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Opinion Editorials

The wild west of real estate: a startup story

Most in the real estate industry do not know that the boundaries have not yet been pushed as far as they can go and that some companies are still out creating new frontiers. Real estate is still very much the wild west when it comes to technology.

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Questions about succeeding in real estate

As a startup in the real estate industry and with the overwhelming perception that, at it’s core, this is a broken industry, I am faced with numerous questions about how to be successful. What does it take to rise to the top these days in real estate? With the value proposition of brokerages shrinking, along with their profits, how can you monetize the brokerage value proposition for your clients and yourself?

Should you become an agent to a large regional broker? Should you be a franchise to a big box brand? Should you start your own brokerage? Do you license technology or build it yourself? These are a few of the many questions I have asked myself.

I believe the consumer is entitled to all of the data that is available. Data transparency is key to the most efficient transaction. I set out to start a technology-based brokerage with a new standard of collaboration and efficiency for both the agent and the client. No, this is not a new idea but it is one that I believe is the minority in terms of the real estate brokerage experience.

Setting the stage

I want to be different. I want to be unique. I want to offer my clients a better experience. In Houston, that is a tall order. Why? We have the Houston Association of Realtors (HAR). What is so special about HAR? They are the leading MLS in the country in terms of technology and their consumer facing website. They do an incredible job of providing all the tools a brokerage or agent needs to be successful. What more could you ask for… right?

There is one pitfall. One need ask, is this good or bad? I am of the opinion that while it is good in some respects, it falls short in others. That creates opportunity.

All of the large brokerages in Houston, excluding some national names, have the same experience. They all use the same tools and there is nothing to differentiate one from the next except the agents themselves. Each does a great job and is a pleasure to work with, however, I believe there is more to the process than just the agent. In today’s world of technology and with the Internet, a brokerage has an opportunity to define themselves in other ways than just having good agents. Your sophisticated clients expect more. They are now doing a large part of the process on their own and while they still want and NEED a good agent, they also want the tools to make the most informed decision.

NuHabitat is in the process of developing our own proprietary online experience from the ground up. I could use all the tools available to me as a member of my MLS but I want to establish NuHabitat as a brokerage with the ability to stand on it own two feet. What if we want to grow outside of Houston and there is no HAR? In order to do so, there are many issues to address.

Issue one: data

The first dilemma is how do we get the data and how to have the ability to do with it what we need to give our clients the best information and experience. Due diligence directed me towards a VOW (Virtual Office Website). To my surprise, I didn’t find a good solution in the market so I said, I’ll do it myself. Ambitious… right? Look at Redfin, Zip, Sawbuck and others… all brokerages with their own value proposition. Makes sense to me.

I later found this to be no easy task. Zip is publicly traded and Redfin has raised over $30 million dollars.

Then there are the politics. Who owns the data? Is it the MLS? The brokerage? The agent? I always hear the brokerage. What about the consumer? Seems to me it is their data. The whole transaction starts and ends with the consumer. I think that tends to be forgotten.

Issue two: to VOW or not to VOW?

There are so many issues that surround data in real estate. It is exhausting. IDX, VOW, Syndication. Somebody give me a stick. I don’t think the horse is dead yet. I wont go there as it has been covered ad-nauseam, however, I will comment on VOW since that is my chosen approach.

For those of you who may not know, a VOW is a Virtual Office Website and was the result of the 2008 DOJ vs NAR settlement. In its simplest form, it allows for a brokerage to access and display on their website (once a broker-consumer relationship has been established) all the same data that can be provided to a client in a “bricks & mortar” setting or by any other means of transmission.

Seems to me everyone would do this. Well, not really. The alternative, IDX (Internet Data Exchange), is easier and cheaper. The barrier to VOW can be extremely high with a tremendous expense if you are going to develop your own application from the ground up, but the benefits in today’s marketplace are tremendous. Look at Redfin’s platform. What if you could license it? Would you? Is Redfin a brokerage, or really a technology company with an identity crisis?

It would seem to me that with the never-ending debate about the end of IDX and brokerages pulling their listings or the concern about syndication, VOW would be a no-brainer.

