CAR Model Of Cooperation, Sharing

August 25, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — For the past four years, the Commercial Alliance of Realtors of West Michigan has been providing services and benefits to commercial and industrial real estate practitioners, as well as other professionals in real estate, such as attorneys, lenders, accountants, environmental specialists, inspectors and surveyors.

CAR started with about 325 members initially. Today it has more than 400 members who draw from an eight-county region that includes Calhoun, Ingham, Ionia, Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa, Van Buren and Kalamazoo counties. Julie Rietberg, CEO of the alliance, said that some commercial Realtors in Holland and Muskegon are inquiring about membership, too.

In most of the United States prior to the late 1990s, people who specialized in commercial real estate were not formally organized in any significant way, except here in Grand Rapids, Rietberg said. Since the 1980s, commercial Realtors in this area have had a commercial multiple listing system that is separate from the residential MLS. Ultimately, the commercial Realtors in Grand Rapids have been a separate group for a long time, she said.

Technically, someone with a license to sell real estate can sell either residential or commercial or business opportunities or whatever they want, Rietberg explained. But these days, fewer and fewer people elect to sell both commercial and residential properties.

“Really, to consider yourself an expert, you really need to devote your time to one or the other,” Rietberg said. “There was also a desire among commercial Realtors to be recognized more as a separate group for purposes of public policy issues, lobbying efforts and nationwide referral networks. It was a lot of those kinds of issues that caused them to formally separate.”

By grouping under the banner of CAR, commercial Realtors in West Michigan gained a stronger legislative voice. CAR also maintains a presence for them at state and national conventions.

CAR provides members with more accessible services — such as the multiple listing system — that are more affordable collectively than they would be individually. As members, they also are able to share information about their listings through the Commercial Industrial Regional Real Estate Information Exchange (CIRRIX).

CIRRIX was one of the first Web-based multiple listing services in the country designed by commercial/industrial Realtors specifically for marketing those types of properties. The multiple-listing service identifies more than 5,000 available properties for sale or lease in West Michigan, including commercial, industrial, office, retail, vacant land, investment real estate and build-to-suit. The public, too, can access CIRRIX to view and search for available properties.

“Members are competitors, but at the same time they’re in a common industry, and it benefits all of them to come together and try to find tools that help them do their jobs better,” Rietberg said.

There is another commercial board on the east side of the state known as the Michigan Commercial Alliance of Realtors, and that group organizes statewide public policy and legislative issues. But that group does business a lot differently than the commercial board here, according to Rietberg.

“In terms of how we choose to share data, there’s a different philosophy,” she explained. “On the east side of the state, there is what we call an information sharing system where if you choose to share information, you may. On our side of the state, it’s a true multiple listing system where we not only share data but offer cooperation to participating brokers, and that’s the big difference.”

Realtors have to be licensed before they can join CAR. The organization will train new members on the use of CIRRIX; the training is included in the initial membership application fee of $350. CAR also sets up and hosts various networking events, topical seminars, continuing ed courses such as a six-hour course that fulfills the requirement for Michigan real estate licensees, and educational programs such as the free, 10-week Summer Brown Bag learning series. It also sponsors various courses related to commercial designations — such as CCIM and SIOR.

“At networking events, I’m always amazed at this incredibly competitive market that can be so cooperative at the same time,” Rietberg said. “Commercial members strongly support the opportunity to get together and talk about what’s happening, what properties they have and what’s coming up. They really see a lot of benefit in that networking.”

CAR maintains and enforces the code of ethics of the National Association of Realtors, so it has a professional standards procedural process. If there is a complaint about a member that alleges a violation of the code, CAR has the authority to hold hearings, fine, suspend, place on probation, terminate membership or order the violator to take an educational course. The organization operates with one full-time staff person, two half-time, and six that spend a smaller percentage of their time sharing various responsibilities.

“A lot of organizations claim to enforce their code of ethics, but we actually do,” Rietberg added. “We have a very active professional standards committee that keeps a close eye out.”

Rietberg said that short term, CAR is working on an “identity” or recognition campaign and is in the process of revamping its Web site as part of that.

“We want the public at large in West Michigan to recognize that it’s not necessarily enough to just find somebody who has a real estate license, but somebody who may be a part of this network.”

Long term, Rietberg envisions the group growing both in membership size and in the quality of the services it provides its members. A major goal, she said, is to enhance the professionalism of its members.    

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