High Anxiety

From the Editor: In these interesting times, my money stays with the people who will reduce my stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. That’s you.

April 1, 2006

You know that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”? Well, we do. Our kids are suffering from attention deficit disorder, our jobs are being off-shored, and we haven’t had such nuclear jitters since the U.S.S.R. aimed missiles at our heartland.

If that’s not enought, the pundits are after your industry. They’re beginning to use the “D” word again, as in “disintermediation.” That’s the process where the middleman (that’s you) gets squeezed out of the real estate transaction—displaced by savvy consumers using the incredible store of information available online. Some of us heard this theory back when the Internet was first becoming a force in the world of commerce.

Real estate practitioners, far from shying away from the challenge, embraced the Internet.

Now the Freakonomics guys, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, are taking aim. In a March 5 article in The New York Times Magazine, they say your profession “is about to join the endangered-species list,” falling victim to not only the Internet but also your own stubborn desire to make big bucks. (Dubner and Levitt admit most of you don’t make big bucks. But, by the way, what’s wrong with wanting to be well-paid for what you do?)

Freakonomics is a book that got great press citing a study that showed real estate practitioners tend to keep their own home on the market longer—and, thus, command more for it—than homes of their clients. I guess nobody told the study’s authors it’s the sellers who decide when to accept an offer.

As proof of the table-turning they envision, Dubner and Levitt trot out Zillow.com, the free online home-valuation tool started by Expedia founder (formerly of Microsoft) Rich Barton. It’s nice to see big brains putting their millions into improving the way real estate is bought and sold.

But I agree with “Realty Times” editor Blanche Evans, who said, after Zillow’s much ballyhooed launch, that Barton seems to have overestimated the value of his information and underestimated the real estate industry.

Even if I thought Zillow’s price on my home was right (I didn’t), I’d still want a real estate practitioner to educate me about the current state of the market. I’d still want a professional to help me get my home ready for sale, find qualified buyers, advise me during the negotiation, and handle the details of the transaction. I think many other Americans—weary of the choices and responsibilities in their life—would agree.

The New York Times Magazine ran a Feb. 26 article entitled “Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?” According to the authors, the educated elite—is it fair to count Barton, Dubner, and Levitt in that group?—view freedom as being about having more choices, “32 kinds of jam . . . 50 styles of jeans . . ..” The result, the authors say, has been a widespread increase in stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction.

Barton and other Internet entrepreneurs are all about giving consumers freedom of choice. More power to them. In these interesting times, my money stays with the people who will reduce my stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. That’s you.

COMMENTS?  Send your letters to narpubs@realtors.org.

Stacey Moncrieff

Stacey is executive editor of publications for the National Association of REALTORS® and editor-in-chief of REALTOR® Magazine.