Real estate in the ‘olden days’

This month I am celebrating 25 years of selling real estate in the DMV.

Prior to becoming a Realtor, I had bought and sold at least a dozen homes during the previous 20 years and had lots of experience with real estate agents. There were those who commanded my complete attention when they spoke and those who made me think, “I can do better than this.”

When I returned to DC from Minnesota in 1997, unemployed, I enrolled in real estate school and quickly learned that helping others do what I had done for years involved a whole new set of skills. The process and the rules continue to evolve.

With my DC license in hand, followed by Maryland and Virginia licenses by the end of the year, I set up shop in my unfinished basement and joined a Century 21 franchise. A year later I moved to Prudential (now Berkshire Hathaway), where I stayed for 15 years, then to Keller Williams, and in 2017, to RLAH @properties, which I consider my final resting place.

In the beginning, only minimal computer skills were needed and showing property was terribly inefficient. There were few agent websites and no consumer search engines. Our multiple list system was based on Windows 3.1 and had proprietary software that only real estate agents could access. When it became an internet-based system, it opened search capabilities to the public.

The only available photograph in the multiple listing service was a black and white of the front of each house. No home tours, no floor plans, no video – just an address and a description to tempt you to see the home.

There were no electronic lockboxes, only combination locks where many agents left the initial settings in place rather than changing the code. If you didn’t know a combination, you could try one of two and be 80% assured of retrieving the key.

Some brokerages didn’t use lockboxes at all and kept house keys in their offices. An agent would have to sign out a key and then immediately return it for use by the next agent in line after the showing. Instead of making a convenient, circular route from house to house, agents would have to crisscross the city to wherever the keys were located. Our clients rode in our cars.

There were no cell phones. If you needed to contact your agent from the road, you’d have to find a landline and page her. Agents would return a page by stopping by their office or searching for a (gasp!) pay phone.

Buyer representation had only just become a thing. Many agents wanted nothing to do with it, but buyers had finally learned that without a representation agreement, when they spent time telling “their” agent their life story and financial history, the agent was legally obligated to spill the tea to the seller, even if it wasn’t their listing.

Offers had far fewer pages. They were written in person in brokers’ offices, in buyers’ homes, and on the hoods of cars. We carried an assortment of forms in our trunks.

Hard signatures were required, so we did a lot of driving or faxing. With offers being countered numerous times, a faxed contract was often illegible by the time all the signatures were affixed and lenders would require that a clean copy be signed by buyers and sellers.

Buyers’ agents present offers to sellers in person at the listing agent’s office or the sellers’ home. We practiced how to advocate for our buyers and often our clients’ offers were selected based not only on the quality of the offer, but also on our presentation and organizational skills. Buyers often waited outside in the car in case they needed to react quickly to a counteroffer (remember: no cell phones).

Home inspections were routinely conducted and sellers actually fixed things. The bar was higher – systems and appliances needed to be in “normal working order” and true “as is” sales were rare. Everyone had an appraisal done as part of the loan approval process, except for cash buyers, of whom there were few.

Settlement sheets were easier to read. There was no complex Closing Disclosure, which confuses more than informs clients about the costs involved in settling. Closings took place in person, with both sides present together, usually trading contact information and congratulating each other when finished.

Is buying and selling homes easier today with the internet, computers, cell phones and Zoom chats? Perhaps, but I sometimes long for the “olden days” when we interacted more personally with our clients. I still remember them all – more than 550 of them – and will as long as I have my wits and my memory.

Valerie M. Blake is a licensed Associate Broker in DC, Maryland, and Virginia with RLAH Real Estate / @properties. Call or text her at 202-246-8602, email her via, or follow her on Facebook at TheRealst8ofAffairs.

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