From the perspective of a computer visionary, the real estate industry could appear wide open to all kinds of interesting, creative new applications for the developing technology of electronic spreadsheets, video teleconferencing and inter-office electronic networks.
And some segments of the industry, such as financial investment analysis, have changed significantly as computer technology has brought new methods and capabilities.
But in many ways the real estate industry is still dependent largely on person-to-person sales and I-know-it-in-my-gut decisions rather than new technologies, despite the growing ranks of computer consultants and starry-eyed California hot-heads thinking up all kinds of new ways to adapt the technologies to the field.
So far, say the experts, the use of computer programs in the real estate industry has been concentrated in the area of straightforward record keeping, billing and compiling of lists.
While computerized multiple-listing services of houses for sale have made it much easier for individual real estate agents to keep on top of their local markets, the computer application is relatively unsophisticated and has not radically changed the way most agents do their jobs.
In a similar way, the use of accounting and record-keeping programs by property management firms has done little more than speed up and clean up a series of simple tasks rather than creating startling new approaches to managing property.
But in some segments, changes have come as a result of the new technologies, and in many areas people are beginning to see that they are just entering a whole new world of capabilities that could make the industry look quite different in 20 years.
Robert S. Smart, management services manager for the Newport Beach office of the San Francisco-based accounting firm of Kenneth Leventhal & Co., said that in the area of financial analysis computers have made it possible for the first time for developers and lenders to negotiate joint ventures and partnerships that are complex and tuned to match each party's exact needs.
"Today the lender can say to the developer, 'In month 46 of this partnership I want 20 percent of my equity back, but only if there has been 76 percent lease-up of the space, and then only if the depreciation schedule is 18 years,' " said Smart. "In the past, these specifics, and tinkering with them, wouldn't even have been contemplated because no one could have figured out what it would have meant to the deal. They do it now only because they have tools for analyzing the results."
According to Smart, in this area the software that is now available is leading the industry.
"There are unlimited applications, and they are splitting hairs much more finely than ever before, and it is changing the way real estate deals work," said Smart. "For the first time developers can figure out exactly what the position of the lender is in a certain deal by running the terms through a model. Then they can go back and suggest changes that they know will increase their overall return and see if the lender will agree."
The range of software being written specifically for the real estate industry is spreading. It now includes programs for appraisals, for filling out forms for selling mortgages to the secondary mortgage market, for building elaborate financing models to aid developers and builders in financial projections and risk analysis, and to help real estate brokers and home buyers qualify people for loans and compare mortgage terms.
"I am constantly amazed and titillated by the kinds of programs being written today," said Ina S. Bechhoefer, a real estate computer consultant who has recently assembled an index to more than 800 real estate programs.
There are programs for the construction industry, such as the Boeckh Building Cost System by I. H. Boeckh Co. of Milwaukee, which has a data base with more than 30,000 pieces of information about local labor and material costs for every U.S. zip code. The system, which is available on a shared basis, will calculate the cost of building a specific structure anywhere in the United States.
There are many new programs on the market for managing condominium or homeowners associations, and some of them are written in a way that allows the individual condo association to adjust the program to conform to the bylaws governing that association so that budgets, assessments and penalties are automatically calculated according to the association's rules.
One property management program, PROPMAN Real Estate Management by Response Management Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., comes with a compatible program, JOBMAN, that analyzes the property management information against the original expectations of individual projects so that a developer can "control the expenditure of funds on a project relative to their budgeted commitments," the company says.
Another program, Development Quick Analysis, by Sydney Development Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia, helps developers estimate the impact of changes in zoning and financing on development potential, profitability and land values.
Computer programs are not only being used to crunch numbers, though they are the majority. REALACT, a program written by Schaaf-Skillman in Ashland, Ore., creates interactive role-playing scenarios so that real estate salespeople can practice making sales in the privacy of their own terminal.
"The user can choose scenarios compiled from thousands of listings and sales to improve skill level, confidence and productivity," says the company's program description. "Individuals of the four basic communications styles are portrayed by the program . The program is not passive . . . and there is no embarrassment factor in role-play training with" the computer.
Programs are becoming increasingly broad to accommodate more variables, said Bechhoefer. One property management program, The Landlord by Systems Plus Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., is set up primarily for landlords processing records for apartments or condominiums. But instead of allowing room for only standard rental property records, the program is written in a way that allows landlords of any type of real estate, even marinas, aircraft hangars and mini-warehouses, to process tenant records.
Owens-Corning, the insulation manufacturer, offers a new service to builders that will calculate the estimated cost of heating and cooling a specific house. The builder supplies Owens-Corning with the building plans for the house along with site location information. A computer program, which has a data bank of national weather and site information, then estimates the energy needs of the house.
