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Real estate agents find ways to overcome pain at the pump

Some are consolidating showings and leaning on virtual tours

The historic surge in gas prices is forcing real estate agents to reconsider their bread-and-butter activities: how many home showings they attend and how often they meet clients face-to-face.

“It used to cost me like $30 to fill up and now we are looking at $60 to $70 per fill up,” said Mandy Nichols, a Dallas-Fort Worth-based Brixtone Real Estate agent.

As independent contractors, agents are not compensated for their gas expenses. However, they can use both their mileage and their gas expenses as business expenses for tax purposes. 

Being able to write off her gas expenses only helps mitigate some of the pain associated with the current cost of filling up her car once if not twice a week, but Nichols is still frustrated by the added cost. 

“Today I drove 30 miles to show a property,” Nichols said. “Right now with gas prices I am not doing things like this and most agents I know aren’t either, but it is for a family friend, so I was willing to make the drive.”

For agents, the eternal challenge is that they never know for certain if a homebuyer or seller will end up purchasing or listing their home, and there is no guarantee that the client will use them as their agent. 

“Gas is a large expense for agents who are actively working with buyers,” said Ryan O’Neill, the team lead of the RE/MAX-based Minnesota Real Estate Team. “And that gas expense is kind of a whammy because buyers’ agents have to take clients to showings wherever the client wants to see a home and they don’t know if or when the client will decide to purchase a home and the agent doesn’t get paid until the buyer purchases something.”

O’Neill continued: “I think the rising gas prices have caused a lot of agents to really reflect a bit more on whether or not it makes sense for me and my customer to drive all the way across town to look at a handful of homes.”

On Jan. 3, 2022, AAA reported that the nationwide average price for a gallon of gas was $3.28. Just three months later, it rose to an all-time high of $4.33  and by mid-June, it reached another all-time high of $5.016 per gallon.

These record high gas prices were one of the major contributors to June’s 41-year-high inflation numbers. The Consumer Price Index recorded a 9.1% year-over-year increase, and gas prices rose 59.9%. This is the largest 12-month increase for the CPI since March 1980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While gas prices have trended down in recent weeks — AAA reported the national average to be $4.440 on July 24, 2022  — due to a decrease in demand (the Energy Information Administration reported that gas demand dropped from 9.41 million b/d to 8.06 million b/d in the second week of July), they are still top of mind for agents across the country.

According to the National Association of Realtor’s 2022 Member Survey, the median amount agents spent in 2021 on vehicle related expenses was $1,460. This was the largest median expense reported by the realtors surveyed.

Nichols, who is currently spending at least $70 a week on gas, said those costs are much higher for her.

“We have to pay for gas, which has gone up astronomically and then you have wear and tear on the car, and we put a lot of miles on cars,” she said. “I mean depending on your car and the type of tires you get, that could be $1,000 right there.”

Other agents, like Northampton, Massachusetts-based Delap Real Estate agent Meghan McCormick, who live and work in their territory, have kept vehicle-related costs down.

“I own my vehicle outright and I do my oil changes at home, so unless something big comes up or I have to buy new tires, I just have gas expenses and oil for oil changes,” she said. “Even with the rise in price, my gas expenses haven’t gone up too much since my market area is where I live, and my clients are all looking really close by.”

Agents who do not have the luxury of living near the market they serve have turned to a variety of strategies to not only help them conserve gas, but also increase their operational efficiency.

“I map out my showings to make it more gas efficient for my client and myself,” Stacy Pulliam, an Augusta, Georgia-based eXp Realty agent, said. “So, I show one neighborhood and then move to the next.”

Pulliam’s clients fill out a “Love List” of areas they want to live in, as well as negotiables and non-negotiables. She uses the list to eliminate unnecessary browsing and touring, which is essential given that her territory is a 75-minute radius around where she lives.

“If my client sends me a house that does not fit their initial criteria, I simply say, ‘This is beautiful. Just to make sure I am still searching for homes that you are interested in, did your criteria change?’ If the answer is no then we go over how this house doesn’t line up with their non-negotiables, but if they want, we can most certainly still view it.”

Pulliam also said that she only works with buyers that provide a pre-approval letter or proof of funds, and she insists that they have a “proper interview to ensure [they] are a great fit for one another.”

Like Pulliam’s “Love List” strategy, O’Neill said that many of the tools he noticed agents on his team utilizing prior to the gas price increase, have become even more important as agents look for ways to cut gasoline usage where they can. For O’Neill’s agents, video tours and other digital listing media have been incredibly helpful in allowing homebuyers to narrow in on the homes they wish to tour in person.

“The number of homes that people are viewing has gone down significantly, as the online materials are so much better than in the past,” O’Neill said. “Now there are high resolution pictures, virtual tours, Matterport tours — so much of the property can be viewed online and that is allowing agents to be more efficient in their drive times because they are able to cut out unnecessary showings.”

O’Neill also said that he has seen an uptick in agents leveraging the power of being part of a team, by asking teammates to help show a property if it is far from the agent’s usual home base.

“We have a lot of people all over, within a few hours of Minneapolis and Saint Paul that even other teams or agents at other brokerages will reach out to us if they need help,” he said.

At the end of the day, however, real estate is an in-person business and buyers want to see a home in person.

“I am certainly aware of the rising price of gas, but it does not stop me from going to appointments,” Thebe Warren, a Houston-based Compass agent, said. “I see it as a necessary expense. I much prefer to meet with people in person and am happy to drive to them.”