Real estate is still the Wild West

There are a lot of moving parts and I hope I can share my experience first hand and maybe save someone else the aggravation that I deal with while navigating the process of starting a technology focused model in an industry that feels more like the wild west rather than one that represents the single largest asset each of us will probably own.

As the leader of NuHabitat LLC, Jeff brings a unique qualification to the table with 10 years experience of buying and selling homes as a high-end luxury homebuilder while working with clients, agents and brokerages. Motivated by a unique set of circumstances, his goal is to provide a more efficient and economical approach to prospective home buyers and sellers in the modern day world of residential real estate.

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35 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Danny

    March 21, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Great article Jeff – I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Russ Capper

    March 21, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Sounds real smart to me. Why don’t more Realtors think this way? If I had a large brokerage, I’d be in touch with Jeff right now….

  3. Jeff Brown

    March 21, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Hey Jeff — Welcome.

    I’m thinkin’ you’re about to sit down to a plate full of elephant. Like Grandma always said, “One bite at a time.” Are you being ambitious? Duh. Nothin’ worthwhile in business ever got down without it. Best of luck.

  4. Brian

    March 23, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Jeff,
    I agree it’s time to liberate data and let the consumer see everything they can. If you hide data and restrict access it’s because you fear that you have no value to add. Those days are gone, and Realtors who think that way will go the way of the dinosaur. I look forward to following your progress with NuHabitat… you’re going up against the best MLS site in the country.
    Cheers,
    Brian

  5. Tina Fine

    March 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    The data does belong to the consumer!!

  6. Galen Ward

    April 15, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Jeff, building a great site indeed does take a lot of investment up front, but to be successful, you should plan on ongoing after you launch too.

    I’m exceedingly pleased to see you working to build a web experience that connects with the consumer – I gave a talk called “The End of the Average Brokerage” at RETSO and my advice to the brokers in the room was to embrace the web and to over-invest in making themselves relevant to consumers and in providing real value to consumers.

    Keep us posted on how it goes.

  7. Steve Scott

    May 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Welcome Jeff!

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Opinion Editorials

7 ways to carve out me time while working from home

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) It can be easy to forget about self-care when you’re working from home, but it’s critical for your mental health, and your work quality.

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Woman in hijab sitting on couch, working from home on a laptop

We are all familiar with the syndrome, getting caught up in work, chores, and taking care of others, and neglecting to take care of ourselves in the meantime. This has always been the case, but now, with more people working from home and a seemingly endless lineup of chores, thanks to the pandemic. There is simply so much to do.

The line is thinly drawn between personal and professional time already, with emails, cell phones, and devices relentlessly reaching out around the clock, pulling at us like zombie arms reaching up from the grave. Working from home makes this tendency to always be “on” worse, as living and working take place in such close proximity. We have to turn it off, though.

Our brains and bodies need down time, me-time, self-care. Carving out this time is one of the kindest and most important things you can do for yourself. If we can begin to honor ourselves like this, the outcome with not only our mental and physical health, but also our productivity at work, will be beneficial. When we make the time to do things we love, our body untenses, our mind’s gears slow down that constant grinding. Burnout behooves nobody.

Our work will also benefit. Healthier, happier, more well rested, and well treated minds and bodies can work wonders! Our immune systems also need this, and we need our immune systems to be at their peak performance this intense season.

I wanted to write this article, because I have such a struggle with this in my own life. I need to print it out and put it in my workspace. Last week, I posted something on my social media pages that so many people shared. It is clear we all need these reminders, so I am paying it forward here. The graphic was a quote from Devyn W.

“If you are reading this, release your shoulders away from your ears, unclench your jaw, and drop your tongue from the roof of your mouth.”

There now, isn’t that remarkable? It is a great first step. Let go of the tension in your body, and check out these ways to make yourself some healing me-time.

