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Middlemen cut out by internet in most industries, but not real estate

The internet has ushered in the era of dying middlemen, yet the web has given rise to even more middlemen in real estate as startups continue to attempt commoditizing listings.

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Goal of the internet: destroy middlemen

Remember back when the internet was going to destroy the middleman? The New Yorker ran a famous cartoon back in 1997 with seven business people sitting around a conference table, and the caption reads, “On the one hand, eliminating the middleman would result in lower costs, increased sales, and greater consumer satisfaction; on the other hand, we’re the middleman.”

While I doubt the cartoon’s creator had real estate in mind, real estate agents and brokerages have been grappling with how to successfully merge the off-line world of real estate with the on-line world for well over a decade. However, as 2013 begins the internet hasn’t eliminated the middleman in real estate but instead created more!

Zillow and Trulia, for example, are both advertising business that run on the display of real estate information. They are the new middlemen, and they are profiting quite handsomely – primarily by selling ads to real estate agents while providing consumers with information that may or may not be accurate. In fact, one could cynically argue that they have a strong incentive to make the listing agent information difficult for a consumer to discover, because that increases the value of the ads they are running alongside a particular listing.

I’m not here to say that Zillow and Trulia are the enemy or the answer, but to instead ask why most industries have found the internet to be a phenomenal way of reducing middlemen and costs while the internet has created more middlemen in Real Estate. To answer this, I want to compare real estate to two industries – book publishing and travel.

How publishing middlemen were destroyed

Amazon.com, for example, started out to change the publishing industry by making it just as easy to buy a book at home as it was to buy in a store. As the world quickly discovered, amazon.com actually had some advantages by being online. For example, they could stock millions of books, unlike local stores that were limited by their physical space. When amazon.com started, way back in the 1990’s, the kindle had yet to be invented, so it wasn’t even a matter of re-inventing book delivery, this was just about being able to create the world’s biggest inventory of books because they could build warehouses anywhere cheap land was available near a major airport.

But when you buy a book, you always get the same thing: a bunch of words. They may be printed on a page and bound in soft cover or hard cover or they might be digitally displayed on a screen. Regardless, though, you buy a book and you get your words. And you can read those words pretty much anytime and anywhere you want, with very little possibility that things will go wrong. And if things do go wrong? It’s probably not a big deal. Regardless of how much the book cost, it isn’t a financial investment that is a part of your retirement strategy. And no matter how good the book is, you would never invite friends over to just look at your book (you might be a member of a book club, but book clubs get together to discuss the book, not to actually look at each other’s copy of a book).

How travel middlemen were destroyed

The internet has also transformed the travel industry. While we used to go to a travel agent to plan out a complex trip and book tickets, most people do those things online now. And while a plane ticket might be more expensive than a book in the above example, a seat on a plane is, well, a seat on a plane. No one ever sees a really cheap seat and wonders, “Hey, is that seat located inside the pressurized cabin or is it bolted out on the wing?” While there are a variety of seats available within a plane – coach, business or first class – they all essentially do the same thing, and once you have consumed your plane ticket, you move on with your life. Perhaps your plane trip has resulted in the memories of a lifetime, a new client, or a visit to see a long-lost friend. Unlike a home, a plane trip or a book is a consumable item.

How middlemen have thrived in real estate

Real estate is fundamentally different for a variety of reasons, but let’s look at a few. For one thing, brokerages have never possessed a physical inventory of homes for sale. No real estate agent has ever offered to take anyone back to the warehouse to see this year’s available homes, although we have put millions of people in our cars to go visit the homes available in a specific neighborhood. But there is no economy of scale to be gained with a really big warehouse of homes, because homes don’t exist in warehouses, they exist in neighborhoods. Furthermore, while two homes may be very similar, no two homes are identical. Real estate, by its very nature, cannot be commodified.

