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“Dear Editor” Quick tips for writing letters and op-eds

March 1, 2006

Writing a letter or opinion piece for the press? “The first mistake people make is responding to something negative in another article,” says Steve Cook, NAR’s vice president of public relations. “You’re better off delivering the message you want to convey, instead of debating or criticizing what someone else said.” Here are tips from Cook on writing letters and opinion articles.

* Know the format in which you’re writing. Letters to the editor respond to a previous article; opinion articles are proactive ways to get your message out.

* When writing letters, remember that most people never read the article to which you are responding. Don’t repeat the negative—focus on what you wish the article had said.

* Start with a snappy headline and a good lead sentence—a new or striking fact that will catch readers’ attention.

* Use facts, examples and anecdotes that back up your message.

* Be brief—no more than 500 words.

* Avoid jargon and statistics.

* Speak to the public’s point of view.

One last tip: Even if the press doesn’t print them, post your letters and op-ed pieces on your Web site. By doing this, you will show members you’re working hard to set the record straight.


Letter to the Editor: Realty Rulings Raise Specter of S&L Crash
(published in American Banker Friday, February 17, 2006)

To the Editor:

It's too bad that American Banker readers who read Richard K. Kim's Viewpoint piece ["Believe It: Realty Rulings Break No Ground," Feb. 10] weren't told that Mr. Kim's law firm has represented Bank of America, a recipient of the OCC's letter, and that he is a past employee of the bank. Had Mr. Kim's relationship been disclosed, the reasons for his position would have been easier to comprehend.

Frankly, it's difficult for those of us who remember the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s to understand how the comptroller of the currency could possibly sanction national banks' owning and operating the very kinds of real estate projects that got thrifts - and the federal taxpayers - so deeply in trouble.

Last December the OCC blessed Bank of America's plans to build and own a $65 million Ritz-Carlton hotel in Charlotte to provide lodging for the bank's out-of-area visitors. The bank indicated only 37.5% of the 150 rooms would be used by persons related to its business. Bank officials expect the hotel to generate profits of as much as $2.6 million by its third year, according to The Charlotte Observer.

That same month the OCC also approved plans by PNC to build and own a $170 million mixed-use building in downtown Pittsburgh that would include ground-floor retail and restaurant space, five floors of hotel space for 158 rooms, and four floors of residential condominiums, which would be sold when completed. The bank expects to occupy only 25% of the office space and 10% of the hotel rooms, and sell all the condos.

Union Bank of California received OCC approval late last year for an equity investment in 70% of a wind energy project, which would allow the bank to take advantage of federal tax credits. The company intends to purchase wind turbines and land in order to generate electricity. Despite Union Bank's claim that the deal is structured as an investment rather than a loan only to take advantage of the tax credits, the OCC is not requiring the windmill company to repay the principal, and periodic payments are conditioned on revenues generated by the company.

Mr. Kim argues that long-standing law authorizes national banks to develop, manage, and own any "excess premises" as long as 20% of the facility is used by the bank, though he notes there is a long-standing precedent for numbers lower than 20%.

According to the FDIC, it insures financial institutions with more than 90,000 offices and branches in this country. Can we look forward to 90,000 applications from FDIC-insured institutions for bank-owned and -managed real estate investments? It's enough to make Charles Keating blush.

Chief Justice Earl Warren once said, "It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive." Before things get out of hand, perhaps Mr. Kim, Comptroller Dugan, and the national megabanks should pay attention to the spirit of federal laws that have sought for decades to maintain a clear distinction between banking and commerce.

Thomas M. Stevens
President
National Association of Realtors
Washington


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NAR Response to Smart Money's
"Ten Things Your Real Estate Broker Won't Tell You"

January 23, 2002

The Feb. 2002 issue of Smart Money included an article titled Ten Things Your Real Estate Broker Won't Tell You that's also recently been posted at AOL. The article contains gross inaccuracies and has sparked the ire of many members of the National Association of REALTORS®. The national association has sent a letter to the editor of Smart Money addressing the incorrect information conveyed in each of the 10 points the article presents. NAR's points are presented here:


1. Open Houses
The real estate professional knows, as the article points out, that only 2% of buyers first learned through an open house about the house they bought. The real estate pro also knows-but what that article failed to point out--is that only 28% of all buyers attend open houses, that 49% first learn from a real estate agent about the house they bought, and that 80% used a real estate agent in their home search.

An open house is not just a place for real estate professionals to meet potential clients, as the article states:. It takes two people to meet. Open houses are sometimes valuable for home seekers to meet real estate agents active in the neighborhood they're interested in.

2. Fees are negotiable.
The article states, "Brokers like to make it sound as if their fees are engraved in stone, but that's rarely the case…"

This statement is absolutely false and unfair. There is no set fee or commission. Fees are always negotiated. It is only reasonable that brokers offer different levels of fees for different levels of services.

