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2009-12-02 00:12:51

Why A National Database is Too Little, Too Late


Hindsight is always 20/20, they say. Unless, of course, you spend most of your time navel gazing. So it’s almost myopic to point out that some ideas’ time has come. And other ideas’ time has passed.
On one hand, it’s time for every sale to include in-house ancillary sales. On the other hand, it’s time for NAR to give up the dream of one HAL-like central database. Didn’t they find the bellybutton lint the last time they tried it?
Some of us might recall a time when both of these ideas seemed like a good thing.
Creating a central database of properties nationwide – the elusive national MLS – and incorporating ancillary sales like mortgage and warranty into every deal. The first idea resulted in a horribly disfigured technology experiment. REALTORS themselves came to hate their own national marketing site, REALTOR.COM – for all sorts of reasons. So they punished it by withholding data – or uploading junk, if you consider the quality of most of the photos. As for selling more ancillary services, a few companies successfully deployed such “one-stop” services that are today helping to pay the bills when plain-old home-sale commissions cannot.

At the time, each of these innovations was hailed as the industry’s response to customers’ desires for “one stop shopping.” They were unveiled as centerpieces of REALTORS-at-the-center-of-the-deal strategies. Ancillary sales are keeping the doors open at many companies these days. The national website has become an embarrassing central repository of inaccurate and low-resolution data.
We could use more of the one, and less of the other, these days.
Turns out ancillary service dollars would come in quite handy these days, since selling short sales and foreclosures won’t put gifts under the tree. As for opportunity lost, REALTORS disdain for the site that bears their name keeps them from leveraging what would have been handy cost-savings for agents who cannot afford to pay-per-click these days.
Certainly, don’t blame consumers: we love one-stop shopping. We preview, select, test and finance cars within the same building. We  browse, pick and purchase – with a store credit card – clothing at retail shops. We click, configure, cart and ship computers from one website. We’d prefer to have more of everything integrated; but we really don’t need to see every car, shirt or computer available nationwide in one database.
I thought all real estate was local, anyway? Oh, never mind. But really, this isn’t a story about saying we should have done more to integrate ancillary sales into every deal. Consumers will force that upon the industry eventually. Rather, this is a story about vision going forward. And unlike selling more ancillary sales – which was simply ahead of its time – it doesn’t look some pet projects will take REALTORS into the future.
And the biggest example of blurry vision is the National Association of REALTORS new “Property Resource” database.
Once again, another centralized database project promises to make REALTORS invaluable by putting every home on the map into a single website. Oh, there will be the usual nooks-and-crannies: tax, zoning and past-sale information. Wow. Really potent stuff.
Can you say abacus?
But this time it will be nationwide! Did nobody at NAR read their own consumer study,  indicating the average person moved a mere 13 miles from his previous address? But the database will include neato-features like forms! As if making the paperwork easier is what ails real estate sales these days.
Did I miss a decade or something?
Are there really any REALTORS out there struggling to find such data locally? Could someone point out the big crowds of consumers that are in desperate need of instant parcel and school information from their agent? Or do they have that stuff already…….
Once again it looks to me – an admitted contrarian – that a vision of the future is being obfuscated by the shades of the past. RIN, REALTOR.COM and now RPR. How quickly we forget. Like admitting the bubble will pop someday, but resisting efforts to integrate ancillary sales into every company transaction. So we’d have something to sell when it does.
The National Association of REALTORS is trying to solve a non-problem: They keep trying to create the single biggest housing database in the mistaken belief that it will suddenly solve all of the problems in the business. It’s a glaringly Baby Boomer project – to recreate the Sears Catalog of real estate – with no Gen X or Gen Y consumers on the mailing list.
But it’s got a snazzy acronym: RPR. Maybe they can name the next big project RIP?
Everything about this project is backwards. It’s claimed that RPR will let REALTORS “respond quickly to consumers” who want information on any of the 147 million parcels in the country. Are we talking about the same REALTORS, 50% of whom, according to NAR”s own studies, don’t own a smartphone? The same REALTORS who can’t upload decent photos to REALTOR.COM? The same REALTORS who won’t offer their in-house warranty or mortgage service to buyers, well, just because.
Or is this just a “get even” play – to finally get back at REALTOR.COM or Zillow or Trulia, for beating them to the punch. NAR’s own press release hints at it, saying RPR will offer its members such data, “rather than requiring REALTORS to purchase data aggregated by third parties.”
Further, are any of the data elements RPR will provide actually missing on most websites consumers use today? Do not the top 20 real estate sites online offer neighborhood, tax, demographic, school, and other data today? As for liens, zoning and permits: Find me one buyer who asks for such information, and I’ll show you a builder who already knows it.
NAR says this project is part of their “Second Century” initiatives for the real estate industry.  I can’t really see how. Unless NAR means the Second Century AD.
(Matthew Ferrara is CEO of Matthew Ferrara & Company, a technology organization that delivers training, consulting and technical support to real estate companies worldwide, including their new "Support on Demand" REALTOR help desk service available at 866-316-4209.)  

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