For years, the real estate pros have worried over millennial homebuyers like so many doting parents. Will they ever settle down? I hope the housing bust didn’t sour them on the idea of ownership entirely. Maybe we should build some laundry nooks.
Last month, a 30-year-old marketing executive named Kyle Reyes took to ActiveRain, an online community for real estate professionals, to complain that Americans in his age group had lost the art of strong eye contact and a proper handshake. “It's an entire generation that doesn't know how to communicate,” Reyes wrote.
Mumbling millennials have real estate agents worried—and for good reason. In a profession where success depends on gaining strangers' trust and winning word-of-mouth referrals, older agents are scared they won't be able to relate. “There’s a huge disconnect,” said Reyes, president of Manchester, Conn.-based Silent Partner Marketing, a company that has advised real estate brokerages on appealing to millennials. “I’m seeing a slow generational shift towards younger agents.”
His blog post, which was about modern modes of communication in general, not just the conversational skills of young home buyers, struck a chord. “Tweets, short cryptic emails, texts, etc don't convey deep communication when it is needed,” Leslie Campos, a Safford (Ariz.)-based real estate agent, complained in the comments.
“With the Millennial, they don't speak, they don't smile,” wrote Lenn Harley, a broker serving Northern Virginia and Maryland, in a follow-up post.
By now, the hand-wringing over entitled, independent, Internet-addled millennials has played out in most corners of the U.S. economy. But millennials—usually defined as people born after 1980—have a particularly strong hold on the real estate industry’s collective psyche. That’s partly because in recent years, first-time homebuyers have been notably slow to join the housing recovery. The recession and student debt loads made it hard for young Americans to save money, and a tendency to start families later in life has reduced the urgency to buy homes. Nonetheless, agents know it's crucial to learn to do business with young people: A 30-year-old is likely to buy and sell more homes in the decades to come than a woman twice her age.
That’s a potential problem for the average agent, who is 56 years old, according to the National Association of Realtors. “Everyone wants to be treated as valuable,” says Jason Dorsey, 36, chief strategy officer at the Center for Generational Kinetics, a research and consulting firm. “For my dad, that would mean leaving him a detailed voice message. For me, it’s knowing not to leave a VM, but to send a text message instead.”
Dorsey has been traveling the real estate conference circuit for years, counseling agents on how to make themselves accessible to younger buyers. He’s not the only one doling out advice. NAR publishes a Field Guide to Millennial Home Buyers on its website, where it compiles articles and research on the mythical beasts. Earlier this month, the industry publication Inman News posted a blog post promising to divulge the secrets of the millennial soul. (Read it for the thought bubbles in the story art: If middle-aged agents really believe young homebuyers are saying things like “Google FAIL,” there really is a generational divide.)
Most of the advice seems pretty obvious. Agents should answer e-mails quickly and post photos of themselves with young buyers on their websites; also, they should demonstrate that a real, live agent knows things that websites such as Zillow and Trulia can’t know.
Steve Goddard, 68, manager of Re/Max Estate Properties in Manhattan Beach, Calif., says the fear of being replaced by younger models and new technology is constant. “We think about them all the time,” he said. To keep up, he answers e-mails around the clock and tries to get buyers invested in a personal relationship. Beyond that, it helps to keep a sunny attitude. "You’re only as young as you think you are.”