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Monday, Oct. 9, 2006 | A couple of leaky, flapping red and blue balloons appended to a measly cardboard roadside “Open House” sign won’t cut it these days. Nearly 40,000 homes sit unsold in San Diego County. And more than 10,000 real estate agents compete daily to represent the region’s buyers and sellers.

New bus bench ads spring up, glossy flyers litter doorsteps, newspaper editorials from industry pros extol the virtues of homeownership, even in an uncertain market. But in a state where one in 52 adults is a licensed real estate agent, those Realtors, especially young ones, seek more creative tactics to separate themselves from the pack.

Some dive under the wing of a more experienced agent, learning strategies and sales savvy before venturing out on their own. Some start close to home – representing Mom, Dad or great-aunt Bev to get the hang of the negotiations.

And some click over to

Often relegated – in perception at least – to the teen drama or college gossip scenes, the popular social-networking site was founded two years ago by a couple of Southern Californian 20-somethings as a way for people to meet each other and swap music, photos and other tidbits about their lives. Independent bands and filmmakers find the site helpful in spreading word-of-mouth hype. MySpace is consistently one of the top 10 most popular websites on the Internet.

Now, the site is starting to attract real estate agents, who use it to connect with potential homebuyers or sellers, showcase the properties they’ve sold, and, while they’re at it, post a photo of what they did last weekend.

“The Internet is a big part of what we do,” said Seth O’Byrne, a 25-year-old Realtor who says he and his team are set to hit $20 million in sales this year. “Other young people just like us, the young professionals, want a lot more responsiveness when it comes to technology and being on top of the game.”

“Our team is ahead of the curve,” he said. “But there’s a flood of real estate agents right behind us.”

MySpace is one in a long list of approaches Realtors find to express their personalities, brand themselves and elbow out the competition. Bus bench ads and billboards display blown-up photographs of agents with starched collars and hair-sprayed coifs, beaming or pointing or shaking on a deal. It’s those photos and the accompanying name recognition that many real estate agents count on. As O’Byrne described it, the marketing strategies are less about garnering clients directly and more about reminding people he’s still in business.

The 10,000-strong San Diego Association of Realtors saw its membership explode in recent years, rising from about 6,000 agents at the beginning of the decade. Charles Jolly, SDAR president, now expects a shakeout from a slowing housing market to knock out about 10 to 15 percent of the roster in the next two years. In the meantime, he said, the serious Realtors, the ones with longevity, are the ones pouring funds into marketing campaigns.

“It tells people, ‘Hey, I didn’t get my license last week, sell a couple homes in the sizzling market and now I’m back to cutting hair in the local salon,’” he said. “It separates the good ones and the bad ones.”

MySpace isn’t the only new kid on the block for real estate marketing. Many Realtors use websites and blogs to display their properties for sale and share some advice for buyers or sellers.

Jim Klinge is a Realtor in North County who’s been in the business for more than 20 years. He, like many agents, puts his photo on his business cards. He dubs himself “Jim the Realtor” in his marketing – that’s the knowledgeable-neighbor vibe he’s trying to put out.

Klinge says his blog gives him a chance to be frank about his observations about the market. Where some Realtors refused to declare the huge run-up in home prices of a few years ago a “bubble,” Klinge took a different approach, even titling his blog about North County real estate “Bubble Info.”

“I think people reading my blog are thinking, ‘At least he’s not just another rah-rah guy,’” he said.

His sense is that bus bench ads and big billboards don’t do much to help agents. “It’s never been proven to me that that amounts to anything,” he said. “I’m much more of a rifle-shot kind of guy, not a shotgun approach. I’m trying to reach very specific people.”

As for the traditional bus bench photo-style marketing, even thought it might not translate directly into sales, it still functions to foster brand awareness, O’Byrne said.

“Essentially it’s about exposure,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that people don’t want to do business with you. But it’s just an inundated market – people don’t know you’re in business.”

And so O’Byrne, his partner Keke Jones and others use MySpace to send out bulletins to their friends, educating them on the market’s activity and reminding them who to call if they ever need a Realtor.

“MySpace to me is more about bringing your own personality into what you do,” he said.

O’Byrne’s MySpace page seems to mostly corroborate that young professional, with-it, knowledgeable persona he conveys in conversation. The page is topped by a Charlie’s Angels-style photograph of O’Byrne wearing a collared shirt and tie, flanked by Keke and their full-time assistant, Danielle. There’s a link to his alma mater, the University of San Diego’s real estate institute, and a couple of comments from mortgage lenders and real estate networking sites. He belongs to a group of Realtors called “MLS on MySpace (Multiple Listing Service),” which boasts 808 members.

Under the MySpace-standard prompt “Who I’d like to meet,” O’Byrne types: “Friends, people who surf, real estate buyers and sellers who seek quality investment opportunities and services, a dolphin that communicates with a family and solves mysteries, etc.” He’s got a snapshot of the kids’ football team he coaches and a photo of him surfing. Listed as his favorite reads are “The Warren Buffet Way” and “Investionary.”

Save a couple of photos posted, one of a tipsy O’Byrne out partying and the other of some bikini-clad girls, you might almost forget you’re visiting a 25-year-old’s MySpace page.

He said he tries to be consistent in his advertising.

“We don’t have the budget to look at perfectly branding ourselves,” he said. “That’s a long shot. There’s a lot of inconsistencies in what we do. But to our consumers, we’re not faceless people. We’re trying to be your buddy in real estate who sells more than your other buddy in real estate.”

O’Byrne does a lot of business in the college-graduate market, especially with fellow USD alumni. And so MySpace is a way, he said, to have a foot in both worlds.

“MySpace kind of touches on something that there’s no other way to explain – how constantly we’re in the business,” he said. “I always had a desire for my friends and family to know that we wake up and read the Wall Street Journal every morning, that even though we’re out at a concert with them Friday night, surfing with them on Sundays, we’re thinking about the gentrification of Imperial Beach.”

“Whether or not our crowd is old enough or financially ready, when they are ready, there is someone who thinks, looks and talks like them who can help them,” he said.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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