Friday, February 27, 2015

Serving People At Their Best And Most Broken

Sheri seemed happy and relaxed while she met the buyers of her home and we all gathered around the closing table, but as she began signing the opening closing statement, I noticed a wet droplet splattered on the paper near her pen, and then another and another. She froze mid-signature.

Her face was hidden by a sweep of blonde hair. I leaned near, put a hand on her shoulder and whispered, "You okay?"

She didn't look up, only shook her head side to side. The buyers, their Realtor, and the closing agent each looked on with concern from around the table. "Let's step outside for a minute,” I said. I looked to the others, "Can you give us a moment?"

In the hall Sheri leaned against the wall sobbing into her hands. I found an empty office down the hall where she could be alone, and a box of Kleenix. I'd known her and her newly-ex-husband for several years. This was the final symbol of the failure of their marriage – the selling of the house where they had made a home together. She’d been an emotional rock during every step of the process, until now. But who could blame her?

For the rest of that closing I shuttled papers from the closing room to Sheri so she could sign and grieve in privacy. When it was done I gave the buyers the keys to the house, told them when trash day was, bid them farewell and waited to make sure they were gone before I got Sheri and walked her to her car.

Moments like this in real estate make me thankful I took so many psychology classes in college. When I got a license 21 years ago I thought I’d simply help people buy and sell houses. It took a couple years before I realized I would be serving people at the most hopeful and some of the most broken moments of their lives. I've shepherded scores of people through foreclosures, relocations in and out of state, sold their homes and found them new ones during and after divorces, marriages, births of babies, job losses and deaths.

The biggest lesson I've learned: I'm not a salesman. That's not what I do.

Often, the most enjoyable transactions are with young couples in their 20s who can't quite believe they're actually old enough to buy a house. They’re giddy and hopeful but also young enough they half expect their parents to pop out from behind a doorway and stop this fantasy game of playing house. And for many young couples, closing on that first home is nearly as big a deal as their wedding. The marriage was their choice alone – hell, something even teenagers do, but a home purchase is the gateway to real adulthood, proof that they’re not only becoming a family, but that they were examined by the grown-up business world and found worthy of a loan.

Helping those struggling for a better life is also something you never forget.

A decade ago as I manned the front desk at our office, a 30-something woman came in and asked if I would help her find a house. Looking beleaguered but hopeful, she told me of sporadic child support checks, of late nights as a bartender, of a poorly maintained apartment and her two daughters who deserved a better life. We started where we always start, with the loan.

I took her across the hall to our in-house lender and quickly discovered that this bartender wasn’t claiming cash tips on her taxes and had little credit background to qualify her for a loan. The lender and I wrote out a list of things she would need to do in the next year to qualify to buy. She left defeated.

I checked in with her several times over the next few months, asking how things were going. She’d offer ho-hum answers, share successes and setbacks. Eventually, perhaps embarrassed that I'd become a second hand witness to her struggles, she ignored my calls and we lost touch.

About a year after that first visit the secretary called over the intercom to say I had a visitor in the lobby. There was the bartender, standing nervously by the door with a slip of paper in her hand. It was the to-do list the lender and I had jotted down for her. It was sun-faded from weeks and months on the dashboard of her car and there was a puckered coffee cup ring in the middle. What’s more, each line-item was struck through. Looking uncertain, she held the list out to me and said, "I did what you told me to do. Can I have a house now?"

The day we closed on that modest little house didn't do much for my bank account, but seeing the bartender and her daughters on the front steps of that house with the keys in hand made a big difference in my professional perspective. I realized I wasn’t a salesman and never have been. I don’t “sell” people. I’m successful, but I’m a Realtor who loses business on a regular basis to real estate sales people. I’m simply not a salesman. Instead, my job is to get people what they want.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

False Promises and Paperless Offices

 Remember those cock-sure computer commercials from the early ‘90s with all that bluster about how the paperless office was right around the corner?

They jumped the gun a little. In fact it started to look like it would never happen.

