Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 13, 1999. All rights reserved.
Realtors Move to the Net
Alan Wait is a 65-year-old engineer who has worked
as a real estate agent for Weichert on Nassau Street for seven years.
Five years ago he put up his own website in a smart, savvy way. With
some out-of-town clients he has worked almost completely by E-mail,
helping them winnow out their choices so that one fly-in visit can
Jud Henderson, 25, has also had his license for seven years. He represents
the third generation of a Princeton family of realtors, now part of
the Gloria Nilson/Henderson Division on Witherspoon Street. Though
his 20-something friends are not yet big players in the housing market,
they represent the wired generation, the ones who will want to do
more and more of their business online. Though the agency has a corporate
website, Henderson is commissioning his own and says he wishes he
had done one before.
This business of selling houses is moving inexorably though clumsily
toward the wired world. It is hamstrung, right now, by both lagging
technology and the hot market; it takes a week for the listings to
appear on the ‘Net and by then the good buys are often gone. But the
head of the state’s largest multiple listing service predicts that
New Jersey will be thrust forward into the future when major changes
come next year. "The public is moving realtors to the Internet,
kicking and dragging all the way," says Carl DeMusz, president
of the Greater Jersey Regional MLS.
Alan Wait came to real estate as an outsider. Partly because of that,
and partly because of his background, he saw the future of the Internet
early on and taught himself enough code to do his own website (http://www.princetonhome.com)
"I was probably one of the first ones to do it," says Wait.
"I have an engineering degree and like to do things myself."
Though Wait was a liberal arts major at Columbia, he has a bachelor’s
degree in aeronautical engineering from Syracuse and a master’s in
mechanical engineering from Penn. He spent 33 years working for General
Electric, moving from place to place, progressing from engineering
to advanced technological development and marketing.
But he balked when GE wanted to move him one more time; he took early
retirement, and stayed in Princeton. "I got bored; it is interesting
that a lot of my technology and skills fit so well into real estate,"
says Wait. He taught himself HTML code but now uses widely available
software that requires less expertise.
If Wait was a cyber pioneer, he also pioneered in cyber protocols.
A well-known rule among real estate agents is — don’t poach on
your colleague’s client. But early in his website’s life, Wait found
himself having to defend the website against poachers. He managed
to reconfigure some of his tables to make them copy-proof.
To update his site now requires just a half-day’s work about twice
a month. To be sure the site is accessible from even the slowest modem,
Wait has used plain text and stayed away from fancy bells and whistles.
"Being an engineer I do things systematically. I wanted to make
it simple and easy for clients to peruse and not get lost."
Plain vanilla though it may be, Wait’s site garners
an impressive weekly harvest: 200 to 300 visits, a half-dozen E-mail
messages, and at least one phone call. The contacts come from all
over the United States, Europe, and Japan. "Unless their situation
changes, if a client contacts me based on my website, it usually ends
up in a sale," says Wait. "The result of the website is probably
a transaction a month, with the greater percentage being out-of-towners."
He helped an American family living in England narrow down their choices
to one township and a half-dozen homes in that township. He also helped
them find a school for their challenged child by providing information
so they could make contacts by E-mail.
Wait’s site has excellent municipality descriptions and a table showing
the price range of houses typically sold in each. Out-of-towners on
slim budgets are thus guided to the less expensive locations. The
site also has the complete list of houses sold in the last 18 months
in Princeton, including address, date, number of bedrooms and baths,
age, list price, selling price, selling date, all organized by price
range. Although it is difficult to read and work with, this page is
helpful when you are trying to get comparative prices to make an offer.
"Everybody indicated the website has been a tremendous help, introducing
them to the area and telling them what’s on the market, and where
they can find homes in their price range," says Wait.
Wait’s personal site was up and running in 1994 before his company,
Weichert Realtors, dipped its toe into cyberspace that year. Weichert’s
first website, an interactive brochure, was limited by today’s standards,
but it was still one of the first in the country, says Frederick Herot,
vice president of marketing. "We were the first major real estate
company to have one," claims Herot, who will launch yet another
re-designed site soon. "In 1994 I did a search on Yahoo and found
50 real estate websites. Now there are probably 5,000."
Based in Morris Plains and billing itself as the "nation’s number
one individually owned real estate company" Weichert has 200 offices
on the east coast, from Connecticut to Virginia. It has a less extensive
web presence than, for instance, the much larger Coldwell Banker,
with 5,500 offices nationwide. Not that Weichert hasn’t tried the
bells and whistles. "We were one of the first to experiment with
video phone technology," says Herot, "but we found that people
were climbing over the hardware to get to the more traditional phone
and fax." He has also tried (and abandoned, for now) virtual streaming
tours that allow viewers with fast modems to "walk through"
a video tour of a home.
