Alan Wait

Frederick Herot

Jud Henderson

Carl DeMusz

Realtor.com

Ziprealty.com

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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

accomplish everything.

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.

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Alan Wait

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."

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Frederick Herot

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."

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Jud Henderson

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.

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Carl DeMusz

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

nationwide.

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.

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Realtor.com

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

to Realtor.com.

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.

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Ziprealty.com

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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