While real estate portals like Zillow and Trulia have long had their own economists providing insights to consumers about the industry, a similar leading figure interfacing with the public has been missing from realtor.com®. Under the agreement between the National Association of REALTORS® and Move, Inc., operator of realtor.com®, the real estate site has been barred from hiring its own economist. But that changed in February, when NAR — with its own stable of economists — gave realtor.com® the green light to go on the hunt for its own economist, saying at the time that “two heads are better than one.”
And last month, the hunt ended: Realtor.com® hired Jonathan Smoke, it’s first economist in its 18-year history. Smoke, who came to realtor.com® after serving six years as chief economist, senior vice president, and other executive roles at real estate marketing firm Hanley Wood, immediately caught the eye of the media. What would he bring to the table that economists at realtor.com®’s competitors haven’t already? How would he be different? And how will his presence impact NAR, which already has powerhouse economist Lawrence Yun?
REALTOR® Magazine chatted with Smoke to find out all this and more.
REALTOR® Magazine: Why was realtor.com® an appealing choice for your next career move?
Smoke: I always have been motivated by challenges, but I also measure my success by the impact I can make on the organization and stakeholders around me. I’m in my 20th year focusing on housing, and realtor.com® and Move provide an incredible opportunity to learn, do something challenging, and also have a positive impact on the industry.
You’ll be tasked with being the public face of realtor.com®. What should its voice be?
I’m still in the learning mode to understand all of our constituents’ needs, but I know that it is critical to be authentic and capable of conveying meaning to consumers and the professionals who serve them. I believe it’s my job and my mission to promote understanding about what is going on and why.
How do you see realtor.com®’s role in the real estate industry evolving as competition with Zillow and Trulia (which Zillow is acquiring) heats up?
Part of the reason that I considered this “move to Move” is that I believe that realtor.com® is the industry. I see our role as helping all stakeholders improve the overall experience of buying and selling a home that inherently leverages REALTORS® to deliver the value only they can provide.
What information do you plan to supply to consumers that they can’t already get from competitors?
I’m just getting started surveying what we can produce, and I need to hear from consumers and REALTORS® first-hand about what is missing and needed that no company is producing today. Certainly, I will continue our unparalleled commitment to accuracy, so some of what we may provide may simply be the assurance that the metrics our audiences see are accurate and timely. A home purchase or sale is an extremely important transaction in a person’s life, so we need to ensure we’re helping consumers and the REALTORS® serving them make the best decisions by supplying the best insights possible.
There have been criticisms of the “now is the right time to buy or sell” message that many economists have touted. Do you agree with that messaging, or will you take a different approach to communicating housing data?
You will come to appreciate that I’m not your typical economist. I’m known for helping folks cut through the noise and understand what is going on. As a result, I often have different views than my counterparts.
While many economists regularly talk about housing because it’s so central to the economy, few economists actually have real, detailed data helping them to know what’s really going on. My experience has been grounded with a real-world, street mentality — but always driven by data. Two of the most important philosophies I hold dear are, first, that all housing is local — and hyper-local at that — and that behind each buying decision is a household with its own context for what’s right or best at that given time as well as for the future. And secondly, fundamentally, life drives housing. Overall market conditions can influence the volume of activity, the balance of supply and demand, and the resulting price behavior, but it’s the neighborhood level of households forming and going through life events that determine the need to buy or sell. I’ve personally never made a decision to buy or sell a home based on what the talking heads are saying, so I’m never going to presume that I can tell the entire market that they should be buying or selling.
I believe in the long-term value of owning a home, and that frames my view. I also believe in the role of the REALTOR® to counsel the buyer or seller on the current market dynamics. I’m a data geek, but I know the limitations of econometric models and valuation models and the underlying housing data on which those models are based. My mission is to create insights that help us see what is happening and what’s driving the market at macro and local levels, but ultimately it’s the role of the REALTOR® to provide counsel to the buyer or seller about the right time — in that neighborhood — for that consumer to buy or sell.
The National Association of REALTORS® has Lawrence Yun as its chief economist. How will your approach to presenting housing data be different than his?
Lawrence Yun is an incredible economist and spokesperson for the research NAR produces. I will be collaborating with Lawrence and his team to find ways to provide insights that leverage what we can see with realtor.com®, and to explore innovations to leverage the collective data we have or create together to inform consumers and REALTORS® about the housing market. I’m sure our styles of presenting data will be different, and we may have some differing opinions occasionally, but I know that working together will benefit the industry and consumers.
Where do you see the housing market going in the foreseeable future? Is there anything happening in the market that people don’t know about and should?
Overall, I see the market in recovery mode and moving into a much more normal scenario where you can make sense of what is going on by understanding local market fundamentals. But this also is a very interesting time of transition with major demographic waves combining. Incredibly tight credit conditions still exist, and that limits demand. We must pay attention to household formation, home ownership, and consumer confidence as they fuel demand, and we need to be aware of threats to housing finance. But happily, we are back in a scenario of positive job growth, home-price appreciation, and strong consumer confidence, all leading to a scenario of robust demand in the future.
What do you make of realtor.com®’s move last year to include non-REALTOR® listings in its database?
I believe it’s great for the consumer to have an even more comprehensive view of housing options on realtor.com® with the additional rental and new-home data. With a more complete consumer audience, we can create better gauges of demand and preferences, and better track how demand is shifting.
What does the term REALTOR® mean to you?
A REALTOR® is the true professional at the center of a home purchase or sale. The REALTOR® designation and the REALTOR® Code of Ethics behind that designation provide a much-needed assurance to consumers — and, indeed, to all industry stakeholders — that each transaction, each listing, and each interaction involving a REALTOR® is founded on the highest integrity. To me, an economist associated with that trademark, it means the heart of what I can analyze is truth. I couldn’t ask for a better place to seek meaning and have a positive impact.