January 16, 2005

Specialists and intermediaries aren't always bad...

Ben Hammersley doesn’t like real estate agents. I can understand why – many people have a horror story about a bad agent: the agent was working both sides without disclosure, the agent was steering you only toward houses listed with their agency, the agent got a kickback from the seller to forget mentioning the sewage that backs up in the basement after heavy rains, and so on.

Of course, I also understand that one of the wonderful things about the internet is the disintermediation -- you can learn about anything you want on your own time, without pesky salesmen trying to steer you in the direction of larger commissions. You can read what real people say about a product or service and get a sense of typical problems or surprising features. (That can lead to other problems with astroturfing and other forms of unreliable sources. But we'll ignore that for now.)

The problem I have with dismissing whole groups of people like this is that they can actually perform hugely valuable tasks, especially for lazy people like me. Leaving aside the actual transaction, just finding a house that balances all your needs -- money, location, size, style, neighbors, schools, current value, future value, amount of work, yard, porch, sunlight, ... -- is hard.

That's not even considering that you may have needs you don't even realize, or that with exposure to certain types of houses your opinions might change. A good agent has a huge amount of domain knowledge about neighborhoods and trends, knowledge that, even if you could absorb it from the internet, would take you a ton of time to do so.

Not only that, a good agent has also gone through all phases of your experience many, many times. So, for instance, she'll understand that in the face of a remarkable feature (like a gorgeous kitchen) you may be unconsciously tempted to underestimate the work needed to get that upper floor in livable shape. Or she'll hear watercooler talk about how the owner of a particular property won't let buyers get a home inspection and steer you away from that place.

..or a thousand other things that by themselves may not be huge but put together mean that I don't have to make looking for a house a fulltime job. And I think that deserves a little respect.

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