The National Broker Public Portal — Not for everyone?

The National Broker Public Portal announced appointment of its initial board of managers this week. In the press release they state that the project is designed to fill “an unmet need in the online marketplace.” Unfortunately, don’t define what that need is, leaving many readers still scratching their heads wondering “Wha??” Have these folks divined a gaping hole in the Zillow/Trulia product strategy and set about to fill the vacuum before anyone else sees it? With hundreds of listing portals and tens of thousandsBroker Portal Logo of agent and broker IDX sites, how could there possibly be any “unmet need” remaining anywhere? We shall see what that means.

In their earlier information releases, the group described the project as “the Creation of a National MLS Consumer Facing Property Search website.” Apparently it evolved to a Broker website in the past 30 days which is most interesting given that it is to be funded by MLS dues to the tune of somewhere between $1 and $3 per MLS subscriber per month.

The funding basis was made possible by a redefinition by NAR some time ago of what Basic Services are in MLS land. Basic Services now includes public facing MLS websites which can be supported by dues paid by ALL MLS subscribers even though they may compete with SOME subscribers and their brokerages. Interestingly enough, the larger brokerages and franchises fought this change heartily. In May, 2013, The Realty Alliance wrote a letter to the MLS Policy Committee stating, “… since we are not in favor of MLSs establishing public-facing listings display websites, we certainly do not favor leaving only the words, “establish or maintain” in the authorization to use our dues/fees/reserves as it is too wide an authorization. Significant dollars of ours could be spent “maintaining” these sites, including marketing and promoting these in competition with broker IDX sites.”

Bob Moline, President and COO of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services and the first name on the announced list of newly elected managers of the Portal, wrote at the same time:

We have no doubt, based on proposals and communications of others of which you are, no doubt, aware, that some want to use the fees and dues collected by MLSs and Associations to actively market public-facing sites. Such expenditures–and the public facing websites themselves–would put MLSs and Associations in competition with many of their broker-members, specifically their larger broker-members.

Therefore, we strongly suggest that the proposed new language on advertising specifically exclude the use of MLS of Association dues or fees to market public-facing website. (emphasis added)

Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Despite the protestations, the NAR Board of Directors approved the MLS committee’s proposed rules change and included MLS public facing sites in the definition of Basic Services. Now the Realty Alliance and other major brokers are backing the biggest implementation so far of the new policy.

Please don’t misunderstand — I am not accusing any of the major brokers of doing a flip-flop on this issue. It actually makes great sense for the brokers and major franchisers to back such a move, even though they opposed the rule change that made it possible. From their astute perspective, it is easier to manage one national MLS portal than 600-800 small ones. By imposing the Fair Display Guidelines (see below) from the top down, they need not fight the multiple skirmishes that would surely arise from a bottom up approach.

Much conjecture and critique has been levied at the project and it’s not even off the drawing boards yet. But in all that’s been written about the Broker Public Portal, one question has not been asked that I think needs to be addressed before it goes further.

One of the core tenets of the project is the adoption of the Fair Display Guidelines that the Realty Alliance developed back in 2012-13. Guideline number four states, “ No Ads For Other Brokerages Or Agents Displayed On Or With A Brokerage’s Listing” and goes on to explain:

Only the actual listing broker and agent may be displayed on the property details page. No ads from companies that may compete with a broker’s affiliated business such as mortgage, title, or escrow companies will be displayed on an individual property listing page.

So only the listing agent and brokerage will appear on property detail pages. Buyers’ agents, who by definition do not have any listings, will not be given any exposure at the “point of purchase” – the moment when a potential buyer has a question but perhaps doesn’t want to ask it of the legal fiduciary of the seller for fear of disclosing something about his/her negotiating position. Those buyers agents are members of the same MLS that is supporting the Portal; they are paying the same dues as the listing agents; and $1 to 3 of their dues payments each month are going to fund this portal project. Yet they get nothing in return? How is it that no buyers’ agents have asked the magic question, “What’s in it for me?”

If the average MLS subscription fee is around $25 to $28/month, then somewhere between 4% and 10.7% of the gross revenues of the MLS are going to pay for a Portal that benefits only the small minority of agents who actually take listing contracts. That seems grossly and unfairly lopsided. I’m surprised someone hasn’t challenged that model yet.

The seeds of war bark like dogs

seeds of war bookInman reported on 4/30 that Redfin was going live in Las Vegas – going live, meaning they would have real agents with boots on the ground rather than relying on just one broker to give them a virtual presence in the market and access to the MLS. In a blog post entitled “Redfin and the Seeds of War” Brian Boero at 1000 Watt Consulting asked later that day why this was any big deal. After all, Redfin has had Vegas MLS listings on its site for four years by virtue of being a “Paper Broker” (I hate that term, but we’ll deal with that later), the industry invective for a referral model broker who doesn’t actually help buyers and sellers transact real estate purchases. Brian summarizes by stating the following:

Paper brokers get a license, tap into the MLS and drink from the cup of data direct from the source, whether or not the practicing brokers in an MLS are OK with it.

I have written about this issue before. Some brokers are concerned but worry about any sort of response for fear that the federal government will view such a response as anti-competitive. Others dismiss the issue as immaterial.

In any case, I believe this issue to be explosive, divisive and pregnant with the possibility of a war with much collateral damage.

(To his credit, Brian later posted a rebuttal from Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, in which Glenn professes Redfin’s intention to pass through the “paper” phase to become a true, national electronic brokerage. Please reread Brian’s post for Glenn’s remarks if you haven’t already.)

Brian is exactly right on a number of levels but at the same time misses an even bigger explosive possibility.

First, a little history DOJ beats NAR

Paper brokerages were a bane of existence to traditional brokers, their MLSs and their national association as far back as the middle ‘00’s. NAR took the DOJ inquiry into VOWs as an opportunity to squash Paper Brokers once and for all. The final settlement of the matter was published in May, 2008 and the definition of MLS Participant is in Exhibit B. The settlement that was reached included a provision that NAR demanded, that being a clear definition of “Participant” for MLS purposes. And the MLS purposes toward which the definition was crafted were to prohibit Paper Brokers from being MLS subscribers and getting access to MLS data without actually doing any brokerage. The definition reads:

“Under no circumstances is any individual or firm, regardless of membership status, entitled to MLS ‘Membership’ or ‘Participation’ unless they hold a current, valid real estate broker’s license and offer or accept cooperation and compensation to and from other Participants.”

