“My real estate agent is always smiling. I didn’t think anybody could have that many teeth without being a barracuda.” So go real estate agent jokes, which have become so ubiquitous that websites are dedicated to them.If behind every joke is a grain of truth, then real estate agents endure a widespread stigma. “The image of Realtors isn’t the greatest in the valley,” an Aspen real estate agent confessed to The Aspen Times recently. “Some day we can maybe have status above used-car salesmen.”Why should a particular profession be so disparaged? The oil industry may have some answers. As the price of oil soars, Big Oil profits break records, inciting national ire. “The American people are being victimized more than any free market would warrant,” complained U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith. “There are growing concerns that oil companies are making too much in profits at the expense of consumers,” lamented Sen. Pete Domenici. When the Aspen Board of Realtors reports transactions over $2 billion in 2005, the reaction is similar. “Some of my best friends are Realtors, but why should they make so much money?”Big Oil argues that record profits simply follow the ratio of gross earnings. It’s the same with real estate agents, whose commissions reflect a share of rising prices, driven by the law of supply and demand. Public anger at Big Oil comes daily at the pump. Try buying property in the Roaring Fork Valley and you might feel the same about real estate agents. Soaring princes are part of the real estate agent stigma, but another part comes from the way land is valued. Many real estate agents tend to view land purely as a commodity. Destroying rural character by converting pastoral ranchlands into subdivisions is good business. Land development is progress, even when developments are tactlessly named for what they have displaced Elk Run, Meadowview, the Wilds. Real estate agents then promote these idyllic properties for clients who taint the idylls with energy-guzzling, resource-rapacious monster homes.Real estate agents are highly competitive, often taking advantage of homespun values and “local” status. To claim the higher ground, ego-stoking ads list vainglorious attributes of sales agents who claim to be a blend of Mother Theresa and Donald Trump.Perhaps the tide is changing with Realtors for Wilderness, a hopeful concept that promotes giving back by those who have profited from the wilderness backdrops in their sales brochures. “Much of the added value of real estate … is a measure of the quality-of-life benefits of the absence of roads and development,” stated a letter-to-the-editor from “Realtors for Wilderness” in support of roadless areas. “… Clean air and water … healthy wildlife habitat and ecosystems … ensure the stability of real property investments.”Bill Stirling, who is part of that effort, recently called for affluent real estate agents and developers to rescue the Isis Theatre as a community amenity. Such calls for magnanimity recognize that broader community values are responsible for ever-increasing land values and personal riches.Goodwill contributions, however, may still not elevate real estate agents above used-car salesmen, not as long as real estate profits are so high they make Big Oil envious. Still, if real estate agents were to share more of their wealth by supporting causes like wilderness, roadless areas, the Isis, education, the arts, affordable housing, etc., it might help us forget the biggest difference between Big Oil and real estate agents: Oil can only be sold once.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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