Happy Hash wanted his real estate agent to sell his two-story Colonial house in Springfield quickly and he wanted to get a fair price for it. Even Hash, though, didn't expect to sell within 10 days for more than the asking price.
The hot residential real estate market in the D.C. region played a large part in the speed of the sale, which generated five solid offers and a bidding war that ran up the price. But Hash, like a growing number of home sellers across the country, pointed to another factor in the fast and profitable sale: technology.
To help sell his home, Hash worked with Jim and Vicki Nellis, a husband-and-wife team who run the Nellis Group at the Burke office of Re/Max Allegiance. One reason Hash chose them was because the Nellises wield the latest in real estate technology, and Hash wanted every advantage he could find.
Hash was especially impressed with the way Jim and Vicki Nellis used their own digital cameras and presentation software to create, within a day, full-color, high-quality brochures showing off his house. The brochures were so sharp, Hash said, that he was surprised they didn't take weeks to prepare. The Nellises further wowed him when they placed these photos and advertising materials on their Web site and others to attract the attention of Internet-savvy home shoppers.
The speed with which the Nellis team created these materials meant they able to begin immediately actively marketing the house.
"This isn't the first home we have sold. The difference between when we sold our home years ago and when we sold it now is incredible, though," Hash said. "Before, it took several months to sell a house. I know the whole reason we sold our house so fast this time wasn't because of technology, but I think it played a big part. I think it, along with the good market, helped make a fantastic difference for us."
Tech-conscious home sellers and buyers are becoming more common. They expect their real estate agents to wield all the latest tech toys on the market. They refuse to work with any agent who doesn't regard technology as a necessary ally.
Agents are hearing this message clearly. It means they are scouring the Web to learn as much as possible about which pieces of real estate technology work and which don't. It also means some agents with a knack for technology are grabbing business from those who resist virtual home tours, glitzy presentation software, automated newsletters and contact-management programs.
"Clients expect us to be up on technology, especially the younger ones," Jim Nellis said. "This isn't surprising. Many of our clients have grown up with technology. They are all online all the time. By the time they get to us, probably 90 percent of them have already looked on the Internet at home listings as a way of narrowing down their choices. It certainly has changed the way the real estate process works."
The good news for buyers is that it's getting easier to find agents who embrace technology. The latest Realtor Technology Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors found that as of March, 96 percent of the agents surveyed reported that the Internet had become an essential part of their business; 93 percent said the same about mobile phones.
Those figures aren't surprising. But 49 percent of those surveys also reported using personal digital assistants, or PDAs, while 45 percent said they used Internet-based virtual tours -- which let buyers view online the interiors and exteriors of homes for sale -- to help sell their listings. A smaller but growing number have embraced wireless technology, with 23 percent of agents surveyed reporting that they have wireless access to the Internet. Another 12 percent have wireless access to e-mail, but not the broader Internet.
In addition to widely used technology tools such as the Internet and e-mail, real estate agents also can choose to use programs especially designed for their industry, such as some that allow them to make the best of their access to sale listings. What technology should your real estate agent be using to sell your homes or help you find your dream house? Here is a sample:
At Home on the Net
Almost every real estate agent these days uses a computer for instant access to the local multiple listing service and puts his home listings on the Internet. That, then, is a given, and with what is known as IDX technology, agents can run on their Web sites even the listings represented by competing agents.
While the personal Web sites run by real estate agents are mostly used as marketing tools for themselves, it behooves sellers to work with agents who put their home listings on as many real estate Web sites as possible. After all, the more exposure sellers receive for their homes the better.
But real estate agents can use the power of the Internet in other ways, too.
For instance, real estate agents who have wireless access to the Internet -- either through their laptop computers, BlackBerry devices or PDAs -- can provide instant information to their sellers. Say an agent is driving his seller around and they pass a for-sale sign. The agent, if equipped with wireless Internet access, can instantly log on to the online multiple listing service to find the home's sale price, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms it boasts and its square footage.
If the house meets the buyer's needs, the agent can then send an e-mail to the house's listing agent to schedule an appointment, all without the buyer or agent ever leaving the car.
This is just the beginning. Some agents use automated e-mail programs such as SOAR e-MLS to send information to buyers whenever a home that meets their criteria hits the market, preventing their clients from ever missing out on an appropriate home.
The way this works is simple: Agents who use programs such as SOAR -- which is sold through the Naperville, Ill., company SOAR Solutions Inc. -- ask their clients, once they've logged onto their Web sites, to input the types of homes they would like to see. SOAR then combs through the multiple listing service to find homes that match buyers' requests. These listings are then sent to buyers' e-mail addresses.
SOAR e-MLS is a relatively new product and is not yet available for use on all the multiple listing services across the country, although agents in the Washington area do have access.
What about sellers? Agents who are Internet savvy can offer them the marketing tool known as virtual tours.
These Internet-based tours allow buyers to click on a link and see photos -- sometimes still shots, other times video streams -- of homes that are for sale. Buyers can use the tours to eliminate homes that don't interest them. For sellers this is a wonderful tool; the tours guarantee that all buyers who do schedule appointments to see their homes are truly interested in the properties.
"I always use virtual tours," said John Webber, an agent with Re/Max Premiere Solutions in Potomac. "But I don't just take photos of the home. I'll also take photos of the neighborhood surrounding that home, so buyers can see the amenities of the community. This is part of my marketing strategy. It's a wonderful way to get buyers interested in a property."