Studies found that paper consumption actually went up in the ‘90s. Type a letter. Print it out, see how it looks. Make a couple edits. Print it out again, take another look. Make more edits. Print it out again. See a recipe on the Internet? Print it out . . . and five unwanted pages spit out, too. In the ‘90s paper use was actually increasing 6-7% a year.

About that same time we were told books would quickly become rare fetish objects. That didn’t happen either. Books, dog-eared files and Post-it notes were hard to shake.

The paperless office promise may finally be coming true, but it sure took awhile.

The lag between technology arrival and society’s acceptance happened over a century ago with electricity. In the 1880s folks were amused and more than a little freightened by electricity. Sure, they were wowed by the early lamps and electric motors, but newspapers sensationalized stories of big city folks electrocuted when they stepped into a puddle of water that rested above a buried, faulty cable, or got shocked or had their houses burned down by a primitive electric toaster. And using it wasn’t practical. Early power stations didn’t run 24 hours a day and you’d have to get your house wired up, buy a bunch of appliances, and then hope you didn’t get eletricuted by that invisible force.

You can imagine people thinking, “Awe fuck it! Let’s just light the gas lamp and keep making toast in the skillet with pork lard.”

But the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 changed all that. Folks saw the city-sized fair grounds lit by electricity. They were transported on moving sidewalks powered by electricity. They saw improved toasters, electric lamps, stoves, telephones, and every manner of machine that could be powered by electric motors. That fair had the greatest attendance of any temporary event in U.S. history and is credited with demystifying electricity for Americans. Jump ahead 20 years: the average American home could be lit, heated, and fed by electricity. It took a generation for the technology to become truly functional and for folks to get comfortable with the idea.

The early predictions that computers would eliminate paper use were similar.

People are reading fewer paperbound books now, as was predicted, but that took time, too, and I figure that’s only half because they found something easier than paper. Some of the reason people don’t read books is because they’ve developed short attention spans. Who has time to read a book with all that Honey Boo-Boo and CSI and YouTube to watch?

But of course people also don’t read paper books because they’re reading Kindles and iPads and Nooks. Some folks like to grumble about this, but I don’t think it’s bad at all. A couple winters ago I read the entire Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series on my iPhone while riding a stationary bike at the gym. Last winter I read The Old Man And the Sea and Things Fall Apart. That’s five books I read on my phone rather than watching cat GIFs and reading snarky memes on Facebook.

How can that be bad?

And now my own real estate company has finally introduced a document system that truly IS revolutionizing my industry. Lemme tell ya, real estate offices have been huge wasters of paper – making multiple copies of every damn document in a transaction. But consider this: Last week I received a purchase agreement that was created on a computer. The buyer had signed it electronically – no touch screen needed, just credentials sufficient to allow them to click-in a facsimile signature. I uploaded it to my company’s new document system, called Dotloop, added language saying we were submitting a counter offer and invited my seller to create an identity so he could sign electronically. We negotiated the entire offer with no party printing out a single piece of paper. The inspection, complete with photos was submitted electronically and negotiated using the same software.

Note that my seller was in Florida the entire time, is over 70 years old and a little intimidated by technology. But he had little trouble with the simple software instructions.

Until just weeks ago, when transactions were finished, Realtors in my company submitted thick paper files we were required by law to keep for several years. Now, we’ll submit an accumulated electronic file for approval, and it’s stored in “the cloud.” No paper. No file. No warehouse with years of files.

And I’m a “mobile agent.” My office is called, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone;” wherever I lay my laptop is my home. So I love this new paperless world. My desk is in my backpack and my office immediately appears wherever I sit down and open my phone or computer. But breezing through my company’s local office, I still pass other agent’s private offices that have desks and file cabinets and credenzas and I wonder what they keep in all that furniture. That’s the next revolution: why do we have this building and all this furniture? I meet my clients at Noble Coffee, Matteo’s, Starbucks, and at their kitchen tables and they can sign documents with their finger on a phone?

And just like a century ago when light bulbs were being bought by folks for the first time and their gas lamps were being pulled down and thrown in the trash, history is quietly taking place in my office this year. File cabinets are emptying and will start disappearing. We have no need for them in a paperless office. That old promise is finally being realized.

