Up until a few years ago, I did not know that Realtor® meant anything other than someone who sells real estate for a living.  All I knew (thanks to the many NAR’s TV commercials) is that if I were to buy or sell a house, I’ll need a local Realtor®.  Having lived in the same place for the last few years, I get mail from my local Realtors, or maybe some of them are not Realtors, but they all purport to sell real estate where I am, and so in the boom years, the amount of mail sent to this consumer by folks who sell real estate averaged a few postcards or letters a day, with each, touting that agent as the one and only top producer, neighborhood expert, multi-million dollar producer or some other choice phrase, used to denote just how wonderfully active and successful they all were.

When it comes to most things I don’t know well, I Google, so as with any service or product, I would Google some of these people who sent me their glossy resumes, and in most cases all I’d find is a tiny listing on their brokerage’s page.  Few times my results turned up an agent’s website, most often closely resembling the look and sentiments voiced on the postcard, with Top Producer splashed across the banner or some such.  How does one choose an agent based on so many marketing pieces that mostly look and sound like they were mass produced in the way Chinese Takeout Menus are?  How does one go about deciding who is best suited for a task of helping navigate very complex (we are told) transactions, generally involving quite a bit of money and having far-reaching consequences for our families?

I am told by so many that I should simply talk to all of them and see who I click with or like better or trust at first sight.  Fair enough, but how do I pick out 3-5 people to interview, or some other reasonable number out of a pile of the #1 experts all clamoring for the spot?  Do I pick the blonde with a million dollar smile or the sunburned dude in flip-flops, given that they are all saying exactly the same thing about their qualifications for the job to sell my home?

When I shop for almost any service or product, my research skills usually net much better results, whether I am looking for a doctor, an attorney or a new CPA.  In most cases, I can see the educational history, citations, if any, specializations etc. of any doctor, I can rely on peer reviews of an attorney or I can find local reviews by consumers of the various CPAs.  But with real estate professionals, I am told to just ask, interview and see if I like them, as if every real estate agent is created equal, and the only difference is their ability to sell me on their skills/talents/credibility.

Redfin’s Scouting Report, that published agent performance stats in a user-friendly manner, tried to fix that to some extent, and, unsurprisingly, failed.  The accuracy of data was the largest culprit, but I think even if the data were accurate, it would still get shot down.  No matter how large or ballsy or rich the company, it’s tough to win a battle with so many agents engaging in public flogging for having any bit of agents’ track records exposed to the potential consumer.  The overriding sentiment being that such data should remain hidden from the consumer at all cost, and the only ones to have access to it should be other members of the MLS.  I’ve seen people cite everything, from unfair trade practices to libel in their justification for the argument against releasing such data, and none of it bodes well for the credibility of the industry on a whole, in my opinion.

There is something to be said for data integrity, of course, but as someone dealing with technology, I find it hard to swallow that anyone would blame a syndicator of data for lack of accuracy and not the source.

I spoke to four different real estate brokers in four different markets yesterday, and each one of them told me that MLS data could in fact be manipulated easily enough in each of their MLS’s.  A local broker in Florida told me that it’s possible to create 6 separate listing records for a single property, for example, and that indeed, there are agents that engage in this practice currently, and their stats aren’t even public.  So the fear, as this broker put it, is that if consumers were to rely on performance stats for any part of their decision making, agents will simply inflate their numbers by manipulating the mls data.

I am not a programmer per se, but I find it hard to believe that something like the above example cannot be fixed in a few minutes. After all, there is the address field, and the tax ID, and some other fields that should make it a no brainer to weed out duplicate records of any property with the same status.  I refuse to believe that maintaining data accuracy for real estate is any more difficult a task than when dealing with any other database that users contribute data to.  If deliberately gaming the system resulted in loss of access for that agent, and not a $100.00 fine – I doubt agents would keep doing it, but data integrity such as it is, for me is less the point of this latest brouhaha than the reactions to it.

I watched in dismay the arguments against any performance stats published, whether by Redfin or a 3rd party, with so many agents stating that all a consumer had to do if they wanted stats was simply ask the agent, the one they’ve not established any trust with yet, the one they just got one of those Top Producer/Expert/Sold more than Joe & Jane cards.  And if the agent tells me, the consumer, that they’ve successfully closed two dozen transactions in my neighborhood representing sellers, and sold the properties for 99% of market and even saved a few stray kittens in the process, I am supposed to take their word for it.  After all, I now know that they are members of the NAR (here, one must be to access the mls), and as such, they have Ethics.  They signed off on agreeing to behave ethically which includes not lying to the consumer, I’m told.