The underlined words above replaced the previous language which read, “are capable of offering and accepting” cooperation/compensation. This change was further clarified in additional language which reads:

Note: Mere possession of a broker’s license is not sufficient to qualify for MLS participation. [Emphasis mine] Rather, the requirement that an individual or firm ‘offers or accepts cooperation and compensation’ means that the Participant actively endeavors during the operation of its real estate business to list real property of the type listed on the MLS and/or to accept offers of cooperation and compensation made by listing brokers or agents in the MLS. “Actively” means on a continual and on-going basis during the operation of the Participant’s real estate business. The ‘’actively” requirement is not intended to preclude MLS participation by a Participant or potential Participant that operates a real estate business on a part time, seasonal, or similarly time-limited basis or that has its business interrupted by periods of relative inactivity occasioned by market conditions. Similarly, the requirement is not intended to deny MLS participation to a Participant or potential Participant who has not achieved a minimum number of transactions despite good faith efforts. Nor is it intended to permit an MLS to deny participation based on the level of service provided by the Participant or potential Participant as long as the level of service satisfies state law.

The key is that the Participant or potential Participant actively endeavors to make or accept offers of cooperation and compensation [Emphasis mine] with respect to properties of the type that are listed on the MLS in which participation is sought. This requirement does not permit an MLS to deny participation to a Participant or potential Participant that operates a Virtual Office Website (“VOW”) (including a VOW that the Participant uses to refer customers to other Participants) if the Participant or potential Participant actively endeavors to make or accept offers of cooperation and compensation. An MLS may evaluate whether a Participant or potential Participant “actively endeavors during the operation of its real estate business” to “offer or accept cooperation and compensation” only if the MLS has a reasonable basis to believe that the Participant or potential Participant is in fact not doing so. The membership requirement shall be applied on a nondiscriminatory manner to all Participants and potential Participants.

Let me highlight a couple of key phrases that fall into the “CYA” category.

  1. Not intended to preclude part time brokers/agents. OK, just because you have two jobs in order to eat, you can still be an MLS broker
  2. Not intended to preclude those who have not achieved a certain number of transactions. OK, just because you’re an ineffective unproductive broker, you can still be in the MLS.
  3. Not intended to preclude limited service brokers. OK, just because you’re too lazy to provide full service and you want to pop listings into the service and on Realtor.com for a couple hundred bucks each, you can still be in the MLS.
  4. And finally, a broker who operates a VOW, and uses that VOW to refer out business to other brokers can still be in the MLS  “if the Participant actively endeavors to make or accept offers of cooperation and compensation” (in addition to the referrals).

That last bullet was aimed directly at the paper brokers, most prominently ZipRealty (through their “Powered by Zip” network), RealEstate.com (then a part of Market Leader and now rolled up into the Trulia camp of companies), and Redfin (in those markets where they had not yet transitioned to a full brokerage model).

What has happened since?

So what has happened in the six years since the DOJ gave NAR and its MLSs the club they so desperately wanted and needed to attack the paper brokers and grind them up in the paper shredder of oblivion?

Nothing!

Absolutely Nothing!!

No broker that I know of has been expelled from or denied participation in any MLS because they failed the “actively endeavors” test. I am not aware of any MLS that has been so bold as to draft policy that defines the level of activity required to pass such a test.

ZipRealty continues with their referral network, adding more brokers on a continuing basis.

Redfin, as we see in this story, continues to expand unabated by such restrictions.

Trulia professed loudly when they bought Market Leader that they wouldRECom WA LIC get rid of their referral brokerage licenses and not compete with their brokerage advertisers. Trulia VP Alon Chaver told Inman News in September, 2013, “We are not an operating broker, and thus do not intend to use IDX data on RealEstate.com after the acquisition closes.” Yet Trulia still maintains brokerage licenses in 44 of the 51 licensing jurisdictions.

(Just to be sure this list was not just an extraneous page they forgot to take down from the website, I checked four west coast states’ real estate departments and licenses were still active in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. In fact, the Washington license was just renewed this past January 8.)

The RealEstate.com referral model previously came under the scrutiny of HomeServices of American and The Realty Alliance brokers a year earlier (August, 2012) which prompted the aforementioned and highly esteemed Mr. Boero to pen “Welcome to Crazy Town.” In that op-ed, he opined that the middle-finger salute Market Leader was flashing at the industry could intensify the cry for “broker owned portals, MLS apostasy and retrenchment.”

To take Brian’s “Seeds of War” theme and extend it with the help of man’s best friend (Arf) and a little Pink Floyd, “The dogs of war won’t negotiate. The dogs of war won’t capitulate.” If you think the road to apostasy has been paved over with forgotten memories paper brokers past, think again.

As I suggested recently, the Project Upstream initiative by the Realty Alliance consortium is moving forward apace. Despite those who think this might be a boon to the MLS (by speeding consolidation) rather than yet another nail in its coffin, let me modestly suggest: MLSs have been warned.

They were warned in 2012 when Market Leader bought Realestate.com. They were warned again when Trulia bought Market Leader. They were warned yet a third time when Realty Alliance CEO Craig Cheatham made his case to the CMLS conference in Boise this past October. arrow

And my guess is the next warning will not be a shot across the bow. It will be through the head.

For this post:
Cause: I shot an arrow into the air . . .
Effect: It fell to earth right through my hair. . . (ouch)

 

This post also appears on Notorious ROB.

The Impossible Dream or a Glorious Quest?

This “thought” by Steve Murray of RealTrends appeared in his October 31 email newsletter and was posted on his website the next day.

State of Unrest

Why is there so much angst between Realtor associations, MLSs and brokerage firms?

By Steve Murray

“The whole is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs and South Africans hate the Dutch. And I don’t like anybody very much.” -Kingston Trio “They’re Rioting in Africa” lyrics

Sounds like the current state of our industry, doesn’t it? The level of angst between local, state and national Realtor associations, MLSs, brokerage firms and national realty chains has risen to new heights. Everyone is unhappy with everyone else in some fashion. Of course, there are exceptions (though hard to find).

It occurs to us that this is what happens when the pie shrinks (revenues generated by the industry and the lack of growth in membership). The fight becomes one where everyone invades someone else’s turf (mission creep). It happens in other industries as well.

What is needed is a group of wise people from the various constituencies to gather and come up with a way to co-exist. A new road map is needed. A map that lays out how the market place can be made clearer and more efficient. That would be a worthy goal. It behooves these leaders to find some solutions before external forces develop their own path (pocket listings anyone?).

We may be wrong, but it seems like we are creating fixes on the run when what is needed is a full examination of how we are organized, whether that still works as intended and are there new structures and rules that are needed that reflect today’s reality.

Just a thought.

quixote-windmillI agree with Steve that left unaddressed these problems will merely create an environment ripe for invasion by yet other “external forces” that can send the industry in directions no one wants to see it go.

I was reaching for the phone to call Steve and offer my assistance in assembling the right people in the right room at the right time to try to solve these issues. But then I stopped.

My pitch to Steve was going to be, “You bring the brokers. I’ll bring the MLSs.  We both know a couple of influential association executives who could bring the Realtor organizations at all levels. Let’s get everyone in the same room at a large round table (think either King Arthur or Paris Peace Talks – no “sides” so everyone is equal) and hash this thing out. Sounds easy. But the doubts crept in as I put down the phone.

