The meaning of “free” – a semantics lesson courtesy of the CAR rule

This article casts a critical eye on the California Association of Realtors’ (CARs’) disingenuous claim that their forms are “free.” Can something truly be free when you’re paying through the nose for it? 

Semantics, nothing more than language games

The California Association of Realtors (CAR) has a quirky sense of language.

In 2002, CAR began bundling access to their zipForms (then branded as WINForms) with their membership dues. Prior to this, CAR’s library of forms was sold separately, both in the digital format and in printed pads frequently made available at local Association of Realtors (AORs). Thus, what was once an independently available good was folded under the umbrella of membership – “bundled” in anti-trust vernacular.

And how did CAR describe this little switcheroo? Once the forms were bundled with membership, CAR started using an intentionally sneaky term to describe this change in MO – “free.”

Related reading:

CAR’s laundry – dirty forms

When the seeds were sown

“Free” is a term bandied about quite liberally by advertisers, politicians and the vox populi. It means different things in different contexts, such as enjoying political liberty, or not bound or constrained, or perhaps most commonly, not costing anything. This is how most in the English-speaking universe use this term.

And then there’s the CAR usage of “free,” meaning: subsidized by an across-the-board increase in membership dues shouldered by all. Intentional, yes; planned and fully disclosed, also yes.

A little history lesson may be on order. CAR’s bundling of forms with membership coincided with another far-reaching policy: an increase of CAR membership dues. Instead of forms being paid for individually by brokers and supplied to agents for their use, the cost was disbursed across the membership of all CAR devotees.

But did this clever sleight of hand actually fool anyone? Believe it or not, it worked – for a while anyway.

Smoke and mirrors

This bundling of forms didn’t just happen overnight. Like most dastardly plots, the mechanizations were set in motion well beforehand (likely under candlelight by a cigar-smoking cadre of old white males speaking in hushed, dramatic tones about very serious business).

On August 1st, 2001, CAR released an Issues Briefing Paper titled WINForms Software in the Dues.

Editor’s note – Though once publically available, first tuesday is no longer able to access and link to a digital copy of this document. We base this writing off a hard copy of the Issues Briefing Paper our Legal Editor had the foresight to print and retain in 2001.

The Issues Briefing Paper discusses how the bundling of WINForms (now known as zipLogix) with annual membership will be implemented, and how the bill will be subtly footed by each and every one of its members for the benefit of CAR and undernourished AORs.

The Issues Briefing Paper presented four payment options which were considered by the upper echelons of CAR’s directors.

WINForms software could be added as a membership benefit at an increased cost of:

  • $25 annually for each member;
  • $33-$35 annually for each member;
  • annually graduated costs of $18, $25 and $35 for each member; or
  • annually graduated costs of $18, $25 and $35, paired with an additional revenue generating subsidy to cover potential losses at the local AOR level.

Editor’s note – Remember, these are in 2001 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, this is closer to the ballpark of $45-$50.

We at first tuesday are not privy to which payment option CAR ultimately chose. However, the commonality of all these options is patently clear: they all involve increased membership dues to pay for the access to forms. Further, this increase will be shouldered by everyone – even non-practicing members who don’t use the forms, or members who then used forms published by others, such as first tuesday.

Prior to 2002, CAR was entirely cognizant of fiscal effect of bundling forms with membership. In the Financial Impact heading of the Issues Briefing Paper, CAR notes it will incur:

  • the cost of acquiring the WINForms software;
  • ongoing product support costs; and
  • loss of profit on the sales of forms.

Thus, CAR knew it would need to devise a strategy for turning a potential cash-sink into a full-fledged cash-cow.

How then can CAR continue to describe its forms as “free,” semantically speaking of course?

The aftermath

Now, over ten years after this dramatic transformation, this CAR handling has become the status quo, victim to the unquestioned we do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been brand of thinking.

With access to forms being the only tangible CAR benefit, most hardly bat an eye when it comes to “free” forms. This much is clear: CAR accomplished one leg of its stated goal. It did include WINForms software as part of membership benefits – but at a hefty increase in dues for value received.

Its goal of “free” forms never materialized. However, the illusion of free did.

And as far as CAR is concerned, isn’t the illusion of free better than the real thing?