Despite the fact that I live in a 21st century, multitasking world, I tend to regress into an old-school, linear way of thinking from time to time. I use my calculator only for adding numbers, even though it includes a lot of fancy functions such as standard deviation and subtraction. I have a personal computer for managing my business contacts, writing appraisal appeals, and stalking my daughters’ Facebook pages.
I generally see my cell phone as a voice-recognition device, even though it includes a 5-trillion megapixel camera capable of taking high-resolution photos of an underfed quark from an orbiting satellite. For photos, I instead use my real camera — when I can find it. It is usually buried beneath the countless other peripheral devices requiring power cords and batteries strewn across my home office. Those, I call paperweights.
And my iPod is for music. It never occurred to me that it could be anything more. But now, thanks to my daughter, my vision in one eye is severely impaired. And I don’t mean a little impaired. I mean impaired as in: today I can’t make out the shape of my refrigerator while standing in the meat drawer.
It was my youngest daughter who reminded me that I could download games onto my personal sound system, and she even suggested one I might enjoy. It should have come with a warning. The warning might have read, "Prolonged exposure to the fun little word jumble game that you downloaded over the weekend to avoid doing any real work (and by ‘prolonged exposure’ we mean approximately 12 hours during which time you neither ate nor introduced yourself to your husband’s new wife) may cause blurred vision."
And why not? In the name of consumer protection, everything comes with a warning these days, including things that aren’t very dangerous at all unless you stick them up your sister’s left nostril or otherwise try to ingest them — like Barbie accessories and my brisket.
The local agent who got a new listing this week knew as much when he felt the need to include a warning in his multiple listing service remarks. "Please don’t fall into the pool," he wrote in the showing instructions.
I get it. You can’t be too careful. But even then, the reality is that despite our best efforts, sometimes you just can’t save people from themselves.
This week our local newspaper reported on the big statistical wrap-up of housing trends for the past quarter: "San Diego County led the nation in rising home values in March even though prices nationwide dropped 3.8 percent," they wrote. And that was the lead-in line.
It got worse before it got better. San Diego’s low point was in April or May of 2009, declared the authoritative man from the company best known for their home-valuation guesstimates. "Home values … have risen significantly for at least the past 10 months," I read.
My clients read it, too. But by the time they got to the warning — the one about stability and many years of uncertainty with zero or nominal appreciation at best — their vision was already blurred. And by the time they got to the quote about the possibility that "home values could fall again," they were reaching for their calculators to add up their newfound equity and busying themselves on their talking devices, calling me to the carpet for underpricing or failing to produce a buyer in such a strong "seller’s market."
Thanks a lot, mainstream media. And a big shout-out is also in order to the gurus from the search site that brought us this breaking news. You see, you know and I know that real estate is local. We both know that broad-brush statements about a very large and diverse metro area are generalizations at best and should be used only as directed.
Market trend data, delivered by someone who has never visited my listings, called for showing feedback, or had my buying clients in their backseat for months on end, should come with a warning. And that warning should be emblazoned on the front of the packaging, not buried in the fine print on Page A-9 or in the 6-point-font footer.
Good grief, it’s hard to be an agent these days. I subscribe to market trends for my area, and I discuss the trends with my clients when we are pricing their homes for sale or considering the values of homes to buy. But my pretty little data graphs — with the attractive, undulating trend lines that are still pointing south in many micro-markets and many price ranges — are no match for the headline news delivered by the big household names online and in print, particularly when my clients have lost all peripheral vision.
Know it or not, as agents we are also sabotaging each other. This market has brought with it a renewed "cold calling" frenzy born of the agent’s need to eat. At the door, by phone and in the mail, my clients are getting bombarded with "I have a buyer" messages. So many times, what the agent really has is a desire to pay the mortgage in June, and a new listing just might do that.
But so often, our clients can’t read below the fold, and they see these queries only as an indication of the return to the glory days of higher prices and shorter market times. This, in turn, leaves every agent who has unsold inventory with a big "L" on his or her forehead.
In my San Diego market, the larger indicators do suggest that we are finding a bottom. Within our bigger picture, however, like in all markets across the country, there are neighborhood, product and price segments that will behave differently. The biggest challenge I see for agents as we continue to navigate our way through this housing cycle is to interpret the fine print for our clients and bring local context to the larger, louder regional and national pictures delivered by aggregators of the news.
As agents, our job is to effectively slap a much-needed warning label on the product. Sweeping housing trend reports have many uses, but pricing a single home in a single neighborhood on a single block is not one of them. Zillow, and even economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, are big-picture folks. But when their broadcasts are viewed locally, the picture gets dangerously pixilated. Our challenge is to ensure that our clients don’t lose sight of this.
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