Online real estate shopping gets personal



Older home shoppers can still recall driving around, searching with a real estate agent, a dog-eared listing book hundreds of pages thick planted on a front seat.

That is unimaginable to today's younger buyers, who drive themselves, smartphones in hand, and gather information using mobile apps from Zillow, Trulia, or any of the hundreds of other home-sale websites.

"Over half of our usage is on a mobile device," said Greg Schwartz, chief revenue officer of Zillow, a popular site that reports information on homes for sale and gives estimates of their value, and also has sections dedicated to remodeling and mortgages.

"The process is more efficient. The process of dreaming is much more efficient."

This is the world of 21st-century real estate, and it is changing faster than many buyers, sellers and agents can keep up with.

Smarter smartphones

Mobile apps -- software that runs programs on smartphones or tablet computers, such as the iPad -- are evolving to anticipate property information customers want, based on past searches.

Zillow's app, for example, remembers what properties users have looked at before and sends emails noting value trends there and price updates on houses for sale.

Trulia, which also lists information and property value estimates, has started sending consumers suggestions based on properties they have "liked" in the past.

Consumers who searched for specific cities, price ranges or bedroom/bathroom combinations will get "recommendations that you may not have ever thought of before," said Ken Shuman, a Trulia spokesman.

Shuman and Schwartz appeared together as part of a panel discussion entitled "The Future of Online Real Estate" at the National Association of Real Estate Editors' annual conference this month.

"Mobile is where the innovation is happening," said Errol Samuelson, chief strategy officer of Move Inc., which operates "We just launched a search where you can pick a school you want your kid to go to and then we will show you the homes (in that district). Consumers can now answer the kinds of questions that even two years ago they couldn't answer."

As a result, Realtors are freer to focus on negotiations and price, said Samuelson, and not on educating consumers about a particular market.

But some experts warn consumers should not rely exclusively on online searches.

"Too much bad information floats around," said John Heithaus, chief marketing officer of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which serves Multiple Listing Services around the country. "There are 850 search services on real estate, and not all of them have the same information."

"Mobile apps put a high premium on accuracy," said Samuelson. "So if I am standing in front of a house and I see a yard sign that says 'sold' and the app is saying it is still for sale, it creates some dissonance with the consumer."

Heithaus adds, however, that as search providers become more sophisticated, buyers will benefit.

"The next generation of real estate-related Internet applications are going to find a way to customize information, just as Amazon knows the last 10 things I bought, and Netflix knows the movies I have seen. There are ways to apply that intelligence to help the buyer even further."

"Personalization is the way that this is going," said Trulia's Shuman. "We just launched Trulia Suggests. So we know what homes you like and you can see homes you like and hide homes you don't like, and it allows us to make personal recommendations, based not only on your behavior, but if other people who come to our site like the same homes you do, we can send you three other homes that these people also liked."

Shopping for Realtors

Experts say the next evolution of the online search will likely involve Realtors.

While consumers are increasingly searching for properties online, just 9 percent find agents that way, said's Samuelson.

"Fifty percent find agents by referral," he said. "It is a huge opportunity. We need to show complete, objective data on the agent's transaction history, with list prices and selling prices. It's one of the next big areas that the industry is going to be focusing on."

Shuman said Trulia's Voices feature enables agents to offer "thoughtful, searchable advice" to consumers.

"You will continue to see us do that beyond the listing," he said. "Listings are everywhere. What we need to deliver to the consumer is beyond the listing. Help them get smarter. Should they buy or sell now? What types of amenities are people looking for? How should you market your home properly?"

Such sites give consumers the ability to rate agents. Zillow, for instance, will not let agents participate on its site if they are not willing to be rated.

"Ninety-five percent of our agents opt in for ratings and reviews because they are getting business from it," said Lanny Baker of ZipRealty.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: June 23, 2013
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