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Help-U-Sell leads the consumer revolution in real estate

By Stephanie Andre

RISMEDIA, Feb. 5, 2007-"Agents and brokers get paid a lot of money for a small amount of work."

"I think of real estate agents as ‘money-hungry'."

"Real estate agents are only concerned with their commission."

That's how David, from St. Louis, Shannon from San Diego, and Leonard from Old Bridge, New Jersey, answered.

The question? "What do you think about the current commission structure for real estate agents?"

And they were not alone. David, Shannon and Leonard are potential home sellers and buyers, along with dozens of other consumers around the country who participated in independent consumer focus groups regarding residential real estate services, and their answers were not atypical.

Nearly every participant interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with the traditional commission structure, and frustration with the costs associated with the entire real estate transaction. Each of the consumers interviewed had previously used a "traditional" real estate company for their home transactions-and more than 95% of those surveyed said that they would use an alternative to the traditional real estate organizations in their next home transaction-a testament to today's real estate-savvy home buyers and home sellers.

"Most traditional companies will never do consumer research related to the way consumers view real estate service pricing," says Steve Ozonian, chairman of the board, Help-U-Sell Real Estate. "We were pleased that nearly every consumer we interviewed was ready for an alternative way to pay for the real estate transaction."

This research, conducted by an independent research company, validated that today's real estate consumer is looking for a company to drive change in the way that they buy and sell real estate. One such company is Help-U-Sell, driving change for many years while the gap between the power of the traditional broker and the consumer has been closing.

One of the strongest pioneers of the alternative model in real estate, offering full service for a set fee, is something that fuels Help-U-Sell, and it is these types of consumer comments that allow Help-U-Sell to continue to be among the fastest growing real estate companies. When you talk to Help-U-Sell brokers and agents, they view their pricing structure on par with doctors, lawyers, accountants and any other professionally licensed service provider you can think of, who charge a fair, set fee for services rendered. This consumer validation of their model put an emphatic exclamation mark on what turned out to be a very strong year for Help-U-Sell despite the much-publicized market pressures throughout the real estate industry. It was a year in which Help-U-Sell saved consumers over $400 million on their real estate transactions, as compared to the traditional 6% commission.

Industry Takes Notice

According to A Critical Assessment of the Standard, Traditional, Residential Real Estate Broker Commission Rate Structure, published by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, "The traditional, straight percentage-of-sale-price residential real estate brokerage commission does not serve the interests of either home buyers or sellers…The traditional commission rate structure has become structurally unsound and should be rebuilt."

Help-U-Sell's set-fee business model has been based on the ideal that the traditional real estate commission structure is outdated and provides no correlation to the level and amount of services provided. In 2006, the real estate industry began to open its eyes to this very point.

According to a report by Inman News entitled, The State of Real Estate Commissions: 2006, "Sellers may not be seeing the value in agents' traditional commission rates because they don't see overt marketing activities that make an agent's services unique and justify the expense. Sellers may not be seeing the value in agents' traditional rates because they may not understand how rates are established without a clear correlation to costs undertaken by the agent on the seller's behalf."

One could say that Help-U-Sell was ahead of its time with this business model. But the fact remains that the National Association of Realtors reports that 77% of home buyers start their home search on the Internet. With this increased access to real estate information, home buyers and home sellers are more empowered in the transaction and are beginning to understand that the commission structure is not necessarily a fair price for services rendered. Consequently, they are gravitating toward alternative ways of buying and selling a home.

While saving consumers money, Help-U-Sell's model has essentially revitalized the future of the industry. Help-U-Sell allows the consumer to participate in the transaction if they'd like, and still have access to full services-as well as all the advice and counsel of a real estate professional.

Consumers today are accustomed to flexibility and service. Take, for example, if a homeowner puts their home up for sale with a traditional brokerage company, and a neighbor says they always wanted that particular model of home and buys it. The agent listing the house has essentially done nothing except provide a yard sign, and yet will still collect their 6% commission when the home closes. If that same homeowner uses the Help-U-Sell model, because the home seller basically found the buyer, the seller would be charged only a low set fee to see the transaction through to closing, thus saving thousands of dollars.

Ozonian is known for being a staunch supporter of the real estate consumer experience, as is evidenced by his previous success with Realtor.com and other organizations, which is what makes him a great fit to lead Help-U-Sell's efforts. As Allan Dalton, president of Move.com's Real Estate Division, notes, "It should come as no surprise to the real estate industry that Steve Ozonian would remain at the forefront of developing consumer-oriented systems. He has always remained committed and dedicated to effectively meeting the needs of brokers, Realtors and consumers."

Transparency

"Information without obligation" has long been a staple of the Help-U-Sell landscape. Years ago, when traditional real estate agents were essentially handcuffing the MLS book to themselves so as not to leak the information, Help-U-Sell brokers were providing a "Free Weekly List" of available homes for sale. While the Free Weekly List has been replaced by a cutting-edge adoption of best-in-class technology and Web sites, there is still a lack of transparency among the real estate industry. While the industry provides a transparent look at listings, there's still a sense of secrecy about how the commission charged equates to the hard costs of the professional services rendered.

Consumers understand with Help-U-Sell that they'll receive all the advice and professional counsel they need throughout the entire transaction-every buyer and seller knows up front exactly what full service means, and what their broker is going to provide for one low set fee that correlates to the services provided, not to their homes' value. The burning question for consumers is, "Why does it cost so much to sell my home?" This is why Help-U-Sell is poised to seize the opportunities ahead.

