Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent the past six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it” — not only was that song by R.E.M. the theme song of the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day, but also it seems to be the rallying cry of many an agent and broker.
As I’ve perused the interwebs over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a higher level of chatter than usual about the potential disintermediation of real estate agents.
“Disintermediation” is one of those $10 words that seems to get batted about in real estate discussions. It’s fancy-speak for “cutting out the middleman” (perhaps that should be “middleperson” in the era of political correctness).
In the case of real estate sales, the middleperson is the real estate agent. They are the ones acting as facilitators to bring the seller and buyer together to complete the transaction.
It’s the usual players being mentioned, with big portals, “discount” and limited-service brokerages, and technology in general bearing the bulk of the angst. To listen to some, you’d think the end is nigh for agents.
Maybe it is, for some agents.
Let’s be brutally honest here. Much of the typical real estate transaction centers around paperwork. When I used to go on listing appointments, I had a folder full of forms — listing agreements, MLS input sheets, seller disclosures, you know the drill. I took these forms with me on listing presentations because of the confidence that I’d walk away with the listing. Often that would happen, and we’d be filling out forms right on the seller’s kitchen table.
Did it take all my skills, knowledge and expertise to fill out those forms? No, of course it didn’t. I could teach most 12-year-olds to fill in the blanks on a form. How about getting that listing into the MLS? Again, that’s just rote filling in of data fields and uploading photos — a job often pushed to an offshore transaction coordinator making $6 an hour.
You know what computers and apps do really well? Repetitive tasks like filling in the blanks on mountains of paperwork. They excel at that. They never miss a data field, and they can dump info into a form faster than any human can type.
If your job as an agent only includes filling out listing agreements, offers, addendums and MLS input forms, then guess what? You very well might be replaced by an app, a fancy website or some other shiny object.
Why in the world would a consumer pay you potentially tens of thousands of dollars to fill out forms when an app would suffice?
Hint: They won’t.
Ditto with opening doors and showing homes. There’s already technology like smart locks and surveillance systems that can make unattended showings possible. Opendoor, one of the whipping boys of agent angst, utilizes this technology. If you think access to a lockbox is the value you provide a consumer, think again.
Artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, location beacons — all are in use today, and venture capitalists are throwing money at it. Who knows, maybe someday brokerage offices will offer a Star Trekian Holodecks where a homebuyer can walk through holographic listings and even be able to smell that whiff of cat urine or cookies baking.
So if technology can fill out paperwork, open doors and even show homes, then it really is the end of the world as we know it, right?
There is far more to selling real estate than filling out paperwork and unlocking doors. After all, we’re talking about humans here, on both sides of the transaction.
Buying or selling a home is an expensive, infrequent, emotional and complicated event. Technology can certainly help with the complexity. Hello e-signatures! Having many an offer signed on the trunk of a car in the 400-degree heat of a Phoenix summer, I welcomed the introduction of e-signatures. Email, texting, online document handling? Please, and goodbye fax machine.
Technology can make agents more efficient. More efficient agents can provide better customer service and handle more transactions. That’s all good — especially the “better customer service” part.
For that, oh avid reader, is what technology does not do well.
There’s not an app out there now, or ever, that will be able to handle complex, personal, emotional issues. Show me an app that can talk a seller off the ledge when they just had their third buyer fall out because their loan was denied.
How about that buyer who fell in love with a listing only to find out in their inspection period that the water heater is leaking and the air conditioner is on life support.
It’s the agent who is more than a paper-pusher, more than a transaction facilitator, who should have no fear of being disintermediated. It’s the agent, team or brokerage that provides white-glove service, that builds a lasting relationship with their client, that truly is a neighborhood expert that shouldn’t fear for their job.
I don’t know what to call this type of agent — adviser, counselor, consultant? Whatever the term, the consumer will know it, appreciate it, pay for it, and sing your praises to friends and family.
Those are the agents who know the full title to that Independence Day theme song: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the mastermind behind Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty.