Concierge programs help you and offerers

Nation's Housing

Assistance on call for various problems

January 31, 1999|By Kenneth R. Harney

ONE OF the hottest new concepts in American home real estate seeks to answer this intriguing question: Would you like a concierge for your own home?

That's right -- a concierge, much as you'd find at the front desk in a fine hotel, ready to help you whenever you need assistance.

Got a squirrel in the attic or a bee's nest in the back yard, but not a clue where to turn for help? No problem -- call the concierge. Have a plumbing emergency, a bad electrical outlet, a leaky roof? Call the concierge. Need cabinets or appliances for the kitchen at builder-discount prices? Call your concierge. Need cheaper property hazard insurance? You know who to call -- and that's a key attraction of the concierge concept.

Some of the deepest pockets in home real estate brokerage are betting that, given the opportunity to have a concierge service -- at no charge -- millions of home buyers and sellers nationwide will say yes. In the process, they believe, consumers will become more loyal, long-term customers of their brokerage firms, and may even create substantial new profit centers for the realty companies.

Different firms call it by different names -- "H OMElink," "preferred provider" packages, or concierge -- but the idea is the same: Assemble a large network of prescreened, dependable local vendors of services for virtually every need a typical homeowner has, and then offer them -- often at discounted prices -- exclusively to people who buy or sell homes through the real estate agency running the concierge desk.

The broker may charge the vendor a marketing fee or commission for inclusion in the service. The consumer pays only the vendor, never the broker. Here's what's happening:

* Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp., with 2,700 affiliate offices and 60,000 agents nationwide, is in the process of rolling out its concierge program in many markets. One of its affiliates in Southern California, Coldwell Banker Jon Douglas Company of Mission Viejo, already offers 150-plus individualized services to concierge clients ranging from the ordinary -- carpet installation, locksmiths, upholstery cleaning, maid service -- to the out-of-the-ordinary, such as "feng shui masters" who'll come to your home and rearrange your furnishings to promote more harmonious flow of spiritual energy.

* In Fairfield, Conn., William Raveis, head of the state's largest independent real estate brokerage, doesn't yet offer feng shui as one of the 272 concierge services on his growing list, but "we will if our customers want it."

Raveis foresees offering "everything from pediatricians to lawyers" through his real estate company -- all at discount prices to the homeowner.

He's just changed the name of the firm to William Raveis Real Estate and Home Services to emphasize his "post-closing" homeownership services package, and predicts that sometime in the near future, the firm will earn 50 percent more revenue on its home services than on its standard commission-based brokerage services.

Participating vendors pay Raveis fees of "$500 to $15,000" every three months for advertising "banners" on the company's Web site.

"We're not in the real estate business anymore," says Raveis. "we're in the home services business," much like an auto dealership can earn more on repairs, maintenance, insurance and financing services than it does by selling new cars.

* In Columbus, Ohio, H.E.R. Realtors, a major regional broker, has begun offering "HOMElink," a service that connects homebuyers with Internet, cable, gas, electric and security-system installations, plus newspapers and recycling services, with a single phone call. HOMElink also ties buyers into the firm's concierge package, which provides on-demand services on preferential terms from dozens of vendors. H.E.R.'s local rival, King Thompson Realtors, also offers a concierge package to "build and add value to our customer relationships," according to program director Sean Morrow.

Where's the concierge concept headed? To every real estate market in the country, say its proponents. Not only are consumer reactions "overwhelmingly favorable," says Coldwell Banker Jon Douglas concierge director Teresa R. Howe, but it also gets strong reviews from the firm's agents.

Since the basic program is free and many of the constituent services purport to be discounted, the main consumer concern has to be with the quality of the vendors offered by the package. The fact that the real estate firm may -- or may not -- be making money on the deal shouldn't be an inherent problem, as long as the firm discloses that some or all of the concierge service providers are cutting the sponsor in on the action.

Kenneth R. Harney is a syndicated columnist. Send letters care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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