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FROM SIGNS TO SCREENS

When Tampa real estate agent Consuelo Lauer was looking for a new way to market houses she has for sale, she didn't turn to new brochures or bigger newspaper ads or flashier For Sale signs.

She turned to technology.

Today, prospective home buyers nationwide can look at pictures and information about Lauer's houses by logging onto the Internet computer network.

If they don't have Internet access, they can dial into a local computer bulletin board service and get the same information.

No computer? Home shoppers anywhere can ring up an automated telephone system and hear information on every house Lauer has for sale, along with dozens of others in Tampa Bay.

Welcome to Virtual Realty, the new age of real estate.

Across Tampa Bay and throughout the country, real estate agents like Lauer are finding that technology is just as important as friendly smiles and firm handshakes when it comes to selling houses in today's information age.

"I wanted to advertise my properties through computers (and other technologies) ... because it seems like everyone is into that right now," said Lauer, who works for Tam-Bay Realty.

Along with placing newspaper classified ads, for example, some agents today are putting listings on on-line services.

Along with printing brochures on paper, some are creating multimedia brochures on computer CD-ROM.

Along with hiring answering services and placing radio ads, some are using automated telephone systems and "Talking Houses" that let people sit in the driveway of a home and hear information about it on their car radios.

"It seems like in the last three years or so there has just been an explosion in the technology available to Realtors," said Bruce Benham, vice president for information services for Englewood, Colo.-based Re/Max International.

Home computers and "Talking Houses" will never replace good human service when it comes to selling homes, almost any real estate broker will tell you.

But today's technology can sure make it a lot easier _ not only for real estate salespeople but also for home buyers and sellers.

Take a closer look at a few of the technological tools real estate professionals are using today:

Computer home shopping

Log onto the Real Estate Center on the America Online network from your home in the Tampa Bay area, and you can find a house anywhere in the United States.

Enter where you'd like to move, say, Sacramento, Calif. Enter what kind of house you'd like _ three bedrooms, two baths, a pool. Enter your price range, say, $150,000 and up.

Hit return and you'll get a listing of perhaps a dozen homes in Sacramento in your price range, with all the features you want.

Zip off an electronic mail message to the seller for some more details, and you're on the way to becoming a new homeowner in Sacramento.

Most computer network services, such as America Online, offer some sort of real estate listing system that matches buyers with sellers.

Some local companies are taking on-line home shopping a step further. New local systems offer not only text listings, but also pictures and more detailed information _ all without the cost of subscribing to a commercial on-line service.

The company that Lauer uses, for example, is called R.E. Info Inc., based in Tampa.

Last month, R.E. Info started offering Internet and local bulletin board service (along with automated telephone services) specifically for homes for sale in Tampa Bay.

For as little as $20 a month, Realtors and do-it-yourself home sellers can put their listings on the service, complete with pictures and text information about their homes.

For no charge (except telephone costs), prospective buyers can dial up 24 hours a day from any place in the country and see homes for sale in the Tampa Bay area. (R.E. Info's Internet address is http://www.fla-realty.com/fla-realty/ and the bulletin board service can be reached at (813) 265-2766).

"We wanted to put pictures of houses in the hands of all those people who are walking out of CompUSA these days with new computers," said R.E. Info president John Burger.

Brad Tolley also runs an Internet real estate service.

His, Palm Beach-based Property Intelligence International, is a worldwide system through which people in other countries can look at properties for sale in Florida and other states. (Property Intelligencecan be reached at http://www.shadow.net/pii/ on the Internet.)

Clearwater-based Prudential Florida Realty, along with other big companies, uses Tolley's system extensively. The most expensive house on Property Intelligence's system today, in fact, is race car driver Nigel Mansell's $13.9-million Clearwater mansion, which Prudential Florida is trying to sell.

There are a few bugs in on-line real estate systems. Some pictures are of poor quality; some listings have no pictures. And determining just how many home sales result from the Internet advertising is almost impossible.

But Tolley and others say they are convinced on-line real estate is the way of the future.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Tolley said. "But 10 years from now, people are going to have their laptop connected to their cell phone or look at their (interactive) TV in their home, and they'll be able to see houses for sale anywhere in the world."

Talking houses

Six weeks ago, Edward Tyson made up his mind.

He wanted to move out of his condominium and into a single-family home.

While looking through newspaper classifieds, he came across a number for Coldwell Banker's automated telephone system.

By punching in a few numbers, Tyson found out about houses Coldwell Banker had for sale in different parts of Tampa he was interested in. By punching a few more numbers, he was connected directly with Coldwell Banker agent Celia Drawdy.

Two weekends later, Tyson and his wife, Diane, found their house: a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a pool in Tampa's Lago Vista subdivision. Now the family has moved in.

"I don't know how I would have selected a real estate agent if it wasn't for this telephone system," said Edward Tyson, who is marketing manager for the Tampa Convention Center. "I had no particular allegiance to any agency. It just happened I called the system and got connected with Celia and established a rapport."

