Real estate's digital revolutionApril 19, 2013
By Bill Bowen
When Charles Bratton started out as a real estate agent in 1979, things were slower.
On Fridays he would drive to the local Board of Realtors office and pick up a supplement to the multiple listing. Some of the listings had photos, black and whites shot from the curb with little indication of what the house really looked like. They offered no hint of the neighborhood.
“That was all you got, and sometimes the picture was of the wrong house,” Bratton said.
To show a client homes, he would get their specifications, (what part of town, number of bedrooms, baths, lawn size, etc.), pull out the listings and the Mapsco. He planned a route and a list of houses that might take several days to show the clients.
“That was before cell phones, so you had to call the client at home, at night,” he remembers. “To present a contract, you had to drive to their office.”
Today, he enters the client’s preferences into the MLS website, which then shows only the houses that apply. His clients also may have already checked websites such as Trulia, Zillow and Realtor.com and handed him a list of houses that they’ve already driven past. The list of houses they want to see is likely to be much smaller and the client is likely to have taken a virtual photo tour of the homes’ interiors before they drew up the list.
He uses GPS to plan a route that may take less than a half a day. DocuSign allows contract negotiations via email.
“It’s like going to the candy store. They see so many that the only problem now is that it’s so hard for them to make up their minds.”
The Internet has changed the way people shop for homes and the way real estate agents do their jobs. At one time, agents were afraid that new websites that allowed owners to post their homes for sale “by owner” were going to replace them.
But those fears have been replaced with a hectic schedule to keep up with the digital demands and efficiencies of the Internet.
“I’d be dead in the water if I didn’t have my cell phone and iPad,” said Joan Trew, one half of the partnership that is now Williams Trew Sotheby’s International Realty, an upscale home seller. “It makes some of us, the real workaholics, slaves to it all the way we’re connected now.”
Trew said that in the 1980s she might show a couple 40 or 50 homes before they made a selection.
“I would say we do about 10 percent of that now,” Trew said.
Prospective buyers are also empowered to their own research. Besides looking at homes, someone shopping for a house can use Google Earth or other applications to view the neighborhood and adjacent houses on their own. They then waste less time in neighborhoods that don’t suit them or looking at houses that they aren’t going to like.
The efficiencies have come at a price.
Trew says that it takes a bigger capital investment today to open a real estate shop. Websites, photographers, webmasters, computer systems all add operating costs.
Williams Trew has its own website and ensures that the virtual tours are done with high-resolution photography. The Williams Trew website also gives a sense of movement through the room as the screen moves over the photos.
Because they sometimes handle listings themselves, Trew usually sends an appraiser to measure a home’s square footage to ensure that what the seller presented is accurate.
She said that it costs about $200 just to post a virtual tour, an expense that didn’t exist in the pre-Internet industry.
The other market websites, such as Trulia and Zillow, can be a blessing for buyers who can study the market and compare houses from the comfort of their living room. They also offer sellers a chance to market their own homes. But agents almost always get involved once negotiations begin.
“Things just happen faster,” said Carley Moore a Realtor with Coldwell Banker. But “people still want to see it, touch it.”
If the new websites offer almost no-cost marketing for sellers, there are some downsides.
Those websites aren’t updated as often as the MLS listings, so sometimes houses are already sold when people are just finding them. Or sellers may accidentally provide inaccurate square-footage measurements, leading to complications or accusations at closing.
Poor photos or extremely well done photos can also give a false impression, making a house look better – or worse – than it actually is.
“That’s why we always use professional photography,” Moore said.
Though not as far along as their residential counterparts, commercial brokers are also enjoying a windfall of time efficiencies.
“We used to have to go out with a notepad and drive around and take notes on the new listings,” said Bill Makens, of The Makens Co., a commercial real estate company in Bedford. “You still have to drive it, but it sure speeds things up.
“It’s revolutionized the marketplace.”
For Realtors like Trew, the satisfaction is still in providing customer service.
“One of the nicest things someone said to me was that I had answered their call and took care of a problem when they reached me on the beach on vacation in Florida,” Trew remembered, adding that service is still the philosophy that governs her business dealings.
“The last thing I do before I go to bed at night is check my cell phone and my iPad,” Trew said. “And it’s the first thing I do in the morning.”