Not the Oldest Profession

Rudyard Kipling began the following discussion of professionalism when he wrote a story in 1888 and spoke of a woman named Lalun as belonging to the most ancient profession in the world. Notwithstanding Rudyard’s declaration, Medieval and early modern regard for the professions was short listed to include only Divinity, Medicine and Law. Over time, occupations ranging from Accountants to Librarians were added to the list and the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln can be credited with adding surveying, which they all did, to the ranks of professionals.

Early real estate agents did not enjoy much respect. Brokering the sale of Manhattan Island to Dutch developers for $26 did not help with public opinion. In 1908, the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges, predecessor organization of the National Association of Realtors, was founded in an attempt to raise the status of the occupation so that mothers of lawyers could feel that their other son (or daughter) was just as important.

As time passed, more and more states required that real estate agents be licensed and trained, though the educational requirement has never risen above the high school level anywhere. Work performed by real estate agents has become more complicated as home ownership increased from only 25% in 1900 to close to 70% today. Still, many regarded the work of agents “as a job”…. like holding the first “Open House” at Levittown in 1947, and not a profession.

Most committed real estate agents strive to be regarded as respected professionals who earn their compensation for what they know and have experienced, as much as for what they “do.” Also, because of ever increasing regulations at all levels of government accompanied by significantly more sophisticated internet enabled consumers, the days of the part time real estate agent are coming to an end as specialization becomes the norm.

The internet and associated technology have had many effects on the real estate profession. The quantity and availability of information has empowered consumers to a degree unimagined even a decade ago. And technology companies have been aggressively trying to disrupt the old agent/consumer model by developing agent eliminating algorithms that aggregate large amounts of information for consumers to buy and sell on their own.

So far that has not worked nearly as well as the internet technology being used to disrupt retail (Amazon), hospitality (Airbnb) and transportation (Uber). While Millennials and Gen X’ers spend inordinate amounts of time on the internet, according to Inman News, 90% of them still eventually use a real estate agent to do their deals. This practice clearly goes to the heart of the job versus professional distinction where the real estate agent is valued for their ability to dissect information and apply their local market insights to transactions.

Finally, internet technologies have given everyone, including real estate agents, the ability to market themselves extensively.  I recently interviewed a millennial couple who were as interested in learning as much about individual agents using social media platforms as they were about all of the details available conducting their property searches.  In 1888, one would need to completely rely on Rudyard Kipling to learn everything about Lulan. Today she would most certainly have her own Facebook page and Instagram account and of course, one could always Google her.