ATLANTIC CITY - Stress-management guru Loretta LaRoche thinks Americans take life much too seriously.
And as snow fell on a recent weekday, the Brooklyn-born author and TV personality delivered her message in Hall A of the Atlantic City Convention Center to a standing-room-only audience of men and women who, of late, seem to be some of the most stressed-out Americans of all.
Several thousand dues-paying members of the National Association of Realtors (NAR) from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York had gathered there earlier this month for the region's Triple Play Convention and Trade Expo.
Her keynote address, scheduled midway through the convention, was intended as a side-splitting antidote, albeit temporary for many, to the doom-and-gloom scenarios being painted about the housing industry just about everywhere else.
"You need to have a healthy attitude about life," LaRoche said. "People survive the problems of life when they learn to go with the flow. Be flexible. Flexibility is the ability not to get bent out of shape. But some people always want things to be the same. It's like their own Groundhog Day."
LaRoche, whose books are titled Relax - You May Only Have a Few Minutes Left and Life is Short - Wear Your Party Pants, strutted across the stage for 45 minutes wearing feathered boas and silly hats. She cajoled her audience into grinning, laughing, shouting "Whoop! Whoop!" as loudly as possible, then joining hands as she led in a sing-along of "That's Amore," with Dean Martin crooning in the background.
During the more than six dozen educational seminars surrounding LaRoche's appearance, the Realtors got lots of tough "amore" from recognized experts in the field - all for the continuing-education credit required for state license renewals.
Unless they begin getting in sync with the changed real estate environment, warned Marcie Roggow, president of Creative Learning Concepts of Sioux Falls, Iowa, many of those at the convention might not be renewing their licenses or their NAR memberships.
"We'll know better how far NAR membership will drop after the first of the year, when renewals come due," Roggow said. "There will be fewer Realtors for a while, and there will be a period of adjustment until the markets correct."
At November's NAR convention in Las Vegas, the group boasted of a membership increase in 2007, to 1.5 million.
In the depths of the 1990s downturn in the real estate market, membership slipped to a record low of 695,000. Another shakeout is due, the experts say.
Former NAR chief economist John Tuccillo, now a Virginia-based consultant, has been predicting a decline in membership since the mid-1990s, with the advent of the Internet. Still, the increase in agents and brokers during the real estate boom of 2002-05 didn't surprise him, considering that housing was the only bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economy.
"When people lose their jobs . . . selling $5 million in real estate looks attractive," according to Tuccillo. "Just because half of the agents in the business can't financially justify being in the business doesn't seem to matter."
The Internet seems to be the overwhelming challenge for agents and brokers, but the industry's response is dangerously and predictably inconsistent, the experts say.
"A lot of older agents have their client base already, and think the Internet buyers are flakes," Roggow said.
Yet these "flakes" are dictating the fortunes of the current market, and the Internet is defining seller attitudes as well, said Roger Turcotte, a New Hampshire real estate broker and educator.
"You meet with a seller and he wants to list at $390,000, even though your market analysis says to start at $345,000? That's the Internet talking," Turcotte said. "Before they call you, [sellers] spend hours looking at Web sites, collecting information from sources that aren't necessarily reliable.
"You show them the data, and they counter that they are not desperate and they are not going to lower the price."
What should a listing agent do?
"Walk away," Turcotte said. "You don't need the listing that badly, and you know what's going to happen. Someone else who tells the seller what he or she wants to hear will get the listing, and then the property will stay on the market until the price drops to what the market will bear."
He suggested that when economists and others look at the days a house stayed on the market, "they should look at the number of days from the date the seller lowered the asking price" to what the buyers were willing to spend.
Turcotte blamed a lot of the current market downturn on an overwhelming emphasis on home purchase as an investment, even though the industry's own rhetoric over the last several years also has focused on it.
In fact, the NAR's 2007 Profile of Buyers and Sellers says the "motivation for home ownership often includes an investment component," which most of those surveyed believed to offer a better return than stocks.
"We are trapped in a media mess," Turcotte said. "Eighty to 90 percent of buyers are looking for a lifestyle asset, not a financial one.
"You need to keep the consumer focused on the 'post-transaction benefit' - shorter commute, larger play area for children, less maintenance - and other lifestyle issues," he said.
Roggow, too, said the consumer's Internet savvy is a challenge for the typical real estate agent or broker. She recently received a call, she said, from a buyer who was trying to verify property-layout information on one of her listings with Google Earth.
In another instance, she said, "I was driving a husband and wife around looking at properties that were in their price range, and the husband asked about a price of a house I hadn't planned to show them."
When Roggow admitted she didn't know, "the wife in the back seat told us what the price was. She . . . spent several hours a day on the Internet."
Too many agents and brokers are employing business models that might have worked during the housing boom but have little use today, Roggow said.
"In 2003, the market was being driven by the shift in power from the broker to the agent, who was demanding 90-10 commission splits," she said. "Today, the consumer, who was low on the list, is the primary catalyst for change."
The Internet, as Tuccillo predicted way back in 1995, has leveled the playing field.
"Consumers have a better understanding of the real estate transaction than in the past," Roggow said. The Internet makes the consumer "a worthy opponent for the real estate novice agent."
Today, consumers are demanding more service, not minimal service, Roggow, Turcotte and other experts said. And they want the agent to be there for them 24/7.
There are a host of other differences from the boom times that agents and brokers need to deal with, among them credit and identity theft; putting faith in the wrong kinds of technology; and a renewed interest by buyers in environmental issues such as asbestos, lead-based paint, mold, and, said seminar leader Karel Murray, hazards left behind in houses formerly used as labs for methamphetamine production.
But good manners may outrank all of these.
Only 15 percent of the 22,000 complaints against agents and brokers filed last year in the United States involved ethical violations, Roggow said, adding, "The growth in complaints has been mostly etiquette- and manner-based."
So, as LaRoche recommended, it's time to laugh out loud and shout "Whoop! Whoop!" at the top of your lungs.
Just be civil about it.