A Shift is Happening: Buyers are Regaining Leverage as 2021 Comes to an End

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Let’s state the obvious: We’re still in a very strong seller’s market. But as the end of the year approaches, those “small signs of change” we talked about three months ago have gotten much bigger.

Our End-of-Year Top Agent Insights Survey is out today, and it shows that the real estate market is more buyer-friendly now than it’s been in a while.

On this week’s Walkthrough, HomeLight’s Caroline Feeney walks us through the latest data that shows how buyers are regaining leverage, and two top agents join us to share how that’s playing out in the real estate trenches.

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Links and Show Notes

Full Transcript

(SPEAKER: Matt McGee, Host)

I’ve heard a lot of crazy real estate stories this year. Bidding wars involving more than 100 wanna-be buyers, homes selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars above asking price, and stories like this.

Janine: We’ve had people submit blank contracts and say, “Have the seller fill out what they want,” where it’s just like, they just wanted a house, they wanted to secure it, and they just literally gave a contract over to the other side and said, “Have it your way, fill it in, whatever you want.”

Matt: That’s the voice of Janine Sasso, and wow, what a year it’s been in real estate. HomeLight’s latest Top Agent Insights Survey is out today. It’s our end-of-year report, where we’re looking at where the market stands today and where agents like you think it’s going in 2022.

Today, we have two top agents joining us to talk about what’s happening in their markets. You just heard Janine Sasso, she works just outside Chicago. Jonathan Greene, from the northern New Jersey, New York City market is also with us today. They’re gonna share what’s happening on the streets. And HomeLight’s senior managing editor is here to make sense of today’s market data.

Remember those small signs of change that we saw three months ago? They’re getting bigger. It sure looks like a shift is underway.

This is “The Walkthrough.”


Hello there. My name’s Matt McGee. I’m the managing editor of HomeLight’s Agent Resource Center. Welcome to “The Walkthrough.” This is a weekly podcast, new episodes come out every Monday morning. This is the show where you’ll learn what’s working right now from the best real estate agents and industry experts in the country. At HomeLight, we believe in real estate agents. We’re on a journey to find out how great agents grow their business, stand out from the crowd, and become irreplaceable.

Tell me if this rings true for you. This is what my wife is saying to buyers right now on, you know, social media, email, and so forth. She says, “The Tri-Cities market hasn’t been this buyer-friendly in a long time.” That’s the message to buyers in our market. Inventory here is the highest it’s been in almost a year, and our median home price is lower than it’s been since back around April or May.

Does that ring true with you? I wouldn’t be surprised if it does. Sure, it’s still a strong seller’s market, I get that. In our end-of-year Top Agent Insight Survey, 95% of agents across the country are still reporting a seller’s market. But things are changing. Buyers are regaining a lot of the leverage they lost earlier this year.

My guest today is a familiar voice: Caroline Feeney, HomeLight’s senior managing editor, and the driving force behind our quarterly Top Agent Insights Survey. Caroline’s been with HomeLight since 2018. Before that, she was at Inman for more than two years. So she’s been tracking industry trends for a while now. Caroline is going to share data from today’s Top Agent Insights Survey. It’s about 90 pages of terrific insights from you and your peers. And I’m gonna make that PDF available for download in our Facebook mastermind community.

Also joining us today are agents Janine Sasso in the Chicago area and Jonathan Greene in the New York City area. We’re gonna talk about how the market is becoming more buyer-friendly. Inventory is up, bidding wars are down. Home prices are flattening and price reductions are on the rise. We’ll also look ahead to where things might be headed in the new year.

All of that is coming up, so let’s get started. It’s me and Caroline Feeney with help from a couple of top agents. We’re talking about today’s real estate market, where we are and where we’re going.


Matt: Caroline, when we talked three months ago for our podcast about the Top Agent Insights Survey, the theme of that episode was that we were starting back then to see some small signs of change. What are the big trends that are happening now as we get towards the end of 2021?

Caroline: Well, broadly speaking, the market is shifting away a bit from sellers, but it’s still far from normal. In our most recent data set, 95% of agents say that it’s a seller’s market, which is down from 98% last quarter, and yet still an unusually strong majority. But that said, we are seeing those small signs of change that we talked about in the last podcast expand in a way where we can now really point to a shift materializing. I kind of envision it like an escape valve, releasing some pressure from the market.

