Mobile real estate next big thing, agents say. New cell phone services allow buyers to home in on housing data instantly from wherever they are.
By Lorraine Mirabella
Often when real estate agent Karen Fick is showing a house, the prospective buyers will spot another home for sale down the street and wonder about that one. Can they afford it? How many bedrooms does it have? Could it be the one? As an agent with access to Realtor listings, Fick can call up the information on her mobile phone.
But with the growth of software and Web sites that enable mobile searches of listings and neighborhoods, both agents and consumers alike will increasingly be doing instant home searches on the go, industry experts believe.
“Everybody wants everything right now,” said Fick, who has sold real estate for three decades and is now with Long & Foster Real Estate in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood. “Everyone wants instant gratification these days.”
While the Web may have revolutionized home shopping, Internet-capable phones are tapping into consumers’ demand for even more flexibility, say designers of mobile applications.
They say home shoppers want to walk or drive through neighborhoods and do searches based on any number of variables – their current location, price range, size of property, comparable homes. They want instant photos, alerts to open houses quick links to the agents who can show them the home.
Those desires are prompting companies such as Smarter Agent, Trulia.com and Zillow.com to rush to offer new features to more users, not only through iPhones and BlackBerrys but through standard mobile phones. And in a slight twist, Long & Foster earlier this month announced its new VoicePad Mobile technology, which gives buyers access to voice descriptions of homes for sale from any phone.
“We are at the very early stages of mobile in real estate,” said Ken Shuman, a spokesman for Trulia.com in San Francisco. “Once you do it, it’s so easy to step outside and see open homes.”
“It’s a change of behavior, but it will take off like wildfire,” Shuman predicts.
Trulia, a real estate Web site that lists homes for sale, touts itself as one of the first companies to come up with an iPhone real estate application. It was launched in August and has been downloaded 200,000 times. Online real estate service Zillow.com launched its version of the iPhone home search function, which also uses GPS technology, in April. The companies’ products are available to consumers and agents alike and are not affiliated with real estate brokerages.
Trulia’s application, which can be downloaded free from Trulia’s Web site, is GPS enabled and allows filtered searches, by price range, number of bedrooms and other features. It sends out alerts about upcoming open houses and has a button that will instantly call or e-mail an agent.
“If you’re seriously thinking of buying and selling and are engaged in the process, that’s what our iPhone app is for, a real utility for folks,” Shuman said. “If you want to check out four different open houses, it will give you directions for all of them.”
The Zillow applications pinpoint a user’s location on a map and shows values and information on surrounding homes, moving with the user as he walks or drives through a neighborhood. Users can research home values, home details and photos as well as find information on recently sold homes.
Smarter Agent, based in Parsippany, N.J., launched in January and is available on almost any mobile device and with all carriers. The consumer pays a monthly fee to the phone carrier, for instance, $2.99 a month on Sprint, and $4.99 a month on AT&T. It now has more than 200,000 users and is growing fast, according to the company, and picked up 20,000 new users in April alone.
The product taps into a consumer’s location through GPS technology and returns information about properties in the immediate area, including sales prices, description, pictures and neighborhood information. Searches can be done by city, zip code or community. A “call to see’ button connects them with the broker or agent. Eric Blumberg, Smarter Agent’s founder and president, says the goal was to make the function available on all cell phones, not just iPhones.
“Every cell phone now is a very powerful tool,” Blumberg said. “The question is not ‘if’ people will do [mobile] searches. It’s where is the tipping point, when people will use their cell phones for everything.”
Shuman, of Trulia.com, believes that in the current buyers’ market, home shoppers will be more likely to go mobile.
“People are more skeptical now, and they’re doing more homework,” he said.
Wayne Curtis, an agent with Long & Foster in Baltimore’s Fells Point office, has been promoting his firm’s new VoicePad feature, including the phone number for the service on his home listings for-sale signs. By calling the phone number, a potential buyer can get 24-hour voice descriptions of any listed property in the Baltimore area.
“VoicePad is a 21st Century version of the brochure box,” he said and just another way to reach sought-after buyers at a time when homes are on the market for an average of four months. “As long as you broaden the pool [of buyers], you’re making it more likely the house will sell.”
Two of the three homes he has sold recently had “For Sale” signs with the VoicePad number on it, he said.
In Baltimore, Smarter Agent is just rolling out a branded application of its Homes for Sale product to agents and brokers, and Fick, the Long & Foster agent, is among the first to sign up. Brokers and agents can give their clients the mobile application that the broker or agent pays for, typically a fee of about $40 per month. The clients would then download the application from the broker or agent’s Web site. The application would include the agent’s “brand,” name and real estate firm, and when a buyer wants more information on a property, he would be connected with that agent.
Fick said she views the Homes for Sale feature as something extra for her clients.
“I just think it will simplify things for the buyer,” she said. “Any time somebody is looking for a house, it’s just human curiosity, when you walk or drive down a street; you want to know information about a house.”
For those times when she is out with potential buyers who want more information, “Now we can get that while standing on a street corner,” she said. “It gives the customer satisfaction in having an answer right then.”