There’s always something to howl about

I’m making Christmas goodies, so here’s all the stuff I don’t feel like fighting about right now

I was on Fox Business Network yesterday bitching about all the ways the U.S. government has interfered with the residential real estate market, resulting in both our recent boom and our current bust. The topic itself is not new to me, but it’s not something I’ve addressed in a full-blown philosophical argument. Surely that would be Quixotic, but when did that ever stop me? But: I’ve been very busy, and I’m about to get a whole lot busier. So last night I set that idea and everything else aside to bake some Christmas cookies. It was fun, it made the house smell good, and it actually brought Cameron out of his cave for a while. As soon as I can clear the decks today, I think I’m going to make fudge. Here’s the thing, and I have to remind myself every year: It’s Christmas. I don’t ever not work, but there ought to be room for play in the working day — at least some working days.

Meanwhile, here’s a bunch of stuff I might-could be dealing with, but ain’t:

Kelman had a post on all the crap he was force-fed prior to going on TV. I’m not picking on the man (for a change), this is a segue: I think we’re fools to buy into that crap. First, the mainstream media, to the extent that it clings to its creepy Vaudeville past, is the enemy of truth. Second, weblogging is the best friend the truth has made so far. The conclusion that I draw from these premises is that, even when we are on their turf, we should still behave our way. I hate everything phony, but even allowing for that, I think we damage our own credibility by playing their game their way. There’s no shortage of commercials on TV, but there’s damn little authenticity.

Zillow had a software release this week. How important was it? Important enough to be released eight days before Christmas, when no one is paying attention. What it amounts to, as far as I can discern from the effusive PR-speak in the press release, is smarter routines for determining when to show you listings and when to summarize the data. This is good for you, in the sense that you won’t be stuck waiting for 98,413 listings to emerge from the fog of AJAX, but it’s way better for Zillow, since it won’t be wasting so much processor time and bandwidth coughing up results you can’t possibly use.

There were also enhancements to Zillow’s wicked-lame neighborhood pages. (I could show you a neighborhood where the millionaires are alleged to be street-sweepers, but why bother?) And like Kelley Koehler, I can’t for the life of me figure out how this

is not a Federal Fair Housing violation. I’m not arguing for these laws — nor for any laws, ever — but that looks like nationality, nationality, family status to me. And if those are violations, there are at least ten others on the page I took that image from.

I keep thinking that I want to take on the title industry — more Quixotism. We closed a house yesterday — with Brain Brady as the lender. I didn’t like the way the title company prepared the HUD-1, so I ended up reading it over and over again. A couple of weeks ago, Diane Cipa argued that title companies should get paid for their efforts even if the transaction does not close. I think this is completely plausible. On the other hand, I’m at a loss to understand why my buyers paid yesterday for thirty years worth of title insurance when they will own the home for five years, tops, and when they will probably refinance within two years. And when they do refinance, how much title insurance will they pay for? We all know, don’t we? Could they be refinancing multiple times in a short span of time, as many people did in 2004 and 2005? Ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching!

Thanks to modern title farms, the chance of a title insurance policy paying off is substantially less than the chance of hitting a Royal Flush in video poker. I think paying for what you get is a fabulous idea in every possible circumstance. But I think it would be beyond excellent if buyers and sellers were to pay the actual value of title insurance. The sellers would still have to pay a lump sum, but it should be based on the actual — actuarial — likelihood of a tenable claim against the title. Buyers should be paying month-by-month for the benefit received, just as with property taxes (feh!) and hazard insurance. Forcing buyers to pay huge sums over and over again for insurance that is almost entirely without value is obscene.

And: Don’t get me started. If would-be disintermediators are looking for a real estate profit center that is an awful lot like stock brokerage and travel agency — a business where efficient data processing and cheap outsourced labor can achieve huge economies of scale — they should calibrate their noses to the smell of burning ears. If a start-up were to charge what title insurance is actually worth, it could own the entire industry in two years.

The last of the BloodhoundBlog Unchained lapel pins

is on the auction block. If you want one of these pins, procrastination is not your friend.

If I took all the time necessary to defend myself from things I’ve never said, I’d do nothing else. But here are two that pop out right now:

First, what we do here is not what you should be doing. Given that we wrote a book on a workable real estate weblogging strategy, I shouldn’t have to keep saying that, but apparently I do. For what it’s worth, I don’t see the commercial benefit of the post I’m linking to to the author of that post, but I do think that 2,300+ email subscriptions argues that weblogging really is a good way to stay in front of your clients.

