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"You are still the real estate expert, and [people] look at you every day and say, 'So how's real estate?' And they believe whatever you tell them," she said. "So if you're going to tell them that it's good, and you've got great properties to share with them, and there are loan programs and low interest rates and tax credits available, they're going to listen. So a new role we've taken on is to become your cheerleader to keep you motivated and back in the marketplace."
Consider the sample fill-in-the-blanks letter to the editor that Surround Sound trainees are encouraged to use. At least one copy was published in May 2008 on the Web site of the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record, submitted by the chief executive of the local Realtors association.
"Dear Editor: I just finished reading another article about the weak real estate market and couldn't resist trying to set the record straight. In [add area], our real estate market is performing quite well. With more homes on the market than last year, home buyers have a better selection. And home prices are actually stable and quite affordable, unlike many other areas of the country.
"I worry that national news stories have scared away potential home buyers in [add area] who have the opportunity to make a terrific investment. Ask a local Realtor to show you the great housing values out there. You may find exactly what you're looking for, at the right price, too. Sincerely, [Add signatory]"
Actually, according to NAR's statistics, median home prices in the Greensboro area fell almost 9 percent in 2008 compared with 2007. While that's a lot less than the decline of almost 14 percent that NAR said happened nationwide, it's hardly stable.
Frank Borges-LLosa, owner of the FranklyRealty.com brokerage in Arlington, is a frequent critic of industry practices. "Never ask a Realtor whether now is the time to buy," he said. "I don't believe in market timing, and things can always go down."
Though he mocks his own industry with a "Trust Me, I'm a Realtor" T-shirt, he acknowledged that nobody wants to hear that a real estate agent is struggling with the economy. "Times are good and business is good are two different things," he noted. "My company is selling more homes, but is it good for the seller -- because they're selling for less?"
He added, "You do lose your reputation when you're constantly telling people it's a good time to buy."
And if brokers are spreading cheer even when markets are contracting, will anyone believe them when markets turn around? For example, recent MRIS statistics show glimmers of recovery. In Fairfax County in May, there were almost as many home sales -- which took inventory off the market -- as there were new listings. Prices were down more than 10 percent compared with last year, but the average time on market fell 17 percent. But does that good news get lost among the happy talk?
Donna Evers, president of the Evers & Co. brokerage in the District, records a monthly podcast about market conditions, and her most recent one gives a mixed opinion. She says, "Things are looking up, I'm happy to say, and we've got a lot faster sales than we had before." She notes that in Fairfax County the inventory of listings is down to a three-month supply at the current sales pace, which she says is "just about a shortage." But sales are still weak for homes priced above $1 million, and especially for those above $1.5 million. And she's cautious about conditions in the fall, considering that signs of a housing recovery were squelched by economic crises two years in a row. "Let's hope we can get through this fall without some kind of setback," she says.
In a telephone interview, Evers talked about consumer skepticism when brokers say the market is improving. "Salespeople are by nature an optimistic folk -- who are trying to sell something," she said.
"But you have got to tell the truth," she added. "If you don't, it will come back to haunt you."
Evers said if a broker is going to offer an opinion about the market, there had better be data to back it up. "Pollyanna attitudes can be seen through in a flash," she said.