The Banality of Real Estate
The four years I spent working in the real estate industry often feel like a weird fever dream. When I tell people about them I often feel a little embarrassed, like I’m telling them about the four years I spent in jail, or working at McKinsey. It’s not so much that the other people who work in real estate are hated (which they often are) or that they’re evil (which they sometimes are, but not as often as people think). It’s mostly just that they’re so painfully lame.
Real estate is for people who want to be “entrepreneurs” but aren’t creative enough to think of an actual business idea. Or else it’s for people who read a book about how to get rich written by some guy whose actual plan for getting rich was to sell a bunch of suckers his stupid book. A local real estate investor meetup is the only place you can go and still see someone with their cell phone clipped to their belt, or walking around with a Bluetooth headset in even though they’re not making a call. Where do you even get a Bluetooth headset these days? I thought we all switched to AirPods.
I don’t know if I believe that old saying that you become the average of the five people you hang out with the most, but I definitely believe that if you do a job long enough you’ll become like all the other people who also do that job. I have a friend who, during med school, decided to become a psychiatrist instead of a surgeon because all the surgeons he knew were drinking too much, yelling at their underlings, and cheating on their wives, and that seems like a much better metric for that decision than how much you like cutting people open. True, as the founder of a real estate tech startup I wasn’t exactly doing the same job as all the boring people in the industry, but it was still a little too close for comfort. I like the way Stephen Elliott puts it:
When I meet another real estate investor it’s as if I’m meeting my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, and he’s ugly and irritable and pathologically uninteresting and I’m thinking, oh, maybe that’s just what she’s into? And then I feel bad about myself.
I have a bunch of leftist friends who think all landlords are evil, and I do see where they’re coming from. Even the most diehard capitalists have to admit that just collecting rents is not exactly the kind of productive labor that moves society forward—there’s a reason “rent-seeking” is a pejorative term in economics. At the same time, given that landlords will be a feature of our society for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t help anyone if the people most concerned with the ethics of the situation all self-select out of the pool. We’d probably be better off if all the people who think landlords are evil decided to become one and just be extra nice about it. (I feel more or less the same way about cops.)
The majority of the landlords I met weren’t evil, though. Mostly, they were just the type of people who didn’t question things. Real estate isn’t for people who want to buck the system—certainly not at the level of a leftist activist, but not even at the much lower level of your average startup founder. Creativity is discouraged in real estate, and usually for good reason. Mostly, the way you succeed is by figuring out what everyone else is doing and then just doing that. 99% of people who think they’ve found a creative way to make money in real estate have actually just found a creative way to fuck things up for themselves.
It’s a fine line with startups: hating the way things work in a given industry can be good motivation for trying to disrupt it, but realistically you’ll only be able to change a small sliver of it, at least at first, and if you hate it too much you’ll never be able to stick around long enough to have an actual impact. Travis Kalanick talked a big game about hating the taxi industry, but Uber wasn’t originally founded to take on the taxi industry; it was originally about black cars, and Travis didn’t hate those, he just wanted them to be cheaper. I got into the real estate world in the first place because I was exposed to a tiny sliver of it—the Detroit DIY rehabber community of the 2010s—that was full of cool people, and of course turned out to be totally unrepresentative of the industry at large. (If any of my friends from those days are reading this: hi guys! This isn’t about you!)
The problem is that you usually turn out to be more malleable than the system is. I felt the real estate industry changing me a lot more than I felt the inverse. I’d like to say I saw this happening and got out, but the truth is a little more complicated. What really happened was our company “failed,” though it failed in that ambiguous startup way where there were options on the table that would have kept us going and we decided to throw in the towel anyway.
The official line was that we’d lost faith in the business. And it’s true, I’d gotten a better picture of the many factors that made our success unlikely. But I’d also gotten a better picture of what that success would’ve looked like, and it had grown less and less appealing the clearer it became.
Now when I meet people who work in real estate I mostly bite my tongue. But occasionally I come across someone who sees the industry the same way I do and we exchange sly grins of recognition, fellow travelers in a foreign land, who just barely made it out alive.