3. Think you've had no offers?…there've been several.
This intimation of illegality is outrageous. The article gives lip service to the fact that brokers are obligated to legally tell about all offers, then says "but in reality, some don't."

Any brokers who behave in such a manner put their license and their status as REALTORS® at risk. NAR's Code of Ethics requires our members to report all offers to sellers. In many states, it's the law.

4. I talk behind your back.
The article states, "Legally, brokers are obligated to provide their sellers with any information that can help them get the best prices for their homes." That's true.

Likewise, it is the duty of buyer's agents to report information to buyers that can help them get the best price.

So, where's the beef? It's in the failure of the writer to understand and explain agency law and the fiduciary duties required under law by agents to perform on behalf of clients.

Buyer's agents have a strict level of confidentiality to the buyer. Fiduciary responsibility of an agent is to the client, whether seller or buyer. The obligation is to communicate all information to the client. It is the buyer's agent's obligation to protect buyer's information.

The example cited assumes that the buyer is working with the seller's agent. Today, buyers don't have to do that. NAR research shows that 46% of all buyers work with a buyer's agent. The proposition of buyer agency-based on who actually conveys money at closing-redefined the law of agency in most states. That information is readily available by visiting the Real Estate Buyers Agency Council web site at http://www.rebac.org.

5. Sometimes I forget whose side I'm on.
In most states, instances in which both the seller's agent and the buyer's agent work for the same company, the relationship of agent to client changes to disclosed dual agency. That means they represent neither buyer nor seller, but are facilitators to the transaction and obligated to be fair to all parties. In most buyers' agency agreements, these nuances are classified in writing.

NAR strongly recommends that buyers seeking a buyer's agent look for a real estate professional with the A.B.R designation (Accredited Buyer's Representative). These professional are members of the Real Estate Buyers Agency Council and been professionally trained and certified. There are more than 30,000 of them. Buyer's agency is one of the fast growing specialties in real estate.

6. I know zilch about zoning.
The article states, "Real estate agents love to suggest big ideas to prospective buyers…" That's a false characterization. To prove this claim, the writer cites a single incident and attempts to make it into a generality without any other support.

The section concludes with the admonition, "Check with your local zoning commission." Your conclusion is actually where trained real estate professionals begin. Of course, a buyer should take the time to find a real estate agent who is active and knowledgeable about the neighborhood the buyer is interested in. That kind of professional will direct the consumer to the proper county authority to get the information needed about zoning.

7. Termite and other inspections.
The articles states that a home inspector is a good idea-then says so long as he's "not in cahoots with the broker." That's an outrageous statement.

Prospective buyers have every right to select the inspector they want to inspect a property, and they would be wise to select one with no conflict of interest. Of course, a written report is absolutely necessary. Buyers are under no obligation to accept any of the inspectors the broker recommends. In many cases, a home inspector will allow the buyer -with permission from the seller-to accompany him in the inspection. In most states, property disclosure is obligatory, and termite inspections are an integral part of mortgage finance approval.

8. I'm not a lawyer, but I play one in your house.
As every person is different and every house is different, so is every contract. Discretion to amend boilerplate agreements is essential in the world of business. Some states require that a lawyer review the contract and/or be present at closing. To have the contract reviewed by a lawyer before you sign is sound advice; to link this with the preposterous example that a real estate broker masquerades as a lawyer shows a lack of good judgment.

9. My Web site is a dead end.
A common flaw, the article says, is a "bait and switch" ploy used by agents who leave a property on their site that's already been sold. That ignores the fact that this is simply bad business. If a buyer gets upset with that tactic, he'll go somewhere else. A broker who doesn't post the latest listings won't be in business long. Most reputable professionals update their Web sites frequently, sometimes daily.

Keep in mind: What's available at the commonly used Web sites is only a sketch of what's available on the local MLS.

10. You may not need me at all.
This is absolutely false and totally irresponsible. At first blush, the writer encourages FSBOs to try to save a buck by cutting corners; and at worst, the advice given could put a seller's life in danger, and yet that is not addressed.

If the writer had checked the latest research, he wouldn't have fallen into the FSBO trap.

The point is that the FSBO ("For Sale By Owners") trend has reversed itself in the past few years. NAR survey data beginning in the late 1980s showed that FSBOs ranged from 10% to 20% of the market, with higher percentages in hot markets.

But during the record-breaking homesale years from 1996-99, while sales were skyrocketing, a downward trend in FSBO was detected. In 1997, FSBO stood at 18% of the market but slipped to 16% in 1999, as sales continued to rise. (The results from 2001 in this biannual survey are not in yet.) That trend reversal, expected by real estate experts, was due to two conditions: length of sales time and the complexity of the sale process.

Bottom line: FSBOs need help. But your article ignores this.
Further, the FSBO could even be endangered because of a lack of professional security screening. FSBOs have no idea which buyers are bona fide and which have other interests: the idle curiosity shoppers, those who are comparing your asking price to what they paid for their home, and the outright thieves who want to cadge your possessions while you are looking the other way. Or worse.

