Historically, the real-estate industry has lagged behind the rest of the business world by a few years in the adoption of new digital tools.
But the housing-market downturn appears to have spurred agents, brokers and others to develop and embrace new technology at an unprecedented rate.
From Facebook to QR codes, to Twitter and multiple custom websites, many agents have come a long way from the days when they jumped in the car carrying printouts of home listings and the latest local street map.
5 key technologies for real-estate agents
Bob Bemis, chief executive of the Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service, said Arizona real-estate agents have adjusted quickly in terms of their attitudes toward adopting new technology.
“The explosive nature of technical development has been phenomenal,” said Bemis, who has helped promote that change by offering a variety of technology products to listing-service members.
To some extent, it’s unclear where the changes will lead. The worst housing slump in generations came along just as smartphones, social media and other devices were starting to transform the way real-estate business was conducted.
The flood of short sales and foreclosures, not to mention many recent changes in rules and procedure, have required agents to learn new processes and techniques with all the latest tools at their disposal.
Even after the housing market returns to normal, those in the real-estate industry said technology was likely to continue changing their profession in unpredictable ways.
The agent’s role in a home sale - that of buyer or seller representative - is no different, according to real-estate agents in the Phoenix area. But there has been a significant uptick in the knowledge and tools required to do the job effectively.
Rampant change is partly a product of the economic downturn and financial distress many homeowners have endured and partly the result of new information technologies that, depending on how they are used, can be regarded as either a boon or a threat to the real-estate industry.
Most agents and brokers seem to agree their industry is likely to undergo as many changes in the next four years as it has during the previous four.
They said the impact of high-tech tools such as broadband wireless service, Internet data exchange, digital social networking, global-positioning systems and quick-response codes for smartphones had been overwhelmingly positive.
Still, industry representatives said information technology also has the potential to diminish real-estate agents’ role in the housing economy via a process known as “disintermediation,” which is a fancy way to say “cutting out the middleman.”
It’s the same process that has wreaked havoc on travel agents, discount stockbrokers and other professional intermediaries.
“At this point, the threats are not huge,” said Ron LaMee, senior vice president of information services for the Arizona Association of Realtors. “It may carve out pieces of the traditional services that agents provide.”
Agents of change
Today’s real-estate agents operate in an environment in which sales transactions have gotten more complicated, mortgage-lending standards are tighter, the home-appraisal process stricter, and the federal government is constantly changing incentives and restrictions that can save or kill a deal.
Many agents have incorporated technologies into their businesses that allow clients to perform some of the more enjoyable work themselves, such as searching through online home listings, while their agent focuses on the heavy lifting.
Every geographic area in the country has a listing service that maintains a Web-based database of homes available for purchase, along with various details about each property. Some of the information is suitable for public consumption, such as a home’s square footage, while other information is not, such as the lockbox combination to house keys for agents to use when showing a home to clients.
One of the listing service’s major accomplishments in recent years has been developing a Web-based system that lets consumers access and search the public-approved portion of the database.
Bemis has gone on to transform the Phoenix-area listing service into what he calls “a tester and recommender of new technology” for agents.
Bemis said most agents felt pressure to keep up with new technology, but that there could be as many as 50 to 100 applications with the same basic function available on the market.
Generally, real-estate agents are looking for tools that enhance their self-promotion efforts, improve relationships with clients, gauge buyer interest in their listed properties and the track the progress of pending home purchases. Agents have adopted other technologies out of sheer necessity, such as electronic systems lenders have implemented to track the progress of short-sale transactions.
Bemis said competition among agents is more intense than ever, and that any tool which provides a slight edge over the competition is too important to ignore.
“Those that want to survive have to evolve much, much more quickly,” he said.
Apps for agents
High-tech entrepreneurs John Perkins and Grant Gould have spent the past several years developing applications designed to perform certain tasks specifically for real-estate agents.
Co-founders Gould and Perkins’ latest venture, Home Junction Inc., based in La Jolla, Calif., offers a proprietary software product called SpatialMatch that allows users to choose a neighborhood and then view an interactive map showing anything they want to see: schools, public parks, parking garages, bus stops, bagel shops, haberdashers, Whataburgers - anything.
Agents subscribe to a service that lets them embed the SpatialMatch interface on their own websites using a technology known as Internet data exchange, or IDX.
IDX lets visitors to the website use the embedded application without having to link to another site. Many real-estate agents use the same technology to let clients access the listing service’s database.
Gould and Perkins give their agent clients the option of putting the SpatialMatch app behind a lead-generation barrier, which forces visitors to enter their name and contact information.
However, they said few agents use it. Agents have learned by experience that the hard sell and the Internet don’t mix.
