Virtual vs. Office: Cost vs. Cost
Let us talk about land. About buildings. The pure physicality of bricks, wood, steel beams, stairways, elevators, walls and roofs. You know, real estate.
Normally, the conversation would be all about homes, condos, and the like — the stuff of the daily business of realtors and consumers. But I have in mind a slightly different take.
Let’s discuss brokerage offices.
This topic has been swirling around the industry for quite some time now, but a few recent events brought it into focus for me.
First, the LeadingRE Conference in Scottsdale. I got to speak with Matt Dollinger quite a bit while out there, and thanks to Pam O’Connor’s graciousness, I had the opportunity to hear some of the top broker-owners in the country talk about some of their top issues. The cost of leasing office space and how to minimize it was a frequent topic of discussion.
Second, a brief conversation on Twitter with Derek Massey (@derekmassey) about the desirability of virtual setups vs. physical offices.
Third, conversations off and on with people like Joe Ferrara (@jfsellsius), Eric Stegemann (@ericstegemann), and others who are either trying to start or thinking heavily about “virtual brokerages” with no overhead for office space.
Fourth, this report the existence of which just crossed my RSS feed: Beyond Brick and Mortar, Rethinking the Real Estate Office. I haven’t read it, and at $299 for a copy, I’m not likely to read it anytime soon. But if you have, or plan to, please let us know what the findings are. 🙂
The direct cost of brokerage office is actual, measurable, and large. According to the RealTrends 2007 Brokerage Performance Report (yes, I need to get the 2008 report), all respondents had Rent & Related Occupancy costs that came in at 4.94% of GCI. This figure, however, is a bit misleading in my opinion, because rent and occupancy costs are paid entirely by the brokerage.
Since average company dollar is 26.7% among respondents, the actual direct cost is about 3.7 times the GCI figure in terms of impact on the bottomline. For example, a company with $10m in GCI would end up with $2.6m in company dollar. Occupancy costs, at 4.94% of GCI is $494,000 or 18.5% of company dollar.
Add in the 0.83% of GCI for Supplies (pens, paper, etc.) that having a physical office necessitates, and we’re looking at 21.6% of company dollar going to expenses associated with having physical space.
In contrast, the combined expenses for Communications (e.g., telephone, high-speed internet, etc.) and Technology (e.g., website) for respondents were 5.1% of company dollar. Even if you assume that going to a virtual brokerage setup would double the cost of Communications and Technology, we’re looking at 10% of company dollar expenses vs. 21%.
A 50% reduction in cost is something anyone is going to look at, especially now.
vs. Indirect Cost
There is, however, another side to the equation. Actually, two other sides. That makes no sense at all, so I suppose it’s more like two factors on the other side.
First, agent productivity.
Some of the brokers at the LeadingRE show expressed the view that agents are unquestionably more productive when they are sitting together in a physical office. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there is any study or data available on the relationship between office and productivity. Are we talking a 100% improvement or a 1% improvement?
The impact of productivity is far-ranging, however. Let’s take that hypothetical brokerage from above and extend the analysis. Based on my bad math, it goes something like this:
To do $10m in GCI, at an assumed rate of 2.5% per side, and a avg. Home Price of $250,000, that brokerage had to do 1,600 transaction sides totalling $400m in volume.
If we further assume that every agent did 20 transactions, that translates to 80 agents. (Now, I know the reality is 80/20 rule, where 20% of the agents do 80% of the transactions, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s pretend they’re all robots.)
A 10% decrease in agent productivity by going virtual means a loss of $1m in GCI, resulting in a $267K in lost company dollar. The net savings from shutting down the office then is only $227K. If the productivity loss is 20%, then Hypo Realty ends up losing $40K from the ‘cost-saving’ move as the $534K loss in company dollar more than offsets the $494K in savings.
Second factor, however, is agent splits. One of the justifications for a brokerage charging a split is to pay for overhead, such as office space. Get rid of that, and it seems unlikely that the brokerage can maintain the same splits.
Moving from a 26.7% company dollar scenario to a 5% decrease — 21.7% company dollar — means that even if the productivity loss is only 10%, Hyop Realty is now losing $140K from its ‘cost-saving’ measure: decline of $717K in company dollar vs. saving $494K in rent.
All of a sudden, going all virtual doesn’t seem quite so attractive.
And neither of these factors take into account possible ‘soft’ costs, such as loss of brand value due to not having any storefront space in a highly visible street, or possibly a more difficult time in recruiting, or any of the other hard-to-measure impacts.
So What’s the Answer?
Because the financial ‘model’ above is so quick and dirty, it may be that there’s a balance point, especially given the 80/20 rule of productivity where you provide office space to your most productive 20% and gain the benefits of that, while saving on occupancy costs for the 80% who aren’t producing much anyhow.
Without analyzing a particular company’s financials and its market conditions — e.g., prevailing rents for store-front office space — it’s impossible to say whether Virtual is better or Physical is better.
But I figure folks more knowledgeable than I will step forth and provide further insight. In particular, I think some sort of metrics of agent productivity would be enormously helpful. Perhaps the Inman report has that answer.
Looking forward to your thoughts.