It was people like the Tysons that Coldwell Banker regional president Mike Good was looking for when he implemented the company's Home Facts telephone system throughout west-central Florida a year ago.

Along with searching for properties in particular parts of the region, home shoppers who call Home Facts, (813) 443-2500, can determine how much house they can afford or find their closest Coldwell Banker agent. They can also get specific information for free, 24 hours a day, on virtually any house Coldwell Banker has for sale throughout the region.

"We know that not everybody wants to pick up a phone and spend a couple of hours talking to a real estate agent about every house they're interested in," Good said. "We think with this, people have a very non-threatening access to information in the early stages of their entry into the marketplace. Then, at the point when they're ready to do something, they'll hopefully contact us."

A Wisconsin company has come up with an even less threatening way to market houses.

Realty Electronics of Fond du Lac, Wis., markets a $200 radio transmitter system to real estate agents nationwide. The system, which Realty Electronics calls its "Talking House," transmits information about a home to prospective buyers' AM car radios while they're sitting in the homes' driveways.

The company has sold about 35,000 of the systems nationwide, including more than 1,000 in Florida, said Realty Electronics president Scott Matthew. Several real estate companies in Tampa Bay use the system.

"People find houses by driving through neighborhoods," Matthew said. "And once they find a house, that's when they need some information. Nothing motivates a buyer like Talking House does."

New kind of brochure

Smith & Associates Investment Co. Realtors will complete its latest brochure in about two weeks.

But it won't be on glossy paper.

It will be on a shiny compact disc.

Home shoppers anywhere will be able take the disc and plug it into any computer with a CD-ROM drive and look at detailed pictures and information about every house Smith & Associates has for sale in Tampa Bay.

"With the traditional system, you first drive all around a neighborhood and then phone everybody with a For Sale sign to get info," said Robert Glaser, president of Smith & Associates. "Now you can review data and see houses on your computer at home before you ever get in the car."

Because of CD-ROM's immense storage capacity, home shoppers can see more information about a house and a neighborhood than could ever fit on a standard brochure. As with on-line systems, they also can search for specific property types with CD-ROM. And along with pictures, music and narration can be incorporated into a home listing on CD-ROM, something that on-line services don't offer yet.

Smith & Associates plans to ship its CD-ROMs _ 8,000 in the first printing _ to customers and corporate relocation specialists nationwide who have made inquires about houses in Tampa Bay. The company's initial costs for the project totaled around $18,000, Glaser said, and CDs can be stamped out for as cheaply as $1 or $2.

Smith & Associates will become one of the first local real estate companies to use CD-ROM brochures, though others are considering the idea.

This isn't the company's first foray into CD-ROM, however. As part of its affiliation with the Sotheby's auction house, the Tampa company regularly gets CD-ROMs showing pricey houses for sale worldwide through Sotheby's network of brokers.

Smith & Associates isn't planning to completely replace print brochures and other advertisements with CD-ROM brochures _ not yet, anyway.

"It's not like everything else is going to end and this is going to begin," Glaser said. "This is just an additional tool we can use to sell houses."

In with the new

For years, the primary tool for real estate agents has been the Multiple Listing Service, a computer data base of properties for sale by real estate companies everywhere. It is the biggest data base of homes for sale in the world.

The people who supply brokers with the MLS aren't standing still and letting technology pass them by.

Just ask Dwayne Fergeson. He's the regional manager for Realtron Corp., which supplies the MLS to about 90 percent of Florida Realtors.

About two years ago, Realtron introduced a new feature to the MLS that lets Realtors put pictures of houses on the system, along with standard text information. For an additional fee, Realtors can subscribe to the enhanced service that lets them _ and their customers _ look at the pictures. (Right now, the MLS can be accessed only by members of local boards of Realtors, though there have been some moves to eventually open the system to the public.)

It took a year of promotion, but now local Realtors, armed with new computers and the urge to push into new technology, are starting to use new MLS features.

According to Fergeson, about 400 to 500 local Realtors now subscribe to the enhanced system that lets them view the pictures. That's a fraction of the 3,500 total MLS subscriptions Realtron has in the Tampa Bay area, but Fergeson thinks subscriptions to the enhanced system will grow as more and more Realtors continue to update their computer systems.

"The technology to do this has been there for a while, but the problem used to be the costs of equipment to do it," Fergeson said. "Now people can go to Workplace or CompUSA and buy equipment that's automatically compatible and at a less expensive price."

Realtron isn't done tweaking the MLS.

Within the next year or so, the company hopes to introduce video to the system. Realtors and their customers will be able to use computers to select houses they're interested in and then watch video walk-throughs of homes, all before they drive to see the places.

"What it all really comes down to is time," Fergeson said. "Buyers don't want to go around in circles looking at a hundred different properties.

"They want to get to the properties that meet their needs and choose which one they want to buy ... without taking forever to do it."

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