ATLANTA — When Workforce Resource LLC was building a database that can be used to analyze whether a specific homebuyer who is interested in a particular property might qualify for down payment assistance, it started out by pitching the idea to multiple listing services.

MLS and agent websites seemed like a logical place to put the database into action, using a tool that flags listings that may be eligible for assistance programs, and quizzes prospective homebuyers for details that can determine what programs they may qualify for.

While Workforce Resource’s Down Payment Resource tool has been catching on with MLSs, until recently, it was available only in 14 markets.

So this week Workforce Resource launched a dedicated website that, although it lacks listings, allows users from around the country to enter a property address or neighborhood, their household income, and a few other details, and instantly see assistance programs they may qualify for.

Without listings, DownPaymentResource.com may not attract hordes of users, at least at first. But as the site evolves and word about it spreads, Workforce Resource’s president, Rob Chrane, thinks it has the potential to expand the pool of eligible homebuyers.

And as more MLSs sign up to use the the Down Payment Resource database, agents may be doing more closings with these buyers.

Making Down Payment Resource available on MLS and agent websites may help would-be buyers qualify for a home purchase sooner than they’d thought possible. Buyers often start house hunting long before they think they’re ready — or able — to buy.

“People may be a year away from buying,” Chrane said of such website visitors. “They’re dreaming.”

Unless, that is, they’re able to tap one of more than 1,000 down payment assistance programs offered by state and local housing finance agencies around the country.

But other would-be buyers aren’t even surfing listings online because they think homes are so far out of their reach, they’re not even dreaming.

These “shadow buyers,” Chrane said, “have priced themselves out of the market.”

DownPaymentResource.com can reach consumers who aren’t browsing listing sites, or who are looking for homes on sites that haven’t partnered with Workforce Resource, and don’t have access to the information on more assistance programs that the company has rounded up nationwide.

While many assistance programs serve first-time homebuyers, the definition of a first-time homebuyer is typically somebody who hasn’t owned a home in the last three years.

That means many “boomerang buyers” — former homeowners who went through a short sale or foreclosure during the downturn — may also qualify for assistance.

Complex database

Every state has a housing finance agency, and information about the programs they and local housing finance agencies offer is freely available. But building a database that can determine whether a particular property and buyer qualify for an assistance program is harder than it sounds, because each program’s criteria vary by location.

“The complexity is modeling it out for every part of the state,” Chrane said.

There are 10,000 modelling variations for the 1,500 assistance programs that Down Payment Resource has information on, he said. Further complicating the task, assistance programs are constantly changing.

Workforce Resource started building the enormous database in the process of trying to sell MLSs on the idea of partnering to make the information available to consumers — generating leads for agents in the process.

“When we started, we went from market to market” pitching the database tool to MLSs. Just putting forward a proposal required doing about 80 percent of the work needed to get an actual system up and running in each MLS’ coverage area.

“We were getting the data (faster than MLSs were signing up), so we said, ‘Why not go nationwide?’ ” Chrane said of the decision to launch DownPaymentResource.com.

A former Realtor and mortgage originator, Chrane founded Atlanta-based Workforce Resource in 2008, and rolled out the Down Payment Resource tool for MLSs two years later.

Rob Chrane

Rob Chrane

At the National Association of Real Estate Editors conference in Atlanta this week, Chrane said Workforce Resource will continue to pursue partnerships with MLSs, which see the tool as a way for members to grow their business.

Tool for brokers and agents

Once Workforce Resource has an agreement with an MLS, listings that may qualify for down payment assistance programs are flagged in searches. Brokers can chose whether to activate that feature on their own websites when displaying Internet Data Exchange (IDX) listing data from their MLS.

Factors that determine whether a property qualifies for an assistance program vary by program, but generally include limits on the home’s sale price, property location and property type.

Once prospective buyers see a property they are interested in may qualify for a down payment assistance program, they can elect to fill out a short screener to see if they, themselves, are eligible.

The are asked eight questions to ascertain their household size, household income, and whether they qualify for special programs for veterans, teachers, police and firefighters, health care workers, and the disabled.

Summaries of all the assistance programs a buyer looks likely to qualify for are returned and they are given the option of submitting their contact information to receive the information in an email. They can also indicate whether they want to be contacted by an agent.

Chrane said that on average, across the dozen or so MLSs that offer the Down Payment Resource tool, 14 percent of prospective homebuyers will fill out the form, and 5 percent will say they want to be contacted by an agent.

“For click-throughs, that’s a pretty good rate, especially when you’re asking people for household income,” Chrane said.

On some websites, the click-through rate can be as low as 2 percent — perhaps because the brand is not as trusted. One site targeted directly at first-time homebuyers has a 19 percent click-through rate, Chrane said.

If a prospective homebuyer says they want to be contacted by an agent, the Down Payment Resource tool sends out two emails — one to the agent, and one to the consumer.

The agents gets an email with hyperlinks to housing finance agency websites to obtain more information on assistance programs the prospective buyer may qualify for. The email that goes to the prospect is static — it summarizes the programs, but doesn’t link to them.