  1. Set aside strict no-work times. This could be any time of day, but set the times and adhere to them strictly. This may look like taking a full hour for lunch, not checking email after a certain hour, or committing to spending that time outdoors, reading, exercising, or enjoying the company of your loved ones. Make this a daily routine, because we need these boundaries. Every. Single. Day.
  2. Remember not to apologize to anyone for taking this me-time. Mentally and physically you need this, and everyone will be better off if you do. It is nothing to apologize for! Building these work-free hours into your daily schedule will feel more normal as time goes on. This giving of time and space to your joy, health, and even basic human needs is what should be the norm, not the other way around.
  3. Give yourself a device-free hour or two every day, especially before bedtime. The pinging, dinging, and blinging keeps us on edge. Restful sleep is one of the wonderful ways our bodies and brains heal, and putting devices away before bedtime is one of the quick tips for getting better sleep.
  4. Of course, make time for the things you absolutely love. If this is a hot bath, getting a massage, reading books, working out, cooking or eating an extravagant meal, or talking and laughing with a loved one, you have to find a way to get this serotonin boost!
  5. Use the sunshine shortcut. It isn’t a cure-all, but sunlight and Vitamin D are mood boosters. At least when it’s not 107 degrees, like in a Texas summer. But as a general rule, taking in at least a good 10-15 minutes of that sweet, sweet Vitamin D provided by the sun is good for us.
  6. Spend time with animals! Walk your dog, shake that feathery thing at your cat, or snuggle either one. Whatever animals make you smile, spend time with them. If you don’t have pets of your own, you could volunteer to walk them at a local shelter or even watch a cute animal video online. They are shown to reduce stress. Best case scenario is in person if you are able, but thankfully the internet is bursting with adorable animal videos, as a backup.
  7. Give in to a bit of planning or daydreaming about a big future trip. Spending time looking at all the places you will go in the future and even plotting out an itinerary are usually excellent mood-boosters. It’s a bit different in 2020, as most of us aren’t sure when we will be able to go, but even deciding where you want to go when we are free to travel again can put a positive spin on things.

I hope we can all improve our lives while working from home by making time for regenerating, healing, and having fun! Gotta run—the sun is out, and my dog is begging for a walk.

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Opinion Editorials

Why robots freak us out, and what it means for the future of AI

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Robots and humans have a long way to go before the social divide disappears, but research is giving us insight on how to cross the uncanny valley.

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Close of R2D2 toy, an example of robots that we root for, but why?

We hate robots. Ok, wait, back up. We at least think they are more evil than good. Try it yourself – “are robots” in Google nets you evil before good. Megatron has higher SEO than Optimus Prime, and it’s not just because he’s so much cooler. It cuz he evil, cuz. It do be like that.

It’s not even a compliment to call someone robotic; society connotes this to emotionless preprogrammed shells of hideous nothing, empty clankbags that walk and talk and not much else. So, me at a party. Or if you’re a nerd, you’re a robot. (Me at a party once again.)

Let’s start by assuming robots as human-like bipedal machines that are designed with some amount of artificial intelligence, generally designed to fulfill a job to free up humanity from drudgery. All sounds good so far. So why do they creep us out?

There’s a litany of reasons why, best summed up with the concept of the uncanny valley, first coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori (Wow he’s still alive! The robots have not yet won) in 1970. Essentially, we know what a human is and how it looks and behaves against the greater backdrop of life and physics. When this is translated to a synthetic being, we are ok with making a robot look and act like us to a point, where we then notice all the irregularities and differences.

Most of these are minor – unnaturally smooth or rigid movements, light not scattering properly on a surface, eyes that don’t sync up quite right when they blink, and several other tiny details. Lots of theories take over at this point about why this creeps us out. But a blanket way to think about it is that our expectation doesn’t match what we are seeing; the reality we’re presented with is off just enough and this makes us uncomfortable .

Ever stream a show and the audio is a half second off? Makes you really annoyed. Magnify that feeling by a thousand and you’re smack in the middle of the uncanny valley. It’s that unnerving. One possible term for this is abjection, which is what happens the moment before we begin to fear something. Our minds – sensing incompatibility with robots – know this is something else, something other , and faced with no way to categorize this, we crash.

