It may be broken, but here's a plan to fix it!

Ah, finally get to catch up on reading some RCG posts. What a prolific group this is! Makes you wonder just how important a degree in creative writing might become to the average agent in the future. I’ve been busy cuz I’ve been doing alot of recruiting these days.  So, when Eric, in a recent post  wonders about the mega agent model works I can’t help but commenting that it works great for the mega agent and not so great for the mini agents on the team and especially not so great for the customers of said Mega Agent who may not want to be foisted off on a newbie. Ardell says that the industry is broken because agents don’t help train newbies anymore. Couldn’t agree more. Fact is, there are agent training programs within offices, called Mentor Programs, but they cost the newbie a lot. I just heard about one such program that offers the mentoring agent 70% of the commission! No wonder its broken, but I have an idea of house to fix at least a part of it.

I wonder if people outside of this industry know that 85% of all new agents have left the business within 2 years and that average agent income is around $32,000 below the average household income of $34,000! When we talk about the industry being broken, how could it not be when out of every 100 agents, 85 of them have under 2 years of experience practicing in an industry that demands a high level of legal education and an equally high and complicated knowledge base. I’ve blogged before about the need to raise the bar for new agents. But I don’t see it happening unless I want to get on the Real Estate Commission which I don’t want to do. Untrained agents are like driving over a train track with the train coming. Shoot, I once had a seller move out a month early because his agent misread the financing deadline for closing of the transaction! Like Ardell, I could tell thousands of other stories. Isn’t the fact that there are so many newbies who are inadequately trained but allowed to handle any kind of transaction greatly affecting the quality of service to the clients? Doesn’t this create most of the problems with transactions?

So, now I’m in a position to make a difference. I can’t affect the other agents but I can sure affect the ones at LTD. There is a huge fault with the traditional business model for a real estate company, starting with recruiting.  When recruiting, brokers use the same practices to recruit new agents that you find in multi level marketing. They point to the super agent making all kinds of money and driving the ego car and hold them as the example of what the newbie can become. It’s enticing and makes the mouth water. The newbie can hardly wait to get a piece of that fortune and so eagerly joins the firm with all the zeal and ambition that should make them succeed. They are given the standard goals: take forms classes, establish a farm, knock on doors, do open houses, develop a sphere and take floor time.  But sadly, they don’t usually succeed with this advice. At least not 85% of the time.

Part of the problem is the upside down business model in the traditional company. This model and the model taught in broker training, is that once an agent has earned enough, typically $50,000 and splits this 50/50 with the brokerage, then that agent no longer earns money for the company, and is, in fact, a drain on the office, supples, training, etc.  Instead of being tied to the ongoing success of the agent, the office does just the opposite and depends instead on recruiting new agents instead of developing what talents they already have. Why, because their model is make $25,000 from as many agents as they can. Thus the revolving door.  Agents that carry heavy listing farms are also recruited but not for the reasons many might think. The heavy listing agent is sought after by almost all companies because they get the companies name on the streets with signage and have listings advertised to get the phones to ring. Do sellers know that their home isn’t advertised in the paper to necessarily get it sold as much as it is to take up print space and serve as image marketing? Plus the phone rings at the office to give the ‘up’ agents leads thereby providing a way for a new agent to get business.The newbies often do the open houses, not to sell the home, but to develope clients.

But what I think is an even greater cause of this failure are the many, many hats an agents wears, all requiring a different personality, skill and intelligence level. They must understand and implement all of the forms used in listings, sales, Federal forms and laws (asbestos, lead paint, fair housing) without which they can look at jail time and/or fines, disclosure subleties, etc. A typical agent must also learn how to read people, how to know just when to push and when to hold back. They must be strong enough in a listing presentation to sell themselves as the best while empathetic enough to work with buyers and understand their points of view. A good buyer’s agent must know how to perform a buyer consultation.and know how to find the exact right house out of the many thousands that are on the market, and not have buyer’s remorse.   A typical agent must know geography, house styles, demographic trends, know how to price, employer information, school information, church and communtiy information, transit information, structure and design.  Additionally, this practice requires a high level of negotiating skills, assistance during the inspection where many deals take a nose dive, plus the ability to stay on good terms with other agents in the market place without which they are doomed.   Agents are asked for advice on mortgage progrmas, title issues, need to understand and explain builder addendum (if that’s possible) and warranties, understand the escrow process and data base management, etc.