Adele Aiken, an agent with Re/Max Allegiance in Alexandria, says that buyers aren't just buying a house; they're buying into a community, too. Because of this, they are interested in how much crime a neighborhood experiences, how much surrounding homes have sold for and how well local schools perform.
To get this information, Aiken turns to eNeighborhoods, a Web-based program that creates full-color neighborhood reports, which she can send to her clients by fax or e-mail.
"My clients want as much information as possible," Aiken said. "This is just one way of giving them that."
Aiken's sellers want information, too. This, again, is little problem. She relies on a popular program called Top Producer, which allows her to create electronic reports that tell sellers when she has scheduled open houses for their homes, when their home's next showing is, how many people have already toured their home and what feedback they gave. Sellers get this information by logging onto a Web site.
"This information gives them assurance that we really are working as hard as we can to get everything done for them," Aiken said. "Too many times sellers think that all we do is put a sign on their front lawn. Well, this program shows them that we are doing everything we can to move their homes."
One of the most important jobs of a real estate agent, of course, is to provide clients with instant information. Many agents are relying on the BlackBerry -- the wireless communications tool that acts as a mini-computer, date book and cell phone -- to do this.
Lesa Lee, an agent with the Century 21 Sussex & Reilly in Chicago, fills her BlackBerry with all her appointment information and also uses it to connect to the Internet when she's nowhere near a phone line. She also taps into her BlackBerry to help juggle her schedule. All Sussex & Reilly agents use a centralized scheduling desk. When prospective buyers call in to look at a property, the company's scheduler sends an electronic message to the listing agent's BlackBerry with a potential showing time for that listing. If Lee uses her BlackBerry to accept this time, the information automatically gets posted to the centralized scheduling desk and into Lee's calendar.
For Lee, then, the costs of adding new technology to her repertoire more than pays off in both dollar and time savings.
"We were just in a class the other day about how much money typical agents are willing to invest in their businesses," Lee said. "Basically, most agents don't invest enough. Just by having my Blackberry I have all my contact information with me at all times. My clients remember that I am able to be more responsive to their needs. I am able to provide them with information quickly. This increases the chances that they will recommend me to someone else."
Effective marketing can make the difference between a house sitting on the market for months or selling in a week. Technology is helping real estate agents create professional-looking marketing materials, both online and print-based, in less time than ever.
And less time spent waiting for fliers, brochures and pamphlets mean more time using these materials to help move a home.
Agents can choose from several different programs to help them create marketing materials, programs such as Imprev or eCampaign Pro. Agents send the market reports and fliers that such programs create to their fellow agents, who can then pass them on to potential buyers.
Jim Gingrich recently purchase lakefront property in Orange County, Va., and sold a townhouse in Burke. The transactions could have been complicated. But thanks to technology, Gingrich said, the process went smoothly.
"The ability to exchange data rapidly really made a difference," he said. "I could be talking to my agent on the phone and he could make a correction to a form while we were still talking. He'd then send it to me through e-mail. I'd look at it on the computer, print it off, sign it and fax it back to him. It'd be all done in a matter of minutes, really."
That Gingrich himself is tech-savvy also helped. He frequently carries his own PDA with him. That came in handy when Gingrich and his wife were traveling to their lawyer's office when a second real estate agent, who was helping the Gingrichs sell another property in conjunction with the home they were selling with their first agent, called their cell phone. This agent had paperwork for the Gingrichs to sign.
The only problem? The Gingrichs were stuck on the highway, nowhere near a printer.
Gingrich, though, simply had his real estate agent e-mail the papers to his PDA. He then sent the papers to his lawyer's office, asked his lawyer to print them out, signed them when he reached the office and sent them by fax back to the agent.
"That never would have worked if we had not had wireless technology," Gingrich said. "It was quite impressive the way technology sped up all our deals."
Of course, just because a real estate agent is well-versed on the latest technology, that doesn't mean he will be the perfect fit for you. Home buyers and sellers should still consider the basics when choosing an agent: How long has that agent worked in the market? How successful has the agent been in getting high offers for listings? Has the agent demonstrated career commitment by pursuing continuing education and additional designations? Can the agent present you with a list of past customers you can interview? Are those references favorable?
Roger Lamborne, principal broker with the Winchester, Va., office of Keller Williams Realty, said technology can never replace the old-fashioned values of hard work and good customer service. Lamborne, who said he uses technology only when it helps him provide better service, said the most useful tool for agents today is a commonplace one, the cell phone. Thanks to his cell, he said, he can keep in constant contact with his clients and return their phone calls quickly, which is all that most buyers and sellers really want.
"The biggest tools for me are not fancy cutting-edge technology items," Lamborne said. "A lot of this cutting-edge technology is great to show off with, but it really doesn't do anything for your business. A lot of agents spend a lot of money on technology, but then they never use what they buy to the fullest extent. They never have time to figure out how to use all their features. To me, that seems like a waste."
Lamborne did say he uses software that allows him to do his job more quickly and easily, and is trying to turn his office into one that generates fewer reams of paperwork. But his clients, he said, aren't interested in sitting through a 20-minute sales video created on his laptop. Instead, he chooses the decidedly more low-tech option of creating old-fashioned listing presentations on a couple pieces of paper.
"It still comes down to good old-fashioned services," he said. "Returning telephone calls will do more for a realtor than will using all the gadgets."