This is why they make good villains in movies – something we don’t understand and given free will and autonomy, potentially imbued with the bias of a creator or capable of forming terrifying conclusions all on its own (humans are a virus). But they also make good heroes, especially if they are cute or funny. Who doesn’t love C3PO? That surprise that they are good delights us. Build in enough appeal to a robot, and we root for them and feel empathy when they are faced with hardships. Do robots dream of electric sheep? Do robots have binary souls? Bits and zeros and ones?

Professor Jaime Banks (Texas Tech University’s College of Media & Communication) spends a lot of time thinking about how we perceive robots. It’s a complex and multifaceted topic that covers anthropomorphism, artificial intelligence, robot roles within society, trust, inherently measuring virtue versus evil, preconceived notions from entertainment, and numerous topics that cover human-robot interactions.

The world is approaching a future where robots may become commonplace; there are already robot bears in Japan working in the healthcare field. Dressing them up with cute faces and smiles may help, but one jerky movement later and we’ve dropped all suspension.

At some point, we have to make peace with the idea that they will be all over the place. Skynet, GLaDOS in Portal, the trope of your evil twin being a robot that your significant will have to shoot in the middle of your fight, that episode of Futurama where everything was a robot and they rose up against their human masters with wargod washing machines and killer greeting cards, the other Futurama episode where they go to a planet full of human hating murderous robots… We’ve all got some good reasons to fear robots and their coded minds.

But as technology advances, it makes sense to have robots take over menial tasks, perform duties for the needy and sick, and otherwise benefit humanity at large. And so the question we face is how to build that relationship now to help us in the future.

There’s a fine line between making them too humanlike versus too mechanical. Pixar solved the issue of unnerving humanoids in their movies by designing them stylistically – we know they are human and accept that the figure would look odd in real life. We can do the same with robots – enough familiarity to develop an appeal, but not enough to erase the divide between humanity and robot. It may just be a question of time and new generations growing up with robots becoming fixtures of everyday life. I’m down for cyborgs too.

Fearing them might not even be bad, as Banks points out: “…a certain amount of fear can be a useful thing. Fear can make us think critically and carefully and be thoughtful about our interactions, and that would likely help us productively engage a world where robots are key players.”

Also, check out Robot Carnival if you get the chance – specifically the Presence episode of the anthology.

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Opinion Editorials

4 simple tips to ease friction with your boss while working remotely

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Find it challenging to get along with your boss while working from home? Here are a few things you can try to ease the tension.

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Woman stressed over laptop in remote work.

Most people probably feel like their relationship with their boss is fine. If you’re encountering friction with your boss for any reason, though, remote work will often exacerbate it—this is one instance where distance doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Here are a few ways to remove some of that friction without adding to your boss’ overflowing plate.

According to CNN, determining the problem that exists between you and your boss should be your first step. There’s one caveat to consider, however: Your boss’ boundaries. Problem-solving on your own time is fine, but demanding more of your boss’ time—especially when you’re supposed to be working—may compound the issue.

An easy way around this is a low-impact communique—e.g., an email—sent at the beginning or end of the workday. Since that’s a more passive communication style that takes only a minute or two out of your day, it’s less likely to frustrate your boss further.

If ironing out the issue isn’t your prerogative for now, examining your boss’ parameters for success is another place to start. Does your boss prefer to receive multiple updates throughout the day, or do they want one summative report each morning? Do you respect your boss’ preferred communication styles? These are important questions to ask during remote work. If you find yourself reaching out more than necessary, for example, it may be time to cut back.

It can also be difficult to satiate your boss if you don’t know their expectations. If you’re able to speak to them about the expectations regarding a project or task, do it; clarifying the parameters around your work will always help both of you. It is worth noting that some supervisors may expect that you know your way around some types of responsibilities, though, so err on the side of complementing that knowledge rather than asking for comprehensive instructions.

Finally, keep in mind that some bosses simply don’t communicate the same way you do. I’ve personally been blessed with a bevy of nurturing, enthusiastic supervisors, but we’ve all had superiors who refuse to acknowledge our successes and instead focus on our failures. That can be a really tough mentality to work with during remote periods, but knowing that they have a specific communication style that hampers their sociability can help dampen the effects.

As always, communication is key—even if that means doing it a little bit less than you’d like.

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