This is but a small list of the knowledge and skills an agent must have or fail. But, as if that weren’t enough, they have to be able to wear a marketers hat, as well. What is the best way to attract clients? How do you ever set up those lucrative programs aimed at building a referral base. Do you advertise in magazines, newspapers, online, do you buy lead sources like House Values, do you blog, do massive mailings, do you establish a farm?  Who will build a web site and teach how to make it a useful lead source. And on and on.

Do you see why it is ludacrous to ask all these skills of one person? How could any well balanced individual know all of this stuff and still have a life. Even the mega agents who scale as Eric has suggested might be a good real estate model, these agents must be even more talented since now they must also be managers, and, worse, they are ultimately responsible for errors made at any level by the team, any lawsuits, ommissions or mistakes by the assistant will be born also by the mega agent.

What we see in other companies in America are several different departments with different specialties and responsiblities.  When I owned two restaurants, a nightclub and a boatyard and marina, as you might imagine that I had 10-12 departments reporting to me at any one time. And I certainly didn’t know how to repair a twin screw diesel engine nor could I entertain as well as the All Male Revue! I contracted out marketing, I hired bookkeepers, I paid well for department heads that were specialists in their fields. Why not have a real estate company set up the same way, i.e., with different departments doing what they each do best. The agent should be the person who is face to face with the clients, not the person who is mailing out postcards or doing the research on the different lead generator sources. Even deciding how to outsource the different parts of the job is time consuming.  Each agent should work with the PART of the business that best suits his or her personality style, and you determine this with a personality assessment and lots of coaching, i.e., if you want to work at night and you are not shy and have a commanding presence, you’d probably like being a listing agent. If you get your kicks out of assisting someone in finding their dream house, you’d probably love working with buyers. If numbers fascinate you and you love the work of high finance, you’d probably prefer investment real estate and if you can’t tear yourself away from watching a home get built, you’d probably love new construction. For the well connected, whether by church, networking groups, family, and all kinds of social groups, and you love to give parties, then a referral based practice might work best for you.

Agents need to know themselves and find their own best fit in the business, then I firmly believe that they will succeed at a much higher level and make it through the first two years better than if they follow the typical one size fits all advice of their broker. Or, worse yet, take every referral coming from the relocation department and only make about 30% and lose belief in themselves.  As the agent grows, learn the ropes and learn what they love to do best, then migrate throughout the different departments within the company and take on more challenges.

We need a new model. We need to create companies where the agents are treated as individuals and trained as such. Where it’s acknowledged that they can not wear all the hats at once.  We need to have all the effective marketing in place and offer assistance with implementing it. We need to provide FREE leads to our agents. We need to create an economic model where the agents continuing success is directly tied to the continuing success of the office.  We need to give agents the reason to stay loyal to the company and to take away all the stumbling blocks to success.

It’s a huge order, but doable. I know and it works. Start out with bright, likeable and agressive people, have programs set up in the different fields within real estate so there is enough diversity, have the marketing materials and programs researched and implemented so that the agent can be with the client and do what they do best.  Have the negotiation, legal and transactional support to augment the knowledge base of the agent, and mentor and coach as long as necessry. This is no Walmart model, nor is it a Costco model. It’s not the super agent model where only the super agent makes a good living, it’s a Super Office model where all can do well, all are supported, teamwork is highly regarded and there is incentive to grow the company, too. A happy and successful and nutured agent will cure this industry of what ails it. 

Zillow vs. “average” agent

When I wrote my “Baby Takes a Bow” piece which took about 30 seconds, I knew I was opening Pandora’s Box, and would have to back up my one liners with some extensive writing on each topic outlined therein.

My definition of Pandora’s Box is the one one that attributes “the box” to a “woman’s womb” from which new life springs forth. While I do not necessarily agree with Inman’s new three part series on negating the mls offering started yesterday, or all of David Barry’s undertakings around the country, clearly I am not the only one trying to pry open Pandora’s Box. The box WILL be opened! Whether the DOJ or David Barry choose in the end to take the ultimate credit, truth is, it is just simply time for the box to be broken open by everyone at once.

If we all take out our respective crowbars, the box will open. Who takes credit for having opened it, and clearly David Eraker and those who came before him will deserve some of that credit as well, who takes the ultimate credit is irrelevant. In fact the DOJ is my best hope for getting the credit, so that the “new life that springs forth” will be on a national scale as only the DOJ can do best.

