Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent 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.
Ever started the homebuying process in the middle of a worldwide pandemic? I mean, why not? Stock markets across the planet are cratering. No wait, they’re headed back up. Oops, nevermind, crashing again. Tens of millions have filed for unemployment. No one knows when the lockdowns will really end.
Only an idiot would buy now, right?
Well, call me “idiot.” And I am not alone. Despite the trials and tribulations our current situation presents, life goes on. Just like in the ’80s, when 15 percent was a good mortgage rate, people still want and need to buy and sell real estate — a good thing when one sells real estate for a living.
A couple of weeks ago, Inman reporter Andrea Brambila penned on op-ed on her experiences as a first-time homebuyer. If you haven’t read it, go now. Understanding the perspective of your potential and actual clients is an important part of providing great service.
I’d like to give you a different perspective. I’ve bought several homes over the course of my 59 years and was a part of the buying and selling process for hundreds of transactions. My experiences are different from a first-time buyer like Brambila. Hopefully, what I’ve been through so far will be enlightening, and I’m happy to share this journey all along the way in some future columns.
Deciding to buy
At some mystical point in the space-time continuum, a person decides to buy a home. I’m not sure anyone can pinpoint a specific moment when the lights come on, and suddenly you find yourself a homebuyer.
My wife and I sort of eased into it. We married in Austin, Texas, and honeymooned on the Texas Gulf Coast. Sometime not long after that honeymoon, now almost three decades past, we first started talking about retiring on the Texas coast. Even after retiring to the Seattle area around 18 months ago, thoughts of Texas came out frequently. Non-Texans won’t understand, but Texans know the call of home.
So somewhere around two months ago, the idle chatter about having a second home in Texas flipped from a casual topic of conversation to active discussion. Active to the point of actually writing down the pros and cons of such a maneuver, calling our previous mortgage lender, and looking into what we could afford.
The coronavirus pandemic was really just getting rolling, I don’t think any of us really grasped how much would change as the pandemic progressed. To be honest, we didn’t really care what the pandemic had to say about it.
Oh there was little question that how we would go about buying a home was subject to change. But we aren’t the types to let something like this shut down our lives. We wanted to buy, we are fortunately able to do so, and we’ll charge ahead and figure out the details later.
Decision made. Next, we needed an agent.
On finding an agent
I’m very fortunate to know many amazing real estate agents all over the country, but I know none in the small Texas coastal towns we’re considering. No one I know even lives in the area. So I did what many people looking for an agent do — I went online.
Given my history with Zillow, you can probably guess where I went first. I went straight to Zillow’s directory and started looking at reviews.
Look, I fully understand that not all agents have a Zillow profile. I know there are other sites with info on local agents, and I checked some of those as well. But I’m used to the Zillow interface, I trust its review-vetting process (no, it isn’t perfect, as none are), and I’ve used it. So do a lot of consumers. If you don’t have a profile on every major real estate site, you should.
When looking at profiles and reviews, I couldn’t care less if an agent advertises with Zillow. I read the “About Me” section, and I read reviews. I found three agents who looked solid and sent them all an email, briefly explaining what we were looking and qualified for.
Then I waited.
Despite what you hear about so many consumers expecting instant response, I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation, especially given the madness we’re living in today.
To these agents, I was some guy emailing them cold and claiming to be ready to buy. They should look at emails like that with some skepticism.
They should also answer that email at some point.
I sent those three emails a month ago. Two have yet to reply. Guess which agent we’re working with? (No, I’m not going to name names yet. I’d like the opportunity to actually meet before I put a name in a national publication.)
The agent who responded did so within two hours and has quickly responded to every other email sent. Not always in five minutes, because people have lives, but this agent responds and answers my questions. We’re looking forward to working together.
Searching for listings
Now comes the fun part — searching for homes! Fun that is, until the frustration sets in. That takes about 15 minutes.
When I look at listings meeting my search criteria, the first thing I look at is the main image. Let me tell you, some of you need to spring for professional photography.
I’m sitting 2,300 miles away from where I’m considering buying. Your photos are about all I have to go on. For the love of every kitten on the internet, please make your listing photos the best you can. For the vast majority of you, that means hiring a professional.
And please, stop with the attitude of, “I’m going to leave things out of my photos to encourage in-person showings.” You know what I do with the listings with lousy and missing photos? I remove them from my potential list. Where I’m looking, inventory is not an issue. You don’t want buyers eliminating your listing because your photos suck.
As somewhat experienced real estate buyers, my wife and I have a good idea of what we want and don’t want in a home.
When we move to Texas, I plan to spend a significant amount of time in the back bays, slaying redfish and speckled trout. To that end, I need easy access to the water. Ideally, a home on the water with a boat dock.
Seems like checking “waterfront” in my searches should help, right? Then why are some listings miles inland showing up as waterfront properties? It could be mapping issues on the part of the websites. But there are also too many agents checking the “waterfront” box when entering listings. Why?
Something that has surprised me is how much attention I pay to listing descriptions. I can roll my eyes and get past the obvious marketing-speak and find little nuggets, like if the master is upstairs or down, when the deck or roof was replaced, how “hurricane proof” a home is. Use the listing description to describe what the photos can’t show.
The COVID unknown
We live in interesting times. None of us have ever lived through something like this. Well, unless you’re in the 110-year-old range and remember the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.
My bet is none of the survivors of that time are reading this column. Your clients and prospects are in new waters, right along with you. The wife and I are ready to get on a plane and go look at homes. The pandemic has brought that to a grinding halt. Like everyone, we do what we can do. We work through this and figure it out as we go.
Someday, I don’t know when, we’ll be able to venture out, travel to Texas and keep this sometimes-daunting homebuying process moving along.
Experienced, but nervous
As previously mentioned, I’ve bought several homes. Sold many more. I’ve been on NAR committees and spoken about the real estate market literally across the world. I owned a real estate brokerage and worked for almost seven years at the largest real estate website on the planet. I’m pretty well-versed in how real estate works.
Despite all that experience, this process is daunting and scary, and it makes me nervous. Honestly, I can’t imagine what first-time buyers (or sellers) go through. I knew what questions to ask in emails to prospective agents. I knew what the answers probably should be. How does someone without all this real estate experience get through something like this?
The answer is you. They get through it with your help. Your guidance. Your knowledge and experience. You play a critical role in helping people with a major financial event. They’re nervous, possibly terrified. Help them. Speak in words they understand. Don’t assume anything. Remember what it’s like to be a buyer or seller.
Buying a home shouldn’t be this hard. We probably need Brad Inman’s latte vision, but there are some things that will never be replaced in this process, and one of those things is you, the real estate agent.
Sure, I could put an offer in sight-unseen. I could have our agent go do video walk-throughs. I could even hire an inspector to make sure the place is solid.
But I’m not about to buy a home I plan to live in for a significant chunk of the year without seeing it, touching it and smelling it. So until tech reaches the point where I can beam into a home to view it, we’re going to need real estate professionals to help us through this process. Be that professional.
I’m looking forward to sharing more of this adventure as it unfolds. Entering the homebuying space has certainly opened my eyes, and maybe my experiences can help you be a better agent.
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.