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Your Plumber, Ma'am

Have a leaky roof? Need pest control? How about an electrician? Some real estate firms are offering a concierge service. Make one phone call and everything will be arranged.

April 04, 1999|KENNETH R. HARNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — 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 with requests from the mundane to the exotic, whenever you need assistance.

Got a squirrel in the attic or a bee's nest in the backyard but not a clue where to turn for help? No problem--call the concierge.

Have a plumbing emergency, a bad electrical outlet, trouble with the hot water heater, a leaky roof, a tree branch blocking the driveway? 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 real estate brokerages 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 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--HOMElink, preferred provider packages or concierge--but the idea is the same: Assemble a large network of pre-screened, dependable local vendors of services for virtually every need a typical homeowner has, then offer it--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, not 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 Co. of Mission Viejo, already offers 150-plus individualized services to concierge clients.

Last year, the company received 7,152 service orders from clients in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, with the bulk of the orders being placed by homeowners who were preparing to sell their homes, according to Teresa R. Howe, concierge director for Coldwell Banker Jon Douglas.

The services range from the ordinary--carpet installation, locksmith, upholstery cleaning, maid service--to the out of the ordinary, such as feng shui masters who will go to your home and rearrange your furnishings to promote more harmonious flow of spiritual energy. (Feng shui is the ancient Chinese art of placement of physical objects to harmonize with the forces of nature.)

One of strangest requests, according to Howe, was made by a client who "needed to get dead animals out from under his home."

* 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 says, "We will if our customers want it."

Raveis is so bullish about the future of the concierge concept that he 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 some time in the near future, the firm will earn 50% 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 as an auto dealership can earn more on repairs, maintenance, insurance and financing services than it does by selling new cars.

* In Columbus, Ohio, HER Realtors, a major regional broker, has begun offering HOMElink, a service that connects new home buyers 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. HER'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.

Does the concierge idea pose potential risks to consumers? Because 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.

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