Featured: Top of Home Page

Online house shopping

It's taken a long time, but real estate agents are finally feeling the pressure of disintermediation, which the Internet was supposed to bring to every kind of business by allowing producers and consumers, buyers and sellers to search for and communicate with each other without middlemen -- or rather with low-cost websites rather than agents as middlemen. Real estate agents "earn" their money -- a commission that never varies with economic conditions -- mainly by keeping a tight lid on the list of available houses in a region. The commission then is a kind of extortion, and real-estate agentry a kind of institutionalized corruption, with several palms that need greasing simply because they've positioned themselves as gatekeepers. (Also, as Levitt and Dubner explained in Freakonomics, agents don't really have your best interests in mind -- they have a greater incentive to complete a sale quickly than to get you the best price for the home you want to buy or sell.) Recently the Justice Department has chipped away at this unfair business practice, and online real estate services have begun to let buyers find available properties for themselves and gauge a fair price for them by seeing maps with values of nearby and comparable houses. This is the same process that happened with airline tickets; travel agents became superfluous, so they disappeared as we all learned to fend for ourselves with out computer searches in the arcane world of airfare pricing.

But real esate agents don't plan to go down without a fight. A New York Times article this past Sunday about discount brokers reports, "In many cities, real estate agents have tried to restrict access to M.L.S. information or to limit its use on the database. Some have asked state legislatures to pass laws forcing brokers to offer certain levels of service, a move that Mr. Kelman [who runs an online discount broker, Redfin] sees as intended to squeeze out discount brokers. “It’s a thousand tiny shackles on innovation,” he said." The article also notes how some agents are so threatened by buyers who eschew traditional agents, they have apparently refused to show houses to them. "Matt Bell, general manager of sales at RealNetworks in Seattle, said that 'when the listing agent wouldn’t show me the house, that’s when I knew Redfin was on to something.' He added: 'If agents don’t like it, then it must be better for consumers.' " Real estate agents have responded by basically saying that Redfin's clients are crybabies. " 'Someone may be trying to manufacture controversy, even going so far as to bait other real estate practitioners, invite war stories on their blog and whine to Congress and to newspaper reporters that they’re being treated unfairly,' said Marlow Harris, a Seattle agent with Coldwell Banker Bain Associates." Somehow I don't think this approach will win agents much sympathy. But it is in step with the intimidation tactics that have sustained them this far -- their business model is premised on keeping customers ignorant and frightened about procedures that aren't all that mysterious once you remove the sophistry and stonewalling the agents introduce. (And it is not as if agents are helping clients avoid mistakes -- they certainly weren't discouraging marginal borrowers from going in over their heads with option ARM mortgages they didn't understand to buy houses they shouldn't even have been considering.)

But even if they succeed in preventing people from seeing properties first-hand, customers may be able to turn to the Internet for virtual tours, complete with comments from other would-be buyers who looked it over. This Wall Street Journal story details how user reviews à la Amazon are starting to crop up alongside real estate listings online. Real estate agents, predictably, are upset, because this constitutes yet another threat to their monopoly on market information. They argue that such information is polluted with lies and motivated by "spite." But it seems more likely the commenters are motivated by their feeling of betrayal in having been misled by an agent, or having to hear an afternoon's worth of doubletalk. Sure, a buyer could use a host of sock-puppets to mount a whisper campaign against a certain property in efforts to drive the price down or to discourage other buyers from investigating further. But it is just as likely these sites will be innundated with agents posing as customers spouting empty real-estate gibberish, balancing it out. In fact it's merely a matter of time before the flood of agent doublespeak hits these sites -- just as record companies used to flood Kazaa with dummy files to thwart filesharers.

But no matter what agents try, their days seem numbered. A more efficient, if less personal, real estate market will emerge, if only because consumers have been sold on the idea that doing house research themselves is more convenient (much like bagging one's own groceries is alleged to be) and it's experienced as a kind of freedom rather than an imposed burden. As this trend gains momentum, expect to see it reported as the democratization of the real-estate business.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.