Websites now offer consumers a wealth of information (some accurate, some less-so) about homes online, yet I’m willing to venture that there is nothing – ever – that will replace physically visiting a home you are interested in purchasing. Why? Because no matter how much information you put online, sometimes the most important things about a home are the things that you can’t see in the marketing text or the pictures. For example, is the master bedroom window under a streetlight that shines excessively bright at night? Is the home at the top of a steep hill that would not be easily accessible by a disabled individual? Does the breeze from a landfill usually blow odors towards the house? Is the next door neighbor a lunatic who throws parties until 4am on a regular basis? In other words, what makes a home desirable is not just the presence of some features, but also the absence of certain other features. Making valuation even more complex, home buyers often don’t always agree about the value of particular features.

Homes differ from both other consumer goods and financial instruments because they have an innately physical and fixed presence, and they exist in a context of other homes and people. Regardless of what book you place on either side of War and Peace, the book in the middle will always be War and Peace. But a home with two great neighbors is more valuable than a home with two horrible neighbors. Homes are also not a disposable consumer good. No one ever says, I’m finished with that home lets put it on the shelf and go buy the sequel. And while people might like to brag or worry about how their investment portfolio is doing, no one ever invites you to come over and enjoy the physical presence of their stocks or bonds.

If I had to sum it all up, I’d say the most distinguishing feature of real estate is permanence. Not only are the permanently and innately tied to their environment, people purchase homes for the long-term. Real estate is neither consumable nor disposable, which may explain why rental sites like AirBnB do well – if you get a bum vacation rental, you aren’t stuck there for the next three – five years of your life.

The takeaway

Regardless of the unique traits of real estate, consumers clearly want accurate information about homes online. In 2013, I think the real estate industry owes it to our clients to find a way to deliver that information with fewer middlemen.

Matt Fuller, GRI spends most of his waking hours obsessing over all things San Francisco real estate. He is half of the successful JacksonFuller real estate team, and also writes at the San Francisco real estate blog about all things SF. He is also a father, husband, foodie, avid runner, and slave to his Newfoundland and Basset Hound dogs.

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17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. markbrian

    January 10, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Ummm…couldn’t it be argued that real estate agents are also middlemen? Not trying to start a $#!+ storm or get attacked. Just saying…

    • Matt Fuller

      January 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm

      Real estate agents make the market by bringing buyers and sellers together. Back in the 1990’s the industry was terrified that the internet would be the end of agents, but here we are in 2013 and not only are agents still in business, we’ve managed to create more middlemen. I think it’s a fascinating contrast to many other industries, I’m sorry if it came across as complaining, I find it puzzling.

      • Mark Brian

        January 10, 2013 at 4:51 pm

        Matt I didn’t really think you were complaining. I was just playing Devil’s Advocate LOL. Excellent article and I look forward to reading more from you!

        • Matt Fuller

          January 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm

          Thanks, I appreciate it! 🙂

  2. Ron Aguilar

    January 10, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    I agree with your takeaway.

    • Matt Fuller

      January 10, 2013 at 4:40 pm

      Thanks!

  3. Chad McBain

    January 10, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Matt I applaud you lol. Seriously though I have made very similar statements to our team for years now however you articulate it better then I. Spencer Rascoff even stated as much @ the WTIA meeting. The video can be found on youtube and his points about the fact Realtors are not going away start around the 31-33 minute mark. A point that you make that should be heeded is making the consumer experience so much better if you wish to thrive, amen. Very well written, I look forward to more of your posts.

    • Matt Fuller

      January 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm

      Chad, do you happen to have the youtube URL handy? I’m feeling really lazy this morning!

  4. J Philip Faranda

    January 12, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I am no middle man. I reject the term. I am a trusted adviser and advocate in a transaction which was, is and never will be point and click.

    • Matt Fuller

      January 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      J Phillip,

      Middleman has always (IMHO) had a negative connotation – an extra layer that isn’t necessary. I agree with you that we don’t just stand in the middle doing nothing, I very much think we make the market happen in a lot of different ways, many of which you point out!

  5. DavidPylyp

    January 12, 2013 at 11:17 am

    I love the article topic and perspective. Our industry is indeed under assault by everyone with a computer that thinks Selling a house is merely posting the advertisement online. They don’t realise that having the data has nothing to do without a way to measure the validity of the data and examining what’s a priority in someone’s life.