The most recent: The Great Electric Railway Swindle of 1893

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Thoughts On The Girl At The Gym With Big Boobs

From my exercise bike in the front row at the gym, I’ve come to recognize long-time employees of the fitness center and a broad assortment of people who come to work out at the same time everyday.

There’s a young woman who works in the gym office who always wears a low cut top that puts dramatic emphasis on her breasts. They appear to be under intense pressure, on the verge of leaping out. This is an important fashion theme for her because she dresses that way every single day. And in case your eyes aren’t automatically drawn to her cleavage she wears a sparkly necklace that glimmers right across her breasts – like twinkling lights that calls out, "Hey! Looky here!"

From my bike I have a clear view of her at her desk in the office area. I notice because I am a heterosexual male. It's harder for me to not notice than for others, perhaps because I lack self-control. Such is the curse of the youngest, pampered child in any family. We youngest children lack self-control because we were never much required to have any.

In fairness, I notice her as much as I notice the muscle-bound dude who works out with a knitted cap turned sideways on his head (man, that hat’s gotta stink!), and the anorexic-looking middle-aged ladies who hurry in like speed walkers to jerk and pump on the elliptical trainers as if running in fear from something the rest of us can't see.

I like to watch people.

Back to the woman with her breasts strategically on display. I wonder what happened to those clever t-shirts with an arrow pointing up and a line across the chest that read, "My eyes are up here." Time was when women took offense at men who stared at their breasts. I'm not offended by this gal’s fashion choices, I’m just an amateur urban anthropologist wondering how it all got this way. Have we reached a time when a woman might wear a hat with an arrow pointing down that reads, “My boobs are down there,” you know, just in case men look in her eyes too much in conversation.

There is an experience that can temper the tendency to ogle people's exposed bodies: Nude beaches. That sounds counter-intuitive, but trust me, it’s true. Traveling in Europe during and just after my college years, a couple times I found myself on nude beaches in the south of France. I’m a good, body-conscience Hoosier, so kept my swim trunks on, but still it’s initially disconcerting to find yourself on a beach towel that's touching the beach towel of a naked elderly man or woman, and terribly distracting to buy ice cream from a naked, lovely, shapely, beach vender. But funny thing is, you get desensitized after a couple hours until it’s just not so . . . well, interesting.

It’s kinda like opening a bag of freshly ground coffee. That first whiff is intoxicating, but if you keep going back for successive snorts, you can’t reproduce the initial rush. Your senses get satiated. It’s like that with naked women on a nude beach. By middle of the afternoon, when a pin-up worthy woman walks by, you’re shrugging, “yeah, whatever, big deal . . .” It’s probably how Tom Brady feels about seeing Gisele naked at this point in their marriage. And seeing so many nude people, people of varying ages and body shapes, you start to think, “Hey, we’re all just human beings. This is natural.” But being a Hoosier, I didn’t think it so much that I took my swim trunks off.

Which is perhaps why I’m constantly trying to hide my chest – what I call my “moobs.” I joke about my moobs. I'm an opinionated guy and I find my opinions go down better if the joke is on me fairly often.

You see, sometime in my 30s my ass disappeared and repositioned itself on my stomach and chest. It’s not an attractive body shape. I once had an elderly client tell me a story about a golfing buddy he referred to as, "No Ass." I asked why he was called No Ass, and this dear old man replied, laughing, "Because he had no ass!"

That stung a little. I told him flatly, "That's not funny."

If I gain 5 pounds, it’s not on my ass or thighs, it’s on the front of my body. Which explains the moobs. Which is why I’m at the gym. If I gain too much weight, I’ll have to wear a bro to keep my moobs from flopping around. Guys with my body shape don’t wear revealing, low-cut tank tops or those skin-tight shirts the muscle-bound dudes wear that stretch tight across their pecs and biceps and six packs and whatever else they’re always flexing in the mirror. Instead we wear male maternity clothing – oversized t-shirts, fleeces and flouncy flannels.

And a lot of black and vertical stripes. They’re slimming.

Which is why I’m a little self-conscience when my t-shirt gets sweat soaked at the gym. Maybe I should work out in one of those shirts with the upward arrow that says, “My eyes are up here.”

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