In this quote from my most recent beginnings of a very long explanation, you will quickly see just WHO Zillow can replace, which by current accounts and statistics may be up to 90% of the industry as it exists today.

“If you stand up from the computer with the value in your hand before you go to the house, and you stand by that value after you arrive at the house, because the computer “SET” the value…you are giving the seller the equivalent of a Zillow produced valuation…which is FREE. Any agent who thinks a computer spits out a home “value” via a CMA Program, is easily replaced by Zillow.”

To some extent, those who wrote those great CMA programs, like IRIS/Lightning and Top Producer and way back to Coldwell Banker’s very first CMA software which predated them all, are responsible for agents believing that a computer can value a home.

To a greater extent large brokers, and local mls classes, that mislead new agents into thinking they can “value a home” on day ONE after they receive their license, by using these programs, are even more responsible for this thinking.

When the Pareto Principal changes from an 80/20 rule to a 90/10 rule, as was told to me in Real Estate Broker Classes, with only 10% of agents being competent, then it is time. It is time for Pandora’s Box to be opened. It is time to stop that snowball from rolling down the hill, it is time to stop that train that doesn’t seem to have brakes. It is time to roll back the clock and begin again.

Contrary to Inman’s new series, we do not have to roll the clock back 35 years to the beginnings of the mls. We only have to back up to the day that buyers were supposed to become “1st class citizens”, and begin anew from that point. Because an agent who cannot value a home for a seller, cannot with any sense of credibility, value one for a buyer either.

Where do the kids sleep?!?

[photopress:dig_deep.jpg,thumb,alignright]Whether you are a buyer or a seller, you really need to dig a little deeper when determining the value of a home. One thing I noticed when I first started practicing real estate in the Seattle area, is that almost no one digs deep enough when determining value based on “buyer profile”. This is an old fashioned concept, I guess, that I learned many, many years ago when I was the Certified Corporate Property Specialist (CCPS) for a large real estate company on the East Coast. That’s a fancy name for someone who must quickly sell the vacant inventory homes of relocated executives whose homes were “acquired” via a “buyout” corporate perk. The very first question I had to ask myself when I went to the property before putting it on market was, “Who is likely to buy this house?” I needed to know if I had an expanded or diminished buyer “pool”.

Remember, the market is shifting from a “baby boomer” market to a “Generation X” market, and we have to change our thinking and valuing with the trends that are affected by this shift. “We” meaning anyone interested in the “value” of property, whether that be buyers, sellers or real estate professionals.

Here’s a simple scenario. Four houses. Each 2,600 hundred square feet per mls. Let’s say everything is comparable in terms of neighborhood, lot size, view considerations (all have a view) and improvements. The ONLY difference being the placement of the square footage, each being 2,600 square feet not including the garage.

House #1 – 1,400 square feet on the main level and 1,200 square feet on the second floor. 2,600 above ground square feet with 4 bedrooms on the second floor and none on the first floor. View from all “main” rooms, (kitchen, living room, entertainment spaces and master bedroom).

House #2 – EXACTLY the same house as House #1, but with views out the front door, not visible from main rooms and views from all children’s bedrooms only, when inside the home. In other words on opposite side of the street so front door faces the view instead of the rear of the house facing the view.

House #3 – 2,000 square feet on the main level with 3 bedrooms on main level and 600 finished square feet in basement level with one bedroom in the basement. All views from main areas on main “entertaining” level.

House #4 – 1,300 square feet on the main level with only the master bedroom on the main level and 1,300 on the basement level with three “children’s bedrooms” down in the basement. Another variation would be two bedrooms up and two bedrooms down.

What really concerns me, is I see people getting info from the internet regarding total square footage, and doing comps based on this total square footage. “The house across the street sold for $800,000, so this one is worth X on a “price per square foot” basis. Even if it is the house next door, PLEASE stop valuing property based on price per square foot based on TOTAL square footage. Clearly you can see that those four houses, all 2,600 square feet, have considerable differences with regard to value.

When a pregnant woman and her two year old walk into house #4, they have to walk right back out. Do you really think she is going to love her master bedroom with view, if her newborn baby and two year old are sleeping “in the basement”? Now, personally I love my kids being “in the basement”, as mine are grown. But I wouldn’t pay as much for the house with a huge master suite on the second floor and all other bedrooms in the basement, as I would for one with more bedrooms “up”, even though that suits MY “buyer profile“.