“It’s not about lead-generation,” Gould said. “It’s about managing the flow of information to the consumer.”
Unfettered access to apps such as SpatialMatch keep visitors on the website and position the agent as a hyper-local expert, they said.
A previous business Gould and Perkins developed, Real Estate Village, helped agents create custom websites and was sold in 2005 to Homes.com, which provides a variety of Internet-based services to real-estate agents.
Perkins explained that tech tools in the real-estate business usually have one of two opposing goals: automation or disintermediation.
Automation products aim to make the job easier for agents. Disintermediation products aim to make agents obsolete.
Because they offer the application only to real-estate professionals, Perkins and Gould said they are in the automation space.
In fact, their goal is to help agents and brokers compete against the leaders in disintermediation, do-it-yourself home listings Web portals such as Realtor.com, Zillow and Trulia.
“We made a conscious decision to develop products that empower the Realtor,” Gould said.
Too much tech?
In today’s real-estate market, the use of certain high-tech products and services is mandatory, said Laurie Duffy, a real-estate agent with John Hall & Associates Inc., based in Phoenix.
The most critical among them is a quality website devoted specifically to that particular agent.
All real-estate agents are independent contractors, she said, and they succeed or fail based on the strength of their personal branding effort.
“You really have to set yourself apart from other agents by putting your name out there,” she said.
Other must-have technologies include text messaging, a Facebook page, a GPS device, and a laptop computer with wireless Internet service.
One of the most promising technologies to hit the real-estate profession in recent months is the use of quick-response codes, or QR codes, said Realty Executives agent Libby Cohen, of the Scottsdale-based Walt Danley Group.
Cohen demonstrated recently how she uses QR codes, which look like squares partially filled in with black dots, on the front of her listed homes’ for-sale signs.
Any passer-by with a compatible smartphone can scan the code with the phone’s camera, which instantly sends the phone’s Web browser to a page featuring information about the home and even a video tour.
Cohen receives a notice whenever one of her QR codes is scanned, allowing her to track the number of visitors to each property.
She said the system helps her maintain a good relationship with sellers.
Duffy said there were some things she prefers to do the old-fashioned way, and that too much technology can be a bad thing.
Whenever possible, Duffy said she chooses face-to-face conversation over a phone call, and a phone call over an e-mail message.
While Duffy agreed that the role of real-estate agents was bound to continue evolving with new technology, she scoffed at the notion that a website ultimately could displace agents altogether.
“I don’t see how the Internet could ever take the place of an agent,” she said. “People need guidance, and they need it from an actual person.”
Agents of the future
LaMee agreed that real-estate agents always would have a place in the housing market.
A home purchase is far more complicated than buying plane tickets or shares of Motorola, he said, adding that real-estate agents are unusual in that they broker transactions between two consumers.
Still, LaMee said it was likely that real-estate agents of the future would be fewer, more specialized, more productive and able to provide a no-frills version of their services for a reduced fee.
Limited-service real-estate agencies, often charging a flat fee in place of the traditional 3 percent commission, already had begun to emerge toward the end of the housing boom, LaMee said, but the downturn seemed to have put the brakes on that trend.
As much as real-estate agents hate them, complicated and potentially frustrating short-sale transactions now prevalent in the Phoenix-area housing market have made full-service agents vital again, especially to sellers.
Many agents believe the reprieve from their devaluation is only temporary, however.
A survey of agents and brokers conducted recently by Web-based real-estate news service Inman News revealed that many believe flat-fee services are most likely on the rise again.
The online survey, whose respondents included more than 700 self-identified agents and brokers, and about 300 other real-estate professionals, was conducted between February 2009 and March 2011.
Only about 12 percent of respondents said they currently offer services for a flat fee, but 36 percent said they expected flat-fee services to become more popular in the next five years.
The devaluation problem appears more advanced when it comes to the services provided by sellers’ agents, who often do the lion’s share of work in a typical short sale.
The survey found that while the bulk of buyers’ agents still claim to be receiving the standard 3 percent commission, more often than not sellers’ agents are getting less than that, about 2.5 percent.
Not surprisingly, the number of licensed agents and brokers statewide has declined almost 22 percent since 2007, just after the Valley’s housing market peaked.
Roughly 51,000 agents and brokers remain in the state, according to recent figures from the Arizona Department of Real Estate, down from more than 65,000 in 2007.
LaMee said that thinning of the ranks is bound to continue in the foreseeable future.
Therefore, the next generation of high-tech tools for agents will have to address productivity concerns in an industry whose participants do more work and get paid less.
by J. Craig Anderson The Arizona Republic May. 15, 2011 12:00 AM