Many FSBOs have said that the tension alone of having to deal with people in their homes was very stressful. Others were not ready to handle the negative comments from visitors; homeselling is an emotional experience, and third-party objectivity in dealing with complaints is extremely helpful. And still others point out that a significant problem was not having a middle person to negotiate.

The original SmartMoney article can be found at:
http://aol.smartmoney.com/consumer/index.cfm?story=tenthings-february02


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Editor
New York Times Magazine
March 6, 2006


To the Editor:

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s vicious attack on real estate agents (“Endangered Species,” New York Times Magazine, March 5) carries so many errors of fact and false assumptions that there is insufficient space here to put the record straight.

The authors could have lifted their thesis from Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, published a decade ago. He predicted the Internet would reduce the number of real estate agents in half, but instead, there are about a third more members of the National Association of REALTORS® today. And the percentage of home sellers who choose to hire professionals continues to rise, despite the fact that we have just witnessed what may prove to be the greatest seller’s market in history.

What happened? First, the real estate industry adapted to the Information Age and changed the way we work to meet consumers’ needs. That’s why studies have consistently shown that home buyers who use the Internet to search for a home are more likely to work with a professional than those who don’t. The industry also spawned new business models and gave consumers more choices in how they work with professionals.

Second, what real estate agents do is very different from travel agents or securities brokers. Every piece of real estate is unique, the transaction process is complex and, if you will excuse me for pointing out the obvious, real estate is the original bricks and mortar business.

Finally, the plain fact is that hiring a professional pays off. The typical home represented by a professional last year sold for 16 percent more than those sold without a professional’s help. That profit more than pays for the agent’s commission. Millions of homeowners know it, and that’s why they will continue to call on experienced real estate professionals.


Sincerely,


Thomas M. Stevens CRB CRS GRI
2006 President,
National Association of REALTORS®

Read the full New York Times article at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/05/magazine/305wwln_freakonomics.1.html
(free registration required)

Read more about the letter in REALTOR® Magazine Online at http://www.realtor.org/rmodaily.nsf/pages/News2006030801


****
June 16, 2005


Mr. Tom Toucher
Executive Producer, Today Show
NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 374E
New York, NY 10112-0002

Dear Mr. Lauer:

On the June 16th Today Show Professors Dubner and Levitt reached some conclusions that are based on false assumptions about the real estate industry

They assume that real estate sales are a one-time transaction in which real estate agents don’t have to go the extra mile. That's simply not the case Most clients are obtained through referrals and many buyers will hire the same Realtor for repeat business. Home transactions are not in fact a one-time affair. People move once every seven years on average, and referrals and repeat business are an important source of business for real estate agents. It’s in an agent’s economic self-interest to look beyond the immediate profit to a long-term relationship.

They also said that agents often advise sellers to accept an early, unnecessarily low offer to close the sale quickly so the agent can move on to other properties, but that agents tend to hold out for better prices when selling their own property. However, in the case of the average consumer transaction, it’s frequently to the advantage of the consumer to make a transaction in a timely manner, due to family and personal factors. It is a fact that price concessions often become deeper the longer a home stays on the market. Sellers needing to move may have to make a price concession with each passing week. In the practical world, if agents were trying to make a higher commission, seems to me they’d leave the property on the market longer to get the higher price Levitt thinks is forthcoming.

Professor Levitt may have misunderstood the real reasons why real estate agent-owned properties—a very tiny portion of the home sales market—tend to stay on the market for a longer period than owner-occupants’ properties. It is a common acceptance that a majority of homes owned by real estate agents are second or investor homes. With investor properties, the seller can usually wait for the best price and not worry about factors such as job transfers or school year timing. In that kind of sale, the type of home is driving the results and not the status of the owners.

Professor Levitt overlooks the obligation of real estate agents to exercise due diligence on behalf of clients. Doing due diligence is an agent’s legal obligation, as well as a moral and professional one. In fact, the National Association of Realtors was one of the first trade associations to adopt a code of ethics. NAR members are required to receive training in our Code of Ethics and review this subject matter on a periodic basis. A major emphasis in this Code is the obligation of due diligence which the agent owes to clients.

Professor Levitt’s rush to endorse reduced service and discounted sales models overlooks why sales by full-service brokers remain so popular, an omission that misleads your viewers There are a large number of reduced service and reduced fee discount sales approaches, and it is a fact that most are soon replaced or discontinued, due to flaws in their business model. In a market economy, a better business model survives over the long run. If the services provided by real estate professionals are not valuable, then the demand for them would surely diminish over time. The fact that owner-facilitated and limited, flat-fee sales cannot gain market share is itself a confirmation that agents are providing value-added services.

In light of the importance of these issues to millions of your viewers, we would like to offer the Today Show our chief economist, David Lereah, or our president, Al Mansell, to discuss them.


Sincerely,


Stephen K. Cook
Vice President, Public Affairs