The booming Houston real estate market over the last few years brought with it a surge in the number of realtors, reputable or not, selling houses in the area. Houston Association of Realtors membership is now estimated at a dizzying 29,000.
Add this to a surfeit of home search sites that direct you to “premier agents” whose qualifications extend to paying a few hundred dollars a month in ad fees, and most consumers are justly fatigued with the traditional realtor model.
While some real estate agents and firms have resorted to discounting commissions to attract clients, a handful of realtors are rethinking what it means to earn their value.
“Realtors don’t just find people houses anymore,” admits broker Bill Baldwin of Boulevard Realty. “Both buyers and sellers have more resources at their fingertips than ever and are questioning the value of a commission. Smart realtors are finding ways to build more into that value with their level of specialized knowledge and with what they can uniquely bring to the table before, during and after the sale.”
Melissa Kubala is on to this trend. A construction expert in the Heights, Kubala doesn’t just sell houses in the area; she’s part of a movement to preserve the neighborhood’s cherished look as part owner of Modern Bungalow, a family owned renovation and construction business based in the Heights. She charges herself with keeping alive the style that gives the Heights its iconic character and that buyers come looking for — traditional craftsman with sensible updates.
“I can’t be all things to all people, but to another builder or new construction buyer in the Heights, I’ve immersed myself in this world so that I can say that I really do have all the answers,” Kubala says confidently. “I don’t know that I necessarily want to compete with someone who doesn’t truly understand everything that goes into crafting a home."
"I love everything about houses, and I can’t help but think about each one as a full process that I have to know in and out.”
Likewise, Cynthia Mullins, a realtor and blogger, knows she’s expected to be an expert on far more than home values and location.
“My background is engineering, and besides being detail-oriented and analytical, I didn’t really know how it would translate to real estate,” says Mullins, who also sells mostly in The Heights. “Then I realized that people like data, and they want to know how you know what you know. So I find that I’m constantly researching, looking at every imaginable metric of what makes a home or neighborhood worth a certain price.”
Other times she finds she has to take a more personal approach. “But when it comes to knowing just how good the public schools are in my area, I can only really be so certain because I’ve raised my two sons in these schools and have been involved," Mullins says.
"That’s the point where I can’t just rely on numbers; I have to stay ingrained in the community and an authority on the neighborhood not just from a market standpoint, but from a demographic, cultural, and economic view as well. It’s exciting.”
True Real Estate Passion
Brandi Downey is also a realtor who understands it’s more than even full-time work to stay competitive. The Rice MBA learned early on that to be valuable to prospective clients she needed to eat, breathe and sleep real estate, and she formed her brand Eat. Drink. Real Estate. as a way to do just that.
“We don’t just sell homes anymore, we’re selling a lifestyle. I’d hate to think that I’d sell someone a house and the first weekend after they move in they don’t know where to go out. That should be part of my job," Downey says.
She’s also keen that people want to see more from their realtors than an ad and familiar logo; they have to show a high command of an ever-changing field. “I even started to teach real estate as a way to stay freshly informed," Downey says.
Other agents are drawing from their past experience to set themselves apart. Star Massing is using her close ties to Houston’s art scene to set herself apart. Massing (who is married to Art Guy Jack Massing) commented, “When I started as a realtor, I didn’t think that there was enough overlap between art and real estate to really make that a specialty, but really art and architecture are a huge part of what makes a house feel like home.”
Recognizing her niche, Paper City recently named Massing as the realtor to the art, design, and architecture communities following her trend of selling homes that are hard to find yet appealing to those buyers looking for something unique. She listed artist Bert Long’s residence and studio last year and is currently listing three new homes by internationally renowned professor of architecture Bill Price.
“I work with a wide array of clients, but my passion is ultimately about matching people with their built space,” Massing says.
Changing the role of a realtor means changing the real estate firm, too. As a broker, Baldwin is sensitive to this and sees his duty as fostering a sense of community, support and education while still allowing for ingenuity.
“Boulevard Realty doesn’t shy away from coming together as a group, even though we’re all self-driven entrepreneurs at heart. We have several community events every month not because we have to, but because we enjoy being together with our fellow Houstonians whether they do business with us or not.”
“There may be an advantage in some ways to selling your house with someone who operates as a one-man show or in what’s essentially a price-cutting franchise model, but I don’t think that’s the only response to the shifting sense of value," Baldwin says.
"People want to be a part of a community, and I think they want to work with someone who has that same sensibility.”