Second, I’m not arguing against search engine optimization, but I would make a broad and general argument against SEO instead of or as a presumed replacement for serious, relevant, interesting content. Getting people to your pages is a challenge, one worthy of thought and effort. But as far as I’m concerned, the more important job is keeping them there, and keeping them coming back. I don’t think there is any actual disagreement here, I just want to make sure I’m not being misunderstood.

For what it’s worth, there are lessons to be learned from the BloodhoundBlog experience in building lead-seeking hyperlocal real estate weblogs. I’ve talked before about the most important leveraged SEO optimization you can do to your weblog — “leveraged” meaning that the ratio of benefit to effort is enormous. But, even so, the most important action of “optimization” you can do, in terms of meeting precisely those people who can — and will want to — do business with you, may have nothing to do with search engines. What would it be instead? How about building relationships with the local weblogs where your potential clients already congregate? BloodhoundBlog has very strong SEO reach on a lot of interesting search terms. But we have grown as big as we have — and we are but begun — on the strength of our connection with the Starting, not coincidentally, with Dustin Luther.

I wrote Think globally, blog locally almost a year ago. How many of those ideas have you implemented? Me neither — at least not as much as I wanted to. There are search terms we dominate, but what I want, in the long run, is a set of long-tail keywords that work for me like this does. This is nothing but organic results, a page and a half of total Google dominance from nothing but relevant content built right. My plan is to achieve that kind of dominance on every long-tail keyword in my real estate farm. Meet me in the right place, and I’ll show you how to do it, too.

But not today. Today I’m going to push everything I can off my desk. And then I’m going to make fudge. It’s Christmas, after all…

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21 Comments so far

  1. Brian Brady December 20th, 2007 10:27 am

    I don’t know where to begin:

    1- I don’t get FBN so I hope it’s YOuTubed or DVD-ed; I’m curious.

    2- Kelman is dominating the MSM with faulty information; he’s fast becoming the Paris Hilton of the real estate industry. We all drool over Paris Hilton but don’t want to actually be in her presence. I think the same will happen with the consumers; they’ll drool
    about what the Rockfish is saying but run to the gold jacket when THEIR prized asset is on the line.

    3- Thanks for the “cookie”; I wish it were easier.

    4- The title industry? Fabulous target for change.

    Try and take a day off; you’ve earned it.

  2. Eric Blackwell December 20th, 2007 10:41 am

    Greg–You will find NO disagreement with me in your post or mine on SEO. Was (I guess…) trying to stress the point that it all works together pretty well when done right. and it doesn’t need keyword stuffed titles to make it happen. I think we share the same priorities there.There is no replacement for authenticity. While I can on board the BHB train far later than many of your earlier writings, with some downtime, I need to go back and do some reading.

    Merry Christmas, my friend. I am sending you a little Christmas gift via email in a bit. (Think of it as my version of cookies and a card). Grin.



  3. Greg Swann December 20th, 2007 10:47 am

    > You will find NO disagreement with me in your post or mine on SEO.

    Check. I know we’re on the same page on this, and I yield to you entirely on the details of SEO.

    Happy holidays to you and your family! We mailed on Tuesday, so you should have our package before Christmas.

  4. Benn December 20th, 2007 10:56 am

    Greg, all of that on the tip of your brain and you haven’t even begun- scary. Write the damn book (a future best seller) already and make room for more, my friend.

    Merry Christmas, Benn

  5. Merry Christmas to Greg « December 20th, 2007 11:58 am

    […] December 20, 2007 by Dustin You’ve more than earned a few days off! […]

  6. Christina Ethridge December 20th, 2007 12:24 pm

    Greg – I’m still trying to figure out if you’re trying to tell me – or are just responding to what you think I said. I was using you as a prime example of uniqueness – that your goals are different than my goals – my goals are different than John Doe’s goals – etc. That to try and keep up with everyone and everything is a waste of life and simple terrible business sense.

  7. David G from December 20th, 2007 1:52 pm

    Hey Greg;

    Congratulations on your appearance on FOX. Do you know if there’s a recording of the show anywhere?

    On neighborhoods; we’ve had great feedback from users and have used that to improve neighborhood definitions in this update. We still have a long way to go in many parts of the country and if you know of a good reference that details all of the Phoenix neighborhoods; please let me know. As we’ve previously discussed; the challenge here lies in the fact that there is no canonical source of neighborhood information. To that end, we will soon publish the boundary information for all of Zillow’s 130 cities and 7000 neighborhoods under a creative commons license that will allow neighborhood definitions on Zillow to be augmented with enhancements made by the API’s users. Quite a few prominent sites are interested in this data.

