Texas’ governing body for real estate agents has focused more on saving money for a new building than on serving consumers and licensees, according to a performance audit by the state’s Sunset Commission.
The Sunset Commission, an advisory body that assesses state agencies’ performance, suggests in a recent report that the state’s Real Estate Commission and Appraiser Board be continued for six years rather than the standard 12 so that state lawmakers can take a closer look at its operations.
In addition to stockpiling money that might be better spent on improving overall operations, the Sunset Commission’s auditors found, the real estate board had allowed customer service problems to reach “crisis proportions” by the start of 2018 as the state’s real estate sector boomed.
The board licenses real estate agents, continuing education providers and home inspectors. It is also supposed to be a place for consumers to get answers on real estate issues.
“Average call wait times exceeded 18 minutes, and at one point, 68 percent of callers were giving up and abandoning their calls,” the newly released report on the Sunset Commission’s probe says. Hold times ranged from 45 minutes to an hour and email queries went unanswered.
The report also found that the Real Estate Commission has failed to protect consumers by not prioritizing complaints based on risk, and lacks a methodical process to handle complaints.
That finding is similar to the last Sunset report on the board in 2006, which also noted the agency’s lack of focus on consumer complaints.
The Sunset report noted that complaints of long wait times and unresponsiveness dated to 2009, when over 50 percent of those queried complained of long wait times.
The agency’s executive director, Douglas Oldmixon, said the real estate commission would likely agree with some of the findings of the Sunset Commission and disagree with others.
For example, Oldmixon denied that the agency socked away funds for a new building at the expense of customer services.
“We have increased funds for people and technology,” he said. “No one was ever shorted for a building. That money was excess funds.”
The Sunset report will be discussed by real estate agency commissioners at an Oct. 12 meeting. A written response to the Sunset findings is scheduled to be completed by Oct.16.
In August, Oldmixon addressed the review, then in progress, at the commission’s monthly meeting.
“This process may be challenging at times, but we believe that the agency will come out on the other side much stronger,” he said.
In the wake of a growing thrum of complaints from agents and consumers frustrated with long phone waits and unanswered emails, Oldmixon in April acknowledged the agency’s customer service shortcomings in a note on the agency’s website: “I take personal responsibility for addressing these issues … . We know that the quality of services being provided … is not acceptable.”
The Sunset report notes that the agency showed no “urgency” in addressing longstanding complaints about its performance “until just prior to the agency’s Sunset review that began in April 2018.”
Oldmixon’s public apology was posted on its website on April 10, according to the agency. The Sunset Commission began its review April 18.
Oldmixon said there was no connection between the looming Sunset probe and the apology.
The agency’s Facebook page has become a place to air gripes from the public: “Been waiting over a month to get RE application approved,” a post from last month reads. “Horrible service … .”
“Is TREC not doing investigations anymore?” another post from a consumer asked. “I never heard back regarding a complaint against a realtor which you received in December of last year. Is TREC still operating? Will it continue to operate this way?”
The Texas Association of Realtors declined to comment. The Association of Texas Appraisers did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The agency has also been hit with technology problems that took down its license search portal in April, May, July and August. The agency promoted a Facebook Live event in July to answer questions from the public about unanswered emails and long hold time. The event was cancelled, and the promise of a reschedule is thus far unfulfilled.
Texas has led the country in real estate starts both residential and commercial for the past decade, as the state’s population continued to swell. The number of real estate licenses in Texas jumped 25 percent between 2013 and 2017, to 183,000.
The growth has increased the importance of the Real Estate Commission, one of eight state agencies with self-directed semi-independent (SDSI) status, which allows it to set its own fees and budgets and handle its own finances as approved by its governing board.
The new report, while recommending that the agency be allowed to continue self-governance for six years with extra metrics to make performance review easier, also re-opens the question of whether the real estate board and its funding should be subjected to closer state oversight.
According to Sunset Commission data, 94 percent of staff recommendations made in agency reviews leading up to the last legislative session were adopted by the commission and passed along in a bill for lawmakers to consider. Eighty percent of those recommendations became law.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]onitor.org.