Posts about realestate

Take that, 6 percenters!

The monopolistic hold big real estate agents have had on information — on access to use multiple listings services — has been blown open at last thanks to the Justice Department’s antitrust settlement with the National Association of Realtors.

Kiss your 6 percent commission good-bye, Ms. Agent! Competition is on the way.

The only reason — only reason — that Realtors could hold onto their high commission for such little value and work is that they kept information away from the marketplace, making it inefficient. To quote Umair Haque (sorry, no link; I’m pulling this from my manuscript):

Competitive advantage is fundamentally about making markets work less efficiently. One catastrophically effective way to do that is to hide and obscure information – to gain bargaining power relative to the guy on the other side of the table. . . .

A world of cheap, abundant, always-on interaction, where value is shifting to the edges, demands a fresh understanding of what’s truly strategic and what’s not.

Here’s a quick example. Where orthodox strategy advises hiding information and making things less liquid, what does edge strategy advise? Exactly the opposite: release information bottlenecks and make things more liquid.

What Craig Newmark realized is that listings — for sale, for rent, for hire — are the property of the market. By making that efficient and extracting the minimum value from it, craigslist grew huge. When Craig spoke with our students at CUNY recently, telling them about some of his other activities, the students asked him why he wouldn’t maximize the value of craigslist, then sell it for billions, then use that fortune for his philanthropic investment. Craig said that he believes he is doing more good leaving the internet dividend he created in the economy. Buyer and seller, directly connected by craig or by Google, keep more money from transactions. The middlemen — agents and newspapers — suffer but more people benefit.

This new economy can now come to real estate sales as information become freer. Oh, it’s not fully freed yet. But I do believe that the combination of this settlement and what it does to empower discount players and the depressed real estate market will combine to finally shove dynamite up Realtors’ rears.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch. A 2008 survey by the British Journalism Review found that estate agents in the UK are the least-trusted profession, worse even than tabloid reporters; only 10 percent of Britons trust them.

Freakonomics demonstrated how real estate agents’ interests are not aligned with their clients. “A real-estate agent may see you not so much as an ally but as a mark,” wrote Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. They cited a study that found that real-estate agents keep their own homes on the market an average of 10 days longer than homes they represent and sell them at prices 3 percent higher. Levitt and Dubner explained that it’s more efficient for agents if they can get you to sell quickly, even though, from your perspective, that is clearly a less efficient marketplace because it doesn’t get you maximum and true value. “Here,” they wrote, “is the agent’s main weapon: the conversion of information into fear.” That is to say, the control of information leads to inefficient marketplaces. But in the long run, Zillow is becoming far smarter than the smartest agent because it knows more thanks to the aggregation of our data about sales. On the internet, more information equals more value.

The Times said:

Real estate agents earned $93 billion in commissions in 2006, with a median commission of about $11,600, Justice Department officials said. Internet brokers, offering pared-down services, provided average rebates of 1 percent on commissions that normally ran 5 or 6 percent, translating into thousands of dollars per sale. . . .

The National Association of Realtors, with more than 1.2 million members, said that the settlement was “a win-win” for both the real estate industry and consumers. It noted that the association admitted no wrongdoing and paid no fines or damages as part of the deal.

Laurie Janik, the [National Association of Realtors] general counsel, said in a telephone interview that the settlement would have no real impact on home buyers or sellers.

“I don’t think they’ll see anything different,” she said. “This lawsuit never had anything to do with commission rates, or discount brokerages.”

Bullshit. Competition is coming. Information will get freer. Rates will decline. Homes will be worth more. A more efficient marketplace is good for buyer and seller but not middleman. We’re finally headed in the right direction. The Times concludes:

Norman Hawker, a business professor at Western Michigan University who organized a symposium on the Justice Department litigation as a senior fellow for the American Antitrust Institute, predicted that the settlement would ultimately mean a drop in sales commissions of 25 percent to 50 percent as a result of increased competition.

“It’s pretty clear that there was an enormous amount of discrimination against brokers who were trying to use innovative business models,” including discounted fees and virtual offices on the Internet, he said. “There are lots of entrepreneurs who have been looking for a green light in the form of this order to begin offering discounted rates. It has the potential to be a big step forward for consumers.”

