Since I’ve never been involved in a real estate transaction I’m often asked why I do so much work for the industry. It’s a natural question. Especially when confronted with a lot "for real estate professionals, by real estate professionals" chatter.

One of the things that I enjoy about it is the diverse set of backgrounds and experiences of people in the industry. While some may decry the lack of standards or the need to "raise the bar," I personally enjoy the wide variety of paths people have taken on their journey to be successful in real estate.

I sort of wonder whether that life might get squashed in the name of standards and raising the bar. I’ll write more about that in an upcoming column.

This week I want to talk about meaning and location, the other big thing that keeps me happy working for the real estate industry. The real estate professionals who I know are all very deeply aware of how the towns, cities and neighborhoods in which they do business "work."

They know the businesses, the hangouts, the schools, the traffic patterns — pretty much all of the human factors of any given piece of the landscape. Some may know more about a certain aspect of the area but all have a very solid grasp of what is happening and how. And sometimes even why.

Since I’ve never been involved in a real estate transaction I’m often asked why I do so much work for the industry. It’s a natural question. Especially when confronted with a lot "for real estate professionals, by real estate professionals" chatter.

One of the things that I enjoy about it is the diverse set of backgrounds and experiences of people in the industry. While some may decry the lack of standards or the need to "raise the bar," I personally enjoy the wide variety of paths people have taken on their journey to be successful in real estate.

I sort of wonder whether that life might get squashed in the name of standards and raising the bar. I’ll write more about that in an upcoming column.

This week I want to talk about meaning and location, the other big thing that keeps me happy working for the real estate industry. The real estate professionals who I know are all very deeply aware of how the towns, cities and neighborhoods in which they do business "work."

They know the businesses, the hangouts, the schools, the traffic patterns — pretty much all of the human factors of any given piece of the landscape. Some may know more about a certain aspect of the area but all have a very solid grasp of what is happening and how. And sometimes even why.

I’ve been thinking about how the landscape is divided up by people. There are imaginary human boundaries that we set in order to determine that one patch of land is called "The Hill Section" while another patch of land across the street is called "The Old North End."

In July I had the opportunity to emcee (along with my friend Rob Hahn) the first-ever Inman Data Summit. One of the things that came up more than once in that two-day conversation had to do with the nature of mapping: who should be doing it and how it should be done.

Maps are the visual representation of those imaginary human boundaries. They tell us where things are in the physical, real world. But they also tell us other subtle things about the landscape. Those subtle things are what I’m constantly learning about from my friends and clients in the real estate industry.

Sometimes, the things that are meaningful about the landscape aren’t quite so subtle. I live in Vermont, and oddly enough, our landlocked state got smashed by Hurricane Irene a short while ago. Talk about landscape and meaning!

In some parts of the country I imagine there is a very strong understanding of how the real, unimaginary world is divided up and made — one patch of land is not on a fault line or in a mudslide zone and another patch of land is.

Perhaps my little state, with its third "100-year" weather event in the past 12 months, will pay a lot more attention to this sort of thing going forward. Though when you live this far from the ocean you don’t necessarily plan on tropical storms knocking out all the roads in your town.

When I think about real estate mapping and the conversations from the Data Summit, I notice that the real world is a little bit absent. The focus, it seems, is on the subtle human stuff.

Due to the fact that it controls the property database, the multiple listing service is the default arbiter of where the imaginary lines are drawn to separate one grouping of properties from another.

Since every real estate professional is going to bring an individual understanding of neighborhoods, there is often some concern or dissatisfaction with the default status.

In addition, when it comes to figuring out what’s a neighborhood and what isn’t, the MLS may kick the can down the road and use the tax data or the census tracts. I don’t really think the government is that great at understanding the boundaries between neighborhoods or the meanings in the landscape.

It seems the challenge is one of "fixing" boundaries. I put that in quotation marks because the word is used in two ways at once here:

  • taking something that isn’t working right and making it work better; and
  • taking something that is by nature dynamic and making it stationary.

Then follows a set of questions:

  • Who should fix boundaries?
  • What kinds of boundaries need fixing?
  • Who benefits from knowing which boundaries are well-fixed and which fixings are in need of a fix?
  • Why is it important where boundaries are placed?
  • What future events have an impact on boundary location?
  • What past events have an impact on boundary location?
  • Which future events are more imaginary than real?
  • Which past events are mostly forgotten?
  • What meaning do the boundaries have?
  • Where do the unimaginary and real boundaries obviously intersect with the imaginary and subtle boundaries humans place on the landscape?
  • Where are the unimaginary and real boundaries hidden or unknown or unspoken in conversations about location?
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