Matt: There seems to be a few different areas where buyers are regaining more leverage, right? Like, some signs that inventory is increasing, bidding wars are still happening but maybe not as frequently, and that sort of thing. Is that sort of the landscape of where things stand right now?

Caroline: That’s correct. We’re starting to see more homes become available on the market. Fifty-three percent of agents in our Q3 report say that inventory in their market is rising modestly. The percentage of agents as well who say inventory is lower than they expected this quarter declined from 85% in Q2 to 57% in Q3. So, this really represents the smallest percentage of agents who reported that inventory was lower than they expected since Q4 2019.

Matt: We have, as we always do, when we do our market trends podcast every quarter, we spoke with a couple of agents in different parts of the country earlier this week. Why don’t we bring in their thoughts on what they’re seeing in these markets? We have quotes from Janine Sasso, she works in Schaumburg, Illinois, which is just west, maybe northwest of Chicago. She’s gonna speak first talking about what she’s seeing in that area. And then we’ll hear from Jonathan Greene, he works out of Montclair, New Jersey, which is just outside the New York City market. So, let’s hear from Janine and Jonathan talking about what they are seeing in their markets.

Janine: We still have a lot of, you know, buyers looking to buy. We are starting to get a little bit more inventory, which really has helped to ease a little bit of that, you know, bottleneck we’ve experienced really, but we’re still way below what we used to be. And the sellers are still commanding their terms in our market. Almost pretty much across all price ranges from entry-point market to higher-end markets as well.

Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, we’ve seen a little bit of a downturn, but I mean, I think if you look at how crazy it was during COVID, now saying that like things are a little bit better for buyers is almost silly because it’s still insane. So, it’s still very, very hot. We still have a lot of outflux from New York City where we are in northern New Jersey. So, I do like to tell buyers that things are getting a little better, they have better chances, but we’re still making sure that they’re prepared for maybe not what people thought of, you know, five years ago. But these markets have stayed hot because we’re always right here in New York City.

Matt: So there’s Jonathan Greene talking about…I mean, he’s basically, Caroline, saying that things are getting better, still so far from normal. He also made the point when we were talking to him that, you know, at the height of the craziness, when the market was at maybe its most bananas earlier this year, he said that in his market right outside New York City, it wasn’t unusual for homes to sell, you know, $200,000, $300,000 over asking price. And I recall Janine said that things were not that crazy in her area.

Caroline: The $200k to $300k over asking is still shocking to hear, even though we’ve been hearing it for a while now. But yeah, that is something that Janine said. She mentioned, you know, they had it relatively good … or buyers had it relatively good compared to those who were trying to purchase on the coast. And what’s interesting is that our data is showing that signs of a market shift are appearing first and most prominently in the Midwestern region. A couple of stats for you, 81% of agents say that homes in the Midwest are getting fewer total bids, 71% say bidding wars are on the decline, 63% say price reductions are becoming more common, and 57% say buyers are now less likely to waive inspections and appraisals. And something that we looked at in the report was whether, you know, some of these sunbelts in southern markets had just absorbed so much of the pandemic migration that it’s gonna take a little bit longer for those markets to see some of the effects we’re already seeing now in the Midwest as dramatically at least because they’ve just got so much pent-up demand from people who flocked down there.

Matt: I think the big questions right now, Caroline, that I have, right, is what we’re seeing, is it like just part of the normal, I hate to use the word normal because like nothing’s normal in this market, right? But is it just part of the normal rhythm of the market, right? You know, like back in the day pre-pandemic when things usually started to slow down around this time of year. Is that’s what’s going on? Or is it actual, you know, like, more buyer behavior market-based kind of stuff? What did we see?

Caroline: The real estate market, the cycle of real estate I do think is part of it. Actually, I saw a tweet or maybe it was a meme that said, like, “August is like Sunday if it were a day of the week.” And that stuck with me because I think we all feel that way. When August and September come around, it’s back to business, back to school, which usually plays a role in cooling down the market each year. But even more than the normal real estate cadence, I would say, number one we’re hearing from agents that this is the effect of buyers burning out. And number two and relatedly, prices have reached a point where a whole cohort of buyers can’t afford to buy or they refuse to buy in an environment that they’re perceiving to be risky. And perhaps even foolish to purchasing from a financial perspective. So, they’re choosing to wait it out.

