband, on the other hand, has long been a fan of nature and at some point developed the misguided notion that hauling bear canisters and enough freeze-dried food to sustain the 1st Infantry Division through the next insurgency up a very big mountain qualifies as recreation.

He thinks in terms of National Parks. And when we were discussing the face of real estate in 2020, he immediately thought of Yellowstone….CONTINUED

Apparently, sometime a couple of million years ago, when I was out meeting the termite guy, a series of volcanic eruptions began that would change the landscape at Yellowstone forever. The result was a 50-mile "caldera," a collapse that occurs when the weight of the surrounding structure can no longer be supported. Fast forward to 2010.

We have had a series of technology eruptions in our industry in the past decade, each bigger than the next. We rushed to get our Web sites, and then came Internet Data Exchange (IDX) and Virtual Office Web sites (VOWs).

Social media exploded, and soon we were all blogging and tweeting our fingers bloody, geocoding our every move because, well, we could. As the industry migrated online, so did the entrepreneurs with a host of offerings, each for a small fee, to keep us relevant and to help us promote — to better serve us so that we might better serve our clients.

Somewhere along the way, the eruption became deafening, and brokers and agents alike found themselves in keep-up, crisis mode. Sign-up first; think about why we are signing up later. Agent Fred’s listings are on TruZilliOh; so must mine be. Agent Jane is a "Pro" on that site, and she has a sidebar ad over there. Doug is enhancing his listings, so I had better enhance the daylights out of mine. Sign me up!

Now, suddenly, my search-engine optimization isn’t good enough. I know this because a half-dozen thoughtful experts e-mail me each day to suggest as much. I need more keywords, more purposeful content — more reach!

Nothing is ever enough, so now we just feed our listings to the whole enchilada, all with one simple, monthly, automatic debit. The ease with which we can now give our listings away means we have more time yet to sign-up and subscribe so that we might stand even a small chance of ever seeing our listings again and profiting from our work.

It has become a game of carrot and stick, but the agents gave away both.

The basic ad is free, but if I want my photo included or my name spelled right, the "featured ad" is the one for me. On another site, everyone gets a profile, but only by displaying the "Most Awesome Agent" badge next to mine will I really attract those consumer eyes — the ones who went there to see my listing in the first place.

We are being crushed under the weight of our own doing. Having long been a vocal proponent of setting the information free, I now find myself rethinking the majesty of nature: Prey and predator, the cause and effect of pressure built up over time.

I am Old Faithful. I am the one at my client’s kitchen table earning his trust and his business. I am the one who spends countless hours and resources to get the opportunity. I am the one who pays for the marketing, provides the counsel, negotiates the contract — does the work.

I have in turn become the one who gives the world the spoils so that they might monetize my efforts. I go through the labor, I hand over the baby, and then I pay the ransom. They should be paying me. …CONTINUED

By 2020, I predict we will see a backlash — from the agents, their brokers and even (hopefully) their local associations. Technology will march on, but the past decade was a cataclysmic event. Now we are imploding.

Our customers don’t need 2 million listing aggregation sites at their disposal, but that is what they will have by 2020, as every licensed agent has an IDX offering on their own site.

What the agents don’t have are unlimited resources to keep anteing up in the name of "marketing," especially when all they are really doing is supporting their own demise.

We posture often about how we are underappreciated and undervalued for the work we do. And it is complex, expensive and exhausting work we do, make no mistake. When the next decade rolls around, it is quite possible that we will start respecting ourselves enough to align our actions with the rhetoric.

Instead of paying to enhance my listing on your site, I might instead re-channel my resources to enhance it on mine. Maybe agent and brokers won’t be so willing to do their work simply so that they might feed others.

Finally, maybe our associations will take a stand and rediscover that there is enormous value in those listings, the collective work of their members. Sell it if you must but, in doing so, reduce my fees or use the revenue to provide me with superior tools, thereby allowing me to better compete for what was mine to begin with. Whatever you do, don’t give it away. I just can’t afford it anymore.

We may be the plankton for an industry, but that doesn’t mean we need to play the victim. Being at the bottom of a vast food chain can have its advantages; without us, a lot of guys will starve. That’s worth something.

I believe that 2020 will bring an industry that has returned to fundamentals. Sure, all of the tech trappings will be there, and we will still be reeling from a steady stream of shiny new adopt-or-starve applications and strategies. But the mindset will be a return to the simpler days.

By 2020, we will be making wiser choices — about where we spend our money and our time. We will be less reactive and more strategic in our business strategies.

We will revisit our roots, remembering that our customers are not page visits or click-throughs; they are around the corner and on the block, and there is tremendous value in those relationships. We will go back to doing only those things that matter to our business — back to working for ourselves.

Failing this, we may find that by 2020 we will have relegated ourselves to the role of referral-only agents, having given away our careers by caving in, under the pressure of outside influences, the landscaped changed forever.

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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