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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, June 26th, 2005


A Nation of Realtors: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class (Radical Perspectives)

by Jeffrey M. Hornstein

Shoeshine boys

A review by Andrew Stark

The "figure of the realtor", Jeffrey M. Hornstein declares in A Nation of Realtors, "looms large in American popular culture". At first glance, this claim seems overblown. The realtor, after all, is but a state- licensed real estate broker. A person who wants to sell his home will hire a realtor to price it and put it on the market; a person interested in buying a home will hire a realtor to take him around and show him prospective properties.

Whenever a match is made, the two realtors, for their services, will split a commission of around 6 per cent of the purchase price. Why, then, should such an anodyne character loom large in American culture? Because, Hornstein says, the realtor has been hugely instrumental in creating the modern American middle class.

For Hornstein, membership in the middle class above all signifies two things: "homeowner" and "professional". Over the past century, American realtors single-mindedly promoted middle-class home-ownership by launching mass-directed Own-Your-Own Home advertising campaigns, clamouring successfully for Federally guaranteed mortgages, and resolutely opposing public housing. Realtors also gave contemporary middle- class professionalism some of its most defining characteristics. They marketed suburban enclaves in which only professionals could afford to live, eased the movement from city to city that characterizes so many professional careers, and offered one of the first professions that middle class housewives, rooted in the neighbourhood and unable to work full-time, could nevertheless enter en masse.

Hornstein leaves little doubt about the realtor's profound influence on the American middle class, but his arguments do not in themselves explain why the realtor is a major figure in American culture. His conclusion doesn't tell us why realtors such as Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt or Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe or David Mamet's mugs' gallery in Glengarry Glen Ross -- rivalled only by car dealers in the personages of John O'Hara's Julian English or John Updike's Rabbit -- bulk so large in the turf allocated to mythic salesmen in American culture. The realtor has attained a kind of cultural notoriety because, for reasons pertaining to the structure of his profession, he has the misfortune of personifying, in a uniquely concentrated form, the vulturous and parasitic qualities that have always haunted salesmanship. More than any other kind of salesman, he seems able to make a fine living while taking little risk and offering little value.

Whether he is dealing with a developer's new house or a retiring couple's well-used home, there is not one moment when the realtor -- Hornstein's impresario of middle-class ownership -- ever himself actually owns the product he brokers. The stockbroker, by way of contrast, must often have his firm buy new share issues before turning them around and selling them; the pawnbroker must first buy used artefacts before selling them; and neither knows if he will recoup what he has laid out. The realtor's job, by contrast, never requires him to be a buyer or a seller, only an intermediary between the two. Even the much-maligned car dealer must face the risks of ownership that the realtor never does.

Nor have realtors ever managed to fully embody that other characteristic which, as Hornstein shows, they helped the middle class to cultivate: professionalism. The realtor's clients, whether sellers or buyers, are themselves capable of doing much of the realtor's work in his stead. A person has always been able to sell his own home directly without enlisting a broker: that is why realtors felt compelled to invent the "exclusive right to sell" contract, which bars a client from going behind his realtor's back and selling his home without having to pay a commission. Having lived in it for years, sellers also know far more about the product they are selling than the realtor ever could. One can scarcely imagine a stockbroker saying about stocks what the Delaware real-estate broker Patricia Campbell White says about houses: "As an agent, I can't tell buyers how old a roof is or how many more years it's going to last. And I can't tell whether a house has a good well or a good septic system. I'm not trained to be an inspection expert".

As for buyers, they are faced, in the realtor, with a professional who can do little of substance without their help. Trudging with him from house to house, they may well wonder, as does Frank Bascombe's client Joe Markham in Richard Ford's Independence Day, exactly what the realtor is adding to the process. Again, the latter suffers poorly in comparison with the stockbroker who, as long as he knows his buyer's risk preferences and wealth, can do his research on his own without having to waste his client's time, and indeed can often buy on his behalf. Perhaps the realtor's closest cultural relative is the marriage broker. She, too, never owns the properties in which she deals; she, too, finds herself trying to match sellers and buyers who know far more about themselves and their own tastes than she ever could. If, as Marjorie Garber argues, people have come to regard their homes as lovers, then it's not surprising that the realtor's claim to professional status is about as tenuous as the marriage broker's. True, realtors offer a multitude of services that aren't directly related to consummating a match, such as pricing properties, crafting legal documents, commenting on design, and advising on mortgages and insurance. But all can be rendered just as readily by other professionals: lawyers, architects, bankers, insurers. Once we subtract what these other professionals and the realtor's own clients are able to do, the profession of realtor itself seems almost to disappear.

The realtor may well, as Jeffrey Hornstein persuasively demonstrates, have permanently inscribed the American middle class with the virtues of ownership and professionalism. But the reason why the realtor looms so large in American culture is that, in his working life, he himself lacks those virtues. He is the quintessential American salesman, having assumed Willy Loman's cultural role: "riding on a smile and a shoeshine" and not much else.

Andrew Stark teaches Management at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Conflict of Interest in American Public Life, 2000.

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