Matt: Yeah. I think buyer fatigue was a theme that both Jonathan and Janine touched on. So, why don’t we hear what they had to say about that? Because we asked them, you know, what is driving the shift? So, let’s listen to what Jonathan said. He’ll be speaking first followed by Janine right after.

Jonathan: I think the schools’ schedule always has something to do with it. I mean, because a lot of people come to a lot of areas that we work for the school systems, there’s always a lull on that September. People know not to list in late August because people are finishing up vacations, but COVID really adjusted every way that we look at how this works. So, I do think that there’s a lot of factors going into why we’re getting less bids, but again, we’re still getting 10, 15 bids on most kind of upgraded homes. I do think there was a lot of buyer fatigue that happened during COVID, and a lot of people were taking one to three-month breaks and then coming back. And then, you know, it’s really about whether they can get what they want when they come back.

Janine: When it got so heated, a lot of people saw, you know, this fear of the crash, which, you know, I don’t think we’re talking market crash, we’re really talking gradual things that are happening, but they remember their parents losing it all. Those are our buyers out there. They’ve seen the parents, they’ve seen the parents lose their retirement, they’ve seen the parents lose houses. I mean, you know, they’ve been scarred. So, seeing the market heat up like this, I think really put things back in front of them where they said, “You know what, we’re just gonna hold on.” Even though it’s a great idea to, you know, own something, build your own portfolio, or start in real estate to build your real estate wealth, it was a really hard call for a lot of people to say, “Is it really right for me to jump in right now, especially with the world’s uncertainty?”

Caroline: Janine spoke to a really interesting point that didn’t emerge in our survey, which was that some of the buyers who have decided to step away are wary of the abnormal price increase that they’ve seen because even though it wasn’t and it’s not the same situation as 2008, it reminds people of 2008, and how their family or loved ones were impacted. And that memory alone is causing some buyers to take a beat to take a pause.

Matt: Yeah, there’s been a lot on… I’ve seen a lot on social media, Caroline, about agents, like, having to sort of talk to some of their buyers through that. To explain, you know, this is a very different market from what happened, you know, 10, 12, 13 years ago. I also thought it was interesting, Jonathan made the point in his comments just there about they are getting less bids. He told us that he recently…I think he said like just about a week ago, he had a client that beat out 15 other offers, which is a lot, you know, by any count. But he said earlier in the year, it probably would have been 30-plus offers.

Caroline: Right. Echoing Jonathan’s experience, one of the most dramatic findings from our survey was that the percentage of agents who say bidding wars are on the decline in their market rose from 3% to 62% over the course of a single year. Prior to that, the data had shown bidding wars only becoming more frequent with a high volume of offers. So this was really the first quarter where the data reversed on that trend, and we were, you know, alongside of that, seeing these additional signs of softening.

Matt: Yeah. I remember, and I’m gonna feel bad for forgetting which agent said it, but I remember, you know, two or three podcasts ago when we were talking about market trends, one of the agents specifically said, you know, at some point, instead of, you know, 12 offers per house, we’ll get down to 6, we’ll get down to 3, and we’re starting to see that it looks like right now. I also wanna share one thing that Jonathan said. I thought this was a pretty good tip to share with our listeners, the agents that are listening. He said, when they get a situation where a bidding wars are causing their buyers to step out of the market entirely, he made the point, you know, stay in touch with them anyway, keep sending them properties so that they can see what’s going on with home prices. They understand what the market is doing, even though they’re out of it. And then he said that he always makes a point to communicate the final sale price of the homes that his clients offered on that they didn’t get. Just so that they can see that, wow, yeah, this was, like, way above, you know, the limit that I was willing to go, you know, with my bidding.

Caroline: I remember him also saying related to that, he always approaches that situation from an educational perspective. Letting the buyer know, “Look, I understand why you’re stepping out. That’s completely fine. Take your time, I’ll be here for you. And I’ll keep sending you home just in case something comes out that might be the right fit.”

Matt: Yeah. And one last thing on bidding wars, Caroline, there was National Association of REALTORS’ statistic that I saw came out late September. So, you know, a little less than a month ago, I guess. Back in August, there were on average 3.8 offers on homes that sold during that month and that was down from 5.1 offers in May. So, that kind of reinforces what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing from our agents about bidding wars being on the decline, you know, in this recent stretch.