What would we talk about? Well, for starters, there’s the list of grievances prepared by The Realty Alliance and aimed at the MLSs and their Realtor Association owners. Many are superficial or apply to only a few isolated situations and could easily be fixed by taking a couple of people out to the wood shed. Others are but the tip of the iceberg and the most recent artifact of a much deeper malaise.

There’s an underlying current of doubt, mistrust, and apprehension that courses through these discussions. It sits like a mastodon in the room, ancient is his repose and invisible to any and all who choose to look around or through the hulking question that challenges every professional in the business: “How do we make this industry better?”

How do we elevate the practice of real estate to a level of professionalism that will foster trust from our clientele and confidence from our fellow practitioners?

How do we reform our trade associations into support organizations that work to the benefit of ALL parties in the transaction – buyer, seller, agent, broker – and not just two or three of the participants?

How do we construct a matrix of interrelationships where all of the pieces not only connect but support all the others and through those connections make the whole of the structure stronger?

How do we build a platform from which to lobby for laws, policies and regulations that promote and sustain the concept of home ownership as a cornerstone of economic prosperity where one’s home is one’s castle and in most cases the basis of one’s family wealth? Could such a platform be supported by both red and blue ends of the spectrum, left and right wings of the parties, and all shades and wings in between?

How do we stop the bickering between the parties which seems to be consuming far more energy and effort than could possibly be justified by the results? There seem to be no results – just continuing misunderstanding, finger-pointing, and ill feelings.

Could any of this be done at a level (national, state, local) and with enough support from all quarters to truly make a difference in how real estate brokerage framework is structured? Or are we too far gone, too deeply mired in our current morass to come up for air long enough to have civil discourse about these problems?

What is needed here is far more than just another real estate conference with panel discussions and break-out sessions where lots of platitudes are spoken but nothing is accomplished. We need something more akin to a constitutional convention with delegations from each of the constituent “states.”

we-the-people-9The assembly would need more than just a couple of days, but certainly less than the nearly four months it took the founding fathers to draft, debate, and adopt the new structure of an entire nation.

But the next step would be the trickier one. How do we ratify such a new structure? In 1787 it was fairly easy, even with 13 independent minded states joining together for the common good. On a simple yes or no vote, each state decided could it go it alone or would it be better off joining with its confederates to become stronger through union and common purpose. This time it’s trickier. One no vote by one vital “state” would/could undermine the entire effort. This truly needs to be all for one and one for all.

In the end, all the states joined. They joined for purposes similar to those which the real estate convention would be asked to address: to form a more perfect industry union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the benefits of home ownership to ourselves and our posterity.

Is this the impossible dream? Or are we as an industry up to the task? And if so, when can we start the quest?

For this post:
The Cause: an impossible dream?
The Effect: a glorious quest!

Question #21

NAREP StopSignRob Hahn published a detailed and most entertaining analysis of Texas broker Ben Caballero and the National Association of Real Estate Professionals (narep.NET – not .org or .com) that Ben founded about a year ago. In the post, Rob poses 20 questions to Ben about his real estate business, his business practices, and the current status of the NAREP non-profit organization. But he missed the biggest question that has been in my mind since I first heard about NAREP.

Why?

NAREP was created with the express purpose of stopping “syndication abuse.” Toward that end they created the Real Estate Professional’s Bill of Rights. The document “aims to ensure that proprietary real estate listing data are used in a manner that serve the interests of consumers, real estate professionals, and publishers. This Bill of Rights shall apply to all online and print media that publish listing information, including desktop and mobile applications.”

After a quick read of the ten major bullet points, it becomes evident that the doctrine is aimed squarely at the major national publishers. All but three of the “rights” not only demand changes in display practices by the publishers but actually require that the publishers change or abandon many of the business practices, not just display practices, that made them so successful. Seven out of the ten points contain requirements that if followed by many of the publishers would insure their self-destruction. It’s pretty clear that NAREP isn’t so much concerned about fair display of listing information as it is bent on the elimination of the national portals.

Back to the question of “why”? I don’t ask “why” because I don’t know what the motivation is behind this organization. That is pretty obvious. I ask “why” they chose to use this tack when they know for absolute certainty that no national publisher who wants to stay in business would, or even could, agree to all of the points in the Bill of Rights.

I am reminded of the recent kerfuffle in Washington, the government shutdown of 2013, caused by a small group of elected radical extremists hell bent on destroying the Affordable Care Act of 2010. They launched this crusade and brought the government to a screeching halt while knowing full well (because they were told by the more rational branches of the their own party) that this kind of blackmail or extortion not only wouldn’t work but it would, in the long run, damage the reputation of the party and undermine their attempts to regain the Senate in the 2014 elections.

Yet they persisted. And in the end they lost. Their futile attempts to usurp the authority of the Senate and the executive branch of the government and single-handedly repeal a law, approved by both houses of congress, signed by the president, and that withstood Supreme Court scrutiny was, in the end, a “tale . . . full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

I see the same sort of mentality at play in the NAREP philosophy. Any real estate practitioner with more than a few years experience and some broad exposure to the issues and debates of the day could, if asked, advised NAREP that their demands were impossible for publishers to meet. Indeed, the advice from long-time esteemed advisers at Clareity Consulting, whose similar draft of a Syndication Bill of Rights was used as a basis for the NAREP rewrite, would certainly have been moderation had they been asked.

NAREP published a list of constraints that no publisher could possibly agree to without at the same time throwing in the towel and giving up on their current business model. So if it is that obvious that the Bill of Rights couldn’t succeed, one must question the intent of the organization. Surely it isn’t just to stir the pot and generate a ton of publicity for the organizers. The most successful real estate broker in the nation with over 2,200 closed deals worth $668 million in 2012 doesn’t need the free publicity. Even at a 1% commission rate, that’s nearly $7 million in revenue. If I were drawing down that kind of coin, I’d be sipping umbrella garnished beverages on my sailboat in Margaritaville rather than trying to reform an industry that had been very generous to me.

So my question, #21, is Why?

for this post:
Cause: Obfuscated intent
Effect: Bearding authority

This post appears on Notorious R.O.B. as well.

The wolf eventually showed up!

The whole world of MLS is exploding. That part that isn’t exploding will be carpet bombed into oblivion. The sky isn’t just falling, it’s getting ready to crush every little chicken in its path. So many people are crying “Wolf!” that even the wolf is scared spitless. At least that’s what some writers would have you believe.Boycriedwolfbarlow-260px

Others see the problems inherent in crying “Wolf” but nonetheless think there may be some substance to the cries.

One of the morals of the Aesop’s Fable of the Boy who cried Wolf is often lost behind the more important metaphor: Don’t cry Wolf unless you mean it because you will make your audience weary of your warning. What we forget is that the Wolf eventually DID show up – and killed the whole flock of sheep.

I fear the same thing happening now in the MLS community in the aftermath of the warnings by The Realty Alliance to the collected MLS executives and leaders in Boise last week.

Some pundits are saying, “Yeah, we’ve heard this all before and nothing ever happens.” “Why should this time be different?”