    Being a REALTOR provides a barometer of value relative to the market and a better understanding of the market conditions that govern that price. We are truly in the people’s needs filling business.

    David Pylyp
    Etobicoke Real Estate Agent

    • Matt Fuller

      January 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      I agree with you with a qualified asterisk. I think your definition of Being a Realtor applies to great agents, but there are plenty of agents that aren’t great and think real estate is just an easy dollar to be made. But that’s a whole different can of worms!

  6. Todd Carpenter

    January 14, 2013 at 9:02 am

    I work for Trulia, but this is my own opinion. The role that Trulia and Zillow play in real estate has been around long before the Internet. Real estate agents and brokers used to spend their marketing dollars on newspaper adds, real estate magazines, and direct mail. Now they spend more and more of their marketing budget on the Internet.

    Amazon and Expedia are seen as the disinter-mediators of book store owners and travel agents. Often, real estate professionals look at Zillow and Trulia and worry we are trying to do the same thing. It’s just not going to happen. As Matt wrote, a house is not a seat on a plane. We’re not trying to compete with the agent. We are trying to compete with all those other companies that provide marketing services to agents and brokers.

  7. JoeLoomer

    January 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I completely object to this post – my parties are usually over WELL before 4 a.m.!!
    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

  8. James

    January 15, 2013 at 11:03 am

    How viable is it for a consumer to write down 10 listings they like, then schedule appointments to see the houses without involving a buyers agent?

  9. Andrew Mooers

    January 23, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Videos of the area first for outside new buyers, then one after another full motion, with natural sound deliver the information so well. At one stop individual sites, blogs, video platforms linked to social media. There is not reason to have to keep the herd habit, knee jerk along with forking over beaucoup dollars for better “seating” for eyeballs. On sites populated by your own covered dish, invited to the real estate buffet tid bits for the dog and pony.

  10. Pingback: Artificial Intelligence (AI) in real estate: Negating or monetizing an agent's experience? - The Real Daily

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Opinion Editorials

The strong case for Texas being technology’s next frontier

(EDITORIAL) Everyone loves Tacos and tech in Austin, but Texas has far more to offer – here’s how the various cities will create the next mecca for the tech world.

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Despite what the movies have told you, Texas is not the place you think it is. Sure, we’ve got cowboys, brisket, and a lot of BBQ, but the Lone Star State is much, much more than clichés. Over the last few decades, Texas has been gaining steam as one of the premier places to live in the country.

While yes, people love a good chicken fried steak or are always looking for an excuse to sneak over to their favorite grocery store, HEB, Texans aren’t sitting idly by when it comes to tech – they’re grabbing the industry by the horns.

Thanks to the state’s business-friendly tax breaks, a year-round predominantly warm weather climate, and a strong state culture, the popularity of Texas makes a lot of sense: Houston, which was once considered a third tier city is about to overthrow Chicago as the third largest in the nation, while also being lauded as our most diverse city.

Let’s repeat it, for all the people in the back: Houston, Texas is more diverse than Los Angeles, or New York.

Affordable neighborhoods are popping up across Houston, which are attracting immigrants from every culture looking for their slice of the American Dream. Houston is seeing explosive growth and a cultural shift away from being a town built on strictly fossil fuels, but now, startups, tech, and umbrella industries are finding their niche in the state’s biggest urban area. Only New York is home to more public companies.

Houston’s medical sector ranks with some of the top care in the world. And with those elite doctors, come the innovative pharmaceutical and medical companies, and the tech that supports them.

When you look at the top twenty metro areas to live right now in the country, four of those cities are in Texas. While some of those reasons are affordability and the signature Texas heat, the state is seeing new residents thanks also to a healthy job market. Since 2010, Texas has added 12.6% more residents, double lapping California’s growth of 6.1%.

Texas’ workforce is bigger than 46 states in the union total population and has doubled in job growth, productivity, and new deals are being struck daily. Texas’ impact on the tech sector is indisputable: Texas has exported more technology than California, again.

