The World Reminds Us Why What We Do Matters

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.

-rsh

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Rob Hahn

Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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6 thoughts on “The World Reminds Us Why What We Do Matters”

  1. Exactly what I have been preaching (yes, I preach it) to my people for two years now. The recent events you mention have brought it all into laser focus, or, caused the weak ones to give over to total despair. I shall not be defeated! Let me say it louder for those in the back…WHAT WE DO MATTERS!

    Now act like it!!

    Well done Rob.

  2. Although I am wondering if this is the real Notorious ROB ?, I agree so wholeheartedly. I have gotten into heated arguments, with other MLS industry professionals, about believing in the importance of homeownership and the MLS’s role in helping people fulfill this dream. The MLS is the marketplace and is the platform on which these sanctuaries are found. Hoping you aren’t just looking for suckers who are willing to admit they believe what we do makes a difference. If so, you found one. Great post Rob!

  3. If, as a profession, we’re vital and necessary members of our communities and as such responsible for making things better for them on the whole, why it is that we have the stigma attached to us you mentioned in the “Hear It Direct” portion of the post?

    Is it just certain members of the profession that create this perception? Is it the low bar placed on entry into the profession? Is it the fact that most of the public can say “I could do that” when they can’t about being a doctor or lawyer?

    Obviously there is a bit more respect for us than those selling cars, or other big ticket items for which buyers have a personal relationship but having a good experience with us on what most consider one of the “most important and costly decisions of their lives” seems to have little effect on loyalty without the incessant follow up we Realtors are conditioned to do to remain “top of mind”

    In your experience with those most successful and at the top levels of the industry can you point to a certain set of characteristics or personality traits that win over “clients for life” in just one experiential transaction?

    Given that many people have only 1 or 2 buy and/or sell transactions in a lifetime we really only have the one shot and it’s usually a “first impression” at that.

    Is there a way that some make this so “unforgettable” that if the client were to return to the market or recommend another to use a particular professional over the rest of the crowded field that they would always make one unquestioned choice. Even without the level of ingratiating we are encouraged to do once the home has closed and the client is completely satisfied?

    It would seem that if a doctor or lawyer saved your life or completely freed you of a major situation that led to a substantially better life outcome over many years due to diligence and savvy and knowledgeable advice there would always be this unquestioned allegiance simply because of the relationship established in the moment when professionalism is required and delivered at the highest level.

    Yet so many people don’t even think to call the person who helped them buy their home when they sell it? Even if they know they’re still working, even with the same broker?

    Can you give me your thoughts on this?

    • Hi Jim –

      Well, I was going to explore a lot of what you’re asking in a free webinar scheduled for tomorrow. But seeing as how there was a total lack of interest, I canceled it. 🙂 Having said that, my take is that great agents are far and few in between.

      The great agents I’ve used and have known all share certain traits.

      One, they have this weird personal charisma. I can’t explain it any other way, and it’s not all the same. They just have social skills, emotional intelligence, empathy, whatever it is. It might be a natural talent like athletics or musical ability, where training can take anybody up to a certain level, but to get to the top, you sort of have to be born with talent.

      Two, they all GIVE A SHIT. A lot of the times, it’s because they’re big team leaders and the teams have their names on them. They really do take it personally, and think of every client as “MY client.”

      Three, they’re good at systems and followup. Some of that is outsourced, but for them to get to that point, they’re just natural social connector types who network well, who remember names and faces, and just have an easy time picking up the phone or sending an email or whatever. They’re just socially gifted people.

      Having said all that, even those guys lose. A lot. I don’t think a single top producing agent anywhere could say they have these clients for life who have undying allegiance to them. They lose clients to other agents, to discounters, to iBuyers, to whatever. They just win more often than others.

      I’d love for actual top producers to chime in if they’d like. But that’s my take.

      • Rob,

        Thank you for your thoughts.

        I want to be that type of agent or have that type of team.

        Unfortunately my skill set is more analytical than social. I’m high on the ASD spectrum and was unaware of this for the great majority of my life.

        I’m still more comfortable alone, versus in groups and still am abysmal at making small talk or picking up on social cues, like body language, making consistent eye contact, remembering names. Etc.

        I’ve been trying to reach out to the heads of corporate at my company (one of the Realogy group) because I have several ideas about ways to improve the broker/business model at the franchise level by restructuring the offices around a team model that would keep the agent commission model for those who have the skills you mentioned in you response, but also change the administration and support system to a wage model for certain aspects of the not public facing in house environment.

        The broker would still be the main person who fronts the organization and is the franchisee who takes the risk and pays the insurance.

        There would be one (or many) teams within the office composed of the commission based leader(s) who have built the level of repeat and referral business and the relationship network of outside vendors for lending, inspection, staging, photos, minor improvements/remodels.

        Then their wages based administration and transaction coordinators .

        A staff of inbound and outbound ISA who would be salary + commission bonuses on inbound buyer lead conversions and outbound call based seller prospecting.

        Lastly their would be a data-social media-video coordinator responsible for building the team websites, curating content for all the individual agents, creating neighborhood, local businesses features and community outreach, and informative buyer & seller process videos as well as an updated spreadsheet of new construction/developer/HOA communities that assist buyer with comparison shopping when considering these as potential purchases.

        It’s my opinion that individual agents cannot effectively manage all of these things on their own, but they all have the ability to show up and participate in a structured setting and contribute to the creation of the necessary content required to create a unique branding within the brokerage.

        Once these systems are in place and the community outreach has been achieved on the chamber of commerce, volunteerism, and business promotion level it would be easy to position the office/brokerage as the go to source for all your real estate needs and eventually even get to the level where a long term advisory and transactional relationship could be contracted on a client to client basis.

        Do you think this is possible?

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