The blogger brigade

Times Staff Writer

Back in 2006, which in the real estate blogo- sphere is pretty much akin to the dawn of creation, Real Estate Undressed blogger Larry Cragun had this to say to the American home-buying public:

"There is a new wave growing. Agents that blog. We believe you will eventually only use an agent that blogs. Why? Because . . . if they blog about a community they must know it. . . . You also learn more about them as they blog."

Cragun's advice must have been heeded, since it seems that every agent and their brother now has a blog. And if anecdotal evidence is to be believed -- nobody actually tracks this -- agents who are still selling today are agents who blog.

Take Diane Cohn, who started Reno Realty Blog two years ago. An agent with Chase International, she's been selling real estate for just three years and last year closed 21 transactions totaling almost $13 million in a declining Reno market. This in a place where the median home price is about $285,000.

"About 75% of those clients came from the blog," she said. "The other 25% were previous clients or referrals from them." And she deals primarily with families looking for principal homes, not investors or second-home seekers.

Is her experience just a flash in the pan? It doesn't appear so.

There's also Teresa Boardman, a St. Paul, Minn., agent whose www.stpaulrealestateblog.com regularly makes everyone's short list of great agent blogs.

Boardman started blogging two years ago. She intentionally hyper-localizes her blog to her market and posts photos and jazzy graphics that she generates.

She says that in the current Twin Cities market, "if I didn't have this blog, I wouldn't be in business." Boardman, with Keller Williams Integrity Realty, adds: "Most of my business today comes from my blog."

Talking via cellphone from a New York City taxi as she was en route to speak to realty agents about successful blogging, she said most industry blogs are too mundane and offer generic buying and selling tips available anywhere. In her blog, she writes about architecture, local developments and life in the various St. Paul neighborhoods. "A blog needs a hook," she said.

Athol Kay, a Prudential agent in Bristol, Conn., has certainly found his. Kay has garnered national attention with his Bad MLS Photo of the Day. Although critics dismiss it as just a gimmick, Kay is quite passionate in his cause: to rid the world of bad real estate photos that ultimately cost unsuspecting sellers money.

"I try to keep it as light and fun as possible," but, he said, an agent's incompetency with a camera can cost a client.

"If the agent straight up stole a $5,000 deposit or something, that would be a clear illegal act," Kay said. "But butcher the photos and have the house languish on the market for months or force huge price reductions . . . that's just bad luck for the seller."

Kay, from New Zealand, has been blogging for about as long as he's been selling real estate in Connecticut -- since October 2006. His site, www.reagentinct.com/, gets about 1,200 unique visitors a week.

Another agent with a hook is Marlow Harris, whose 360 Digest blog is written from Seattle. Harris, a fanatical Elvis fan, freely admits that she has a "never-ending quest to put Elvis and real estate into the same post." And she does so with regular success.

How's it been for business? Howling like a hound dog, apparently. Although the popular 360 Digest is aimed at realty agents, her other blogs, Seattle Twist and Unusual Life, focus on potential clients.

Harris finds that a "soft connection" brings the most results. Her unusuallife.com features "unusual homes, amazing architecture and interesting people," and although she's not actually selling real estate there, she features people who might buy or sell at some point.

"I consider this a more gentle practice of real estate," she said, "a more Zen-like approach to a business that is sometimes harsh and brutish."

But unlike Kay's and Harris', many agent blogs seem to lack the pizazz and originality needed to thrust them into the national limelight.

Still, a blog can be a place for buyers and sellers to get to know an agent without having to step out from behind the curtain of anonymity. They can watch from afar and determine whether they "like" the agent and what he or she has to say. When they are comfortable and ready to make a move, they pick up the phone and generally don't need to be pushed into a transaction, agents say.

Cyber round-table

Although some blogs are marketing tools, others are a forum for the thorns in the realty industry's side -- which is where most of the cyber-fur flies.

The housing-bubble bloggers are, in general, people who predicted that the high prices of homes -- the bubble -- wouldn't last forever. Today, they offer a gloomy picture of how low the housing market may fall and do so with a certain glee over having been right.

Dust-ups between the bubble bloggers and the real estate industry bloggers are frequent, and disputes fall along predictable lines: Agents put a more positive spin on the market; bubble bloggers predict economic catastrophe. The two groups distrust each other, and some bloggers claim to fear repercussions from the other side. Few would disagree that bubble bloggers are angry victors whose "I told you so" message is often delivered with a cyber finger-poke in the chest.

