Love them or hate them, you can hardly function in this industry without being a member of a local Realtor association to gain access to the multiple listing service of Northern Illinois (MLSNI). But while some agents decry the additional financial outlay membership requires, others say the money is well worth the support and service their associations provide.
Down from 17 in the early 1990s, Realtor associations that feed into the MLSNI today number 10, including the oldest in the state and a couple of the country’s largest associations. But just what do these associations do for their members? How are your membership dollars being spent and what can you do to ensure satisfaction from your association? We talked with a handful of association heads and agents to get the scoop on the state of local Realtor associations in Chicagoland.
Many association members and all association heads agree that there are numerous benefits to being part of a local association. And while associations tend to say that membership isn’t mandatory, agents know that without it, accessing the MLSNI would be difficult. Therefore, joining an association is pretty much a given, like it or not.
Not only do agents have to join an association and pay local annual dues ranging from $99 to $240, they also must pay dues to the state and national Realtor associations, and an additional monthly or quarterly fee to access the MLSNI. Additionally, agents, for the most part, do not get to choose which association to align themselves with, as brokers typically make that decision for their agents as a whole. What you can do, however, is hold your association to the highest level of expectation for those fees you are paying.
The Up Side
Most Chicagoland associations offer the same basic perks: seminars with national speakers, continuing education classes, MLS access, lockbox services, forms and contracts, marketing tools, informative Web sites and professional standards oversight and representation on local, state and federal government issues, which many members cite as the biggest value. However, some associations go above and beyond the usual grocery list of offerings. Such is the case with North Shore – Barrington Association of Realtors, says Terese “Terry” Penza, president and CEO.
North Shore – Barrington, in an attempt to fill a need for its members, offers a full technical department, providing services that range from advising members on technology useful in the industry to repairing equipment. While the services aren’t free (repairs are $60 an hour), they are easy to access and dependable, says Penza.
“[Tech department staff] work on everything from computers to cell phones to PDAs. I even saw someone in the department the other day working on a member’s iPod,” she says, noting that her 4,200 members pay $150 a year for local dues for a total of $314, including state and national fees. Penza is also proud of the association’s Web site, some 1,500 pages, designed to be easily navigated by members in search of information.
Jim Haisler, association executive for the McHenry County Association of Realtors with just under 1,000 members, says annual fees and dues of about $1,000 includes local association dues ($240), MLS access, state and national association dues, legal defense fund fee, lockbox services, state advocacy campaign fees and fees for a national advertising awareness campaign fees.
With regard to unique services, Haisler says his is the only association with an active membership using their library of information, maintenance of which is a top priority for his staff. Also unique to his association, he adds, is the local public relations assistance offered to members, including promotion of members through public awareness campaigns and highlighting members through billboard, radio and newspaper messaging.
“We are helping drive customers to our members’ doors,” Haisler says, before being asked about how results from such efforts are measured. “I have heard from a few folks, but it’s not easy to measure. We absolutely know it’s working; people are hearing the message.”
Heading the second oldest and third largest association in the country, Ginger Downs, CEO of Chicago Association of Realtors (CAR), is no stranger to these groups, having been the head of associations on the West Coast for 25 years. With more than 16,000 members, CAR’s “big silver bullet,” according to Downs, is advocacy. “We’re engaged in what goes on in Chicago and Cook County on issues impacting our members’ business.”
CAR goes to great lengths, she says, to ascertain member satisfaction, whether through frequent e-mail surveys, input following each class they offer, or face to face. There will soon be a suggestion box added to the association’s Web site.
Tivadar “Ted” Szabo is president-elect of the Realtor Association of NorthWest Chicagoland. A broker/owner in the industry for 20 years, he has the unique perspective of being an association member as well as having a role in association leadership. He says the biggest value associations offer members is information.
“What’s going on currently with the real estate market, with government, with the economy. The more you know about what’s going on and how it affects the industry, the more it helps you do your job better. Because I’m a small office, I can relate to the benefit of having an association there for you with forms and all the other tools and information you need to do your job.”
CEO Pam Krieter of Mainstreet Organization of Realtors (MORe) says her 13,500 members pay local dues of $140, money she holds in high esteem. “One of our directives is to maintain our focus and help members reduce their annual cost of operation,” she says, noting that MORe is the second largest Realtor association in the state.
Among the offerings that she is most proud is the Competitive Edge Series, which brings in motivational speakers who’ve found success within the real estate market, as well as speakers on topics such as economic impact, short sales and foreclosures. In addition, Simple Online Standards (SOS) provides an online complaint process available to members and consumers.
“We want to continue to raise the bar of professionalism amongst our members,” says Krieter, noting a recent book published on ethics highlighted the association’s efforts on that issue. They recently collaborated with several organizations, including the Fair Housing Authority, to publish a brochure to educate members.
As far as how association fees are being spent, many association heads talked about funding upcoming improvements, including a new lockbox system, minor office renovations, improved Web sites and other projects. Asking your association for details on how member dues are spent is a good opportunity to measure the transparency of the inner workings of the association.