Help-U-Sell took transparency even further in 2006, by becoming the first real estate network to adopt Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions' Cyberhomes home evaluation tool, as part of the company's Web site offering. Renamed the "Help-U-Sell Home e-Valuator," this tool is a comprehensive database of home evaluation and appraisal data that boasts detailed property information and estimates on over 100 million properties nationwide. Cyberhomes was built on the premise of providing consumers with transparent access to the information that the homeownership industry has had for years, which made it a natural fit for Help-U-Sell.

While still in beta-test format on the Web site, consumers have responded positively, and it is driving significant traffic to several franchisee Web sites.

Reaching More Consumers

With nearly 1,000 offices throughout the U.S., encompassing 46 states, Help-U-Sell has established a presence in many higher-priced markets, such as those in Southern California, South Florida, and other various resort, vacation and upscale communities throughout the U.S. Help-U-Sell will offer specialized programs in these locations; the company will be launching an upper-end marketing program in the first quarter of 2007.

"For over 30 years, Help-U-Sell has been very successful in its own niche, but we now feel like the time is right to expand our offering to those offices that are dealing with a more affluent client," says Laura Buser, senior vice president of marketing.

Help-U-Sell plans to attack these markets with a new name for its program, new yard signs and marketing materials intended to attract clients in higher-end and resort areas.
Adds Buser, "We are excited about this program because our set-fee model can mean a significant savings to the home sellers in these markets. When you're talking about higher-priced houses, it's not atypical that the savings realized by Help-U-Sell clients can total tens of thousands of dollars."

The Help-U-Sell Real Estate System

"While saving the consumer money on the real estate transaction is clearly our driving force," says Bryan Drakulich, Help-U-Sell chief operating officer, "providing our existing and new franchisees with the tools to be successful is also a major part of what we do." Help-U-Sell added a significant number of new offices to their network in 2006, the owners of which recognized the needs and wants of the consumer, the powerful marketing and Web presence of Help-U-Sell and the opportunity to be a successful entrepreneur. But the question that Drakulich and his team asked themselves was, "Is that enough?" Their conclusion: In today's real estate climate, it's not even close.

So, to ensure that the Help-U-Sell brokers are on the cutting edge of the industry, the company has developed the Help-U-Sell Real Estate System, which explains, demonstrates and teaches what it means to be a Help-U-Sell broker/owner, how to be successful and what tools are available. As Buser puts it, "This System is not a trendy program or a brochure that we send out. It is the way we do business-the way we organize the company for success."

The System contains several components, including sections related to marketing, advertising, public relations, training, technology, operations and networking. New offices to the Help-U-Sell network will adopt the system immediately upon opening their office, while for existing offices, the system becomes a more organized way to run their business and understand the tools available to them.

"Our brokers, especially those new to Help-U-Sell, should be focusing on listing and selling homes and saving their clients money," says Ozonian. "They shouldn't have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to order yard signs, how to use the Web site or where to get training for their agents. This System puts all that information and more right at their fingertips, in an easy-to-use manner."

Claiming the Future

Nobody knows what the future of real estate is going to hold. Will prices stabilize in 2007? Will inventories remain on the rise? Will interest rates come down even further? Every prognosticator has a different theory about the market, but only one thing is really for certain: whether the market is strong or weak, whether prices are high or low, Help-U-Sell is going to be there to save home buyers and home sellers money. But that's not it-Help-U-Sell is taking the steps necessary to be a force in the real estate industry for years to come. "We have the best model and some of the most knowledgeable brokers in the industry to build upon," says Drakulich. "We are laser-focused in 2007 on improving our service levels and growing the network even more."

In addition to the upper-tier marketing program, the Help-U-Sell Real Estate System and the international expansion, the company is also launching a brand new Web site in the first quarter of 2007-an extremely dynamic and user-friendly Web site that will house over 3 million listings nationwide.

With a consumer-centric, dynamic business model combined with aggressive growth plans and award-winning technology, Help-U-Sell is truly poised to seize the opportunities ahead and claim the future. With the commission structure finally coming under fire by consumers and industry watchdogs after years of going uncontested, and many traditional companies beginning to offer a set-fee option, Help-U-Sell has become a significant driver of industry trends, while at the same time remaining focused on the best interests of the consumer. This is an equation that no other company has the capacity or flexibility to offer in today's real estate climate. And it is why Help-U-Sell expects to be successful for years to come. RE

[From Sidebar]

International Expansion

Help-U-Sell debuted internationally in 2006 with the opening of 14 offices in South Africa. With the strong interest in the Help-U-Sell system, there are plans to add additional franchises in the cities of Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and Cape Town, which will mean that Help-U-Sell will have a presence in four South African provinces within the next six months. The company recognized that the real estate landscape in South Africa is not much different from that in the U.S.

According to Ozonian, venturing into South Africa is the first step in a much wider global expansion-with offices opening soon in the Philippines and China, and plans for expansion into Europe and Canada in the coming months.

"The real estate market is growing and changing globally," says Ozonian. "And we want to be on the forefront of bringing the set-fee real estate model to a worldwide community."

Source: RISMedia's Real Estate magazine, February 2007

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