When I write posts decrying the wasteful sloth of real estate agent commissions, I invariably get a cadre of agents – more often, actually, their defensive husbands – saying I just don’t understand the value they bring. I say that if they have to explain their value, then it is empty. They do not deserve 6 percent commissions and soon they won’t get them. Heh.

Fly FU Air

Over at Seeking Alpha, where they reposted my recent rant about airlines, there’s a classic example of industry insiders in denial bitching at me: How dare I expect decent, civilized service. Water? You want water? Sit down and shut up. This is exactly the same reaction I get from whining real estate agents every time I dare to question whether I get 6 percent’s worth of value for the service they don’t provide. Head, meet sand, insert. It’s going to be fun watching them self-destruct. Couldn’t happen to better industries. Except perhaps cable and other protected monopolies and oligopolies. Bye-bye now. Bye-bye.

Competing with open – and free

I’m writing a chunk of my book now about one of my favorite topics: how much I despise real-estate agents and how eagerly I await the doom of their business model. And it so happens that Saul Hansell just wrote a blog post about Zillow and its effort to open up the mortgage market by providing information while protecting customers from spam. There’s this nice quote at the end from founder Rich Barton:

The Internet is a great big race to free. Anyone who has built a business model with a price above free for something that can be free is in a tough strategic position.

Add that to the line from Umair Haque via Fred Wilson that I quoted just below and will repeat now:

Competitive advantage is fundamentally about making markets work less efficiently. One catastrophically effective way to do that is to hide and obscure information – to gain bargaining power relative to the guy on the other side of the table.

And add that to Chris Anderson’s Wired cover story on free as a business model.

Once a marketing gimmick, free has emerged as a full-fledged economy. Offering free music proved successful for Radiohead, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a swarm of other bands on MySpace that grasped the audience-building merits of zero. The fastest-growing parts of the gaming industry are ad-supported casual games online and free-to-try massively multiplayer online games. Virtually everything Google does is free to consumers, from Gmail to Picasa to GOOG-411.

The rise of “freeconomics” is being driven by the underlying technologies that power the Web. Just as Moore’s law dictates that a unit of processing power halves in price every 18 months, the price of bandwidth and storage is dropping even faster. Which is to say, the trend lines that determine the cost of doing business online all point the same way: to zero.

Death to the 6 percent

The Times has a delightfully devastating story about upheaval in the real estate broker business asking whether we are seeing the last stand of the 6 percenters. We can only hope.

The Times story focuses on Redfin, a new brokerage in California and Washington only, unfortunately, that will list sellers’ homes for $2,000 flat and will rebate two thirds of its commission (thus usually 2 percent of the selling price) to buyers. Redfin does all this — how else? — by taking advantage of the internet and of the monopolistic pricing of multiple listing service members.

The Times reports that some sellers’ agents refuse to show homes to people coming from Redfin. I’d call that anticompetitive and perhaps even antitrust behavior. Watch and I’ll bet that MLSes will get opened up and then, once any of us can list and find homes on our own, the whole game is over. Bye-bye overpriced agents.

I will guarantee you that as soon as this post goes up, whining real estate brokers will come in — as they do every week here, here, and here — and mewl about how they provide such loving service and get you better deals. Bull. The Times cites Freakonomics:

“It’s a case where nobody wins,” Chang-Tai Hsieh, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, said of the current system. Mr. Hsieh, who has studied real estate commissions, said that they did not vary much from 6 percent and did not generally change in good times or bad. He said it was a form of price fixing, but an odd one. “Consumers pay a lot of money, and even the people who do the price fixing don’t win,” he said. “So it is a colossal waste.”

Traditional agents spend very little time brokering a deal, Mr. Hsieh added. Most of their time is consumed looking for new clients, which is of no benefit to consumers. An agent working for a salary, he said, would be freed of the need to prospect and would thus be more inclined to focus on negotiating.

Others agree. Steven D. Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, found that commissions did not align the interests of agents with those of their customers, a conclusion he recounted in his book “Freakonomics.” The agent has little incentive to get a few thousand dollars more for a homeowner, he wrote, because it will not much improve the commission. It is far more important for an agent working on commission to get the deal done and move on, he added.

The story points out that apart from a few star sellers, the agents themselves don’t get rich, either. Wake up, agents, your days are numbered. You might want to consider a management career at — dare I say it? — Burger King.