The Australian bushfires have affected me very personally. My parents live at Kalaru. It’s a small hamlet that sits between Bega and Tathra, which suffered from a large bushfire just 20 months ago. My husband and I have a holiday house at Bingie, 12 minutes south of Moruya. We built it 10 years ago, but we’ve owned the land ever since we moved in together – which is more years than I care to remember.
We enjoyed a Christmas week that was equal parts celebratory and relaxing, and anxious and off-kilter. It was happy because for the first time in 12 months both my adult sons were home. It was anxious because of the constant smoke and obsessive bushfire updates.
The kids and my husband drove back to Sydney on December 30th, and I set off – in thick smoke – down the Princess Highway to Kalaru to spend a few days with my parents. The following day, the townships of Cobargo and Quaama were destroyed by bushfire, literally hours after I drove through them. Mogo, to the north of us, was also razed. North Moruya was hit. Batemans Bay and southern coastal suburbs became war zones. Businesses I have shopped in for more than 20 years are now gone.
We spent the Wednesday of New Year’s Eve evacuated out of the bushfire zone – initially to Bega to hide out at the shopping centre. Then that became increasingly untenable due to my father’s dementia, so we dashed across the Jellat plain under a boiling red sky and thick smoke to the house of a friend which is fireproof. It was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life. There was something primal about the orange sky – it was impossible to comprehend it could be that red without flames bursting out from the trees.
When I posted about it the following day on Facebook I was overwhelmed by messages from friends across Australia and around the world. What we faced as a family on a scale of one to 10 of bushfire disasters was not even a one – we were okay and as I said in the post, it was ‘only property’ that had been threatened, one of which was a holiday home. Everything was insured. First world problems, right?
To my surprise, it was my non-real estate friends who were adamant this was not the case. “No, it’s never ‘just property’,” wrote one. “Our homes are the hearts and souls of lives.”
And this, more than anything, made me realise there are real lessons for the real estate industry from these fires. Here what I think we should embrace:
Home really is where our hearts and souls live
It’s not the bricks and mortar – or weatherboard – that breaks our hearts when we think about our homes. It’s the families we’ve raised within those walls, the TV nights snuggled on the couch, the weekend barbeques, kids playing on the trampoline. It’s the loving, the fighting, the arguments over paint colour, the birthday parties, the photos of favourite moments on family holidays on mantels.
When homes burn down, it’s the artefacts of the memories that burn with them that we truly mourn. You can rebuild the walls. You can’t replace Nanna’s antique dresser, or the pre-digital baby photos, or the spot on the wall that the kids drew on with texta that never quite wore off. As an industry, we need to stop treating the property as a transaction and reconnect with the emotion of helping people to find – or leave – homes they love. These emotions and the ability to help people feel safe is stronger than any advertising campaign, which leads me to point 2.
Marketing spin when human connection is required makes people furious
The reason we are all so angry with our government right now – and the Prime Minister in particular – is because we’re being fed disingenuous marketing slogans and patronising nonsense at a time of high distress when responsibility and accountability are required. Instead of empathy about what people are going through, Scott Morrison has demonstrated repeatedly that his own need to feel important and look good comes first. It has destroyed all credibility and trust.
Sound familiar? As an industry, we should learn from these truly awful examples and start putting the needs of our clients ahead of our own need to look good. We need to understand the stress of selling and buying, or just finding a new rental. We need to empathise with the feelings of anxiety and insecurity that it creates in people.
It is time for real estate to lean in and lead in their community
Real estate businesses have a role to play at a time of crisis that extends beyond worrying about our own offices and teams. We have inventories of rental properties and databases of landlords. Many of us have holiday accommodation or short term rentals. We are also great marketers and know lots of people in our communities.
It’s time to turn our powers towards the greater good to serve our communities. We need to become known more broadly as an industry that can be relied upon to help.
In fire-affected areas, I was heartened to hear stories of McGrath and Raine & Horne offices. They created lists of holiday homes that had survived the blazes that could be used for emergency accommodation for displaced families. (Well done guys!). Similarly, Di Jones stepped up for drought-affected communities before Christmas by hosting a Shop the Bush convoy.
It would be great to see more agencies stepping up into this space. Surely we can look at ways property management teams could help the elderly in their communities coordinate repairs with reliable tradies.
Be kind – and see the bigger picture
There is no doubt real estate offices in fire-affected communities will have a really tough time in the coming months. Sales are going to be down. With so many properties to be rebuilt, it will take a year or two before the south coast recovers financially. That’s going to be hard for many offices. But it’s more important than ever that we see the bigger picture and not go for short term sales.
Everyone who has lost property from bushfires is going to ask the question – should we rebuild? Is it worth it? What should we build? How much is it likely to cost? Will it take long? How much will the property be worth when we’re finished. Should we just sell up the land and move on?
We will need to provide obligation free, honest answers that are backed by data, recognising people’s fears. We need to treat people – including ourselves – kindly.
People are really revealing their vulnerability when they ask these questions. They’re telling you that they feel emotional. That they are not sure if they can cope or they are feeling close to breaking. Be straight with them. Recognise they’re hurting. Lean in. Offer genuine help – even if that is just a hug (if appropriate). Or alternatively a beer, a chat, a surf or a cup of coffee.
Make kindness – not commissions – your mantra.