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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Agents' angst

headroomLast week, the New York Times ran a Real Estate section cover story called Agents of Angst which became one of the most talked about articles this week amongst agents. Author Vivian S. Toy's piece opens with a huge pull-quote about a national Harris poll from July 2006, which actually ranked the relative perception of the "prestige" of 23 professions. Real Estate Agents ranked at the bottom. The quote goes on to editorializes by saying "no wonder they are trying to clean up their image", and the piece stretches the point to imply that this translates in to a crisis of the industry's ethics and behaviour.

A closer look revealed that same Harris poll also ranked journalists just a few notches higher in 18th place, still ranking in the lowest 22% of the survey. She then goes on to prove that point by writing a story which cherry picks provocative examples of less than professional brokerage practice, going for the sensational, rather than for accuracy. The picture she attempts to paint does not resemble the behaviour of agents, nor the general standards of the industry, that I am familiar with in Manhattan. She cites a ham handed ad campaign about ethics training by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) to imply that there are widespread problems. The industry's governing body in New York City is The Real Estate Board of New York (I'm a REBNY member) which sets the ethics rules by which its residential brokerage members are expected to conduct business. However, this author implies that ethics training, establishing rules of conduct, and an adjudication process for complaints, are proof of a problem rather than prudent steps by industry practitioners to self-regulate and properly set ground rules which protect the constituencies we serve and other members. REBNY President Steven Spinola, sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times, which more politely expresses the sentiments of the agents I spoke with:

"I was very disappointed to see that your article took one or two bad experiences from two people and misrepresented them as common occurrences in the real estate industry"
Is it possible to be accurate in the details, and yet express conclusions which are gross exaggerations at best? Common sense says yes. An article that was intended to be in service to consumers, would have focused more on empowering people to properly assess and select a broker, rather than on such obviously bad behavior. Unfortunately, these are relegated to a half-hearted side-bar, buried at the end of the piece— a not too subtle attempt to give editorial cover and appearance of a balanced discussion.

It's unclear why this story ran as a section lead at this time. It's not really news that agents are not held in high esteem by some. That Harris poll is six months old and the perception is unfortunately, much older. New York Times readers seemed to not be all that impressed as a check of the NY Times Web site today did not count it among the most blogged, emailed or searched stories of the past seven days. The blogsphere did not bite the bait either. A search for the story on Technorati revealed only 9 posts nationwide. Truegotham was one that did comment recently on the story.

Ms. Toy's position is so one sided, that she never stated the obvious; that brokers are actually the solution here, and that finding a competent one can be the best safeguard when a deal might involve the occasional unethical person. I can't think of an agent that wouldn't be glad to see brokers engaging in the kinds of bottom-feeding behaviors described by Ms.Toy, leave the profession.