The loudest bubble blog, by most accounts, is HousingPANIC, run by someone who wants to be identified only as Keith, who says he sold his home in Phoenix, which he described as "housing bubble central," in 2006 and moved to London. He has since left London "to travel the road."

Tamer in tone and written by 43-year-old Ben Jones is the Housing Bubble. Jones started the blog in 2004 when cracks first started appearing in the sub-prime market. He dismisses some of the bubble bloggers as "crazy" and prefers not to be associated with them.

Written out of northern Arizona, www.thehousingbubbleblog.com can get 40,000 to 50,000 unique visitors on any given day depending on the news, Jones said. It includes a group of regular posters -- some grateful to the blog for persuading them not to buy, others taunting and vindictive-sounding about those who did. The blog accepts ads and has, in fact, become Jones' day job.

And then there is Housing Doom -- written from Austin, Texas, by Debi Averett, who sold her Phoenix-area home "in 15 minutes" when she thought her husband had a job out of state. The job offer fell through just days before escrow closed, and the buyer held the couple to the contract. Averett and her family wound up renting and, given the rapid escalation of housing prices in the area, couldn't afford to buy again.

Widely credited with building the real estate blogo- sphere's infrastructure is 31-year-old Dustin Luther -- whose Rain City Guide about the Seattle real estate market was the model for many respected agent and broker sites.

Luther, who now lives in and runs the site from Calabasas, created it as an inexpensive marketing tool for his wife, a former Seattle realty agent.

What makes it unique is that it has topic experts blogging their opinions. It quickly became a go-to site with a national audience.

Phoenix realty agent Greg Swann, founder of the popular Bloodhound Blog, says Luther's effect on the real estate industry can't be minimized.

"His Rain City Guide set the foundation for the rest of us," Swann said. Bloodhound Blog's focus is national and the audience is the industry, but the site, which sees 1,200 unique hits a day, definitely has a nose for the news and is written with some bite.

An excerpt: "Are you looking for a mission statement? . . . BloodhoundBlog is everything you wish were in Realtor magazine -- but isn't."

The latest rage in the realty blog world is social networking sites. Think YouTube or Facebook but about real estate.

In that arena, Bigger Pockets deserves a mention. It includes a blog written in Denver by Joshua Dorkin, 32, a onetime real estate agent in L.A. Dorkin showed what people connecting on the Web could do. Back in 2006, he blogged about a Ponzi scheme involving Atlanta-based Pinnacle Development Partners LLC. Word spread like blogfire, and soon complete strangers from across the country were coming together on Bigger Pockets and talking to one another.

Making a connection

The site became the informal home of Pinnacle's victims. S. Gregory Hays, the court-appointed receiver in the resulting court case, was able to post notices to the investors on the site to keep them updated. In September 2007, Pinnacle head Gene A. O'Neal was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for defrauding investors of nearly $20 million.

And then there are the blogs that exist to entertain. They report on celebrity transactions with the passion of People magazine and E!. And once again, the anonymity of the Internet may be a key.

Your Mama, proprietor of the celebrity-realty transaction blog the Real Estalker, isn't a mama at all, but a man. Mark David -- who goes by his first and middle names -- covers Hollywood like white on rice, although the blog is actually generated from an apartment in Manhattan's Chelsea district. Talk about ripping away the curtain from the Wizard of Oz.

But no matter, Your Mama provides a steady stream of scoops, those hard-to-come-by interior photos of celebrity homes and caustic comments on how the rich and famous live and sell their properties.

Mark David admits that the blog has exceeded his expectations and seems to have taken on a life of its own. It's led to other paid writing assignments and TV appearances.

Competitor -- and that's using the term loosely because the two blogs engage in a regular love fest, congratulating each other on their entries -- Big Time Listings (www.bergproperties.com/blog/.com) has more of the same but with less attitude.

Throw in Luxist -- an online sort-of Architectural Digest of beautiful homes for sale across the nation, some non-celebrity-owned -- and you have the realty world's online celebrity triumvirate.

Even some agents have caught the "amuse them and they will come" fever.

Kris Berg's San Diego Home Blog is a "must read" because of her Erma Bombeck-like voice.

She once blogged about shopping in a brick-and-mortar bookstore that was out of the books she wanted and realizing that online booksellers are always stocked: "We departed like two people who just remembered they left their children on the stove. . . ."

Her point of the post was, of course, real estate. The brick-and-mortar bookseller was yesterday's storefront realty office and the Internet is where you'll find your housing needs met today -- most likely on someone's blog.

ann.brenoff@latimes.com

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