Chisel Chips

The looming threat of the DIY real estate sales person (i.e. the owner)

Some of my best friends are Realtors. I just might be less than happy if my daughter were to marry one.

Had to share a link with y’all. This came to my attention, because I’ve found myself in the very interesting place of taking on a real estate sale “by owner.”

Imagine that.

The owner.

Selling something the owner owns.

Without the help of a Realtor.

In doing so, I have learned that the current real estate sales model — an industry dominated by the Realtors — may be the next to experience significant digital disruption.

First the travel industry. Then news. And on through music and radio and movies (not to mention movie theaters, killed by VHS and DVD and phones with movies stuffed inside).

As I embarked on this adventure, I found myself sharing the plan. With a lot of people. And everyone with whom I spoke is disenchanted with the longtime real estate sales model that carves 6 or 7 percent from the closing price. That’s $12K on a $200K house, but $36K on a house that sells for 3x? The only difference? Sales price. The buyer and seller and agents all do the same dog and pony, offer, counter-offer, contingencies, yada yada.

So, what makes one deal worth $12K (as if), and the other worth $36K (WTF, right?)

What, in fact, makes any deal worth anywhere near that amount of money? As entry fees to carnival sideshows go. real estate commissions top them all. It’s an exclusive club of wand-wielding sorcerers, uniquely equipped to … meet humans, listen to humans, drive humans, and show humans your property.

Oh, thank you, real estate industry. I couldn’t do THAT, MYSELF. Oh, really?

After decades of charging us to entrust the sale of our assets to them (without which assets, they would have nothing to sell), we now have numerous digital upstart startups providing us a public and inexpensive entry to the inner sanctum. It’s called fixed-fee listing.

With the company I chose, I paid $95 for a listing on the Multiple Listing Service. Another $100 got me signs and some extra photos on my listing web site. If we sell the home for its listed price of $575,000, I’ll have saved $17,000 in listing agent fees by the time we find a buyer, assuming the buyer comes to us through the efforts of an agent working to show them homes. Twice that amount saved if we find the buyer ourselves and handle all the closing without professional help.

A week into this, we have had three serious looks and have two more scheduled. It’s a good property. I’m confident we will find a buyer, in short order. Most of the work will be done then by the escrow company. They get their fees, but it’s nowhere near $17,000, the listing-agent’s slice, divided with his or her broker.

Most people I talk with are fairly smart, and figure that they could gather and prepare the details of a listing. And if a fixed-fee real estate agent offers a much lower path to placing my property on the MLS, and by extension, numerous real estate web sites (Zillow, Realtor, Redfin etc.), why would I not tilt that way? The seller is always involved in negotiating a contract price, so why the need for an intermediary?

Circumstances come to mind in which an agent could provide huge value. Say you and your family have to move, quickly, to take a new job in a distant city. You need to sell your house, but can’t wait around to do it yourself. Hire an agent. Get on with it.

But if it’s a local sale, and if (as I do, in semi-retirement) you have the time, and even better, if you have moved from the property into another house four doors away, well, what’s not to love about that scenario for a DIY deal?

In short, most of us have the smarts and digital tools to FSBO. So? The real estate industry apparently views FSBO types as some sort of unwashable caste, traitors to the established order, heathens at the castle walls.

An escrow agent told me that many of traditional agencies — and their agents — will not show FSBO listings to people who are looking for a home, even though the home appears on the multiple listing service.

So, if you are looking for a home with the help of an agent mining the MLS, you don’t see everything, because your agent is pissed that some sellers chose not to pay $18,000 for someone to spend an hour getting photos, and another pulling comps, and a third entering home data for the MLS.

I know there is more to the job than that. Even so, at a full day or two (as if anyone could take that long), the listing agent could walk away from your property after it pops to the MLS, and pocket $1,000 an hour after some other agent actually sells your house. But even that person gets a share of the other 3%, for what could be just one showing. Pretty sweet.

As the seller, you pay handsomely … only after the home changes hands. Who has incentive to make that happen quickly? The sales agent. Pushing or defending a higher price can only delay a quick close (and commission). So they feel strong financial pressure to close the deal, on the seller’s back (buyers pay none of the commission), by urging price reduction or concessions to the potential buyer.

It’s got to be threatening to legacy Realtors, for sellers increasingly to realize they can list their home and negotiate sales terms themselves — and save a ton of money.

To find out how industries once familiar and healthy have gone belly-up before, just talk with a newspaper publisher from the 1990s, or a travel agency owner, or someone who once sold books and CDs from a four-wall store.

Those were the days.

RIP, Mom, this life was not for you

My greatest teacher died the other day, at age 91.

For the last 34 years of her life — since retirement — Mom became increasingly angry and bitter. Her disdain for humanity and her smoking isolated her from the rich potential of time and untapped talents.

