"Real Estate is Local" and other Fables

I got my first job in real estate as the Director of Marketing & Professional Services at the Naples Board of Realtors in Florida.  The "Professional Services" part meant professional standards, professional recognition, managing the committees for both, and managing the Association store,  It was a little bit of everything which was split into three jobs when I left, but gave me broad insight into the running of an Association of Realtors.

1999 was the year I started and the big news was that our MLS vendor was moving from software updates on disk to web-based updates.  This was a huge deal because disk based software updates required everyone to come into the Association office, sign out a disk, download it to their computer, then return it.   Every. Single. Month.  Or the MLS wouldn't work on their computer.  We had a bunch of computers in the office for brokers and agents to use - either because they didn't have a computer of their own or because the office was more or less centrally located and they would need to run a search and make printouts between showings.  The books had just been retired.

The technology of internet-based software updates was still in its infancy and there were teething problems with ours (so much so that we refused to pay until it got squared away by the vendor), but even that couldn't obscure the message of progress:  Brokers and Agents could now get real estate listing information online, at home, or wherever they had internet access.  What is utterly expected today was a brave new world not too many years ago.

The thing is... the whole "brave new world" message appears to have been lost on many Realtors who still believe that "real estate is local."  I hear it at every conference I go to and on every livestream I attend.  It is part of the cherished folklore of real estate, but the message is no longer true.  The truth is that the minute that real estate data went online, all that local information previously unavailable anywhere else got translated into 1s and 0s and spread across the planet on the world wide web.  There's a reason they call it the world wide web; it's that an interconnected web of connections gives access to knowledge that had once been available only locally.  Like hotel bookings, travel arrangements, and a host of other industries, real estate became data, and with the internet, DATA became global.

The following are true statements that prove that both real estate is data and that data is global:

1. A buyer from China (or anywhere) can buy U.S. real estate, sight unseen, using only their computer.

2. A buyer can educate themselves on for sale listings, property information, tax information, local schools, country clubs, restaurants, Walk Scores, local blogs, and town ratings without ever visiting the property or contacting a Realtor.

Real estate is not local.  Real estate is data, and data is global.  The sooner Realtors understand and embrace this new reality the sooner MLSs and Associations can start providing what Realtors need today - more comprehensive, more accurate and more timely data than consumers can get on Zillow or Realtor.com.  Because even though real estate isn't local, expertise is, and that's where the Realtor can still provide service at the center of the transaction.

Let's be honest, "real estate is local" has become a stand-in phrase to justify bad behavior.  Every MLS' mission is supposed to be to provide the most accurate, comprehensive, and timely listing data to its subscribers.  But that mission somehow gets forgotten when it comes to letting 'outside' Realtors access 'their' data.  Never mind that buyers can already get a more complete picture of what's for sale than the Realtor can just by looking on Zillow and Realtor.com.  Yes, Zillow and Realtor.com data may not be updated as regularly as the MLS, but that's hardly the point, is it?  There are no boundaries between data on either of the sites.  Consumers don't have to stop looking and go to another site to get the homes for sale one market over the way Realtors do.  By not cooperating with one another, Realtors have forced buyers into the loving embrace of Wall Street funded media companies with very different goals for real estate.  I don't think this was the promise of a brave new world I saw back in 1999.

My message to Realtors is this, "stop thinking small."  Get out of a parochial mindset and forget everything you thought you knew about your place in the transaction.  Take a hard look at where the industry is now and decide where you want to fit your company and services into the transaction.  Start thinking like a home buyer.  

While it was once true that real estate is local, it was only true because for sale data was only available locally.  It might feel good to remember the glory days when buyers had to come to a Realtor because that was the only way they could see listing data, just as I am sure some Britons love to recall the glory days of the Empire.  Most Britons have moved on and realized that those days are never coming back.  So should Realtors.   -   CP