This time it is different.

I’ll offer that this time is different because these are not idle threats made by some petulant teenager throwing a hissy fit. No one on the stage last Friday at CMLS was holding their breath until they turn blue in order to get their way. Not once did I hear the phrase “or else” uttered by TRA President/CEO Craig Cheatham. What I did hear was simple declarative statements of what TRA considers the facts of business life – that the practices they itemized were likely to cause conflict between MLSs and their Broker participants.

Some listeners were shocked, SHOCKED I tell you to hear there had been discontent here. They had never heard of such a thing, at least not in their backyards.

I’ve been doing some digging trying to figure out where this schism between brokers and their association owned/operated MLSs started. This has apparently been going on for years and no one noticed until last Friday.

Here’s what I’m finding and some of it is disturbing.

The Realty Alliance has a Facebook page. The page is posted to with great regularity by the administrator with observations and statements that sound an awful lot like either policy or stated concerns. These posts go back two and a half years, to May 2011. There aren’t many, but they do recite multiple expressions of angst about the growing schism between brokerages and their associations and MLSs. Examples:

TRAFB-01

TRAFB-02

 

TRAFB-03

 

TRAFB-04

 

Some of the messages are very cryptic. Such as

TRAFB-05

 

and a reminder a week later

TRAFB-06

And earlier that year when Franchisor IDX was a hot topic:

TRAFB-07

 

TRAFB-08

 

 

TRAFB-09

 

TRAFB-10

 

TRAFB-11

 

These last few entries all point to the time when TRA was fighting its implementation of franchisor IDX by NAR. The discussion was heated and almost everyone with a passing thought and a keyboard chimed in with their personal opinions about the debate. One blog, Matthew Ferrara, linked to from the TRA Facebook site, had some provocative quotes and comments, such as:MFerrara Post

Again, so what? This is just picking at the scabs of the never-healing self-inflicted wound REALTORS stabbed themselves with decades ago, called MLS.

So all of the “nice” things that MLS policies supposedly provide brokers are becoming less valuable to many brokers with every new technology decision that accompanies them.

Mr. Ferrara had some observations that seem to presage the discussions we’re having today by nearly three years. Here, on how difficult a new technology solution would be:

As for sharing it (data) between multiple brokers, alternatives have already proven the possibility: Postlets, Point2 and – shock! – peer-to-peer syndication feeds make it possible for companies to transfer data to each other without much cost (in some cases, none). If an unfunded-nobody can syndicate their data to Huffington Post using a free WordPress-coded blog and free WiFi at Starbucks, don’t you think today’s brokers can figure out how to send data to each other?

On how to do business without an MLS (remember this is early 2011):

And that’s the real unintended consequence of the IDX syndication rule. Some brokers must now seriously consider withdrawing from the MLS club entirely. And why not? Most of New York City has survived just fine into the 21st century without MLS. Millions of real estate brokers around the world get along fine without overly organized compensation policies and data policing. They know how to cut each other a referral check, and generally play nice. Consumers, on the other hand, are far better at inducing brokers to keep their data fresh than a few dollar fine by a MLS cop, lest the broker face consumers’ wrath on Twitter and Yelp.

So the discussion of MLS v. Broker problems isn’t new. Nor are some of the more obvious possible resolutions to the problems in the event that the brokers and NAR/MLS teams can’t reach consensus on changes needed in the underlying relationships.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will. Here are comments I posted to the Vendor Alley essay on this topic earlier today:

I think we are over-thinking this. Let’s look at Occam’s razor: the simple answer is most often correct.

What do the brokers say they want? A simple solution that lets them trade inventory and cooperate on selling homes. Nothing more. The simple solution would be to meet for coffee at the corner restaurant once each week and exchange lists of addresses and prices. Sound familiar? Now make it electronic, but keep it simple.

We are seeing this in the agent community with private listing networks where agents exchange pocket listings with other agents with whom they choose to work. No NAR oversight; no mandatory cooperation requirement, no syndication; no MLS rules or competing products/services, no need to join 47 MLSs because of artificial geographic or political boundaries, just a simple society created by the peers in the group. And if someone isn’t playing by the rules, the group either kicks them out or just ignores them.

That approach on a slightly larger scale could work for residential brokerages. It certainly has worked just fine for the commercial brokers for decades. And most of them have never joined an MLS in their lives.

What have we learned from all this research? The sky isn’t falling yet, but storm clouds are definitely making it darker out there. We’ve heard these complaints before, but ignored them. The alternative solutions being considered aren’t really that hard to do nor are they that novel. Don’t ignore the warning signs just because you’ve heard them before.

One more lesson from many, many old black and white jungle movies: the most dangerous time is not when the war drums are pounding in the distance, but when they stop. As long as TRA and its affiliated groups are making noise, NAR and MLS are probably safe.

But don’t expect brass bands to come marching out of the Realty Alliance meeting room on Monday. There will probably not be a news conference held, no press release released, no profound statements of great import about the future of the industry, and certainly no ceremonial button pushing. The time to really start worrying will be Tuesday morning when the drums fall silent and the jungle is deathly quiet.

For this post:
Cause: Boy cries ‘wolf’ and no one listens
Effect: the Sound of Silence.

What did the lion mean by that roar?

Following on my post about the Broker/MLS conflict at CMLS, as promised The Realty Alliance (TRA) has published their list of complaints and Gregg Larson, Clareity Consulting has it posted with his commentary on their blog at http://clareity.com/Lion with Big Stick

By far the most commented article is the Inman News coverage of the event. Nearly 100 comments as of this writing and they’re all over the map.

And this morning Greg Robertson posted his take on the whole debate on Vendor Alley.

Most of these authors and comments are focused on the surface issues – complaints about specific MLSs and their practices – while ignoring the underlying reasons that TRA is so angry. The issues run far deeper than MLS public websites or white-labeled iPad apps. The main issues for TRA are fundamental disagreements with the way MLSs and Realtor Associations are structured, not how they’re managed. There are hints at this underlying problem in between many of the superficial nits being picked at in the TRA list.

Here’s my take on the list published by Clareity for TRA.

There were a few things that jumped off the page/screen at me as being Batman/Robin moments: Holy Jumpin Jehoshaphat!

#1, top of the list, first on the hit parade: Tying MLS participation with products/services that should be optional and go beyond the founding MLS principles (data, cooperation/compensation) … unfair, and likely illegal.

Comment: HOLY D-O-J, did someone mention illegal? This one clearly came from the spring discussion about core services (particularly lock boxes and public MLS websites). But there’s more here than just those two. What about tying MLS participation to Realtor Association membership? That has been decoupled in two federal circuit districts but failed similar court tests in others. TRA sees MLSs as protected by the political and financial prowess of NAR but out of control of NAR as evidenced by their expansion into numerous for-profit areas in which TRA feels they should not compete.

#5, Subsidizing associations by over-charging for MLS services and passing extra revenue to associations.