The Not-So-Up Side
Many agents argue that most of the services offered by their associations are the same services offered by the companies they work for, though that isn’t the case for everyone. Smaller, independent agencies don’t have the corporate resources, such as seminars and continuing education opportunities, that larger real estate companies offer agents. Even those who can access such services from their own companies might find local association services easier to access and more efficient. Whatever your stance, association membership is a must to access the regional MLS.
Others complain that having 10 different associations in Chicago is overkill. While some agents say local associations would better serve members by consolidating and working as one well-oiled machine, others fear one giant association would cause agents to feel lost in the crowd. Jim Roth, broker of The Real Estate Group Chicago, a current member of CAR and a former board member for the North Shore – Barrington association, thinks there is a more efficient way for local associations to operate.
“Sometimes I think [associations] lose focus. In theory, associations are all not-for-profit; yet, they control 17,000 due-paying members,” he says of his own association. “Membership isn’t cheap; we pay about $400 a year. With 17,000 members, that’s a pretty good cash flow, but are they keeping alive such a large organization just because they have the budget to do it?
“CAR is involved in a lot of good things. As a political association, they’re out there making sure local, state and federal governments are not hindering business for us, so that’s one of the most valuable things. But the thread that binds us is MLS. In today’s utilization of technology, there’s got to be an efficient way that associations can have unification.
“The change I would absolutely recommend would be a restructuring, at least locally, of how our associations work with one another. Today’s climate calls for efficiency. When you have all these groups working against each other, it creates inefficiency and waste. That pains me.”
Association heads, of course, disagree that they are working against each other. While they do compete for members, the four largest meet regularly to collaborate on a number of efforts, says Downs, including joint education offerings. Association leadership also disagrees that combining under one large umbrella with 50,000 or more members would be more efficient. Instead, they fear it would alienate members who would feel lost in such a large organization.
“Eliminating the local associations doesn’t eliminate the need to have someone doing business locally,” says David McClintock, CEO of Three Rivers Association of Realtors, which has 1,800 members paying $130 for local association dues. “I do believe the local Realtor wants to be able to walk in and see someone they trust and believe in working for them, advocating for them. One big association would likely lose traction.”
Marvenna Martin, a Realtor and career director for Prudential and a member of MORe, says she is “currently very pleased with the association and what they do,” especially the tough work at the state capital, but has heard minor discourse among her peers.
“Some people say the fees are slightly high, but you pay for what you get,” she says. “And the fees are necessary for the results they’re getting from the different legislative branches. And I wouldn’t want anybody not paying fees to be accessing MLS. If they did something wrong, we’re all scrutinized as a whole for that person’s mistakes.”
With regard to the need for so many associations in the city, Martin says there is strength in numbers, “but I also know you can be too large and miss the most important things. I still want [the association staff] to know my name. Like in ‘Cheers.’”
While Gale Goldstick, Realtor and real estate consultant with Coldwell Banker and a member of CAR, likes the local representation her association offers, she has some suggestions for improvement.
“In terms of continuing education, they should continue to create more courses and more up-to-date choices for people. We do need continuing education and if they’re going to expend energies, it should be in providing more cutting-edge and up-to-date topics in their courses. I also think the association can create better public knowledge of what we do.”
Since there is more choice today with regard to which association to join than there was pre-1996, before Board of Choice was implemented and members had to join the association designated for their jurisdiction, association heads know the importance of satisfying its members.
Penza says she hopes Northshore – Barrington members are satisfied with the association and that her staff works hard to “never say ‘no’ to our members.”
“Do we ruffle some feathers along the way? Sadly, that happens with all of us,” she admits. “We know they can go right across the street to another association, so having competition makes us better.”
All associations claim to have open door policies and plenty of opportunities for two-way communication – positive or negative – with members. While some actually attend member sales meetings, others host conference calls or solicit member feedback via the association Web site.
The Bottom Line
Until someone offers another method for real estate professionals to gain access to the MLSNI without making it accessible to every Tom, Dick and Harry on the Internet, local association membership will continue to be part of every agent’s annual budget.
In the meantime, make your association work for those dollars you hand over every year by taking advantage of association offerings. All claim to give members ample opportunity for input, so voice your opinion about how things are being operated and suggest additional services you would like to see your association offer.
As long as you have to be a member of the club, you may as well use the services you’re paying for to your professional advantage.
Chicago Association of Realtors
Ginger Downs, CEO
Mainstreet Organization of Realtors
Pam Krieter, CEO
McHenry County Association of Realtors
Jim Haisler, Association Executive
North Shore – Barrington Association
Terese “Terry” Penza, President/CEO
Realtor Association of NorthWest Chicagoland
Tivadar “Ted” Szabo, President-elect
Three Rivers Association of Realtors
David L. McClintock, CEO
Realtor/Real Estate Consultant
Realtor Partners Real Estate
780.922.1000 ext. 4078
The Real Estate Group Chicago