A friend of mine in OH was interviewing agents for his firm over coffee.  He researched the interviewees’ histories beforehand.  At the interviews, 50% of the agents inflated their production by 100%, and were surprised that they got caught.  They lied to someone who had unrestricted access to the MLS, and yet, it didn’t prevent them from lying.  They, too, signed off on the COE.

Ok, enough with the rant, Inna, where the heck are you going with this?

I would love for the Real Estate Industry to find the balls to start moving in the direction of transparency that consumers demand of it.  The trust and credibility everyone tells me are so important to consumers when they choose an agent are not benefitting from hiding data from those same consumers.  Data, so long as it’s standardized, accurate, and publicly available helps build credibility in ways that getting that same data from the service provider does not.

As a consumer, ideally, I’d like every real estate transaction to be rated in some way, and have that data be associated with all parties involved.  I’d like to see performance stats combined with peer ratings and consumer reviews.  I’d like, as a consumer, to be able to zero in on a neighborhood, and read details on how agents handled the transactions that are closest to what my needs are, and what their customers and their peers had to say.  I will probably not pick a brand new agent if I have to sell my home as a short sale or if my property presents any other unique challenges, even if they have a few great reviews, but beyond that, I am smart enough to know that someone with 800 transactions a year didn’t quite handle those, or not well.  I know that it’s not a numbers only game, but some statistics are important to me.  And as uncomfortable as it may sound, I do want to be able to verify the info that my potential agents are providing me.  I do it for almost everyone else, and I am sure people do it with me in my business.  I don’t take it as an insult.

I will also add that making this sort of data available to new agents in markets they don’t have MLS access to would be invaluable for their ability to succeed in this business.  These agents are now pitched by current and former real estate professionals on one system for success or another at the many industry events and conferences, or in the various forums, e-books, coaching sessions.  How does a new agent determine whether or not the mentor or advisor they choose to listen to is worth the money they will spend with them or the time, for that matter?  At the moment, they just take their word for it or the pretty sales pitch.  What if some of the agents mentoring these newbies are not at all successful in their real estate practice, and is their advice then still valid, and worth paying for?  In simpler terms, are new agents learning from the best in the industry, as they should be?

I choose my service providers based on how good they are at their job first and everything else second, and in almost any other thing in life I can find enough data to predict service provider’s future performance.  I can’t predict anything based on a marketing message alone.  To ask me to just trust you with my most important (or at least most expensive) possession is akin to telling me to settle for a court appointed attorney, or deal with the first physician listed in a phone book.  Trust, to me anyway, is earned, and being able to independently verify success claims and competence level is a first step towards establishing that trust.

I sincerely hope that this industry is grown up enough now to realize that people want to make educated decisions, and stops shooting arrows at anyone who attempts to innovate towards industry transparency.  I hope that if it’s not Redfin or Zillow or some such that jumps on the bandwagon of publishing performance stats, peer ratings and consumer reviews, the MLS’s take the lead from their progressive colleagues, like the HAR, and not their more regressive counterparts.  At the end of the day, I am thankful to Redfin for starting the conversations, backlash notwithstanding, and for having the guts to ship a product they believed was needed, even if lacking the wisdom to do it well.  Here is to hoping the flogging they got does not deter innovation in this direction.  And just as importantly, here is to hoping the industry big wigs everywhere realize that ultimately, while the consumers decide the reputation of each agent, it is up to the industry on the whole to take a proactive role in enabling its members to do better, for both, the consumers they serve, and their pocketbooks.  And that is an impossible task when all aspects of each member’s performance or competence are hidden, and accountability hinges on what amounts to a handshake.

We all deserve better than that.



Quote from Carla’s post:

“How many transactions is NO ONE BUSINESS — and publicly broadcasting could have very bad adverse affects on agents, brokers and brokerages.  What Redfin is doing is really unfair business practices — on a lot of levels!

If the general public wants to know how many freaking deals an agent has done . . . THEY CAN USE THEIR MOUTH WORDS AND ASK THE AGENT DIRECTLY!”

– quote from just one of a bunch of featured AR posts on the subject

Redfin’s post on shutting it down
HAR’s Realtor Rating Program
Harris Poll (2010)
Harris Poll (2009)

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