Real estate. If you ever want to suck the air out of a dinner party conversation, just tell someone that you are in real estate. You can see it happen immediately. Their eyes seem to shallow, they nod knowingly. They have already put you into a nice, tight, predictably square box. They figure you are at best a number cruncher and at worst a plastic smiled huckster.
This doesn’t happen with other similar professions. Investment bankers are stereotyped as brash and boozy and brazen. Architects are seen as the lovable protagonists of a generic romantic comedy. Contractors are gruff, hardworking and yet folksy. But people in real estate, well, they are just…boring.
The problem is that the public hivemind seems to have come to a hard conclusion about what real estate is. This is ridiculous, of course. Real estate is a general term that tries to cover an enormous industry, leaving a lot of room for interpretation, or lack there-of. Even the term real estate is problematically generic. In fact, it isn’t even a word in most of the English speaking world. The origins of the word date back to the 1600s in jolly ole England, although I am going to go out on a limb and say that things were less than jolly for most of the English at the time. The phrase consists of two already well used words.
Real, which doesn’t come from its identical counterpart in Spanish, real, which means royal. Instead, its origins are much less noble: the Latin word rex, thing. And estate, which comes from the Latin word status, which meant state or condition but now has come to represent societal ranking.
The term real estate was and still is meant to represent that something is real, immovable property, not to be confused with the more easily disposed personal stuff. But then it started to take on a meaning of its own. In the early twentieth century, a neologic bastardization took place that gave us a new, similarly non-descript word: Realtor. The newly formed National Association of Realtors gave themselves this moniker and eventually obtained a registered trademark on it in 1950.
Since then realtors and real estate have been fused in the collective conscience. Now when people think about real estate, their minds turn first to the brokers and agents that transact the asset. But, as you all know, this is only a small part of the entire real estate nebula. Real estate is the people who design and build our buildings, the people that regulate and legislate our cites, the people that manage properties and assets alike. Real estate is where we live our lives, form our memories and do all the other real activities that make us human.
So, the term real estate has gotten a bit off track, become a bit too amorphous to be of much use. This is not the fault of the term itself or of the general public that has adopted its vague meaning. The fault lies with us in real estate. We have not done enough to show the world how important, inspiring and interesting real estate really is. We need to do a better job of explaining our jobs, our decisions and our philosophies to the rest of the world. We need to rebrand our industry’s identity lest we continue to be branded as bland bourgeois, uncaring capitalists and soulless salespeople. We need to tell our story before our audience makes it up for us—as unreal as it may be.