I’ve gone to exactly one board of Realtors meeting in my 20-year career in real estate. It was about a year ago, and my brother Matt was getting a surprise award for his charitable work.
And because I was there, I blew the whole thing.
Why? Because when he saw me at my first meeting ever, he figured it out: “Oh, damn, they’re giving me an award, aren’t they?”
So I’m not really the right person to be writing a defense of the National Association of Realtors. I mean, I wrote a whole book about what the industry needs to do to overcome the challenges of disruption, and I mentioned NAR like three times, only in passing.
It’s not that I don’t support the association. I pay my dues, and I contribute to RPAC. I just don’t see involvement in NAR as important to my daily work.
But here’s the thing: it’s not NAR’s fault that it’s not crucial to my daily work. It’s not supposed to be.
Associations are for members — not consumers
Let me explain, with a couple of simple questions: Is your lawyer a member of the American Bar Association (ABA)? How about your doctors? Are they members of the American Medical Association (AMA)?
You don’t know, do you? That’s OK. No one does. Because membership in a trade or professional association is not really relevant to consumers.
That’s not what trade organizations are supposed to do. They’re supposed to advocate for their interests, foster collaboration among members, provide consumer education, promote their industry and maybe establish a baseline code of ethics. All very important responsibilities.
But they’re built for members, not consumers. They’re designed to further the interests of doctors, not patients; attorneys, not clients. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s their role.
That’s why it doesn’t really matter whether your doctor is a member of the AMA or your lawyer the ABA. Trade associations don’t provide actual services to consumers. They’re not in the examining room or the courtroom. Their role in the industry is limited to facilitating the work of practitioners, not providing it. And membership doesn’t convey anything meaningful to a consumer — it just means the practitioner is licensed and paid some dues.
The license is important. Membership is not.
And that distinction is at the heart of all this recent tumult surrounding the National Association of Realtors, which is, I shouldn’t need to remind you, a trade/professional organization. Too many Realtors want NAR to be something that it’s not and really shouldn’t be.
The truth about NAR
- Advocate for laws that benefit real estate and real estate professionals generally.
- Foster collaboration among members.
- Provide education to professionals and the public about real estate-related issues.
- Promote real estate professionals who are members.
- Establish and maintain a code of ethics.
And here’s what NAR shouldn’t be doing:
- Anything else.
I actually feel like NAR has done a pretty good job on what it’s supposed to do: lobbying, education, code of ethics, promoting collaboration through the network of state and local boards, etc.
Indeed, unfortunately for it, it’s done such effective work in promoting the “Realtor” brand that it has essentially commodified the term, to the point that consumers conflate it with “real estate agent.”
Here’s NAR’s problem: too many agents think all that’s not enough. They want NAR to “lead” the real estate industry. They see Zillow start an instant offers program, and they sign petitions demanding that NAR do something about it.
They fear disruptors challenging the industry and turn to NAR looking for protection. They despair on the state of client service in the industry and ask NAR to raise the bar to separate high-performing agents from mere average members.
But that’s not NAR’s role.
The AMA doesn’t “lead” the medical profession: hospitals, medical schools, research institutions and doctors themselves do that. Same with the ABA and with most trade and professional associations. They don’t, and shouldn’t lead. They support. They facilitate. They organize.
Leadership, though, comes from the members themselves, the ones who actually do the work of the profession, who are on the streets working with consumers. Doctors heal clients and develop new treatments, not the AMA.
Lawyers represent clients and create new interpretations of the law, not the ABA. And real estate professionals themselves need to be the ones to innovate new ways of caring for buyers and sellers to fight off the challenges of disruption, not NAR.
Who’s to blame?
Some of this, of course, is NAR’s own fault, because, like any organization, NAR hypes its own importance. All those ads about how being a Realtor makes such a difference, designed simply to boost consumer awareness, have had the unintended effect of convincing agents themselves that NAR is crucial to their everyday professional lives.
And the flip side of claiming too much credit is that you also get too much blame.
That’s what’s happening now, particularly with some of the other controversies that have developed over financial management, the DocuSign investment and so on.
Those issues all seem resolvable, assuming that they’re more smoke than fire, although it would help if NAR were more proactive about its messaging, rather than reacting defensively every time someone at Inman says “boo!”
Relax, people. You don’t have to swing at every pitch.
We need NAR
The bottom line is that we need NAR to sort all this out, because, well, we need NAR. Even if NAR shouldn’t be taking the lead, it has a vital role in supporting, facilitating and organizing the leadership that has to come from the “business line” — the members themselves; all of us, not just the ones who are willing to go to monthly organizational meetings at the board office.
We can’t push that responsibility onto NAR or anyone else. We have to carry that burden.
So if you’re a real estate agent, you shouldn’t be relying on NAR for systems, tools, coaching, marketing, branding or any of the basic building blocks you need to manage your business. You should be looking to yourself, your broker or maybe your franchise system or independent network. But not NAR. That’s not NAR’s job. That’s our job.
Take, for example, that whole controversy about the new logo. Who cares? If you’re a real estate professional, you should be developing your own unique brand. Why would you want to stress a brand that’s shared by virtually every competitor in your market?
Put it this way, if the Realtor logo matters to you in your business, you’re doing it very, very wrong.
And that’s true of every aspect of real estate.
NAR is not going to protect us from Zillow, other disruptors, discounters, the mediocre agents and brokers who undermine our reputation, evolving technology, increased expenses, a weakening economy or whatever else.
NAR has a crucial role in helping industry leaders overcome the challenges we face from the internal and external forces threatening our business model.
But if we need NAR itself to save us, we’re already dead.
Joseph Rand is the chief creative officer of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate — Rand Realty, a real estate brokerage in New York City’s northern suburbs, and the author of the book Disruptors, Discounters, and Doubters.