    On the FHA issue; I can point you to articles on HUD’s website that discuss family-friendly neighborhoods and good places to raise children. I’m no lawyer and I’m not dispensing legal advice here but I do find that many Realtors overcompensate for the FHA issue which I is perfectly understandable considering the risks involved. FHA relates to stating discriminatory preferences when advertising property for sale. Zillow’s neighborhood pages contain factual information about neighborhoods. The two are unrelated. This distinction is however most obvious in Zillow’s case since the company never advertises nor sells property. So naturally, a Realtor’s potential for misinterpretation is far greater than that for the rest of us that aren’t advertising listings but never the less, discussing neighborhoods and stating discriminatory preferences in advertising a property are (and should be) unrelated issues.

  8. Greg Swann December 20th, 2007 2:02 pm

    When FBS is ready for us to start playing, we’ll have GPS polygons on the neighborhoods we’re interested in, but that’s a small subset of the whole.

    > [Zillow] never advertises nor sells property.

    Make Me Move is brokerage — arguably with a broker’s liability for the actions of both principals. Listing is advertising. Your nose is wide open.

    How can you know for sure that something you’ve done is a fair housing violation? You find out when you’re pulling out your checkbook to pay the fine.

    Incidentally, the forums are another place where your potential exposure is huge.

  9. David G from December 20th, 2007 2:32 pm

    That’s good news about the Phoenix polygons. We’ll announce on the blog when the neighborhood file is published.

    You’re actually incorrect about how the FHA relates to 3rd party listings and forum contributions. There is in fact strong precedent on that topic following the craigslist decision reached in the case of Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law vs. craigslist. More details here:

    Again, FHA specifically pertains to stating discriminatory preferences when advertising property for sale. Zillow has an awesome legal team; we’ve investigated these issues in detail and regularly discuss their interpretation with lawmakers across the country.

    “Make Me Move is brokerage”

    LOL. Zillow is no more the broker of MMM postings than we are the broker of the listings you post to the site. i.e. Zillow absolutely does not broker MMM listings.

  10. Benn December 20th, 2007 2:40 pm

    Deja vu

  11. Greg Swann December 20th, 2007 3:13 pm

    > You’re actually incorrect about how the FHA relates to 3rd party listings and forum contributions.


    > Zillow absolutely does not broker MMM listings.

    Brokerage is the act of introduction of buyer to seller. This is exactly what Make Me Move is. Your exposure to pernicious legislation is greater here than with appraisal, not alone because your potential enemies are smarter, slicker and better-funded. It would not surprise me at all to see Zillow named as the perpetrator of an undisclosed dual agency if a Make Me Move transaction were to blow up. This is the kind of stunt a real estate attorney would pull even if you didn’t have deep pockets.

    And: Good grief. Haven’t we been through this twice before already? If you want to tell me, the first time you went through the Tunnel of Love, you were surprised you got groped, I’ll believe you. The second time, you’re just telling stories in church. Fair housing law is completely capricious. You don’t have to be wrong to be bled white by it.

  12. Ken Montville December 20th, 2007 3:54 pm

    “So naturally, a Realtor’s potential for misinterpretation is far greater than that for the rest of us that aren’t advertising listings…”

    If Zillow is not advertising listings, what are they doing?

    If Zillow is not acting as an intermediary between a buyer and seller and, thus, providing real estate brokerage services, what are they doing?

    If Zillow is not “steering” potential buyers into areas matching certain demographics that may be populated by protected classes under Fair Housing guidelines AND suggesting preference based on something other than financial ability to purchase, what are they doing?

    Finally, if a professional Realtor uses Zillow as the basis for the professional advice they offer their clients, they deserve whatever happens to them, IMHO.

    I’m sure Zillow has an awesome legal team. I’m just as sure they’ll earn their salaries once the lawsuits begin.

  13. David G from December 20th, 2007 4:15 pm


    That’s funny, I also thought of you when I read Greg’s post.


    Check your definition of broker; it’s the act of mediating between a buyer and seller. Brokers broker transactions. A posting on Zillow – whether MMM, FSBO or a listing posted by an agent is an advertisement posted by a 3rd party. No more no less. Apply your argument to a FSBO listing or a listing posted by a listing agent and you’ll see that it holds no water. Zillow does not broker real estate transactions.