Comment: HOLY SWITCHEROO! Rather than raise board dues and risk backlash from Realtors who don’t see the value of the association’s efforts, they raise MLS fees because agents can’t do business without the MLS, so agents are powerless to complain or resist. This revenue stream is the main reason local Realtor associations maintain their control over the MLS (see #1 above).

#33, Allowing consultants to steer them (MLSs) to being overly entrepreneurial.

Comment: HOLY U-EYLOUIE! Turn the boat around. I’ve worked in two major MLSs and been involved in numerous consultant guided strategic planning sessions over the past decade and the advice from said consultants, across the board, has been pretty consistent: innovate, extend service, be more than just an MLS, provide value, expand, grow, prosper, consolidate, think of the consumer as your customer (because if you don’t, someone else will). As Gregg Larson said in his commentary, ” Clareity and half a dozen other consultants, along with numerous vendors, are guilty of introducing seductive new technology and services that the MLS can license for all its members.” Apparently TRA feels all those consultants at worst were wrong, or at minimum weren’t preaching to the correct choir.

#44, Viewing its customer as the agents or the consumer public.

Comment: HOLY BILLPAYER! Most MLSs would look at the agent as their primary customer because most MLSs charge the agent directly for services. And on behalf of the agents, many MLSs look at services from the vantage point of “What’s good for the consumer is good for the agent.” Apparently the TRA brokers see the relationships slightly differently.

#•, Having a bias against participants that make up a significant percentage of market activity and skewing benefits toward those with a smaller percentage of market activity.

Comment: HOLY LEVEL PLAYING FIELD! This may be the oldest complaint in the book, stemming from the first time an MLS ever considered a service that was thought to be good for all, regardless of whether some could have (or had) paid for it themselves. It stems from the Three Musketeers mentality of a trade association – All for One and One for All – regardless of rank, size, financial prowess or need. That worked OK when the association was handling public relations or government lobbying on behalf of the industry as a whole. It fails when those who benefit are only the ones who cannot afford the tools necessary to compete in the open marketplace, and those tools are paid for by the ones who can afford their own.

And the pièce de résistance: The ideas being tossed around for possible implementation are broad-based, not restricted to The Realty Alliance, but have been incubated by a number of global networks and brands representing firms of all sizes and business models, of which The Realty Alliance is just one segment.

Comment: Global Networks? Like Leading Real Estate Companies of the World? You can’t get much more global than that. Leading RE closed $272 billion in sales in 2012, 36% more than Coldwell Banker ($200 billion).

Those who think TRA is going at this alone are missing the nuanced references buried in the published statements and in the verbal appeal Mr. Cheatham made at CMLS.

Brands of all sizes and models? That could embrace the Realogy brands, Keller WilliamsPrudentialBerkshire/HomeServices and RE/MAX. A coalition of just those five would represent over half the agents in the US, and according to Leading RE’s numbers over 90% of all sales transactions. Now that’s clout. Any association or MLS that thinks this group is just restating the same ol’ same ol’ without any teeth behind the growl is going to be in for a rude awakening. If these five or six groups are in agreement on a course of action and act in unison to preserve their business, anyone who feels they are doomed to failure because the remainder of the industry won’t follow is missing one major point: THEY ARE THE INDUSTRY.

So let’s unveil the threat. What are the consequences of continuing the attitude as usual at all levels of organized real estate?

Realty Alliance CEO Craig Cheatham summarized in broad brush strokes what is being considered.

The Realty Alliance and some other large brokers and franchises have invested money in R&D on a project that could dramatically affect MLS and several vendors that were in the room know the details of this project but are under NDA so they are not talking about it. And no, technology is not a hurdle.

Ingredients: big money (some of it already spent); broad base of support; input from tech vendors/consultants (chosen not only for their knowledge and skill but also for an inordinate ability to keep their mouths shut – there has been absolutely no leak anywhere as a result of the NDAs); dramatic effect on MLS; and no tech hurdles.

I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks. But whatever it is that’s under consideration as the alternative to the current structure must assuredly incorporate:

  • Broker ownership and control of the listing maintenance and distribution processes
  • Disconnection between Realtor associations at all levels and MLSs (this piece alone is worth another post – coming soon)
  • No disruption in current business pipeline (perhaps a parallel system, at least for some overlapping timeframe?)
  • “…several… options that have never been available before.” Didn’t see that one coming, did ya? That tells me this is going to be BIG. Really BIG. No matter what it turns out to be.

For this post:
Cause:  You’re speaking too softly.
Effect:  I’m carrying the  big stick.

This post also appears on Notorious R.O.B.

The next lion . . . the next hill

lion-zoo

The Council of Multiple Listing Services held its annual conference in Boise, ID this past week. In keeping with the high standards of excellence (which may be redundant, but I liked the phrase) of past conferences, our host, Greg Manship from Intermountain MLS, the local host, and his staff put on a top notch program. Many of the panels actually discussed real industry issues which in the past has not always been the case. That’s not a ding on CMLS. It happens at every industry conference. The panelists talk but ignore the multiple elephants that roam around the room.

Not this time.

One discussion on Friday led to much “chatter” in the halls, an unhealthy level of speculation on what was really being said, and a healthy level of panic and paranoia as MLS CEOs tried to figure out what to do next.

Let me explain.

The panel was titled Eliminating MLS and Broker Conflict, moderated by Bill Yaman of Imprev who did a masterful job of mediating as well as moderating. Panelists were Gregg Larson, CEO Clareity Consulting, Brian Donnellan, COO and CFO of MRIS, and Craig Cheatham, CEO of The Realty Alliance (TRA). Craig’s comments were the most impactful.

Suspicion, suppositions and speculation are the staples of much discussion in the inner circles of MLS leadership. MLSs seem to be overly concerned with identifying the next biggest threat to their continued existence and through that to the prosperity of their broker participants. But as the old adage goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

The Realty Alliance is an affiliation of about 70 major independent-minded brokerages, both non-aligned and franchise affiliated, that meet periodically to exchange views on industry issues and best brokerage practices. There are some huge players in this arena and collectively they represent over 100,000 agents, more than 10% of current NAR membership.

They have been involved in the debate over many MLS rules as modeled by mother NAR. It was impetus from TRA members that caused the MLS policy committee and eventually the NAR board to reconsider and then reverse their policy regarding “recognized search engines” being allowed to index IDX listing displays. Senior executives from both TRA and Realogy, this time working in unison  rather than opposition, served together on the multiple (no pun intended) presidential advisory groups that wrestled (albeit unsuccessfully, due in no part to the herculean efforts of the members) with the nuances of policy surrounding the extension of IDX rules into social media.

So it surprised some in the audience to hear that TRA had a laundry list of grievances they wanted MLSs to address. In uncondensed form Craig said then list ran 48 pages single spaced. My first question to myself was why so many and why now? Hadn’t TRA members aired many of their issues in the usual forums? Certainly not all of their grievances applied to all MLSs, so why we’re they not talking to their local MLSs about particular local issues instead of to a conference in general?