Diminished buyer pool means that the average family buying a home cannot live with that floor plan, and that affects value, even if that floor plan suits YOUR needs. If the answer to the question, “Where do the kids sleep?!?” is down in the basement, on a separate floor from “Mommy”….hmmmmm.

Investors be very aware of this concept, as what you are thinking is a “bargain” in the neighborhood, and buying as a flip project, may be the ones with this “floor plan flow” problem. You sink a ton of money into granite counters, etc. only to find the low price was based on these types of differences in square footage placement, and you get nailed on resale of the improved flip house.

If a house is not selling and the price is reduced below the prices of the neighboring properties, make sure you know WHY that is happening. Likewise, if a real estate agent prices a house with 3 bedrooms on the main level and views from main rooms like house #3, based on the price “per square foot” of the house next door like house #4 with the kids in the basement…THAT house may be a TRUE bargain.

How cool is our home search? Ice Cold!

In case you haven’t dropped by our home search tool recently, we’ve made some improvementsicecube. Changes include…

Market Analysis Tool Improvements
We thought it would be helpful, if you could get a second opinion when you get an estimate. So, we’ve made arrangements with Zillow to use their Zestimate web services on our Market Analysis page. That way, when you type in a property address, we’ll give you our estimate, get your property’s Zestimate (and the link to it’s page on Zillow), and save you some typing.

Radius Search
Want to find the all houses, within 2 miles of your house or office? Now you can here! And yes, the search results pages are Bookmark-able, RSS-able, and Google Earth-able. (I wouldn’t have it any other way).

Improved Location Search
The list boxes on the location search page are multi-selectable. Big whoop, I hear you say? Well, ours doesn’t refresh the entire page when you change the city or download a big city / community list when you first navigate to the page. Yes, you are seeing AJAX in action. It’s not something most people are going notice, until they wonder “Gee how come your page is so much faster than all the other ones”?

As always, the results from the improved location search are Bookmark-able, RSS-able, and Google Earth-able.

What’s next
Well, it’s a given that at some point I’m going have to have Virtual Earth or Google Maps integration, instead of static Yahoo Maps. If I’m going to compete with the big boys of real estate search, I gotta do maps. I’m probably going to have to create profiles, so you can save your searches, favorite properties, favorite places and other stuff that requires server side persistence.

What features would consumers and realtors like to see next? I’m more interested in hearing what realtors would like to see next because they are the ones who’ll be writing the check, when I eventually decide to release this. I have a billion ideas for what I’m going to do, but I’d get to some more feedback to find out what features I should implement next. Otherwise, I’ll continue to make it up as I go along…



Got my first “issue” of ZILLOW BUZZ this morning. Or actually an email announcing that ZILLOW BUZZ is coming.

ZILLOW really is exciting news…I’m not being sarcastic when I say that. We need a “shot in the arm” in this business.

That being said, I would like to say something about how real agents really value property. I read the “about us” notation on the ZILLOW BUZZ email and it showed how one of the partners had used spreadsheets to value his property. I just saw an elaborate spreadheet done by an owner at “The Newmark” in a downtown Seattle condo. Boy was it elaborate, and boy was it wrong. No way that condo is worth what that excel spreadsheet says it is worth.

The way we value property is on a comparison basis. The more we see the better we can value. That is why we go to Broker’s Opens (at least those of us who aren’t just looking for a free lunch 🙂

We have a mental running calculation in our brains. It goes like this. John’s listing last month sold for $700,000 and it was on the best view corner of the building, remodeled and up on the 21st floor. Better window configuration. Crappy cabinets, but otherwise a great remodel. The wall was knocked out around the kitchen. Penelope’s listing down stairs on the 9th floor had the best unobstructable view, but was 600 square feet smaller. Poor presentation. Owner left his clothes all over the place and it smelled like sweat. Original condition, no remodel and had a “handicapped” bathroom that gave it that “hospital” feel. That one sold for $400,000, but it was a pre-foreclosure with the owner under the gun. So I can list this one at $550,000. It is between the 9th and 21st floors. It is remodeled as to aesthetics, but no walls knocked out. It’s really worth $500,000, but I think I can squeeze an extra $25,000 out of it because it’s “the only game in town” at the moment.

I don’t think a computer can do that. Robbie, can you do a Vulcan Mind Meld? LOL.

Dear Mr. Barton,

As you may or may not know, I emailed you guys a couple of weeks before you unveiled your product to suggest that you consult at least one real estate expert, before going public. I further suggested that since I have sold real estate in five states from coast to coast, that I might be able to help you tweak your product before its unveiling. I feel very badly that some are poking fun at your great real estate adventure, by coining the phrase “You’ve been ZILLOWED!”

