By Simone Baribeau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Jeanne Bobofchak, 31, was looking for a real estate agent, but she wanted to avoid the awkwardness of choosing among her friends' recommendations. So she went online and found agent Bob Carney's blog, FocusOnFrederick.com.
The information on the Frederick community was detailed, the comments from former clients were glowing, and Carney seemed as if he would be fun to work with.
"I'd been told to never pick a Realtor out of a hat, but I feel like Bob was recommended to us out of the comments on the Internet," she said. "I just remember reading Bob and going 'Oh, yeah. He's the one.' "
So the next day Bobofchak enlisted his services to help her buy a house -- without the traditional "meet the agent" interview.
Call it Real Estate Agent Hunting 2.0.
No longer must potential home buyers and sellers actually speak to real estate professionals to meet them. Instead, consumers are accessing agents' ever-more-common blogs, social network pages or viral video campaigns -- all of the burgeoning options that have been called Web 2.0 -- to tap their expertise and get a sense of their personalities. Some meet agents who quickly feel like buddies; others go with discount brokers and don't have any direct contact with their agent until they're ready to put a bid on a house.
"In this type of environment the cream rises to the top," said Jonathan Washburn, chief executive of ActiveRain, a popular real estate blogging site that boasts membership of more than 100,000 real estate professionals. Traditional advertising provides limited information, he said, but online, agents "get a chance to demonstrate their actual expertise by writing about things that are relevant to the consumer."
But some financial planners warn that consumers who find their real estate agent online risk getting swept away by the flash of a fancy marketing campaign and missing out on substance.
"In the last several years, real estate agents have been trained to market through creative ways with online content," said Timothy J. Maurer, director of financial planning for the Baltimore-based financial advisory firm the Financial Consulate. "While it can be helpful to review this content, prospective home buyers need to explore beyond the realm of technology to confirm that there is genuine substance, experience and strategy behind the façade of the Web content."
Real estate agents have long based their marketing strategy on referrals, direct mailings and print advertisements. Now, with consumers going online to research everything from digital cameras to teeth whiteners, some are looking to learn more about potential real estate than they could in a Yellow Pages ad.
"It's really a new tune that prospective home buyers and Realtors are dancing to right now," said Steve Schultz, senior director of product and business development for Yahoo Real Estate. "As more information comes online, people are mimicking what they do with physical products."
Agents are adapting, but slowly. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of real estate professionals with blogs doubled to 8 percent, according to annual surveys of the National Association of Realtors. But many agents are already actively engaging with consumers online. People with a specific question -- or who want to learn about an agent's specific expertise -- can test the waters by posting questions in the comment field of an agent's blog, or on such forums as Trulia Voices and Zillow.
A good agent should be able to answer detailed neighborhood-specific questions, said Heather Mirjahangir Fernandez, Trulia's vice president of marketing.
"Local content is king," Fernandez said. "In the old world you'd have to talk to someone and interview them to make sure they were a local expert, now you can verify that on your own in advance of any kind of face-to-face meeting." Questions posted on Trulia are typically answered within 20 minutes, she said, and the average question gets three answers.
Many home buyers are as interested in agents' online personas as they are in their specific expertise.
Danilo Bogdanovic, a real estate agent with Market Advantage Real Estate, says he uses a wide array of social networks to draw potential clients to his blog and its copious information on the Loudoun County real estate market, but he also attracts clients by getting them interested in him personally. Potential clients can follow him using Twitter, a microblogging service where users write short updates about what they're doing at any given moment.
Interspersed with updates on his blog, Bogdanovic gives personal updates ("Back from a long bike ride -- hungry and ready to make some dinner"), comments on news articles ("Is everyone in the DC metro area too busy to date, not want to get hitched, crazy or all of the above?") and keeps his followers abreast of his real estate business ("On the way to Alexandria for a closing. Looks like my short-sale listing may finally be settling after 3 months of negotiations.") .
This type of personal information spurred Dan Shields, 41, to contact Bogdanovic.
"It came down to these other two agents. I didn't know anything about them," Shields said. Bogdanovic "was the only one you could get a personality from."
Bogdanovic recently helped Shields and his wife, Brenda, close on the purchase of a Leesburg house.
But choosing an agent online has its own risks.
Information that agents post about themselves -- those glowing testimonials, for example -- should be verified. But social networks can sometimes make the job easier.
For instance, when she was in the market for a home two years ago, Fernandez found a potential agent through some online social networks, and then searched through her LinkedIn account for mutual contacts. She found two of the agent's former clients and contacted them. They gave him rave reviews, and so she went ahead and worked with him.
And on Trulia, consumers see how agents fared answering other buyers' and sellers' questions -- agents are listed with the number of questions they have answered, the number of best answers, and the number of useful answers.
Discount brokers are also using social networks to build their customer base. For instance, prospective home buyers and sellers can ask questions about the market through forums hosted by discount online broker Redfin, whether or not they choose to work with the company.
More than 130 people in the Washington region have bought or sold a home through Redfin over the past year. Home buyers search Redfin's Web site for properties they like, make appointments to see the properties with one of the group's field agents, and make bids online, which a Redfin real estate agent then presents to the seller. Redfin then returns two-thirds of the commission to the buyer, an average of $10,000.
For Daniel Q. Kelley, 58, the discount was worth the extra work.
"If you're at all analytical, you've got all the information right there at your fingertips," said Kelley, who, with his wife Susana, has put a bid on an Arlington home through Redfin. "You don't need anyone directing you to this place or that place or that place."
They plan to use the rebate to put money toward their down payment.
But Redfin has its drawbacks. Many buyers want additional help identifying properties. Also, if Redfin judges a prospective buyer's offer to be too low -- generally below about 85 percent of the asking price -- the agent won't present it to the seller.
Andrew Yeow, 33, was originally considering using Redfin, but he was concerned that his offers might not be passed along to the sellers. And back in 2002, he had already done most of his own house-hunting legwork, after using an agent recommended by his brother.
So after running across posts on Redfin linking to the blog of Frank Borges Llosa -- an agent who occasionally sports a "Trust me, I'm a Realtor" shirt, posts YouTube videos on reasons you might not want to buy a home and vents on his blog about "sucky listing agents" -- Yeow decided to go for a full-service agent.
"When I read Frank's stuff, I was really impressed by what he knew," said Yeow, a government health scientist. "I realized he was in Northern Virginia and that sealed the deal."
Since finding Carney's blog, Bobofchak, the Frederick home buyer, has bought two homes using Carney as her agent. And she's recommending him to her friends -- though they, too, may slight her recommendation in favor of finding their own agent online.