The answer to the latter was “They were talking” – not only at the local level but at the state and particularly the national levels as well. But there was a sense in the air that the time for talk was over, that TRA members had resigned themselves to the realization that talk was not only cheap but ineffective, that trying to have their voices heard and change policy from the top down through the established channels was a fruitless endeavor. How we got to this position requires a bit more explanation.

A Brief History of Chaotic Times

At the spring NAR in Washington DC, NAR modified its definition of “Core Services” (those that can be included in the base monthly fee of all participants whether they use such services or not) to include public facing MLS websites. TRA was not alone in their opposition. They were joined by many franchisors who felt MLS were (a) being unfair in charging all members for service that only served some of the members (listing agents, not buyers agents), (b) competed with similar efforts by brokers to publish compelling content and attract consumers, and (c) generally expanding their charter and mission “which introduces vagueness and inappropriate objectives.”

The process by which this policy was adopted was contorted, contentious, and (in the minds of many, not just big brokers) counterproductive. But it was adopted.

Subsequent to that, TRA published a guidance paper telling MLSs TRA’s Fair Display Guidelines would have to be followed in order for TRA firms (optionally) to allow their listings to be included in such a public website or not. Most industry observers felt these were fair guidance so there was little debate.

But the unexpected consequence of the debate over public websites was a resurrection of a number of grievances that TRA felt were unaddressed. Had there not been the huge turmoil at the national level over the co-issues of franchisor syndication and MLS public websites, perhaps TRA would not have piled on with more, “Oh, and while we’re at it, they do this too . . .” items.

Don’t shoot the messenger

To Mr. Cheatham’s credit, he explained to the audience that he was just the messenger and didn’t have a dog in this hunt except to deliver the message from TRA in unambiguous language. And he almost succeeded in delivering the message in cool, measured carefully crafted statements without interjecting distracting emotional appeals. I say ‘almost’ because as the Q&A session progressed, it was clear from the emotion in his voice that he felt very strongly about the points he was making as he summarized the gist of the 48 pages into a series of quick bullet points.

Among them (and I’m doing this from memory since I can’t type as fast as Craig speaks) MLSs should not site license products that compete with brokers offerings to their own agents; MLSs should not introduce new services without a courtesy notice to (better yet, a discussion with ) the brokers; MLSs should not block data feeds to the brokers or agents (it’s their data and they need it for their businesses); for those MLSs that do provide full data feeds they shouldn’t charge participants a second fee to receive them; MLS CEOs should not take it upon themselves to make decisions for brokers in any regard without proper due diligence and research; and MLSs should consolidate more to eliminate overlapping territories that force brokers to join many MLSs. There were more. CMLS has asked for the list and will publish it if they get chance.

Craig went on to explain that in the months since the public website debate TRA had contributed significant resources into studying these problems and gauging the feasibility of several options should the MLSs not be persuaded to change their tactics. He described in broad concept the “red button” analogous to the one that follows the president around and is connected to the nuclear arsenal.

And in a statement that some saw as a thinly veiled threat, Craig concluded with, “You have 10 days.” (Insert audible audience gasp here!) Subsequently it was proffered that the 10 days referred to the time until TRA meets again to make decisions on next steps, not 10 days until the bomb drops. (Insert audible audience Phew!) Even with that clarification, the “bomb” concerns persisted.

What kind of bomb?

What could that bomb possible be? Rob Hahn, 7DS Associates, posed a question to Craig by reading a comment appended to one of Notorious Rob’s essays on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of MLSs changing their focus away from B2B and toward B2C fearing it may trigger a revisit of the public utility question. He quoted from the blog comment:

And now you know why, when the Realty Alliance met this year, the major topic of conversation was all about finding a path out of the MLS by the largest brokers in the country. . . . and now you know why the largest brokerage firms in the US are all telling NAR the three way agreement needs to end, or at the very least be significantly modified, or they are going to find a way out of NAR completely.

and then asked Craig to comment. Craig did not comment directly, saying only that he could not confirm or deny speculation about the content of debate or discussion of options within the closed meeting room. He wasn’t being coy or playing games.  It was clear that he was under specific instruction from TRA as to what he could discuss and what he could not. However, most in the audience probably felt that was as much a confirmation as they could expect, but a confirmation none the less.

I’m sure most MLS CEOs in the audience were either confident the bullets weren’t meant for them or were in total denial that such complaints could apply to them. After all, the conference is composed for the most part of CEOs who know what the heck they’re doing or they wouldn’t be there. So I asked the panel whether there was a way to figure out, as an MLS leader, whether this list applied in any way to their individual system. Would Craig be willing to share not just his list of grievances, but the individual MLSs to which each applied if he had that info. Such level of detail was not available, so in the absence of detail Gregg Larson suggested all the MLSs, not just those in the room, call all their largest brokers, especially TRA brokers, on Monday and ask the Ed Koch question, “How am I doing?

So the countdown clock is running. T-minus seven days (perhaps less by the time you read this) and counting toward the next debate and perhaps a decision on what changes MLSs, Association owners, and even NAR need to make to to address avoid potential disruptions in the status quo.

What might that decision be? Speculation ran rampant in the halls, ranging from pulling out of IDX and syndication so their listings wouldn’t be seen on an MLS public site to pulling out of MLS altogether to demonstrate their total frustration with the institution and what they feel it is becoming.

But I can’t imagine all of the TRA brokers pulling listings off all internet marketing sites. Their sellers would revolt. Their agents would revolt. Maybe they’re thinking of interconnecting all of their own broker websites to create a mini-network within the Internetwork, so a consumer could search anywhere in the country where there is a TRA affiliate?

Then again, the answer might be right under our nose if the commenter on Rob’s blog is an informed source.  If there have been discussions between major brokerages and the highest leadership levels at NAR about changes to the three-way agreement or decoupling mandatory NAR membership from participation in what are now all-Realtor MLSs, then all the discussion about public websites and IDX indexing will seem like a bunch of children’s playground nattering.

I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to reading about the results of the meeting.

I mentioned in my inaugural post that I had a feeling something seismic was about to occur in our industry. But honestly, I didn’t think it would happen this soon after making that prediction. (Heck, I haven’t yet finished the full post on what that shock wave might look like.) This might not be “the event” but I’d put money on TRA making some serious moves between now and the annual NAR convention, this year in San Francisco in November, if they don’t see some demonstrable sign that the MLSs, the AORs and mother NAR are willing to open negotiations and address these deficiencies in earnest. Otherwise the descending lion might just be having an MLS sandwich for lunch.

billchee“There is a high probability that the Realtor organization will lose control and direction of the MLS as it currently exists. I view the current MLS situation as a few Chihuahuas fighting over a bone, unaware that a hungry lion is coming over the hill.

– Bill Chee, April 26, 1993 in Washington DC.

In the meantime, tempus fugit MLS execs. Time to start dialing for brokers.