A major feature of the Weichert website is the click-through telephony
system. Click on the logo and keystroke your phone number and AT&T
will "bridge" the call. A Weichert office’s phone will ring,
your phone will ring, and now you are talking to an agent. Getting
the client to talk to an agent is, after all, what a website is supposed
to accomplish. "Our philosophy is, that when you are ready to
buy, you want someone to talk to you right now," says Herot.
Weichert has reservations about how much business the website really
generates. "We probably still spend 10 times as much on newspapers
as we do on the Web," says Herot. "For all the attention the
Internet is getting, the yellow sign in front of the house still brings
in more buyers."
Jud Henderson, perhaps the youngest full-time real estate
agent in town, has more faith in the power of the ‘Net. His 20-something
friends who live in Manhattan are not in the housing market yet, but
they are using the Internet to "passively shop," but their
visits to those websites will not generate telephone calls. "People
looking that casually would not consciously waste somebody’s time,"
says Henderson. Still, these future buyers are developing preferences
for favorite real estate sites.
A third-generation realtor, Henderson knew he would join the business,
Henderson Real Estate, founded by his grandfather in 1957. "It
was inevitable that I go into it," he says. He majored in English
at Hamilton College and joined the firm that merged with Gloria Nilson
Realtors last fall. He does not have his own website yet, somewhat
to his chagrin, but he is remedying that situation. "I wish I
had done it months ago," he says.
Henderson echoes everyone’s concern over the lag time between the
day an agent signs a contract for a listing and the day it is posted
to Realtor.com. "If you have a week lag time, if it is a good
viable house, within that week it is gone."
But he thinks agents do not need to worry about being replaced, For
the live house visits — and hardly anyone would buy a house sight
unseen — the buyer needs an agent to open the doors. "It is
inevitable that the Internet will be a helpful tool, but the bottom
line is, people will always have to have somebody to take them to
the house to see it," says Henderson.
The website for Henderson’s 11-office agency leverages the personal
touch. Each Gloria Nilson agent gets a picture and a statement revealing
their background and personality plus his or her array of listings.
Buyers can flip through this web-based "album" to find a personality
they are comfortable with.
Carl DeMusz, as the president of the state’s largest multiple listing
service, cannot emphasize strongly enough that the Internet is not
going to replace live agents: "At first there was a lot of apprehension.
They were afraid it would take away their business. But their fears
were all wrong. The public found out that they needed a professional.
The real estate business is so heavily based on communication that
the Internet can only help," says DeMusz.
DeMusz grew up in Cape May County, the 7th of 15 children and the
son of an electrical company worker. He went into the contracting
business, buying and fixing up properties, then went to real estate
school and bought a real estate firm. At one point he had three realty
offices as well as a general contracting business and was president
of New Jersey’s realtors association. "I love chaos," says
DeMusz. "It’s the best time to be at the helm."
DeMusz had an initial experience with computers in the early ’80s
when he spent $36,000 to network his three offices with a small Unix
system. Then he moved into the PC environment. He was one of 10 directors
to work on the networked system of listings used today, and of course
he had his own web page: "I wanted a big presence on the Internet.
There, the client can’t tell how big you are, and you can use technology
to your advantage."
The organization he heads, Greater Jersey Regional MLS, used to publish
all listings of houses for sale in 1,200-page books available only
to realtors. Founded in 1985 the MLS covers six counties, including
Mercer and most of the counties south of Mercer; it has reciprocity
with Middlesex County but not Hunterdon or Somerset. Individual real
estate agents now pay $14 a month to access the multiple listing services.
DeMusz was on the team in the 1980s that moved the listings from a
plump book to an intranet. "Our system right now is a dinosaur,
as are most of the MLSs out there," he admits. Fewer than a dozen
MLSs, he says, have fully web-based systems.
Big changes are coming and DeMusz welcomes them. Greater New Jersey
MLS will get rid of its legacy dial-in intranet when it merges with
the Philadelphia-based multiple listing service, called Trend, in
January, 2000. The merged services will represent 13 counties in central
and southern Jersey, southeast Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
So strengthened, the MLSs will buy a new webcentric software, MLS
Web, developed by TerraDatum in California and marketed by GEAC/Interrealty.
All the listings for realtors will be on the Internet with password
protection. The combined organization will retain its Cherry Hill
and King of Prussia offices and add a site in Wilmington for training.
