This week I received a call from a gentleman requesting a little volunteer work on my part. These calls are not uncommon. They usually involve a request for a market analysis to support a property tax appeal, and we are happy to help.
We help as a matter of goodwill — what you might call "business development" — with the hope that they will remember us if they ever do need to buy or sell a home.
My caller explained that he was going through a divorce and that he needed a market analysis in order to establish a buyout price for his spouse. Of course, I obliged.
The effort cost me a couple hours of my time, and I didn’t see it as a charitable contribution so much as an investment in my business. His response, however, surprised me.
"You’ve been so helpful and responsive. Thank you so much! Now I’m going to ask to totally impose, again. Would I be able to talk to you or perhaps an associate to see the (homes) currently listed? I feel it’s crucial to get a handle on the value of my home. Anytime would work," he wrote.
Two considerations factored into my decision to decline. First, it wasn’t in the best interests of the client. And by "client," I mean the listing agent’s client. Sellers open their homes to showings with the expectation that they will be making the beds for only serious and qualified buyers. The ethical voice in my head reminded me that my friend was neither.
And then there was a second consideration. Not only does pro bono work not pay well, it diverts my time from other, moneymaking opportunities.
The point is this: I love my job, a job defined by providing the very best client service and representation possible. But the point of my job is to make a living. So I must be equally concerned with what is best for the client and what is best for my business.
Since last week’s announcement by Abbott Realty Group that it would no longer be syndicating listings to third-party aggregation sites, real estate bloggers have been busily engaging in some spirited debates regarding the move. The to-syndicate-or-not discussion involves numerous, complex issues — including things like data accuracy, lead redirection, security issues, data control, and consumer protection.
There are so many elements to the discussion, in fact, that the arguments both for and against syndication tend to become circular.
I will go out on a limb and attempt to simplify things. There are only — can only be — two issues at the heart of the matter:
- what is in the best interest of the consumer; and
- what is in the best interest of the real estate agent and broker.
The discussions I have seen taking place have focused on the former, which is a much more convenient and politically correct angle to take. One side argues that a combination of inaccurate data and paid advertising practices render the customer experience confusing and misleading.
The other argues that no press is bad press, and the exposure syndication brings our clients trumps these concerns.
And the site owners have emerged wearing their public defender hats, suggesting that access to multiple listing service data — anywhere, in any form — is a consumer’s divine right and implying that their passion is driven not by profit motive but by altruism.
It’s an angle that has been argued to death, so I would like to approach this from a different corner: mine.
Anyone who has read anything I have ever written, including the "about" page of my company website, knows that I steadfastly subscribe to a "customer first" philosophy. But my business — and yours — matter, too.
We can dance around the issue, pretending that we are strictly philanthropic, but we aren’t. There is no shame in admitting that we are in this business to make money.
So, how do third-party aggregator sites affect the brokers and agents? Initially, we sprinted to their sites with our listings inventories. We did this because of the exposure it gave both our clients and ourselves.
What we didn’t do was stop to consider what these business models might look like in the future. Of course, they would have to eventually monetize their sites; we just couldn’t conceive that it might be at our expense. We were too busy selling homes.
Call me crazy, but I do not allow other brokerages to post their logos and contact information on my own website. I do not put the names of other agents, with their own calls to action, next to mine on my property brochures.
That would be confusing and misleading, not to mention a pretty stupid business plan. But that’s what we are doing now every time we set a listing free to a third-party site.
Think about it another way: Would you ever allow another agent to put his or her name rider on your yard sign? What if you had no choice? You want the sign, then you get the competing agent’s picture on it — unless you enter into a costly annual contract to have the competing advertisements removed or just minimized.
The thought is ridiculous, yet many third-party aggregator sites have become the digital equivalent of someone else’s name rider on my yard sign.
I wrote on my own blog, "Relinquishing control of the conversation surrounding your inventory violates the most basic principle of Real Estate Career 101: The most valuable thing to a real estate agent is a stick in the ground. This is because listings breed listings, listings breed buyers, and listings build reputation.
"So when we ‘virtually’ hand third-party aggregators our body of work that took years and boatloads of money to cultivate, we slowly erode our own future growth potential — unless of course we pay for the opportunity to redirect the fruits of our labors back home."
This idea that I want to capitalize on my own work rather than allowing someone else to benefit is not greedy, and the fact that I would prefer to build my own business rather that of another agent or some third-party site is not despicable. It is the whole point of what I do. My goal is to make a living.
And the third-party aggregator sites are in the business of making money. I defend their entrepreneurial right to do so, and I respect their enormous successes. But in order for my participation in their endeavors to make sense, it has to make sense for both my client and myself.
Some have taken up the argument that Internet Data Exchange (IDX) feeds of real estate data are no different than third-party syndication feeds. I find this position not only incorrect, but one that detracts from the real issues.
Yes, my listings through IDX will appear on countless other real estate sites. But it is a cooperative agreement I have entered into with other multiple listing service member participants. I allow you to display my information and I, in turn, may display yours on my site so that my visitors and I may benefit.
Many third-party sites, in their current form, are anything but cooperative. I allow you to display my listings information, and then you allow only the highest bidders to associate themselves with that information.
When my own information is displayed, it is done so in agent "gumbo" fashion, tossed in a confusing pot of multiple agents’ photos and calls to action.
Which brings us back to what is good for the customer. Do buyers deserve the data? Then let’s concede that they have it, and they would continue to have it if the third-party firms ceased to exist tomorrow. In San Diego, for instance, they can go here: the public-facing Sandicor MLS search portal.
The site might not be as flashy as some, and you won’t find any fancy home value guesstimates there, but you will find the inventory.
"But sellers deserve the exposure!" They’ve got that, too. Buyers search across multiple sites; they don’t just run their search on one site and power down until escrow closes.
From my blog: "You see, my client’s home does not really need to be on 400 national websites. That is just a myth we have propagated out of convenience and our desire to win listings. It is rhetoric we bought into — rhetoric delivered by those who are in the business of profiting from our business.
"My client’s home does need to be in the MLS, because it is through that platform of broker cooperation that the overwhelming majority of sales still take place. Of course, through the miracles of IDX, my client’s home will still be exposed far and wide on sites other than the MLS and my own."
And, by the way, my sellers will never see their home listed as a rental on an IDX site or through the MLS.
Despite all of this, we currently syndicate our listings far and wide. Whether or not we continue to do so remains a question; it is a decision we will make thoughtfully over time.
But any decision to continue syndication will not be made in response to scare tactics — that I am throwing my selling clients under the bus if I don’t, or that I will have violated some moral contract with the buying population if I don’t. Neither is true.
Ultimately, we will do what is best for both our clients and our own business, because both matter, and those things are all that matter.
As for the gentleman who called me for that complimentary market analysis? Once I explained why I wouldn’t show him homes that he had no interest in buying, he not only understood, but he both apologized and thanked me.
Like so much in life, it just boiled down to a matter of honest communication and doing what’s right.