~bb

For this post:
Cause:  A failure to communicate
Effect:  Duck and Cover 50’s style

This post is also available on Notorious R.O.B.

 

Miscellanea 927

Brian Boero, 1000 Watt Consulting, has blasted out his miscellaneous thoughts called Friday Flash for quite a while (highly recommended). I like that name, but since it was already taken, and since I’m cautious about over-committing to a schedule I’m not always able to maintain, I need a new name without a time constraint. Possibilities: Intermittent Items. Sporadic Stuff. Serendipitous Subjects. Random Run-ins. Still thinking on that one.

– – – – – – – –

One of the advantages of working for yourself is you have a lot of time on your hands. Hours and hours spent sitting in an office “at work” pretending to be productive simply by keeping your eyes open and glued to a computer screen are now available to accomplish softer tasks – things like reading and thinking, and imagining. I love it. In reading many news sources, I sometimes hit two or three articles that seemingly on close examination have no relevance to each other, but from the higher level view they might. While none is of sufficient interest to warrant a full blog post, collectively they make for some interesting (I hope) thoughts. As I come across those from time to time, I’ll pass them along here.

In a Washington Post article this week on carbon nanotubes and super-miniature computers, scientists have been successful in creating a working computer so small you could fit 40 CPUs on Franklin Roosevelt’s head on a dime. If you share my wonderment that today’s smartphone has a more powerful computer than the Apollo 11 spacecraft that put Neal Armstrong on the moon, you’re also thinking that our pocket pals couldn’t get any smaller or smarter. You, as am I, would be wrong.

On the Time magazine cover this week is a question – Can Google solve Death? Followed by a subtitle, “the search giant is launching a venture to extend the human lifespan. That would be crazy – if it weren’t Google.” So the progenitor of driverless cars is now striving to become the Ponce de León of cyberspace and not discover but create the fountain of youth.

Lastly, news from the University of Washington that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is funding a project to advance computers that connect brain to spine in paralysis victims. The device could recharge wirelessly at night (sleeping on a coil-imbedded mattress). How big? See item #1 above.

Ear on mouseI’ve long been convinced that if I live just ten more years I will live forever. Between replacement parts (knees, hips, shoulders), growing new body parts in petri dishes or on mouseback , and robotics (Afghanistan and Iraq wars may not have done much for world peace or the national debt, but they did accelerate research into replacement parts for limb blown away by hidden explosives), about the only thing we couldn’t survive would be the proverbial ‘hit by a bus’ problem.

Based on these three stories, I’m starting to rethink my 10-year time horizon. Could be less.

– – – – – – – –

Speaking of cars, this article over on the Tech Dirt blog is worth noting. Consider this opening paragraph, which I have altered (three yellow highlights) to remove the identity of the players or the industry:

MLSs have been dealing with disruption just about as well as any other legacy industry has. Instead of attempting to compete, MLSs have chosen to respond to web portals refusal to cut them in on the middleman action by throwing up as many regulatory roadblocks as possible. Sadly, this antagonistic attitude toward both their competition and the home-buying public somehow makes sense to them, and they seem very willing to bury both the upstart and their last remaining shreds of goodwill at the same time.

The article is NOT about real estate brokers or MLSs. But it seems that the protectionist philosophy is not unique to the world of real estate data managers. Check out the link to see who they’re really talking about. And then ask yourself, where on the “most trusted professions” list do those folks rank relative to your position? And where should you rank?

– – – – – – – –

And lastly, keep this Tundra© cartoon in mind the next time someone says that your MLS or Association needs to be nimble, make quick decisions, and develop new ideas with the dexterity of an internet startup.

Wolves eat deer by committee action

Even with all good intentions, you’re still running by committee.


For this post:
Cause: Odds and ends hanging around
Effect: Three ideas do a blog post make

 

 

A Slight Tremor or Foreshock?

This post also appears on Notorious R.O.B.

An interesting article appeared in Inman News back in early July.  It might have gone unnoticed but for a reminder video they posted this past week.

It was coverage of a new brokerage, Suitey.com (pronounced “sweetie”), that opened this year in Manhattan.  In the video, one of the founders David Walker gave one of their reasons for trying a new brokerage model, one that not only offers discounts to sellers and rebates to buyers but also helps “consumers avoid some of the headaches that its founders say come with using a traditional broker.”

In the video, Walker states (0:44 seconds in), “One of the major problems with clients when they’re buying a home is their agent is actually incentivized get them into the most expensive apartment [that’s New York speak for “condo” or “coop”] possible.  Their compensation is higher when they (the buyers) pay more for their apartment.”

Brian Larson on Ending Cooperation and Compensation

In making this statement, David has resurrected an argument that has been bubbling on and off for years, going back to as early as 2006 when Brian Larson, noted former MLS CEO and now esteemed attorney in Minneapolis, penned a three part series entitled, “End of MLS as we know it” for Inman News.  (The links to parts 2 and 3 on Inman.com were broken, so if you want to read the entire series, go to LarsonSobotka.com.)  There were only a few comments from hard core blog readers and devoted MLS rules junkies.  After all, the MLS is an institution, as important a pillar of Realtorism as the three-way agreement and RPAC. How could MLS possibly end?  His redux publication of the series in 2010 got more notice. Perhaps more people had RSS readers by then.

Brian argues eloquently that “Interbroker compensation is an anachronism, and … should be eliminated.”  He summarizes all the good reasons for doing so, as follows:

Getting rid of interbroker compensation improves the market in several areas:

  1. Buyers and their brokers have more options for structuring their relationships and the compensation that will flow between them.
  2. Buyer broker fees can be commensurate with the skill and experience of the broker and with the buyer’s needs.
  3. Brokers do not have to fuss with the accounting details and conflicts associated with paying each other.
  4. The market benefits from price competition for buyer broker services.
  5. Buyer brokers working in transactions with FSBO or unrepresented sellers can obtain additional compensation for the additional work and risk they assume.
  6. The question of buyer’s brokers “rebating” commissions to the buyers becomes moot. There will be no compensation from the listing broker out of which any rebate could be made.
  7. The dangers of price-fixing, and the claims by industry watchdogs that it exists now, will largely be addressed. Brokers will really be unable to tell what their competitors are charging for services, and there will be no incentive for commissions to be “standard.”
  8. Buyer’s brokers can achieve the type of relationship of trust with brokers that support a claim to being “professionals.” When the buyer knows what she is paying for broker services and what she is getting in return, buyer expectations and broker performance are both likely to be more refined.

But Brian’s title belies the underlying contention that if we did away with offers of cooperative compensation, the MLS itself, at least in the form we now know it, would die or soon be replaced by something else.  It’s often been said that a large national consumer-facing real estate portal is “just one field away from being an MLS.”  But most are afraid to name that field, perhaps fearing that saying the words aloud would somehow make something horrible happen.  “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!

Why? Surely the MLS offers something besides compensation offers that make it unique and absolutely essential to the transaction of real estate purchases, doesn’t it?

