Recently, I’ve had the occasion to be taken to task personally by one Ben Caballero, the co-founder of an entity called NAREP. Here are the relevant tweets in question:
@robhahn We know that you fancy yourself a "tinker, tailor, spy" and that spies operate covertly, but stop shilling & make a full disclosure
— Ben Caballero (@bcaballero) October 16, 2013
— Ben Caballero (@bcaballero) October 16, 2013
Then in the comments to the Unintended Consequences post, Mr. Caballero posts the following:
Now, I’m pretty used to disagreements, arguments, and being told I don’t know a thing because I’ve never sold real estate, or any variety of amusing ad hominem stuff. Seeing as how I enjoy debate and argument, I’ve managed to pick up a pretty thick skin over the years. But I gotta say, being accused of being on Zillow and Trulia’s payroll, and then hiding that… well, that was a new one. I mean, damn… if I could get two of the biggest tech companies to write me checks for blogging, I rather think I’d be more inclined to boast about it, in the hopes I’d get other guys to write me checks too.
But that whole deal got me wondering, who the heck is this guy throwing rocks in my direction? I mean, I sort of knew that Ben Caballero was behind something called NAREP, because I wrote about them earlier. But beyond that, I didn’t really know anything about the man and why he seems to have such a grudge against me.
So I went looking. And oh boy, have I got some questions for Mr. Ben Caballero. Twenty of them in fact. Some of what I found, I think, is relevant to an overall discussion about industry practices, and certainly, NAREP has been on the forefront of the syndication issue. So while I’ll admit to a bit of ah… personal interest in these matters, I ask these questions on behalf of inquiring folks who may want to know.
[UPDATE: Mr. Caballero has provided answers, which I’ve posted in its entirety.]
Answering the Insinuation
First, let me answer Caballero’s question, which I thought I had, but let’s be sure here.
I am not receiving, nor have I ever received, compensation directly or indirectly from Zillow, Trulia or their affiliates, subsidiaries, or partners to write that piece or any other piece or to promote their interests.
I have no idea what “other consideration” means, but it’s no secret that I’m friends with a number of people from all of the portal companies, as well as brokerages, MLSs, Associations, and other entities. I get invited to events, people call me with inside scoops (which I do not publish unless they give me permission), and so on. Is that “consideration”? I don’t know. I never thought so, but you can make up your own mind.
Note that even my ads are done via Ebay auction, so that I don’t have to solicit and “sell” advertisers on this blog. They have zero editorial input, since I didn’t pick them, and didn’t “sell” them on sponsorship. They won an auction, so I abide by what I offered in the auction. In fact, if NAREP outbids everyone else in the next auction, you can expect to see their ads up on this site telling y’all that I’m a shill.
I know for a fact that what I’ve written on these pages has resulted in lost business opportunities. I’m OK with it, since it just means I get to work with people who understand where I’m coming from, and who know that I will speak the truth as far as I can discern it without regard for financial consequences. To me, that’s what a consultant ought to do: be honest above all, rather than tailor things for future contracts.
But enough of defending/justifying me; you either believe me or you don’t. You either know me or you don’t. It’s all good either way.
Now Then, A Few Questions
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at Mr. Caballero a bit. Here’s what we know from public information.
From his own personal profile website:
He was named Most Innovative Real Estate Agent by Inman News in 2013. He is the CEO of HomesUSA.com, Inc. and President of the National Association of Real Estate Professionals. A lifelong REALTOR® and former homebuilder, Ben has been a real estate broker since age 21.
Ben credits his #1 ranking to HomesUSA.com‘s platform for homebuilders.
What is this “platform for homebuilders”? Here’s Inman News, cited by Caballero himself, writing about him as The Most Innovative Real Estate Agent:
Texas real estate broker Ben Caballero completed 2,267 deals in 2012, making him the nation’s busiest individual agent by far. What’s his secret? Caballero says he’s developed a patent-pending computer system that allows him, and his employees, to quickly take listings from nine homebuilders he works with and put them in local multiple listing services and send them to other sites like Zillow, Trulia and realtor.com. Homebuilders pay Caballero’s Addison, Texas-based HomesUSA.com Inc. a flat fee per listing, and all leads are forwarded directly to the homebuilders. “Our value proposition is accuracy and convenience,” Caballero says. (Emphasis mine)
Wait, wait, wait. I need to go back and re-read that.
This can’t possibly be the same Ben Caballero who is the co-founder and President of NAREP (National Association of Real Estate Professionals)? The same gentleman who thinks I’m on Zillow’s Black Ops payroll? From NAREP’s website:
Epic fail! Buyers miss out! Sellers get screwed out of showing opportunities! DOWN WITH ZILLOW AND TRULIA! But… Caballero’s success is because of quick syndication to sites like Zillow, Trulia, realtor.com? Say it ain’t so!
