For Sale: More listings, members and money

By Ross Boissoneau

In real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.

That’s true not only in the real world but in the online world as well, where a rich website with great content will gain traction – which is why the Traverse Area Association of Realtors’ (TAAR) multiple listing service (MLS) no longer exists.

In its place is the Northern Great Lakes MLS, combining the property listings of TAAR, the Central Michigan Association of Realtors, and the Northeastern Michigan Board of Realtors. Kim Pontius, executive vice president of TAAR, said the process of combining the properties listed for sale by the three boards has been a lengthy one, even predating his arrival on the scene seven years ago.

“It’s taken the better part of 15 years,” he said.

For many of those years, the various boards couldn’t come to an agreement on whether it was even a good idea, much less how to do it. But a 2010 study of brokers showed a high level of interest, leading to three of the 12 boards opening up their listings to one another.

“We’ve combined the MLS, not associations,” said Pontius. “We hope by doing this, people will see it works.”

The aggregation of property listings across northern and central Michigan gives consumers ready access to nearly 5,500 homes for sale.

It’s a far cry from pre-MLS days. Back then – actually prior to 1966 – there was no sharing of home listings, as agents and companies sought to monopolize the transactions. Today, the web enables consumers to peruse thousands of properties before ever contacting an agent.

Pam DePuy, a realtor with the Martin Company in Glen Arbor, said the new MLS has potential benefit for her in exposing the homes she has listed for sale in the Glen Lake area to residents outside the region.

“The world has greatly changed from looking at a newspaper to looking on the internet,” said DePuy.

DePuy said she and her company concentrate on the local market – Benzie, Leelanau, and some Grand Traverse properties. The additional reach of the MLS doesn’t change that, but it does give realtors additional options for their clients.

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to go try to sell a house on Torch Lake – but stranger things have happened,” she said. “If I have a client with specific needs I’m looking at the MLS.”

Judy Porter, a realtor and associate broker with Coldwell Banker Schmidt’s 402 E. Front St. office in Traverse City, agrees that the chance for prospective customers to discover both her and her listings is a huge benefit.

“We can sell anywhere in Michigan, so why not spread that information around,” she said. “I’ll go anywhere to take care of a client.”

In addition to the expanded MLS, DePuy said the proliferation of sites that accrue property listing information is valuable for consumers and agents. Pontius, however, sounds a note of caution, noting that portals such as Realtor.com, Zillo and Trulia often don’t get their information from the MLS sites.

“We don’t participate in Zillo,” said Pontius. “They allow FSBOs (For Sale By Owner listings).”

That means Zillo must obtain its data from other sources. It could be individual brokers, since they are free to participate. But it could also mean Craigslist, tax rolls, old newspaper or internet ads, or other places where data accuracy is not guaranteed.

“It can be erroneous. The consumer can get false information,” said Pontius.

Membership, Sales On Upward Trend

Both sales and TAAR membership continue to rebound from the lows of the recession, circa 2007-09, according to Pontius. Today’s TAAR has 675 members, after bottoming out at 525 a few years ago. While that total is down from its peak in the mid-2000s, Pontius said it represents a number of new, well-educated professionals.

“At one point before I came, near the top of the bubble, there were 850 members,” said Pontius. “That may be too many. We’ve had a couple of years of strong market activity. Our members are busy.”

Pontius said membership is now holding steady. “As people are retiring or leaving, others are coming in,” he said.

Sales have also rebounded from their low point. Last year in the five-county area, TAAR recorded sales of 2,894 residential listings, compared with 2,705 for 2012. In 2009, sales barely made it above 2,000 (2,004).

The rebound is especially apparent in dollar figures, where last year’s total sales were $626,530,845. Sales for 2012 were $533,316,364; in 2009 they were $348,952,440.

The first quarter of this year is actually down slightly from last year. Pontius attributed that in large part to the colder and snowier winter, which lasted longer into the year than typical.

Pontius said the market’s rebound first showed in sales of existing homes, but new construction is also increasing for the first time in several years.

“We absorbed a lot of inventory,” said Pontius.

Things would be moving faster still but for the after effects of the recession. When construction came to a halt, many of the subcontractors moved elsewhere looking for work.

“It’s a challenge to find skilled trades like roofing,” said Pontius. “The skilled trades migrated elsewhere.

Added Pontius, “Now people are looking for homes where they don’t exist. There’s not a lot of spec building. We’ve got orders, but (builders) are having a hard time finding enough skilled people. ”

Lessons In Green

TAAR has also been in the forefront of the green revolution – perhaps too far in front, according to Pontius.

“I learned a valuable lesson. You can’t lead if no one will follow,” he said. “We were so far on the leading edge that just now, five years in, it’s becoming a talking point.”

Pontius said too often discussion of green options devolved into a political discussion about topics such as the environment and global warming, rather than how it could positively impact the industry.

“We learned we’ve got to change the dialog from political to energy efficiency and waste reduction,” he said.

TAAR’s green initiative included the renovation of the TAAR office. That incorporated things such as replacing doors and windows, sealing air leaks and using more efficient lighting sources. All told, the changes enabled the office to cut its overhead, reducing heat costs by 41 percent and electricity by 26 percent.

Pontius said that proved there was money being “thrown out the window.” TAAR uses that example to show how realtors and consumers can save money by going green.

Porter was among the first group of realtors to go through TAAR’s Green Certification process. She said it has been valuable but agreed that the general consumer has been reluctant to fully embrace it.

“People love it until they have to pay for it,” she said.

That was especially true when many less expensive options were available. “Bank-owned properties were 30-40 percent less,” said Porter. “It was hard for builders to compete.”

So while green buildings are good for the consumer, the upturn in sales and reduction in the availability of foreclosures and bank-owned homes has been good for the green market. “This is an educated community. Consumers know (green) is good in the long term,” Porter said.

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