Once Upon a Time, There was Transparency

Before we get too far … 7,920 detached homes for sale in Maricopa County as of the moment; more details available over here.

As for the main thrust of the post, to be honest, I’m not quite sure who the target audience may be as it’s a subject that, at least back in the days when real estate blogging started, was at the forefront of what we writing real estate professionals were doing to help educate the buying and selling public.

Back before there were social media gurus and REBarCamps, before there was Twitter and Pinterest, before iPhones and iPads and the explosion of Facebook, there was a very simple idea to which several us clung like Gene Wilder holding the Torah in the Frisco Kid … the concept of transparency.

there was a core principle at work … let us, as real estate professionals, pull back the curtain on the mechanics of real estate, stop pretending it was anything close to complicated, and bring in the public reader as a partner, not a walking potential commission check. And it was good.

But as with most things, “transparency” as a concept soon lost any meaning as the word was used and overused, stretched to fit various circumstances and bent to the needs of whatever whoever was trying to sell on a given day. And soon, in the interest of promoting sales through a terrible economic environment and with the advice of social media “experts” ringing in their ears, the real estate masses took the internet and turned what was a relatively cozy, tight-knit community in a mewling mob looking for different ways of saying “it’s a great time to buy!”

(This best can be seen on Active Rain, an online real estate community that has grown 10-fold over the past handful of years despite a mass of content that, by and large, is thoroughly unreadable. At least, unreadable if you have any sense of grammar, spelling or real estate. Otherwise it’s just fine.)

Of late, I’ve been beating the drum against syndicating listings to Zillow and Trulia and most recently Realtor.Com. Full disclosure – many years ago, I purchased a Zillow ad which, as it turned out, was just as productive as the name tag that’s hanging on my wall collecting dust. I also uploaded the listings to the sites (or watched it done on my behalf as was the case when I was with RE/MAX Desert Showcase, largely ignoring to what I was contributing while simultaneously doing nothing to actually get any of those homes sold any quicker or for any more money.

At the same time, I’ve been raising concerns about Zillow since, oh, right about the time the company started (and, wow, I even used to link to the Bloodhound):

I have to excerpt that last one because, you may be shocked to learn, I was defending Zillow at the time from charges that posting homes for sale in some way violated our local MLS rules – it didn’t then and it doesn’t now.

I think it’s safe to say Zillow is not on the approved site where listings automatically are fed. Having said that, I’m having trouble with the argument that Zillow’s allowing anyone who so chooses to post a home for sale, if posted by an agent, violates the rules so long as the listing brokerage is posted as well. With the listing brokerage in place, the price and availability information looks no different than on an IDX feed.

(Note to the Z-peeps in Seattle … see? I even can be fair, as I was when the Arizona Board of Appraisers was battling Zillow about its Zestimates back in 2007.)

Onward … let’s see what else there has been …

  • How about the first (and last) offer on one of my listings I saw from someone looking at Zillow, back in June 2007.
  • Or maybe the article about an irate seller who learned their home was for sale on Zillow and Trulia. The companies say they’re working on the accuracy problem; it’s telling that I wrote this post on October 7, 2009. It’s only been 2 1/2 years; maybe they’ll get it right some time soon.

I think that’s probably enough for now.

My point is, all the way down the line when it comes to these companies (as well as when it comes to my business), I have worked to provide some transparency to what is taking place. And that makes much of the current syndication debate all the more galling – for the most part, the banner for Truzillia.com is being taken up by agents who haven’t been watching these companies since the beginning. Not that such a long-term view should be a prerequisite to have an opinion, but it certainly would help to better understand what these companies are and from where they have come.

To my mind, “have-to” marketing only should consist of those items that absolutely, positively impact the ability for a home to be sold. There are exactly two things that fall into that category when it comes a real estate professional listing homes – a realistic, market-driven price and entry in the MLS. And professional-level photos. Three, there are three things that fall into that category …

Everything else – flyers on the post, flyers in the living room, broker tours, property books, open houses (ugh), direct mail, e-mail flyers (remember those, agents?) and yes, listings syndication – fall into the category of window dressing, the things we have added to our listing presentations over time in an effort to secure a listing even though we know what’s going to sell the home is MLS entry, a good price and a handful of good photos.

That, my friends, is transparency. And it’s an opinion you will see in very, very few places because many real estate agents, possibly as a method of covering their guilt over being in the profession that outsiders feel we should have, make this job seem like rocket science. They also miss the largest point of all when it comes to taking a listing from a seller – we’re not being hired to list the home, we’re not being hired to market it, we’re not being hired to design flyers. We’re being hired to sell the damn thing, however that best can be done.

Listing syndication is one area where transparency is nowhere to be found. The public expects it, and agents promise it because it’s far easier to do that than to explain that it doesn’t do anything to sell the house. Just ask Edina Realty. Or ARG Realty. Or the entire Seattle-area MLS, which pulled its listings from Realtor.com years ago. Hell, the MLS even can be optional in some places – just as agents working in New York City.

The only people benefiting from listings syndication are the syndicators – Zillow, Trulia and Realtor.com (as well as their lesser-known cousins.) That’s it. Not the sellers, not the buyers who contact “neighborhood experts” only to learn these people have never step foot in the ZIP code, not the agents and brokers whose work, whose lifeblood – the listings themselves – are being tossed around like information in the public domain that they are not. (Some will argue the data belongs to the seller; sorry, but the seller owns the house. We own the marketing. Two different issues.)

In short, there is no conceivable way for a real estate agent who believes in transparency to argue in favor of listings placement on these third-party sites because transparency would require the sellers to be told that their home is being used as bait and will not sell because of its placement on these sites.

It’s so bloody easy to find a home for sale online now compared to when real estate blogging began six, seven years ago … just type in an address and numerous links come up. At the top, sadly, are Zillow and Trulia. But if the home’s not listed there, it comes up all the same on an agent or brokerage feed powered by IDX. Listings syndication is unnecessary; the fewer parasites we have hanging on to the fringes of this business, the better.

Maybe you disagree. Maybe you’ve been around as long as me and you remember those discussions of transparency back in the day – they were very common, and very beneficial before we all got lost in the rising tide of real estate bloggers.

As a member of the buying or selling public, though, I’d demand the transparency. You deserve to know the truth as much now as you did then.

Photo credit: I Woke Up Today via Flickr Creative Commons

Jonathan Dalton

Jonathan Dalton is a 40-plus-year resident of the Valley and has been helping folks buy and sell homes since 2004. He can be reached at 602-502-9693 or info at allphoenixrealestate.com.