During a recent family holiday gathering, I found myself in the middle of a perilous debate. I was asked to stand on the end of a crumbling gangplank over frothing waves and bloodthirsty sharks and answer dreaded questions of which I had no answers — at least not the answers that would have saved me from tripping over a rotten board and falling headfirst into the raging seas (i.e., eggnog).
What really threw me off balance were the three hats I had to juggle as the gangplank bobbed up and down: daughter of a homebuilder, wife of another homebuilder, and Realtor. These are difficult hats to wear any day — but when you need to switch in and out of them quickly, you might as well just jump in the punch headfirst.
It began innocently enough. My father was excited to share that he was going to be installing some new kitchen ranges in his spec homes — really, really special ranges manufactured and designed in France. These were no Amanas; not Wolff, not Viking. Not even La Cornue, which has a certain following here in the U.S. He was putting in Lacanache ranges — handmade, hand-assembled, top-of-the-world cooking stoves, professional grade and so beautiful you want to take a picture of them — centered, with your kids flanking each side.
But his spec homes are not multimillion-dollar mansions; they are mid-price customs, albeit artisan-crafted to the nth detail. These stoves, he explained, would be the coup d’état, his "Unique Selling Proposition."
"Hey, wait a second," I said, stepping out over the raging seas, "You mean to tell me that you are going to put in a $10,000-plus range in a $300,000 house?"
"Yes," he replied, eyes squinting, "why?"
"Well," I said, "It just seems to me that the vast majority of people won’t appreciate it at all. Who can pronounce ‘Lacanache’?"
"People who never thought they could own one before," he said.
"OK, fine. They learn how to say Lacanache. Now, what do they know about the product? Nothing! It’s a waste of money. Put in a Viking and they’ll slobber all over the granite countertops."
"Are you telling me that people wouldn’t want the best?"
"I’m telling you that they won’t know a Lacanache from a Jenn-Air. ‘Cept one’s prettier."
"Ha! What kind of a Realtor are you?" asks dad. "Wouldn’t it be your job to educate and inform your buyers? To help them make the best decisions and know the product inside and out? Isn’t that what we pay you for? What do we pay you for?"
Ahhh … the sharks were biting very close now.
See, I started out as a very idealistic Realtor who never would have questioned the simplistic genius of installing a Lacanache range. I would sing the praises of such additions in a home loudly. I would consequently also proclaim the shortcomings of other homes: blue shag carpeting, rotting decks, 1955 ceiling heat. Maybe I am the oddball in the group here, but my subsequent sales numbers were nonexistent. It was three years before an older, wealthy Realtor took me aside and said, "Alisha, you are in sales. Give your buyers what they want."
And what they wanted, it seemed, was to be left alone and uneducated about the construction and well-being of a home. I was left pointing out the four hallmarks of the do-it-yourself nation: granite countertops, Viking ranges, Sub-Zero refrigerators and wood (or wood-like) flooring. Outside of those basics, purchases were made by a purely emotional reaction to the home and location.
Once I decided to go with the flow and say only satisfying phrases like, "Great looking fireplace!" or "Nice rooflines!" my numbers went up. People started writing me rave reviews. My website traffic doubled! It reminded me of college: "If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em."
But back to the family dining table.
My husband was stuck on the warranty process. My dad was stuck on his unique selling proposition. And I was stuck straddling two thoughts:
1. Do Realtors really know their product? And do we share that information with our clients?
2. What does a Realtor really do? Can we be boiled down to having a pleasant personality and a lockbox key?
Oh, I can hear the response e-mails filling up my mailbox right now — we are negotiators, we are educators, we love helping people find homes and move up in life … but I wonder if we’re being truly altruistic, or if we haven’t just found an easier way to sell a house.
Is this subject touchy? Absolutely. But it’s the holidays and what else do we have to talk about at office parties if politics and religion are off the table?
And, in case you were wondering, it takes 4 1/2 eggnogs to correctly pronounce "Lacanache."