Sadly, it is so. Here are Ben Caballero’s profile on Zillow and on Trulia. According to those websites, Caballero has 685 listings on Zillow, and 791 on Trulia. However did those listings end up on these evil syndication sites, the same sites that he’s accused me of being on the payroll of? The same eeeevil websites he rails against on a regular basis?
Here’s the source of one of these listings on Trulia:
HomesUSA is Caballero’s brokerage company. So… that would make it a direct broker feed? ListHub didn’t hijacking the listing against his directive? The MLS didn’t send it without his permission? Listing ninjas didn’t plunder his database in the dark of the night to push it up to Trulia?
Surely, he didn’t send that information directly to one of these evil syndicators who harm buyers, sellers, brokers, agents, the whole industry?
But… there’s more oddities, the more you look into Caballero. Here’s one I’d like to have explained to me:
Perhaps there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this seeming… what shall we call it… “data inaccuracy” here. I know I’d like to hear it. While we’re at it…
It’s one thing for listings to be hijacked by ninjas and sent to Zillow and Trulia against Caballero’s fervent wishes. Did someone hijack his Profile too?
Who authorized the mysterious copywriter to write this history of one Ben Caballero, using the pronoun “I” throughout the About section? And why is there zero mention of NAREP, the anti-syndication association he is so proud of?
By the way, if someone could explain to me how one man (remember, Inman called him the nation’s busiest individual agent) based in Dallas-area could “serve” builders in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, I would appreciate that very much. What could such service be, since I’m thinking it ain’t showing the homes themselves or talking about the local community or doing a lot of buyer consultations?
In fact, given all his solicitude for buyers and sellers, I find it shocking that Caballero runs a “flat-fee per listing” service for homebuilders, where all leads are forwarded directly to the homebuilders. So does Caballero work with any consumers, ever? When he cites being the #1 Real Estate Agent in the country… how much of that is comprised of “transactions” worked by the homebuilder directly from leads simply forwarded from his syndication to Zillow, Trulia, realtor.com, and others?
Normally, if a REALTOR refers a lead out to another agent, she might get a cut of the commissions, but the transaction would be recorded on the account of the agent who did the actual work. I suppose with new homebuilders, those builder representatives are not members of the MLS, so Caballero can book those transactions under his name? I don’t know; perhaps someone more knowledgeable about the rules surrounding when one gets to count a transaction as one’s own can elucidate me. Maybe that person could be Mr. Caballero himself.
The Mysterious Non-Profit That Is NAREP
If Caballero’s business practices appear to be at odds with his public statements — which includes attempted slander of your humble scribe — at least his public stance and his “leadership” of the anti-syndication movement comes from the heart. Right?
The National Association of Real Estate Professionals (NAREP), a non-profit entity that is organizing as a 501(c)(6) trade organization, was launched in October 2012 by concerned real estate professionals to advocate against these kinds of questionable practices that are becoming increasingly common in the online real estate marketing industry.
Naturally, I tried to look them up. Here’s the public record from the Texas Secretary of State:
Here’s the Texas Exempt Organizations Search, where one should be able to find out the non-profit status of an organization.
No results for a company with Taxpayer Number of 32048701026.
No results for a “National Association of Real Estate Professionals”. No results for keywords “Association Real Estate” in Texas.
Just curious, I searched for ALL exempt organizations in Addison, TX — the address listed above. The results do not show a “National Association of Real Estate Professionals”. In fact, nothing with the words “real estate” appears on the list.
Huh. Well, a 501(c)(6) is a tax-exempt Business League under IRS rules. Which means it should appear in the IRS database of Exempt Organizations. I’ve searched for the “National Association of Real Estate Professionals” by name, by TAX ID, by city/state (Addison, TX). Zip. Bupkis. Nothing. In fact, here’s a list of ALL non-profits based in Addison, TX “eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions”:
All right. So. NAREP is not a non-profit then, or I just can’t find them in the appropriate places where non-profits can be found. At a minimum, NAREP cannot receive tax-deductible contributions. We see that Texas considers NAREP a taxable entity, a for-profit corporation. The IRS ain’t never heard of NAREP in terms of Exempt Organizations. Maybe it’s a paperwork delay. Maybe it’s a snafu.
But I’d like to know what’s going on, on behalf of all of the members who believe Caballero and his passion for reform, and have joined this not-a-non-profit non-profit.
Speaking of members… NAREP claims to be a membership organization launched in October of last year. Surely, Caballero has recruited like-minded individuals, and as a movement of the industry, its board should reflect the membership.
Is there not a single Director of this august non-profit organization who doesn’t live at 4310 Sunbelt Drive? Nobody else stepped up and asked to serve on such an important mission? Odd, that.
Do the Clients Know What He’s Up To?