"It’s all about moving into higher advances in technology,"
says DeMusz. "We are spreading the cost among 17,400 members as
opposed to 7,000."
That will take care of putting the realtors’ database on the Internet,
but what about the listings for the general public? In the near future
it won’t change much. The database of homes available for the public
is already on the Internet in a fairly advanced way. That’s because
Homestore.com, owner of http://www.realtor.com, has signed
agreements with almost all the multiple listing services nationally;
it is the official site for the National Association of Realtors and
the National Association of Home Builders and has 1.3 million listings
The same database used to produce the realtors’ intranet is given
a different spin to provide listings for the general public on Realtor.com.
Click on "find a house for sale" on most websites and you
get passed through to Realtor.com. Search by map, or zip code, or
town, and put in your parameters of price and what you want in a house
(is a fireplace a must for you?) and Realtor.com will cough up all
the listings, rank-ordered by how closely they match your specifications.
The descriptions are factual because the original database does not
accept fanciful or salesy adjectives. The big difference between an
MLS book and listings publicly available on Realtor.com is that Realtor.com
does not provide addresses, only approximate maps of their neighborhoods.
Realtor.com’s other services include a personal planner (to keep track
of your choices) and the opportunity to print out any of the listings
as a flyer. Just announced: anyone with a Palm VII organizer can get
free wireless connections to Realtor.com and such related websites
as HomeBuilder.com and Remodel.com.
A "find a neighborhood" feature rates neighborhoods in such
areas as schools, crime, urbanization, density of culture, number
of children, average age of residents, and average home qualities.
The average home in Hopewell, it says, is 51 years old, costs $393,177
and sits on four acres. Three-fourths of the residents are affluent
suburbanites (likely to have a household income greater than $150,000),
while 15 percent are successful working class residents (earning substantial
middle incomes) and six percent affluent retirees.
Homestore.com went public in August and is traded as
(HOMS). HomeAdvisor is the rival site put forward by Microsoft and
annexed to AOL. It has a more sophisticated demographic database but
has a comparatively paltry number of listings. Another rival will
be Cendant Corp., which franchises such brokers as Coldwell Banker
and Century 21 and plans a December launch for http://www.CompleteHome.com
as a Web portal for both real estate professionals and consumers.
Theoretically Cendant’s franchises could refuse to provide listings
The enemy of any of these websites is currency. A buyer should
be able to page through the listings on Realtor.com to keep current
with what’s on the market. But for whatever reason, it generally takes
a week for a listing to make it to the Realtor.com website. That’s
why the serious house-seeker needs a one-to-one connection with an
alert agent (see sidebar).
DeMusz recalls the days when agents showed only their own listings
and were aghast at the idea of a multiple listing service, and he
recalls the joke comparing realtors to undertakers: "They took
a perfectly healthy couple and drove them around until they died."
But at today’s fast pace, much of the preliminary work can be accomplished
on the web, says DeMusz. The more forward-thinking agencies also offer
on-the-web referrals for all the tangential tasks — title and
fire insurance, mortgages, home inspection, moving vans, and termite
service — that surround a residential transaction.
One Internet start-up (http://www.ziprealty.com) promises
to do the entire transaction in cyberspace with a "beginning to
end real estate solution." Under this business model, the ZipRealty
partners with licensed brokerages or real estate agents to show the
houses and accomplish the paperwork. Except for house visits, buyers
are supposed arrange for everything on the web — from appraisals
to termite inspections — and if they succeed, they get an impressive
reward — $5,000 back at closing. That’s a nice piece of change,
but housing prices in California are even higher than in Princeton,
says the Juan Mini, who founded the firm with Scott Kucirek. ZipRealty
puts the New Jersey market near the top of its list for expansion
targets over the next six months.
DeMusz hopes to build a similar infrastructure for future ventures
in cyberspace: "We will build relationships with vendors so our
member can plug in a title agency, an attorney, an exterminator, and
do it all from our desktop." It will automatically generate a
fax or an E-mail for, for example, a fire inspection. "It will
cut a month or so off the closing time."
Is buying homes in cyberspace the wave of the future? It will surely
increase in popularity as the use of the Internet grows. The National
Association of Realtors found that two percent of buyers shopped for
homes online in 1995, but 18 percent did this in 1997, and last year
23 percent of potential home buyers shopped online.
And when Carl DeMusz relocated from Cape May to Cherry Hill to take
the job as president of the multiple listing service, he looked for
a house the new way. Says DeMusz, "When I bought my new home,
I found it through Realtor.com. It was very convenient."
— Barbara Fox
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