The experience of looking at the real estate industry through a normal consumer's eyes is... interesting. I'd like to relate a few of the experiences I've gone through and am still going through here, starting with...
The Subscriber's Voicemail Is Full
So I travel down to Houston, taking a couple of days, to locate a house that my brood and I might transform into our lair while we settle in. I find a pleasant, professional real estate agent to help me with my search (wave to everybody, Sara Nguyen of Prudential Gary Greene), and use the various online tools on HAR.com to conduct the search. I'll have a word or two about that experience later.
Together, Sara and I narrow our options down to a couple of neighborhoods, and a dozen houses or so. We start going through them rapid-fire style on Monday, so I can narrow the choices down. We get to one house that looks Find Local Homes for Sale Browse through photos of millions of home listings on AOL Real Estate See Homes for Sale Search Foreclosures for Sale promising, and Sara turns to me in the car and makes a confession. (Much of the dialogue below consists of me putting words in people's mouths, but hey, I didn't have a tape recorder on me or anything while, y'know, just being a consumer. But the facts are absolutely true.)
"I'm so sorry, Rob, but this house... I need a few more minutes," she says.
"Why is that?"
"Well, I've been trying for the last four hours to get a hold of the agent here to make an appointment, and she's not answering her phone."
I had noticed that Sara was awfully busy while we were touring the four previous houses. Now I knew what she had been trying to do.
"I tried to leave her a message to call me back as soon as possible, but her voicemail is full."
Say what now? I pull my Blackberry out of the holster and check: yep, it says right there that this is year 2010. For a moment, I thought I was back in the days when Motorola RAZR was the hot phone, and voicemail was this new thing that people didn't know how to use.
By sending her a couple of emails, leaving messages with her office, and perhaps by divine intervention, Sara gets a call back, and we're able to go in and see the place. I like the house, seems like it'll do for a temporary hideout, and talk it over with my wife that evening. We decide that we'll take it.
The next day finds me in Sara's office filling out applications and lease agreements. We're not in the least bit worried about approval; my wife and I are homeowners, have been for some nine years, have good credit, and the rent is cheap to our New Jersey eyes. We send the forms over, and I hope to have cashier's checks ready to go by the afternoon.
In the age of instant communication, of Twitter, Facebook, email, email on mobile phone, text messages, and so on, I figure it'll be a couple of hours before we hear back and can start negotiating the fine points of the lease.
Four hours pass without a word. Sara, in a near-panic, tells me that she's tried the other agent's phone a dozen times. "Her voicemail is still full, so I can't leave her messages, and she's just not getting back to me at all."
I'm about two minutes away from deciding to say screw it, and move on to our second choice house, when the other agent finally calls Sara back.
If Your Agent's Voicemail Is Full... Fire Her
I'm not going to bore you with the details of the negotiation, which still has not concluded, because, guess what, the other agent rarely answers the phone, and her voicemail is still full. But as a trespasser in Consumer World, let me suggest something: If your Realtor's voicemail is full, you've let her know this, and it's still full after an hour... fire her.
This agent, whose name I never learned, came within two minutes of losing her client the deal. In my case, he almost lost out on a great, stable tenant who would take care of his property, pay the rent on time, and won't make a fuss (without a very, very good reason). If I had been a buyer, her client might have lost the deal completely, simply because she can't be bothered to delete old voicemail messages (or answer the phone for that matter).
Let me be charitable and assume that perhaps the other agent is Hillary Clinton, moonlighting to supplement her income, while she tries to negotiate some treaty with Azerbaijan. That might be great for Azerbaijan and American foreign policy, but if you are Realtor Clinton's client, you're gettin' screwed.
Within the industry, we've heard that consumers are getting more demanding. Consumers want answers immediately, we hear. You'd better get on Twitter, and get that iPad, and have four mobile phones to deal with the impatient consumer - that's what we hear. Well, from Consumer World, let me suggest that the reason why consumers might be impatient is that we live in 2010, and we have jobs, and we have clients, and we know that we have to respond when our boss or our client calls us. We have mobile phones and voicemail too, and we know how they work. We're pretty reasonable folks, I think, but not when your damn voicemail has been full for two days and you can't be bothered to take five minutes to delete your three-month old messages!
There are complexities to being a real estate agent these days, I get that better than most people. But the essence of being an agent is to represent the client. Tell you what, it's awfully hard to represent your client when you don't pick up your phone, and people calling you with offers can't leave messages because your voicemail is full.
As a buyer/seller, or a landlord/tenant, your financial future might hang in the balance in a real estate transaction. Even if you are renting for a short-term, like I am now, you have to make decisions, and usually with very little time. Using a real estate agent who can't even be bothered to check (and delete!) voicemails might be your choice as a consumer, but don't be surprised if you're having trouble selling that house of yours.
Oh, and if you happen to think that technology is the solution -- well, someone who can't even be bothered to pick up phone calls and deal with a full voicemail inbox is not exactly a prime candidate for using avatars in SecondLife to do real estate transactions. Yes, the industry itself needs to do better at pruning out bad agents. Brokers need to do more to train, educate, and discipline agents who (in theory) work for them. But you, as the consumer, can do more too: stop hiring morons.
One clear sign? Her voicemail is full. Move on, friend, move on. Find someone else. Because I, and millions of consumers like me, will find another house instead.
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