This is going to be a long and personal post. If you’re more interested in analysis of real estate companies, identifying major trends affecting housing, or explanation of things like web3 and real estate… go ahead and skip this one. This one is for me and maybe, just maybe, for a few of you who I know tend to think like I do.
Just about every year, I spend time wondering what I am doing in the real estate industry. Not just real estate, but residential real estate. See, commercial real estate is where people like me with background in finance, law and technology tend to gather to look at huge office building projects, or bigtime REITs, or technology for institutional investors and the like. Big powerful companies like Black Rock and Equity Office and Cushman & Wakefield do global deals in commercial real estate.
Residential real estate in contrast is seen as the lowbrow hustle and bustle of part-timer soccer moms and big egos with big fake smiles and flashy cars on billboards and bus benches. Even those of us who have built our careers in residential real estate often can’t help but complain about all of the problems (perceived or real), whether those are buyers who are liars, irrational sellers, dumbass agents on the other side, dumbass agents who work for us, dumbass brokers who are out of touch, dumbass MLS executives who don’t know shit, dumbass consultants who haven’t ever sold a house so what the fuck do they know and so on and so forth. Unless you’re a TV REALTOR or an Instagram sensation, this industry is not exactly glamorous.
The normal answer I come to every year is that I stay in residential real estate because of the people. Some of the best human beings I have ever met are in this industry, and I’m proud to call them my friends.
The last couple of weeks, something happened that reminded me why what we all do as an industry matters. And perhaps that explains why I get driven batshit crazy by some of the bad things we do, some of the mistakes we make, and some of the problems we refuse to tackle.
Let me tell you what I realized.
The Pear-Shaped World
It is, I think, an unremarkable observation that as of early March of 2022, the entire world has gone pear-shaped.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th. Every single day, there’s some fresh new horror story — even if you don’t own a TV and don’t read newspapers… like yours truly. And just like that, I am brought back to my youth when duck-and-cover was a thing and when The Day After didn’t seem like sci-fi to my 12 year old mind. Young people today who grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union could not possibly understand what it was like to live with the constant background dread of total annihilation.
Yet, here we are again.
No matter what happens in Ukraine over the next days and weeks, it seems pretty clear to someone who grew up in the middle of the Cold War, hailing from the nation where the first hot battle of the Cold War was fought, that we are in a new Cold War. Things will never be the same after the spring of 2022.
Fact is that this war comes on the tail-end (and frankly, it really hasn’t ended ended yet) of two years of the whole world constantly stabbing itself in the eye over a virus, badly damaging the economy, damaging a whole generation of children, and damaging our relationships with each other.
If we’re going to be honest about it, the pandemic came and accelerated all of the slow moving trends: wealth gaps, political division, social strife, Wokesters vs. Trumpers, racial animus, etc. etc. It wasn’t as if we all were unified and getting along great when the world went pear-shaped. We were already on rocky ground.
I don’t need to go through a litany of what we all lived through these past few years. You lived through the same interesting times as I did, no matter your own perspective on the events.
Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt
In the past two years, Sunny and I have had so many conversations about all that is going on that we’re both sick and tired of having them. Yet, these topics end up being the ones we naturally talk about because we have to. We’d much rather talk about white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. But of course, the first thing that pops into our heads is, “Is it even worth it to book (and get excited about) a vacation right now?” followed by, “How easily could we get back home if something happens?”
We’d much rather talk about some new restaurant we have to try, instead of what might happen to the price of food; or about whether we like the Porsche or the Lexus, instead of gas prices. We’d rather talk about saving for retirement and financial goals as a couple, rather than about true inflation rates, whether the currency will collapse, or how Russia and China could wreck the petrodollar system. We’d rather talk about going to visit our friends or family, instead of contingency planning in case something pops off while we’re on the road.
We are constantly having conversations we would rather not have, and yet… have them, we must.
Fear, uncertainty, doubt — these have been background emotions to all of our lives the past two-plus years. The new Cold War brought on by a real land war in Europe, with the full expectation that we’ll see something out of China soon, simply brings that background dread to the forefront.
And frankly, Sunny and I are in the Laptop Class, elite professionals who kept working even when everything was locked down as tight as a drum. We are among the fortunate few, not the miserable many.
You know what really makes that obvious today? The fact that we own a home.
The Home: Security in an Uncertain World
The maxim that a man’s home is his castle dates from 1604, from the English case known as Semayne’s Case. But the way that Common Law works, the ruling simply puts down on paper what the community generally understood and accepted, which means that the idea that one’s home is sacrosanct is far more ancient. According to the historian Edward Augustus Freeman, writing about Edward the Confessor who was king in the 11th century, “men already felt as keenly as we feel now that an Englishman’s house is his castle.”
Over the past two years, I have come to feel this ancient maxim in my bones. I was already a bit of a prepper from my days in Houston, where preparing for a hurricane is simply common sense. In the past two years, that has gone into overdrive. Our home is about as close to a fortress as we can make it.
These days, of course, it isn’t merely a fortress. It is also our office, our movie theatre, our concert hall, our dance club, our favorite restaurant, our bar, our library, and even our gym. I know we are hardly unique. So many of us have had to shrink our lives down into our homes, sometimes by choice, often by mandates.
But here’s the thing: I am not complaining. I am realizing how blessed we are, how fortunate that we have a home that we can make into a fortress, a nightclub, a restaurant or a gymnasium in the first place.
We need not ask anyone for permission to convert the upstairs bonus room into a home gym. We don’t worry whether the landlord would allow us to adopt rescue dogs. We smoke meat and fish in our backyard with no concern for our upstairs neighbors, because we have none. We can convert the garage into additional storage without wondering if we’ll be forced to move in a year.