Caroline: Absolutely. And this idea that homes are still getting multiple offers, but that they’re getting fewer offers, overall, I think is really critical to show kind of where we are at this point in time with the market because it is still very competitive, and anytime there’s more than one offer on a home. But the fact that homes may still get multiple offers but fewer bids for home was a trend cited by 76% of agents in our survey. So, a vast majority really just showing that this is the number one sign of the market cooling agents are seeing.

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Matt: Yeah. A common theme in the survey and in the conversation that we had with Janine and Jonathan was that buyers are starting to get some of their leverage back more and more as each month goes along. One of the ways that’s playing out is something you mentioned earlier, it’s this trend involving appraisal waivers. Talk to me more about that.

Caroline: Over the past say year-and-a-half as housing heats up, buyers start looking for ways to make their offer stand out. And one of those levers that people were using was the appraisal waiver. It’s also called an appraisal gap coverage, which essentially tells the seller if the house appraises under contract value, I agree to bring the extra funds to the sale, usually up to a certain amount. And our data shows that the percentage of bids in the market with some type of appraisal waiver, whether it was full or partial was, I would say, alarmingly high at 37% between the months of April and September 2021. So, the question was related to six months back, what was the percentage of bids that included appraisal waivers? And then another sign of things cooling off over the next six months, agents expect the percentage of bids that include appraisal waivers to drop to 24%. So while we’re starting to see fewer appraisal waivers, Janine and Jonathan made some interesting points about the long-term effects of agreeing to pay beyond what the home appraises for. So, let’s get into that now.

Janine: I feel like our buyers are getting back in control. I have seen buyers becoming a little bit pickier, which is, you know, in so many words, nice to see because it’s been so heavily seller-driven. So, our buyers are actually able to now decline our appraisal waiver addendums, for example, and say, “No, we’re gonna pay that, but we don’t wanna waive appraisal,” for example. So, they’re getting a little bit more rights if you want, you know, back to negotiate for themselves.

Jonathan: During the whole time, you know, on my team, we never waived fully appraisal. We gave our clients the full information about what they would, but we did the modify floors and ceilings that were very careful and phrased out. So, it was extremely clear because in the beginning when people started doing all these waivers, if the language wasn’t clear, not really sure what you’re getting if it appraises at some things. So, we, you know, designed a system to make it very obvious, but if you’re waiving appraisal and bidding, whatever, $100,000, $200,000 over asking, when are you getting that equity back? You know, and then who are they going to blame it on? They’re definitely gonna blame it on the agent, even if you properly advise them, you know, when they decide they get a job transfer and they have to move in a year and they paid and waived.

Matt: I think that’s a great point Jonathan just made there about the risks of spending so much money going, you know, over home value. Janine made a great point too, talking about how she thinks that because buyers have been waiving appraisals all year long and potentially overspending on their home, she thinks they’re going to be staying in their homes longer than normal in the future, sort of to help regain that equity over time. So, that’ll be something I think that’s worth keeping an eye on.

You know, another piece of leverage that buyers are getting back and we’ve talked about this kind of touched on real briefly already, home prices and price reductions. Totally anecdotally, I can just say from my scrolling on Facebook where I follow a couple hundred real estate agents, I have seen more posts about price reductions in the last month or two than probably the entire rest of the year.

Caroline: And our data would support your anecdotes, Matt. Just three months ago, 95% of agents in our survey said home prices were on the rise compared to 53% in our most recent survey. And what’s more, nearly 50% say price reductions are on the rise. And what we heard from agents who shared their thoughts in the comments of the survey is that price reductions are most likely right now to be seen on homes that would not be considered turnkey or move-in ready. And this was echoed by Janine and Jonathan. We heard that sellers really need to be mindful of their home’s presentation and not expect buyers to look past the basics. You know, they wanna see a clean and tidy home at this point. And so, they’re starting to get more choosy in their selections and crafting their offers accordingly.

Matt: Yeah. Maybe six months ago, if you were a seller, you could just put your home on the market and not worry about fixing it up and staging and prepping it and all that kind of thing, and if it had some defects. Whatever, you were still gonna find buyers. But from what we’re hearing with Janine and Jonathan, they are both saying that that is not the case anymore. So, let’s listen to what they said. First, we’ll hear from Janine, followed by Jonathan talking about price reductions and the price of homes today.