In return for the service, the builder agrees to use Owens-Corning products in the house. Once a house is shown to meet Owens-Corning's minimum energy-retention standards, it is certified a Thermal-crafted house. Only one builder in the Washington area, Ryland Homes, has joined the Owens-Corning program.
"Energy efficiency is something the customer wants," said Joe Keppler, Ryland's area production manager. "When the buyer comes in we can tell him exactly, or at least close to, what it will cost to heat the house."
There are a raft of new gimmicks for selling homes on the market, such as real estate sale signs programmed with radio messages that can be picked up on the car radio of a passing house-hunter, or new video programs about the process of buying a house that buyers can take home for viewing.
But the real estate software industry is having a difficult time shaking out, partly because of the complexity of the field.
Bechhoefer said that during the process of bringing together her index, the Guide to Real Estate and Mortgage Banking Software -- which took about a year -- more than 100 of the 475 software companies originally surveyed for the guide became defunct. "A large number of the companies are undercapitalized or are one-person operations," said Bechhoefer. " It is an industry that has a low entrance threshold, high risk and a disorganized market."
Bechhoefer said many of the companies also had trouble servicing and upgrading the programs.
"The user-base for many of these is very small and upgrades are expensive," said Bechhoefer. "The most important thing for real estate is that it work reliably and be up-to-date. Many of the people who wrote financial analysis programs last year didn't bother to update them when the tax laws changed, so they are completely useless."
The proliferation over the last few years of adjustable-rate mortgages and other financing tools with unusual terms has made servicing and managing mortgages a bewildering business. The Federal National Mortgage Association, which buys billions of dollars worth of mortgages each year, just purchased a new computer system, called Laser, for keeping track of all the loans in the company's portfolio.
"Laser results from Fannie Mae's exploration of alternatives, its search for new and more effective ways to simplify lender reporting and accommodate new mortgage products," said Ed Middleton, vice president for mortgage administration. Middleton said the company engaged 150 full-time employes and spent millions of dollars to develop the system, and train the company to use it.
For some lenders, particularly those who cannot afford multimillion-dollar systems, the volume of new mortgage instruments has made it difficult to keep a computer program going that can adapt to each new loan.
comments from mortgage bankers on oddball loans.
One change computers have brought to the industry is the blurring of regional lines. Computer networks and multiple-listing services can bring together buyers in New York looking for condos in San Diego. Borrowers in Minnesota can now, through several loan listing services, get a mortgage from a lender anywhere in the country.
The National Association of Realtors, which has 650,000 members and has become one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, has developed several computer programs and networks that are pushing back horizons for small brokers.
The RCS/Rennie Mae program (Realtor Computer Services/Realtors National Mortgage Access) offers a national listing of mortgages and helps qualify buyers. The RCS/REINET is a listing service of participating members that allows Realtors to exchange property information within their region or around the world, provides demographic data for every area of the United States and provides several real estate analysis functions.
Perhaps their most powerful new tool, however, is a computer system called RCS/Leadernet, which provides Realtors with legislative, legal and educational information on almost every aspect of real estate in all areas of the country. By hooking up with the Leadernet system, for instance, a Realtor in rural Wisconsin could can find out the status of a California Supreme Court case that might have an impact on the development of zoning law nationwide.
The system also allows Realtors to send each other electronic messages, useful in mobilizing a letter-writing campaign to combat unwanted legislation, either at the state or federal level. A spokesman for the National Association of Realtors said that so far one-third of the local boards of Realtors in the United States have signed up for Leadernet, and that they now have a data bank of information from 48 states.
But despite these changes, many of the experts in real estate computerization say that many developers are still rely on their own experience and back-of-the-napkin tabulations to determine whether or not to sign a deal, and that in the sales end of real estate it is difficult to get brokers to sit down long enough to show them what a computer could do.
The 1984 annual profile of real estate sales agencies done by the National Association of Realtors, which surveyed 1,202 of its members, showed that while 55 percent of the firms had computer capability, most of that is concentrated in the larger firms and that the most common piece of data-processing equipment is the computer terminal for multiple-listing service access.
The most popular software is word processing and general accounting, followed by programs that qualify buyers and amortize loans. Much less popular are programs that allow for client follow-up, training or getting new sales and listings.
"Real estate agents primarily use their computers for word-processing and multiple-listing services," said Bechhoefer. "They don't seem to be able to use their imagination to think up ways of massaging the data that is available so that it could help them find new sales prospects, keep track of former clients or find new markets. They would really rather be out there selling than spend the time to learn what their computers could do."