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By Jonathan Lansner
Congratulations on your new assignment. You’ve been assigned to a coverage area that can potentially touch everyone in your organization’s audience.
Real estate is often pigeon-holed in many news organizations as a niche beat. Depending on your news organization’s needs and desires, there’s great potential for real estate to be a newsroom leader in many markets. Face it, everybody needs a roof over their head – even local businesses. It’s your job to tell great tales of how the market for those roofs is evolving.
Don’t be afraid of the challenge. Rather, view “roofs” as a grand opportunity.
As a starting point, let’s look at the key constituencies you will likely serve and/or interact with to get the information you need to succeed. It’s an eclectic group – with changing opinions and tastes – so be prepared to have an ever-evolving database of sources.
This is also a beat where many sources create many reports tracking many of the intricacies of real-estate life. Yes, you better bone up on your math skills. But it also means there’s often a number to prove – or disprove – a given thesis. One of your goal is to make sure there’s a LOCAL number, too.
Let’s get busy.
HOMEOWNERS AND WANNABE HOMEOWNERS
It’s the American dream, but it’s oftly expensive. This prime audience relishes everything from market trends to news about property taxes to trends in home design and home repair to basic information about the process of buying and selling and how it may be changing. Don’t forget things like insurance and/or what the impact of new highways, flight patterns or shopping centers mean to local-home values. Yes, you find this audience can be myopic, often willing to tell you how your latest story doesn’t apply to your neighborhood. And sometimes they’re are actually correct. Treat them well, they will return the favor.
Not everyone owns, as roughly 40 percent of all American households are living in rental properties. Too much coverage ignores that. For example, falling home prices are often portrayed as bad. Well, don’t forget renters might want to buy at those “discounted” prices. Coverage opportunity with renters lies in the fact that rents and rent changes can vary widely by market. Yet it’s not easy to follow at the consumer level. Becoming an expert on how your rental market is moving can be vital information for renters looking for bargains. This group always needs fresh market trends. Remember, renters typically renew leases annually – and this demographic tends to move more frequently than homeowners.
REAL ESTATE AGENTS AND THEIR BROKERAGES
You can’t hide from the fact that the residential real-estate business is likely a major advertiser with your publication. If you didn’t know that, real estate agents will remind you – and think all your coverage should be “today is a great day to buy” positive. Once you can get past the natural friction, agents and brokerages can be great sources because they are in the trenches. You need them to know what’s going on the market. So fight the urge to scream and meet them on their turf – at their meetings and trade shows. Learn how they think and their quirky language. Eventually you’ll find real estate agents in your community willing to share truly valuable information. And it’s not because they’re looking to get their name out there. Rather, because they think a well-informed consumer is good for their business.
Start with lenders and people who handle transactions. This group can be subdivided into three categories:
- Employees of big banks and major lenders. They tend to work through traditional corporate methodology, so that means talking through public relations departments. Not that this information isn’t perfectly acceptable, it isn’t going to make a lot of exciting copy.
- Mortgage brokers: These are individuals and small entities helping consumers get home loans using various sources of funding. That breadth of view – and a willingness to talk frank to with good insight – offers opportunity to learn what’s going on the lender side as well as the borrower side.
- Professionals who help real-estate transactions get completed: In the private sector, jobs from real-estate attorneys and escrow agents to title company officials can get you interesting information about activity levels and deals in the works. Same can be said for government officials handling real estate bureaucracy, who also can keep you up-to-date about a key hot topic: property taxes.
New homes may be a small slice of real estate, but it’s also one of the most intriguing. Homebuilders are in the business of selling homes. That’s somewhat different than a homeowner who’s trying to sell their own home. To succeed, builders have to be in touch with what consumers need and at what price. So often, new homes contain a good idea of what buyers’ wishes are — or at least what things people are willing to pay for. Plus, builders either directly or indirectly are big employers. Construction crews create from homes to streets to landscaping – plus all those new homes require suppliers concrete trucks, lumber yards, etc. Meet workers at ground level and it’s amazing how much you learn about the state of the real-estate economy.
BIG PROPERTY OWNERS
Commercial real estate stretches from apartments to office towers to shopping malls to factories, warehouses and self storage yards. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of this niche. In many communities, commercial real estate brokerages handle many aspects of the business, buying, selling and leasing different types of properties. Obviously, the apartment niche has broad appeal, but don’t forget that office towers and shopping malls can make for great copy. Success or failure of office towers and shopping malls serves as an indicator of how your local economy is progressing. The companies and brands renting space – or leaving it — in local business parks and retail centers can broaden our audience as you report about evolving employment or shopping options.
There’s really no such thing as a truly independent expert. Still, we’ll look at outside observers of real-estate markets in three distinct categories.
Academia: Good bet there’s a local university or college where professors track your local economy and its real estate. Their reports and commentary can be long-winded or esoteric, but the analysis is often based on long-term trends and forecasts.
Consultants: The real estate industry hires many outsiders to acquire fresh viewpoints. And these people like to get their names in the media. One edge consultants can have over academics is their constant contact with real estate industry insiders. One caveat to their comments: Remember who pays them.
Data crunchers: Real estate transaction creates oodles of paper trails – and numerous companies mining that data for analysis. To build their brands, these number crunchers frequently distribute the info for free – often along with analysis to help you interpret the trends. Frequently, this private data is better than government or industry-sponsored reports. Occasionally, the measures involved can be confusing.
Not an audience or a source. Rather, a state of mind. Be prepared for the surprise. A star athlete or famous Hollywood type buying a home in your market — or losing one through foreclosure. A historic local home coming onto the market. A quirky design for a new home or an over-the-top remodeling job. A local apartment complex offering a dog washing spot.
Yes, real estate is important. Yes, these are serious times in the real estate industry. But it’s okay to have fun with real-estate story. Telling fun tales is a change of pace will serve your readers well. And may keep you sane.
Jonathan Lansner is The Orange County Register‘s business columnist and real estate blogger. Since 1986, he has covered the Orange County economy — and its real estate scene — as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Register. The “Lansner on Real Estate” blog was launched in March 2006. Jon is a New York City native, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and was the 2005-2006 president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. “Lansner on Real Estate” blog has won a “Best In Business” award from SABEW for work in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.