Janine: We have sellers just throwing, you know, their houses on the market. It was the clutter, you know, it was the stuff. And then we are seeing the price reductions on them. So, we are really starting to see where we need to make sure the marketing is done right, they need to be presented right. Because this is the person you’re appealing to, your HGTV-worthy homes. You know, even if they’re not super updated but they’re really clean, those are the ones that we’re starting to see sell a lot quicker. So, it’s not that everything sells. I mean, everything will sell eventually for the right price, but it’s a good time to remind the sellers that you really need to make sure you put the time and effort into the presentation of it if you want the most bang for your buck.

Jonathan: That’s a great point. I mean, pricing is so important because if you look at a list in 19 out of 20 homes sold for over asking, and you’re the one that now didn’t get the asking price, of course, you’ll price it too high, but it’s usually based on exactly what Janine said. That if the house is littered with stuff, it’s just gonna be harder for buyers to imagine themselves in there. And again, they are more choosy. And if it’s the desperation like we’ve been talking, like they have to get in, they wanna do as little work as possible. They don’t wanna, you know, flee the city to the suburbs and then also have to do, you know, a gigantic renovation, that’s gonna just delay them getting out.

Matt: I think that’s interesting, Jonathan talking there about how, you know, buyers fleeing New York City out to his area in New Jersey that, you know, they’re getting…he said they’re being more choosy. They don’t wanna have to deal with, you know, big renovations and a lot of work to do on the house that they’re buying.

Caroline: Right. And this is starting to be reflected in inspection negotiations as well. We found that 32% of agents say that an increasing number of buyers are pushing back on inspection items and really making sure that they’re getting the quality of home that they’re looking for.

At the same time, I think the flip side of this is that yes, some buyers are able to be pickier at this point in time, but prices have come up so much in the past year and a half that it’s priced some buyers out completely and thus unable to afford current property values. Data from the National Association of REALTORS released I believe a month ago or this month, show that the share of first-time buyers to the existing home sales market declined 29% in August 2021 from 33% in the same month in 2020.

Matt: Both Janine and Jonathan talked about how, yeah, prices are starting to steady. They’re flattening a bit. They’re not rising as much as they were. But, boy, it’s still tough for first-time homebuyers. I know in my market here, and I mentioned this when we were chatting with both Janine and Jonathan, in my market here, you know, a year or two ago, an entry-level house was $175,000, maybe $200,000, now it’s, you know, $275,000. And, you know, boy, if you’re a first-time homebuyer, that’s gotta be really, really difficult. So, that’s one area, again, we’ll just have to keep a watch on that, and hopefully, you know, some opportunities… Some of the leverage that we’ve been talking about, hopefully, that extends soon enough to first-time homebuyers.

You know, Caroline, we’re getting to the end of 2021, so obviously, there’s a lot of thought about where things are headed in 2022. I guess that’s the big question, will this shift continue? Will buyers continue to regain some of their leverage? Did we get any sense from the survey about where things are headed and how agents are feeling about the market as we head into the new year?

Caroline: Optimism in the industry remains high. Eighty-five percent of agents in our most recent poll expressed optimism about the housing market, and that was up from 80% last quarter. It’s interesting to see that happen, the rise in optimism when the market is technically softening. I think it speaks to the conditions of the pandemic housing frenzy being so crazy that a little more balanced here and there is a welcome change to a lot of people. And we’re still in a market where buyers and sellers can both benefit and be satisfied with the outcome of their transaction. You know, buyers from the sense of low mortgage rates and perhaps fewer bids for home to compete against, and sellers who can still come in at a really strong price for their home given the recent surge in home equity.

Matt: Let’s hear what Jonathan and Janine had to say. We specifically asked them, how optimistic are you about the market going ahead and what do you expect to see in 2022?

Jonathan: Still great in terms of the value that you can get for the homes. I do think that the market is going to be easier for buyers. I mean, I really do. I’m seeing it now. Just because we went so high, I don’t think you can go higher in a lot of these markets than it has been. Obviously, your top-tier markets are always gonna stay that way. I think it’s gonna continue to be. I think sellers will still do well on really nice products. But again, to one thing Janine was saying before the products now that I think are being put out there and hoping for the high prices, but like aren’t set up to really look good for buyers, I think those are gonna really suffer.