Once an MLS becomes a customer, member brokers and agents can implement the Down Payment Resource tool on their own IDX websites at no cost.

Why some choose not to is something of a mystery. Some simply aren’t aware of it, while others are under the impression that they’ll have to pay extra for it.

“Everybody is so conditioned to ‘freemium’ models and upsells,” Chrane said.

Bringing vendors that provide IDX sites for brokers and agents into the launch process seems to have helped adoption.

“We let vendors know when we’re lighting up in a new market so they can integrate us into their system,” Chrane said. Vendors also help get marketing messages out to potential users, which has increased adoption.

The results so far

Workforce Resource doesn’t have hard stats on adoption rates.

“If we have it on an IDX site, and the site gets traffic, we can see it, but we don’t have a clear handle on adoption,” Chrane said.

Across all markets served, about 70 percent of listings will display the Down Payment Resource icon, indicating that they may qualify for an assistance program. That’s about 245,000 listings in each market. Those listings are generating an average of 42,000 clicks per month — 34,728 by consumers and 7,686 by agents, the company said.

Lisle, Ill.-based Midwest Real Estate Data (MRED) has also created a mandatory field that requires agents to report whenever they close a sale whether they used Down Payment Resource. Agents reported using Down Payment Resource on 5.8 percent of sales in a recent 13-month period, Chrane said (those numbers haven’t been audited, he said, and can be assumed to have some margin of error).

Perhaps surprisingly, buyers who used Down Payment Resource aren’t just shopping for homes at the low end of the market. The average sales price on transactions by MRED members that employed the Down Payment Resource tool was 92 percent of the average.

Down payment assistance programs are tailored for individual markets and in some high-cost areas, homes priced at up to $728,000 may qualify, Chrane said.

Some assistance programs are specifically designed to bring a certain segment of buyers — tech workers and entrepreneurs, for example — into a targeted area, like a downtown.

Workforce Resource sees helping Realtors position themselves as local expert as part of its mission.

“It’s sort of like when pharmaceutical companies started advertising,” Chrane said. “They weren’t trying to disintermediate doctors. It’s ‘Ask your doctor.’ ”

Researching how the tool was being used for a public relations campaign, Chrane said Northstar MLS interviewed a young couple who’d taken advantage of a down payment assistance program. The couple didn’t mention the Down Payment Assistance tool, but credited their Realtor for having information they weren’t aware of.

It turned out the Realtor who’d represented the couple was already aware of the down payment assistance program that they ended up using, but had thought funding for the program had dried up. The Down Payment Assistance tool helped the Realtor realize the program was still funded.

The company says the tool can help Realtors differentiate themselves as experts at helping first-time homebuyers.

“Edina Realty has used it very effectively,” Chrane said.

One Edina Realty agent has even built a dedicated website around the Down Payment Resource database, mndownpayment.com, and is marketing himself as a “down payment assistance agent.”

Nevertheless, it’s taken persistence to get MLSs to sign on.

“There are some MLSs that have looked at it, but don’t feel it’s their role,” Chrane said. Others would say, ‘Our customers are agents and brokers, so it’s good’ ” for them.

MLSs that have licensed DPR include NorthstarMLS, Midwest Real Estate Data (MRED), My Florida Regional MLS, Mid-America Regional Information System (MARIS), Tucson Association of Realtors (TARMLS), Northern Nevada Regional MLS (NNRMLS), Northern New England Real Estate Network (NNEREN), Heartland MLS, North Carolina Mountains MLS, Southeast Minnesota MLS (SEMAR), First Multiple Listing Service (FMLS), and Austin/Central Texas Realty Information Services (ACTRIS).

Down Payment Resource also powers the California Association of Realtors’ California Mortgage Resource Directory, and last year Tucson, Ariz.-based Long Realty began offering the Down Payment Resource tool on LongRealty.com and on Long Realty agents’ websites.

Just getting MLSs that like the idea from the discussion phase to an agreement and implementation can sometimes take a year or more. There are board meetings, budgets and situations “where you are in the que” with other companies that provide services to MLS members, Chrane said.

If an MLS is on the verge of upgrading its platform, it’ll shop for vendors before signing up for Down Payment Resource.

“A couple of MLSs came in at NAR midyear, saying, ‘We love it,’ ” Chrane said. But since they were planning to change platforms in the next year, they didn’t want to integrate the tool into their existing system.

Chrane doesn’t think a policy change passed by NAR’s board of directors, defining “basic” services that MLSs can charge members for, will hinder MLSs from signing up for the tool.

One MLS in the Southwest that seemed to be on a fast track to adopting the Down Payment Resource tool scheduled a special board meeting after the policy was changed, he said — an indication that the new policy would not be an obstacle.

Chrane said Workforce Resource has signed up enough MLS clients for Down Payment Resource to be at “equilibrium,” but is looking for opportunities to work with more companies through its dedicated website, DownPaymentResource.com.

Would a tool like Down Payment Resource be useful in your market? Why or why not? Leave your comments below.

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