Suppose an MLS wanted to structure a data agreement with a website, but saw that website as a potential competitor. So they included language that specifically voided the contract if the website competed with the MLS. What would that language look like?

A good starting point would be the MLS definition from the NAR Model rules, which specifies that a multiple listing service is:

  • a facility for the orderly correlation and dissemination of listing information
  • a means by which authorized participants make blanket unilateral offers of compensation to other participants
  • a means of enhancing cooperation among participants
  • a means by which information is accumulated and disseminated to enable authorized participants to prepare appraisals, analyses, and other valuations of real property
  • a means by which participants engaging in real estate appraisal contribute to common databases

Many (most?) national websites exhibit many of these characteristics already.  They correlate and disseminate listing information (and other info too); they enhance cooperation among parties (tools for agents and consumers); they offer means of valuing property (AVM or RVM), and they collect information from users for the common good (agent ratings).  The one thing they don’t do is convey offers of compensation between brokers.  That’s the unspoken missing field:  compensation; compensation; compensation!

Without it, the MLS becomes just another listing aggregator, no better and no worse than the others.  And without MLS, NAR has a much more difficult time defining its value proposition as anything other than a government lobbying organization with no compelling reason to induce practitioners to join, particularly if they are of the alternate political persuasion.

Cooperation and Compensation Hurts the Consumer

Carrying that theme to its logical conclusion, albeit with a healthy dose of hyperbole along the way, Greg Swann of Bloodhound Blog fame authored and collected a series of articles advocating the demise of inter-broker compensation and its associated MLS as a way of ending the tyrannical rule of the NAR.  But in doing so he clearly identified the core problem: coop compensation screws both the buyer AND the seller.

This is actually doubly insane. The person paying your agent to get you the lowest possible price for the home is the same person who is being paid by the seller to get the highest possible price for the home. You may start to think that you are getting screwed, having discovered that “your” agent is being compensated by the listing broker, but think about the poor seller: He is paying two brokers to pursue — at least in the abstract — antithetical goals. If you did a good job picking your agent, the seller will have paid the listing broker to pay your broker to pay your agent to frustrate the seller’s objective.

How could this possibly make sense?

The answer: It doesn’t make sense.

Over the course of the next year, others joined the chorus, from real estate broker to learned academician.  But as we know, in the end nothing changed.

Until perhaps now.

Here we have a broker, not an MLS executive, not a lawyer, not an academic, not a consultant, an ACTUAL broker working within the system, saying aloud what until now has been mentioned only in hallway conversations at MLS conferences and on blogs mostly written by insiders: cooperative compensation through the MLS hurts the consumer.

And we have seen with the rise of the national portals who built their enormous followings by delivering to the consumer something that the industry was unable or unwilling to deliver. Consumers speak volumes and will eventually get what they want, because someone will give it to them.  What remains to be seen is whether they will be equally vocal in demanding an end to the pain – the aforementioned “headaches that… come with using a traditional broker.“

For this post:
Cause:  My head aches just thinking about it.
Effect: Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

-bb

Filling the white space void

This week’s Trialogue on Brand White Space & Brokerage Opportunity, with Rob Hahn (@RobHahn), Matthew Shadbolt (@Corcoran_Group), Linsey Planeta (@linsey), and Gahlord Dewald (@Gahlord), [which by the way actually makes this podcast a quadralogue – but who’s counting?] is a continuation of the mini-pod from last week entitled Zillow Begins to build a Media Model.  The discussion delves into the thought that Zillow is becoming the Home Depot of the home ownership process.

Rob goes to Home Depot to buy replacement windows.  The service company that Home Depot contracts with shows up with a different name on the truck and does a great job.  Rob thinks of this window company as just an extension of Home Depot and is happy Home Depot did a great job.  Likewise, should the installation go south, it’s Home Depot that Rob calls and delivers a tongue lashing.  Home Depot and Lowe’s are the go-to sources in home repair, improvement, or remodeling. Once you’re in the relationship, once you’re satisfied with a couple of jobs they do, you stay there.  There’s no reason to change.

How does this translate to Zillow (or the other portals) vis-à-vis Coldwell Banker or RE/MAX.   Zillow launched their television ad campaign intending to capture consumer mind share where none currently exists – a huge amount of “brand whitespace” in the real estate category, meaning no one brand symbolizes real estate in the U.S.   This “white space” is the empty place(s) in the entire home ownership process to which the homeowner can’t manage to attach a name – any name, be it an agent name, a brokerage name, a realty website, or a trademark brand of any kind.

If the first brand that pops into a consumer’s head when they think about buying a house is Zillow and not a brokerage or franchise, that fundamentally changes the business equation, WITHOUT Zillow actually getting into the brokerage business.

There was a lengthy discussion about the similarities between the Zillow ads (first one and second one)  and a flight of Coldwell Banker spots that aired earlier this year (right down to the music beds – did the Lumineers sample a little too much Phillip Phillips?).  Both had a similar feel, warm and tender, family oriented, designed to bring a little moisture to the corner of your eye which we men brush away as a sudden onset of hay fever. (“No, really, it’s just the pollen.”)

But despite the small difference in the commercials’ approaches, and the similarities in the message (start your home search on our web site), there’s a huge difference in the brand experience being advertised. When the consumer goes to Zillow.com, they get the same experience every time. The website behaves the same whether you’re signing on from Connecticut or California.  That’s what a brand promises – the fries will be the same no matter which McDonalds you drive through.

But Coldwell Banker is selling neither a website experience nor French fries.  Yes, the chain of events may well begin with a web search (many web searches on many websites if the consumer research is valid) but the product being sold is agency representation in the home purchase/sale process.  And THAT experience is not only different from branch to branch, but it is entirely different from agent to agent within the same branch.  There is no possible brand continuity within a brokerage or franchise unless the broker trains her agents to a robotic repetitious adherence to company process and mantra.  Perhaps some of the new models where agents are employees might be able to demand this level of adherence, but in an office of type-A personalities called independent contractors – NO WAY!

The discussion progressed on to the various models of brokerage, particularly considering the new LLC model where broker takes an equity position, not a commission split, in the agent’s business, not just within the current firm but in any future brokerage the agent affiliates with.  (More on that concept in this article by Imprev CEO Renwick Congdon.)  Carried to its logical extreme, this fractures the concept of broker branding beyond what all the king’s men could hope to reconstruct from Humpty Dumpty’s eggshells. This idea is worthy of another chapter all by itself, particularly the discussion of how a broker chooses which agents to “invest in.”

And to that point, how does the broker decide not only which agents she feels will be worthy of her investment, will be productive and return handsomely on her investment, but which of these agent-LLC’s will be brand reinforcing.  Can a company, made up of a bunch of smaller mini-companies, actually have a brand identity and create brand awareness in the mind of the consumer?  Or are they doomed to be lost in the aforementioned snow storm of white space?

For this post:
Cause: 
Entropy– the measure of disorder
Effect: 
Carpe diem