    Your last statement applies equally to all laws … yet you still leave the house, right?

  14. Greg Swann December 20th, 2007 6:24 pm

    > Check your definition of broker

    I gave you the precise definition, the one that will apply in court if you ever have a problem. An additional term that would apply would be procuring cause, and what Zillow does in a Make Me Move transaction would also satisfy the definition of procuring cause. You may never have a problem, but it is false to say that Zillow is not introducing buyer to seller in Make Me Move transactions. Introduction is brokerage. Concealing and then revealing contact information is procuring cause. Facts are facts. Tap-dancing changes nothing.

    > yet you still leave the house, right?

    We are very careful about fair housing laws, as is everyone who understands the consequences of failing to be careful about fair housing laws. We’re careful about fire, too, except fire is predictable.

  15. Cal Carter December 23rd, 2007 9:37 am

    Someone needs a Zire Extinguisher. It looks as if some of the Xmas lights may be getting a bit hot.

    I really have a hard time understanding how if you are advertising properties and referring buyers for a fee how you are not in fact brokering real property.

    If Z is just an advertising outlet for another entity that is in fact doing the “brokering”, then I would think the brokering entity would have enough sense to be terrified at what it’s advertising outlet has done. If it were me I would revert to the old version as quickly as possible and slap a few hands within the project.

    I really don’t see how they are holding themselves to a different standard regardless of what the law may or may not say.

    And what about all of the agents that are feeding property listings to Zillow – are they not at risk?

    Merry Zhristmas!

  16. David G from December 23rd, 2007 11:05 am

    Cal and Ken –

    Consider your local newspaper. Like Zillow, your newspaper contains listings from brokers, Realtors and FSBO’s. Both Zillow and your local newspaper are media companies (Zillow is an online media company.) Both earn revenues by selling advertising.

    Even though it contains listings, your local paper doesn’t broker real estate. Just because Mens Health magazine has an ad from Mercedes, doesn’t mean that they sell the cars. Our clients are the advertisers who are selling the cars or brokering the homes that are advertised on our site. Our products are the many different ad units and the inventory there-of that we sell (i.e. Zip code targeted EZ Ads, Mover Predictor Ads etc.)

  17. Greg Swann December 23rd, 2007 11:10 am

    Keeping the contact information secret is colorably a different activity. The Apartments-For-Rent section reveals the contact information. The Personals section does not. These are the kinds of differences that pay the Benz bills at law firms.

  18. David G from December 23rd, 2007 11:22 am

    “And what about all of the agents that are feeding property listings to Zillow – are they not at risk?”

    No more so than on any other site that advertises listings. Again, FHA relates to _stating a discriminatory preference when advertising real property_. Realtors are equally responsible for what they say in all public forums, including on Zillow. Users on Zillow are reminded of that and required to opt in to acknowledgment of that reminder before they can advertise a home for sale (See the check-box required to submit a listing on Zillow.)

  19. David G from December 23rd, 2007 11:29 am

    Greg –

    How does that relate to Zillow; since contact information on Zillow is neither secret nor required to be published? Whether to publish contact info is the seller’s choice. We do also fascilitate anonymous email contacts to reduce spam but again, it’s optional and it is not dissimilar to the craigslist system, where again, there is clear precedent. Trust me, I’m not trying to make light of these issues but I can guarantee you that we’ve done our homework and you should see that reflected on the site.

  20. Greg Swann December 23rd, 2007 11:37 am

    > I can guarantee you that we’ve done our homework and you should see that reflected on the site.

    I believe you. I just don’t think it will make a difference if Zillow starts to look like lunch to a shark. My expectation is that Craigslist is still on the menu, court victories notwithstanding. It’s completely capricious law — an oxymoron — which is why Realtors and lenders are so careful. The list of things Zillow plans to discover after the blood starts flowing seems pretty long to me.

  21. […] The last time I was on the Tee Vee News, I mentioned that I’m taking my blogger attitude with me everywhere I go. It’s not a pose; to the contrary, I was born to this world and I’ve been growing it to my scale for the past 30 years. But I’m being very careful not to be swayed into betraying it, not to bow and scrape to the media or to any sort of clubby corporate sensibility. The real Day the Music Died wasn’t the night of that terrible plane crash, it was the Sunday night when Bo Diddley went on the Ed Sullivan show looking like Malcolm X with a Gibson guitar. So be it. That world was his, and Sullivan was already a relic. This world is ours. […]