Finally, there’s another oddity in all of this. Caballero works extensively with new homebuilders. Many of his listings come courtesy of a website called NewHomeSource.com (example). Here’s its About Us:
Funded and endorsed by a consortium of the top US homebuilders, Builder’s Digital Experience LLC (BDX) is the first national home marketplace focused specifically on the new home market. A newly constructed home offers consumers a wide selection of styles, locations, options and features that aren’t available in existing homes. BDX’s network of websites, including NewHomeListings.com provides prospective homebuyers with the most comprehensive information and selection of new homes available on the Web.
BDX is a joint venture of Move, Inc. and Builder Homesite, Inc. and is headquartered in Austin, Texas. Builder Homesite, Inc. was formed by a consortium of the nation’s premier homebuilders to improve and enhance the home ownership experience. (Emphasis mine)
That would be the same Move, Inc. engaged in the eeeevil that is syndication. Hmm. And from BDX’s website:
So what I gather from all of this is that the new homebuilders are extremely excited to be online. BDX is, in fact, a joint venture with Move, Inc., the operator of realtor.com. When all of the new home listings in BDX get put on realtor.com, it’s big enough news for BDX to trumpet.
Do these homebuilder clients of Caballero know what he’s up to in his NAREP life? Remember these are clients, owed a fiduciary duty of loyalty by the broker and agent. Since he clearly believes that syndication harms the seller, has he advised these homebuilder clients that they should stop with all this BDX nonsense and syndicating to Zillow and Trulia? Or is he working against the client’s interest by participating with BDX, with NewHomeSource.com, and with all these eeeeevil websites?
The Inman profile of Caballero attributing his success to the “platform” looks weirder and weirder.
Twenty Questions for Caballero
I assume he won’t actually answer these questions, but I’ll post them anyhow. The difference between us is that my questions are based entirely upon actual information and research, most of it from Caballero’s own operations, while his “question” is based on nothing other than some personal animus. Some of these are just compilations of questions already asked above.
Dear Mr. Caballero:
- Why are 685 and 791 of your listings on Zillow and Trulia, respectively?
- Why do some of those listings on Zillow and Trulia list your brokerage, HomesUSA, as the source?
- Could you explain why both you and Clay Woodward are listed as the Listing Agent on that one listing on Trulia?
- Please tell us who wrote your Trulia profile. If it was approved by you, please let us know the reasoning. If it wasn’t approved by you, please let us know the name of the marketing assistant you have fired for taking this unauthorized action.
- What should a reasonable third-party observer conclude about your goals given the disparity between your apparent business practices and your advocacy against syndication as the President of NAREP?
- Please tell us how you and your company, based in the Dallas area, can serve clients in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.
- Please differentiate the service in which you forward all leads directly to the homebuilder to be serviced by that homebuilder’s representative in exchange for a flat-fee from Zillow and Trulia, who charge a monthly fee to forward leads to a paying subscriber.
- Please tell us how many of your 2,267 sides in 2012 was actually serviced by you or one of your agents. In this case, serviced would mean providing anything resembling a real estate brokerage service: showing a home, scheduling showings, getting feedback on showings, communicating with the client, negotiating the sale, etc.
- Do you personally consider it a “transaction side” if the agent involved did nothing more than forward the lead to another agent?
- If you have not personally worked the transaction beyond forwarding the lead, do you consider it potentially misleading to the consumer to market yourself as the #1 Real Estate Agent in the country?
- You have consistently called NAREP a “non-profit” and wrote that it is organized as a 501(c)(6) Business League. Please explain why neither the State of Texas nor the IRS has any record of NAREP in any Exempt Organizations database. Perhaps I’ve not looked in the right places; please feel free to post where one might find NAREP’s information included amongst Exempt Organizations.
- NAREP today does not appear to charge member dues. Please tell us if this remains true today.
- Has NAREP received any donations from any of its members, any third party, any non-member entity since its founding in October of 2012? If so, has NAREP filed a Form 990 or a Form 990-N? If not, why not? Would you make your Form 990-N available to the public?
- Where does NAREP’s funding come from today?
- Is the document from the State of Texas listing three directors for NAREP accurate? Could you explain why all of the Directors of NAREP share the same address?
- Do you feel that as a listing agent, a fiduciary of the client homebuilder, you owe it to the client to warn them against the negative effect of syndication on their properties?
- Have you warned your clients about syndication?
- Have you asked your clients to support NAREP and its mission? Are they members of NAREP?
- Do your clients know about your involvement with NAREP at all? If not, why not?
- Do you categorically deny that you are receiving, or have ever received, compensation or other consideration, either directly or indirectly, from any company other than Zillow or Trulia, their subsidiaries, or partners: (1) to comment on my posts, under your name or pseudonym; or (2) to promote their interests.
You owe it to your loyal readers, to the loyal members of your NAREP organization, to real estate professionals, to your clients, and to consumers to answer these questions.