Janine: I can see the trend of the optimism going up, just because from where we’ve been up the uncertainty, seeing this, like, you know, 3X increase in home prices, everybody thought, “Oh my gosh, the market’s gonna crash because we’re rapidly rising.” And I think we’re all now seeing this is not happening. We are just kind of going into, like, a normal gradual increase now moving forward, which I think is why we see that optimism being up. That fear of the market is gonna turn into… It’s actually gonna be okay. And I think it’s going to be kind of like one of those seesaw movements, where we see, you know, the seller market slowly starting to go into the buyer market.

Matt: So, there’s Jonathan and Janine sort of sharing what they are expecting to see, Caroline, over the next six months as we head into the new year. You know, I think we should be watching things like where interest rates are headed, you mentioned that a little while ago. We didn’t really dive much into the topic of foreclosures. That is still sort of a to-be-determined thing, I think. Janine also made a good point that she expects a lot of buyers to come back to the market starting in the spring.

Caroline: You know, going back to the survey data, this is a survey where after multiple quarters of similar findings showing the same trends, right, the market’s escalating, prices are skyrocketing, we finally saw some swings in buyer’s favor. But I think what we heard time and again from real estate agents in the survey, and we talked to for the podcast, is that this is a gradual shift that’s happening, it’s not, you know, the bottom is falling out all at once. You know, with the foreclosure moratorium, there was speculation what’s gonna happen. There are gonna be a lot more foreclosures coming on the market. Our survey showed that that has yet to materialize, only 11% of agents say that transactions involving the seller’s properties in their market are increasing. It’s still 95% of seller’s market. You know, and as Janine mentioned, the spring could bring back a lot of buyers who chose to rent for 6 to 12 months during this price mayhem. And so, it will be interesting to see how the next couple of seasons play out. Are these buyers gonna come back in the spring? And how long will we continue to see the impacts of the pandemic interrupt the normal rhythm of the market?

(Speaker: Matt McGee, Host)

Now I think that’s the big question for the next six months. Is the wild ride coming to an end? Are we finally seeing a return to the normal ups and downs of the market? If buyers come back in the spring and if sellers do the same, we should see a more balanced market. But if sellers don’t come back, we could be in for another wild ride in 2022.

All right. Let’s do our takeaways. This is what stood out to me from today’s conversation. Takeaway number one, yeah, we are still in a strong seller’s market, 95% of agents said so in our latest Top Agent Insights Survey.

Takeaway number two, that said, buyers are really starting to regain some of their leverage. Fifty-three percent of agents say inventory is rising in their markets, 62% said bidding wars are on the decline compared to only 3% who said that three months ago. Just a remarkable change in bidding wars. Only 53% of agents say home prices are rising compared to 95% three months ago. Appraisal waivers are less common and agents say their buyers are starting to push back more often on inspection items. All of that are signs that buyers are getting back some of their leverage.

Takeaway number three, sellers can’t expect to put their home on the market in just any condition and get top dollar these days. Both Janine and Jonathan said they are seeing more price reductions these days, especially with homes that are not move-in ready.

Takeaway number four, agent optimism is up, as Caroline said, but there are still a lot of questions about what buyers and sellers will do in the new year.

All right. If you have questions or feedback for me about today’s episode, there’s a couple of different ways you can get in touch. You can leave a voicemail or send a text. The number is 415-322-3328. You can send an email to walkthrough[at]homelight.com, that goes straight to me. Or you can find me in our Facebook mastermind group. Janine, and Jonathan, and Caroline are all in the group as well if you wanna talk about anything you heard today. Just go to Facebook, do a search for HomeLight Walkthrough and the group will come right up.

That’s all for this week. Thanks so much to Caroline Feeney, Janine Sasso, and Jonathan Greene for joining me. And thank you for listening.

My name’s Matt McGee, and you’ve been listening to “The Walkthrough.” At HomeLight, we believe in real estate agents. We’re on a journey to find out how great agents grow their business, stand out from the crowd, and become irreplaceable.

Go out and safely sell some homes, I’ll talk to you again next week. Bye-bye.

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