GOING MOBILE: Smartphone Apps Put Information at Buyers’ Fingertips

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, September 23rd, 2011 – Smartphones are turning today’s house hunters into smarter buyers.

Bostonites Lindsey Boxer and her fiancée, David Berlin, are among them. The couple had less than a week to find a home after Berlin accepted a job in Boulder, Colo. Neither had been there before. Before they left for their whirlwind house-hunting trip, they downloaded two mobile phone applications to help them navigate the real estate landscape. One was a property listings app; the other was Zillow, which provides estimated home values and historical data on more than 100 million U.S. homes. “These apps were wonderful,” says Boxer, “especially with their GPS capabilities in allowing us to simply drive around Boulder and the surrounding areas to see what the home values in each area were, as well as the different homes on the markets in the area.”

It also helped them stay clear of certain areas. They noticed one neighborhood had 15 homes for sale. “That was a red flag,” Boxer says. “We did some digging and found out recent fires in the area were causing this flux of people rushing to leave. We wouldn’t have known about all those houses being for sale without the app. Clearly, some people were concerned.”

Today scores of mobile real estate phone applications are available, many free or at a nominal cost, that make home-buying more efficient and the process more transparent. Some apps are targeted to certain regions, cities or elite neighborhoods. Others are custom designed for upscale developments.

Joseph Brazen of Brazen Sotheby’s International Realty in Bellevue, Wash., says one of the first orders of business when meeting with new clients is making sure they download the company’s SIR Mobile app, which is available free from its website as well as through iTunes, Android Market and other mobile device app markets. “It’s almost mandatory. We onboard them right away,” Brazen says.

The app has detailed property listings of Sotheby’s International Realty homes worldwide. Maps and images are included. A GPS-based search option pinpoints the user’s location to find luxury estates as well as nearby points of interest. Buyers can refine their search by location, price, bedrooms and baths. For those who want more information on a particular listing or to set up an appointment to see the property, the app automatically connects the user with the local agent. “It’s all done really quickly,” Brazen says. “The days of leaving long voice messages with agents are a thing of the past.”

The Sotheby’s International Realty mobile app was created by the firm Smarter Agent. Its CEO Brad Blumberg says, “the Sotheby’s International Realty app works at very high level, tailor-made to whatever phone you have.” It’s also easy to share. Users can forward an individual listing or the entire app, a useful feature since buyers often look for friends or family members to weigh in on the purchase decision. Listings are updated daily and sometimes multiple times a day. “One thing is assured–you’re getting the most accurate up-to-date data,” Blumberg says.

Apps are especially suited to the high end demographic, which is well represented by tech-savvy professionals. Blumberg calls the trend, “nothing short of spectacular. People are living their lives through mobile. It’s inconvenient to use laptops and desktops. Smartphones are taking over the market.”

In addition to apps that feature property listings, there are those that educate buyers about the process, during and after moving day. They include mortgage calculators and real estate dictionaries. Evernote, a free app, is frequently used by buyers to record and organize notes and photos on the homes they’ve seen. For buyers looking for decorating inspiration, there is Houzz, another free app of interior design articles, tips and resources that allows users to sort, share and curate a kind of personal scrapbook of interior design ideas.

Consumers are increasingly reliant on their mobile devices for information and efficiency, so it’s no surprise that app usage is on an upward trajectory. According to a global research initiative released this summer by Google and the Mobile Marketing Association, smartphone users in the U.S. and the U.K. have an average of 23 apps installed on their mobile devices. In France, the number rises to 27 and in Japan to 45. While the mobile revolution is moving at different speeds across the globe, the study reports, it is evident everywhere.

Keith Kernan of Ward Wight Sotheby’s International Realty in Spring Lake, N.J., says his company’s app gives clients access to a “tremendous amount of information and the ability to do their own due diligence in the markets they’re interested in on their own.” As soon as a client targets an area, the app empowers them to search properties with its GPS capability.

“It’s an incredibly powerful tool from the standpoint that consumers can do the majority of the legwork without involving an agent, and then when they identify properties that may be of interest, they are much more informed consumers. Our philosophy, and part of our business model, is that the more information we’re able to provide to the consumer, the better.”

Kernan says that both buyers and sellers across the board are embracing mobile apps. Sellers appreciate that information on their homes is available at any moment in time to prospective buyers who may not have even signed up with a broker or agent yet. He says about 50% of his clients are using the Sotheby’s International Realty app in their home searches these days. “It’s a great tool, and it’s great to see consumers embracing the technology.”

Home buyer Lindsey Boxer certainly embraced it, and it paid off. She and her fiancé found their home, a contemporary residence just outside of Boulder on the final afternoon of their five-day house-hunting expedition. “I don’t know that we could have relied on these apps without the help of a Realtor, but they certainly made our experience much easier.”