She talked of volunteering and painting and travel, but did none of it.

She used that talk to buy stuff that would let her pursue those passions, but let them sit in the closet.

Mindless consumerism — manifest most absurdly in the serial purchase of yet another house, just a few blocks from the old one, 12 in that period — filled her days.

Trips to discount stories to buy or return previous purchases consumed the hours outside her Realtor’s office.

She was smart and educated, but off the rails. Her misanthropy further expressed itself in openly cruel comments to strangers, and racist dismissal of black and Asian immigrants.

One of them was with her when she passed.

What a sad, wasted time.

But a great lesson, in how not to engage aging.

The clues all point to Holmes

The young woman checking me in to the Quality Inn & Suites in Twin Falls, Idaho, asks my name.


“Hmm, I had a Moriarty earlier today.”

“Sherlock Holmes fan?”


“Cumberbatch or Rathbone?”

“I love the Cumberbatch interpretation.”

“Pretty out there, right?”

“Yep. My husband bought me a leather-bound complete edition of the Conan Doyle stories.”

“That’s cool. Is he a Holmes fan?”

“He is, but he’s dyslexic, so I read to him.”

Phone rings. She answers. Hangs up. Smiles at me.

“That was a Mr. Holmes,” she says.

One of those days, where life reinforces life.

For art to rise and shine, it needs neighbors who toe the line

What is the link between travel and art? Is a destination, by virtue of its mass appeal, sentenced to a diminished craft community, of tinkerers and self-selected assemblers of earrings and shapers of raku coasters?

Are its painters and sculptors squeezed through a tube and into a mold that produces nothing that doesn’t contain one of the region’s famous birds, fish or antlered ungulates?

Is cliche the inevitable result of mercenary desires? Does a conscious appeal to the masses — that quest for broad acceptance, and a greater chance of sales — lead necessarily to a flattening of risk and edge in the artist’s creative output? Is safe “art” a safe bet for a transaction that lifts the artist above his or her starving (i.e. more adventurous?) brethren?

Can art exist or even survive in a world where the obvious and familiar are endlessly cycled into wall hangings for condos left vacant 11 months of the year?

These questions come to mind, browsing a collection of local art in downtown Hilo, Hawaii. I want to chew the questions, although I’m not sure it will produce a digestible answer. Overlaying the whole exercise sits the bigger question of “what is good — or great — art, and where does one find it?”

I’m not sure there is an answer to that. It costs nothing to look, which is what I do when I find myself in places that have earned some cachet among art lovers, albeit for reasons that beg the question “why?” In Sedona and Santa Fe, Carmel and Aspen, this cheapskate pedestrian has wandered into gallery after gallery, and departed in a fog of confusion about the goal of the artists and their gallerists. If every piece, to show its origins, must contain crashing waves or bugling elk or red-rock buttes, can it fairly be called art, or more accurately decoration?

And then there sits the line between art and craft. If utility is the underlying rationale for its creation, can craft compete with an item that is meant strictly for viewing? Is there greater value in the purely aesthetic, compared to that which has an aesthetic quality and also provides a barrier between sweat from a cocktail glass and the koa wood coffee table?

I love to visit galleries, or shops that represent a mix of talents, be they assemblers of beads and pounded metal, or painters, or whimsical welders and their scrap-metal representations of the local fauna. “Cute,” we say most often, and pass on.

For many people, this is what passes for art, and this is what many people come to think of as art, because they see little else, when they travel, in the shops and “galleries” that come to dominate the retail landscape of their destinations. Destinations, I should add, that ascend to the heights of allure because of the sheer volume of such retail establishments that have come to comprise their landscape.

To be fair, to each his own. Everyone has a right to like what they like. Not everyone wants or expects to be challenged by a creative work, although I do. I recall a visit a couple of years ago to Los Angeles, and some of its art zones. In particular, my wife and I found ourselves captivated by the work on display in several of the galleries in downtown Culver City.

In the instance of our captivation, I recall seeing nothing on the wall that looked to have been inspired by the world outside. There was fantasy, whimsy, humor and lust. We could recognize elements in some of the work, or nothing at all in other expressions. But whenever we stopped and stared and thought that if we had a spare $5,000 lying around, we would buy this, and buy it now, we were staring at a work that neither of us had ever seen or imagined before.

Yes, in shops to the left or right of the one in which we stood, we could find nicely wrought earrings or vases. But where we stood, we found wonder. In the world of all that is possible for people to create, only the rare and unfamiliar deserves such regard. The contrast emerges from the greater context. Without cliche, the magical and revolutionary would have nothing above which to soar.

Or, to put it bluntly, without the junk, the gems would never shine.

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