Deep in the heart

Startup culture is alive and well in Austin, but while some of our startups are finally beginning to draw VC attention away from Silicon Valley, we know how to slug it out in the land of the bootstrapped beginnings. If your company can thrive in Austin, with so many talented people, and a lot of great ideas, you can make it anywhere (sorry New York, for stealing your platitude).

Austin is still a developing story. As enterprises are opening offices in the capital city, this is helping VCs along the coasts see Austin’s potential as a hub of ideas. The city is still behind the bay area for risk-taking ventures, but given the current climate of investors, there’s a sea change happening.

Giants like Apple, Atlassian, Oracle, Dell, Amazon, Samsung, Facebook, and Google are all occupying space in buildings across the Austin skyline. Enterprise companies are investing heavily into the Austin market, and there are zero signs of a slow down. If you need further proof, just look at the traffic on any of the city’s major highways during rush hour.

Dallas is making a hard play at attracting the top-tiered companies as well. When Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos announced put out a call for bids for Amazon’s HQ2, many cities made a play for the site, but now that the final cities have been chosen, both Austin and Dallas both stand to score the shopping monolith.

Oculus, TopGolf, and startups like Veryable, Dead Soxy, and Artist Uprising are attracting some of the brightest minds to the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area.

South Texas joins the party

San Antonio is quietly building a case for a burgeoning tech scene, too. It’s not quite there yet on the enterprise or startup level, but the city is widely known for one thing – cybersecurity. Outside of Washington D.C., San Antonio is known as “Cyber Security City USA” to folks in the black hat scene.

San Antonio logged the most substantial growth of all of the Texas cities, adding over 250,000 new residents in 2017 alone. Thanks to a robust military presence, San Antonio is quietly attracting more and more security-minded firms, a feat that’s unique in comparison to what the rest of the state is offering. Military-friendly banking institution USAA is headquartered in San Antonio, as is grocery chain HEB, and Whataburger, with all three companies investing heavily into user experience and mobile applications (aka technology).

If Amazon decides on HQ2 in either Dallas or Austin, that will signal a 200,000+ person addition to the state’s population and economy. That’s a lifetime investment into either city, wherever Bezos, and his board chooses. Coupling that possibility with the already strong presence of Southwest Airlines, Texas Instruments, and just about every major gas corporation, it’s easy to see why these moves are a huge deal. For the latter, it’s also important to note that every sector is bolstering their websites, their social media footprint, everything that can be done on a laptop is happening – one new job at a time.

As the tech scene develops and changes from a strong west coast-driven model, Texas is benefiting from the change. Many Californians are moving to Texas, which is an article to itself, but one thing remains: the Texas economy has never been stronger, and it’s only improving. The story of tech in Texas is a continual work in progress.

We’re not going to overtake California next year, but we’re making a stand, and people are noticing. If the current economic growth is an indicator, the famous Dairy Queen saying is potent with it’s accuracy: “That’s What I Like About Texas.”

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Opinion Editorials

How to turn your complaint mindset into constructive actions

(EDITORIAL) Everybody knows someone who complains too much. While being open is important for mental health, constant bellyaching is not.

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Everybody knows someone who complains too much. While being open is important for mental health, constant bellyaching is not, so here are a few tips on turning your complaints into constructive actions.

It’s important to understand the difference between “complaining” and “addressing.” Talking about problems which mandate discussion, bringing up issues slated to cause larger issues down the line, and letting your boss know that you have the sniffles all fall into the latter category due to necessity; complaining is volitional, self-serving, and completely unnecessary in most contexts.

Complaining also puts you in an excessively bad mood, which may prevent you from acknowledging all the reasons you have not to complain.

Another point to keep in mind is that complaining occasionally (and briefly) isn’t usually cause for ostracization. Constant or extensive complaining, however, can lead others to view you as a largely negative, self-centered person — you know, the kind of person literally no one actively seeks out — which is why you should focus more on redirecting that negative energy rather than using it to remind your barista why they gave up their dream of becoming a therapist.