Having been a renter for most of my life, especially when I was a kid watching The Day After on TV, listening to Sting sing that Russians love their children too, or practicing crouching under the desk at school, it struck me hard this week just how free and how secure I feel relative to back then. Because I own a home. I have a castle.
It’s Not Just Money
We in the real estate industry over the years have come to think of homes as an asset class. We think constantly about getting the best price for the seller, or comparing price per square foot for our buyers, or how to do cash-out refis for this and that. We tell each other and tell consumers that the home is the best investment you can make. We get deep into minute details about regulations, about HOA rules, about septic systems and about mold mitigation. We get into it with each other about inspection reports, about appraisals, and of course, about commissions. In REALTOR World, we talk a whole lot about property rights, flood insurance, extending FHA to condos, the DOJ, the FHFA, Fannie and Freddie and the rest of the alphabet soup of agencies.
It is natural and even right that we do. We all are engaged in some fashion or another in helping buyers buy a house, and sellers sell a house. People do not hire real estate agents to wax rhapsodic about the meaning of home, no matter what the commercials portray to get consumers to call an agent. People hire real estate agents to help them with the biggest financial moves they will make.
So of course we’re going to think of homes as product. Of course we’re going to be focused on questions of money.
But when the world suddenly goes pear-shaped, it becomes obvious that a home is not just pricing and mortgages and commissions. It becomes clear that a home is hope, security and faith in the midst of a storm of fear, uncertainty and doubt. It isn’t simply shelter from bad weather; it is also shelter from chaos. The home is the oasis of freedom when the whole world wants to mandate you to do or not do all kinds of things.
The home is also control in a world out of control. There is nothing you and I can do about missiles flying over Ukraine. We do not and cannot control the price of oil, or the supply of lithium. We can, however, cut our grass. We can clean our rooms. We can paint the house if we wanted to. We can control our immediate environment, while the wider environment will seek to control us. There is a real blessing in having that little bit of control over our daily lives.
Those of us who own our own homes know all of this deep down. Our homes are not just piles of bricks. They aren’t merely investments for retirement. They’re not just some space where we store our crap. It isn’t just housing.
It is all of those things and more — so much more.
Why What We Do Matters
Years ago, when I was doing Hear It Direct, I distinctly remember one panel in Orange County. A buyers’ panel that just finished had upset the room; most of them had had rather negative experiences and had no problems telling a room full of REALTORS exactly what they thought. I remember one panelist used the phrase “lazy, stupid and arrogant.” But on this sellers’ panel, one of the panelists had had a good experience, and told the room, “What you do is important: you create communities.”
That stuck with me.
I’d like to add on to that now. What we do matters because we are helping other human beings get a little bit of hope, security, faith and control in a world that goes pear-shaped from time to time. Chaos is not an aberration; it is likely the natural state of humanity. Violence is not the exception, but the rule. Pestilence, War, Famine, Death — the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — do not appear only at the end of days; they have been with us from the dawn of time, and will be with us until the last human breathes his last on the earth.
In the midst of that, owning a home means a having a small patch of security, of freedom, and of hope.
Those of us in the residential real estate industry help people achieve that small patch. The agents on the front lines, the brokers behind them, the vendors supporting them, the lenders, the appraisers, the inspectors, the MLS, the Association, and yes, even consultants to some tiny extent, are helping other human beings achieve a small patch of security, freedom, and hope in a world of chaos and dread.
Real estate agents are not doctors saving lives. They’re not lawyers keeping innocents from jail. They’re not firefighters or policemen or soldiers. They’re not saints doing God’s work here on earth. The Lord would agree with me there. No, real estate agents are simply businesspeople trying to make a buck. I get all of that. And yet, in making that buck, they help people own a home.
We should not, we cannot, we must not forget how important that is. These uncertain times, this crazy pear-shaped world, have to remind us all why.
Maybe that’s why I get so worked up about what I see as wrongs, as mistakes, as shortsighted greed and unethical practices in this industry. Maybe that’s why the Preamble means what it does to me:
Such interests impose obligations beyond those of ordinary commerce. They impose grave social responsibility and a patriotic duty to which REALTORS® should dedicate themselves, and for which they should be diligent in preparing themselves. REALTORS®, therefore, are zealous to maintain and improve the standards of their calling and share with their fellow REALTORS® a common responsibility for its integrity and honor.
This passage isn’t really about a REALTOR’s integrity and honor. It’s really about remembering what it is that a REALTOR does at its core: helping people achieve security, freedom and hope. That’s why integrity and honor are so important, even if it is far more uncommon than it should be, could be.
We’re not selling houses, piles of bricks, dwelling units, mortgages, or investments. We are selling sanctuary: security, freedom and hope… to people who desperately need those things, even if many of them don’t quite realize it themselves just yet because they have never owned a home before.
Ain’t Preaching; Just Reaching
This is not the post for preaching. We all know the problems, the challenges, the things we must do, and the things we must stop doing. I’m kinda done with that anyhow, as much as possible.
No, this is my reaching for answers. This is an attempt to understand and to communicate this feeling, this profound feeling of a little bit of peace in the midst of a world gone pear-shaped. It is reaching towards something bigger than all of us, while reminding us what it is that we are actually doing as we all go about our days doing what needs to be done.
Those of you reading who are doing a great job should feel pride in what you have accomplished and will accomplish. Those of you doing a crappy job should still feel pride that you helped someone build a little castle; maybe with the recognition that what you were doing was more than just earning a living, you might do better next time. Those of us supporting the effort should focus on what we need to focus on, of course, as we are not angels or saints trying to save the children. But maybe somewhere in the back of our minds, we can file away a little note that we do something beyond just ordinary commerce.
We help people find sanctuary, while the pear-shaped world tries so hard to drag them down. What we do matters.