Here are a couple of tips for you, (or for Dustin and Galen and Robbie) If you modify your application of data according to these guidelines, you will likely increase the reliability of your online Zestimate by as much as 50%.

Seattle area: Yes, you can value property fairly accurately using the tax data in the Seattle area. But the first step is to determine the appropriate factor. Many will value out at between 1.2 and 1.4 times the assessed value. Hot areas, like downtown Kirkland or parts of Queen Anne, etc will value at 1.5 to 1.6 times assessed value. Don’t take the comps out too far, keep your radius small. Stay as close to the subject property as possible and STOP when you have 5-8 comps after throwing out the High and the Low. DON’T average the sale price of the comps one to another to determine the value of the subject property. DON’T use price per square foot as a guide. Take each sale price and divide by THAT SAME PROPERTY’S assessed value to come up with the factor. If all of the properties in that neighborhood sold at 1.44 times assessed value, then your ZESTIMATE should be 1.44 times the assessed value of the subject property. You can average the factor, but not the price. Then use a range. Chuck the high and the low, the way I learned in grade school from the good Catholic sisters who taught me well.

Example: Data equals 1.8, 1.4, 1.42, 1.43, 1.44, 1.44, 1.45, 1.47, 1.1

Throw out 1.8 and 1.1. as the high is a massive remodel and the low is a fixer. Factor becomes 1.4357142. Assessed value of subject property is $313,000. Zestimate is $449,378.54 or between $438,200 and $460,110.

When inputting tax data, do not overlook the “effective year built”. Currently your program is not noticing that very important date, and reverting to the original year built, throwing the numbers way off on 80% remodels. You can use the 1.8 and 1.1 in the sample above by saying “Your home is valued at between $438,200 and $460,110. If you have just remodeled the interior, the price might be as high as $563,400 (1.8 X $313,000). If it is a fixer it may be as low as $344,300 (1.1 X $313,000).

For Seattle area, always use the assessed value of the subject property against the neighborhood factor.

Briefly, for Los Angeles beach areas: DO use price per square foot, as by and large that area does not have underground basements and the tax assessment increases to sale price every time a property sells (unlike Seattle and many other areas)

Florida: Do use price per square foot and keep the comps apples to apples. Watch the lakes. Price properties on lakes against other property on the lake and interior against interior. You are already OK in FL for the most part, so you can leave that alone.

PA, NJ and most of the Northeast of the country, keep the radius short and use price per square foot. Then find and apply the neighborhood factor and average the two answers.

Hope that helps you, Mr. Barton. Or maybe it will help Robbie and Galen come up with their own “Better than Zillow!”

Have a great sunny day in Seattle!

Zats really cool…

Zillow has launched!

I just got an email from Zillow’s Director of Communications and she passed along the fact that not only is their blog live, but a beta version of their site is live as well… Rich and David flipped the switch!

So, what does Zillow do?

In two minutes of of a Skype conversation with my mom, we were able to find the “Zestimated” value of my home in Seattle, my mom’s home in Sacramento, and my grandmother’s home in Las Vegas… Very cool indeed, especially since my home value is zestimated to be worth $140K more than we paid for it two-and-half years ago!

From what I can tell, they’ve found a way to estimate the value of thousands upon thousands of homes (60,000,000+ homes by their count). For my neighborhood, they have lots of background information on each home… Not only does it tell you the size, square feet, lot size, etc. but it also gives information like a list of recently sold comparable homes. Very cool indeed.


The site is loaded with tables, graphs, and charts for each home.

Probably the strongest selling point so far is that creating a set of comparables is so easy. I’ve worked a fair amount with Anna to develop comparable market analysis, and I can tell you that agents may have access to slightly better data on each home, but Zillow’s system is SO much easier to use that I imagine many agents will turn to Zillow from now on…


Interesting, interesting stuff… It is interesting that the site has a complete lack of obtrusive ads and it will be really interesting to see how this plays out in the agent community. I’m not seeing a lot of negatives so far.

Here’s how Rich Barton explains their business model on the Zillow blog:

I’d like to make a comment on our business model, which I’ve found helps divine motives. will make revenues from advertisements on the site. We will always be crystal clear about what is content and what is advertising, just like any respectable content provider, and our advertising will not define our content. However, the beauty of “Web 2.0