Complaining stems from two main sources: the need to be validated—for example, for others to know what you’re going through—and the need to be comforted. Addressing a chronic complaint mindset, then, is largely about validating and comforting yourself. This is a simple solution which nevertheless can take years to manifest properly, but you can start by doing a couple of things differently.

“Focus on the positive” is perhaps the hokiest advice you’ll get from anyone, but it works. In virtually any situation, you can find a positive aspect—be it an eventual outcome or an auxiliary side-effect—on which you can concentrate. Think about the positive enough, and you’ll talk yourself out of complaining before you’ve even started.

It’s also good to remember that no one, no matter how much they care about you, can handle constant negativity. If you find yourself constantly hitting people with bad news or tragic personal updates, try mixing up the dialogue with some positive stuff. That’s not to say that you can’t be honest with people—friends, family, and colleagues all deserve to know what’s going on in your life—but make sure that you aren’t oversaturating your listeners with sadness.

Lastly, keep your complaining off of social media. It’s all too easy to post a long Facebook rant about being served cold pizza (no one likes cold pizza on day one), but this just results in your loding a complaint reaching a larger number of people than vocalization ever could. If you have to complain about something in earnest, avoid doing it anywhere on the Internet—your future self will thank you.

Being honest about how you feel is never a bad thing, but constant negativity will bring down you and everyone around you. If you can avoid a complaint mindset as a general rule, you’ll one day find that you have significantly less to complain about.

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Opinion Editorials

How to encourage your childrens’ entrepreneurship

(EDITORIAL) To encourage entrepreneurship for our children, we focus on providing them with direct evidence that they can do and be anything they want (excepting the six year old, who currently wants to be a cat).

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When I walk in the door most days, the routine’s predictable. Drop my briefcase, check the mail, and by this point I’ve received an invitation to go to my daughters’ store. What’s for sale invariably changes from day-to-day — sometimes it’s a pet store, or a bespoke clothier, or a coffee shop — but I’m always amazed at the level of thinking about multiple aspects of business ownership that they put into their play.

For example, I’m typically offered coupons and combination deals on whatever my purchases might be, which means that we get to have rich conversations about the purpose of such incentives and how they affect both customer perception of their brand and their profit margin.

Now, as they’re both under ten years old, many of these conversations don’t cause their games to stop for an introductory economics lesson, but I want them to keep these discussions in mind as their play expands. The world in which they’re growing up is a very different place from that which their parents did, and the possibilities they can embrace literally did not exist a generation ago.

So, too, the challenges that they’ll face. While the number of career fields and the jobs within them that are fully accessible to women are growing exponentially, the globalization of the economy and the shift towards a gig workforce means that they’ll have to compete against not only the remnants of outdated gender expectations, but also considerably larger numbers of people to do so, and with less stability in their career paths once they arrive.

To encourage the entrepreneurial spirit within our girls we, like many parents, focus on providing them with direct evidence that they can do and be anything they want (excepting the six year old, who currently wants to be a cat).

It’s been well said that what one can see, one can be. A 2012 MIT report found that in Indian villages where women held positions of responsibility and authority in local government, levels of aspiration and access to education rose by 25 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The amount of hours they had to devote to completing domestic chores dropped by nearly 25 percent.

It’s important to us to have our daughters see successful women in all walks of life to let them know that they are limited only in their passions and imagination, and should never settle for anything that they don’t want.

It’s also important for us to show them examples of young entrepreneurship whenever possible as well. In a 2015 analysis of Federal Reserve Bank data, the Wall Street Journal found that the percentage of adults under the age of 30 who had ownership stakes in private companies had fallen 70 per cent over the past 24 years. This illustrates the myth of the swashbuckling 20-something entrepreneur, along with the underlying challenges to business ownership.

By being realists about the challenges as well as idealistic about the possibilities, we want to keep alive the spirit that makes them excited to open a combination fish store and haberdashery in their playroom today, with the anticipation of changing the world through their professional passions tomorrow.

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