Can you run a successful business without Zillow, Trulia or realtor.com?

Industry pros weigh in on hot topic for Inman News' first 'Real Debate'

The guest opinions presented below are responses to Inman News’ first ‘Real Debate’ question: “Can you run a successful real estate company without Zillow, Trulia or realtor.com?” We invite you to share your own thoughts on the matter in the comments section of this article. 

We pulled the plug, and we’re doing better than ever

Pondering the issues image via Shutterstock customized by Inman News.
Pondering the issues image via Shutterstock customized by Inman News.

Jonathan Boatwright

Jonathan Boatwright

Jonathan Boatwright, co-owner of Realty Austin, says his company has flourished since it stopped syndicating listings to Trulia and Zillow. Many consumers recognize that portals are “fun to look at, but not critical to buy or sell,” he says. 

At my company, Realty Austin, we stopped syndicating companywide to all national portals on Oct. 1, 2013, except for realtor.com. We are not a small company, so this was not a decision to take lightly. We are currently the second-highest-producing firm in our market with 260 high-producing agents.

Like others, we were concerned that our clients would be upset with our decision, or that our homes would take longer to sell since we weren’t “maximizing exposure” with third-party websites.

We were pleasantly surprised when we looked back at the fourth quarter of 2013 and learned that our listings sold faster than ANY of the other TOP 50 real estate firms in Austin — WITHOUT syndicating to Zillow and Trulia. We also learned that our clients don’t really care about exposure on these third-party websites.

Many consumers are also fed up with their inaccurate data and misinformation, and have largely placed them in the same category as houzz.com, or any other home entertainment-oriented website. Fun to look at, but not critical to buy or sell.

On April 30, the Austin Board of Realtors is going to stop facilitating the syndication of member listings to all third-party sites besides realtor.com — unless those sites sign a very specific three-way agreement that significantly restricts the way ABOR listings are displayed to be consistent with our Realtor code of ethics.”

At this time we don’t know which, if any, of the third-party websites will agree to sign ABOR’s three-way licensing agreement. Brokers will still be free to send their own listings and negotiate their own agreements, but where the board is involved, protection of member listing data will prevail. There is more information available at http://www.abor.com/syndication.

While some members are worried about the backlash, I am confident it will be a non-event just like our decision last October.

I am glad our board is taking control of our data and sharing only with websites who agree to abide by our code of ethics. That is what consumers expect, and what we expect of one another. Why should third-party websites get a pass when it comes to complying with our rules for accurate and timely display of listings?

Choosing not to advertise on listing portals fails the client

Linsey Ehle

Linsey Ehle

Linsey Ehle, a career coach at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Gary Greene in The Woodlands, Texas, says that she can think of no reason not to use Zillow, Trulia and realtor.com “that isn’t primarily about the self-interest of brokers and agents.” 

You could run a successful real estate company without Zillow, Trulia or realtor.com. But, the question we should be asking ourselves today is whether or not we SHOULD.

The NAR 2012 Annual Buyer and Seller Report says that 42 percent of buyers found their home on the Internet. Buyers are visiting these sites to look for homes. Just Zillow alone draws 70 million unique visitors per month. It’s clear that we have reached a tipping point.

Our job as a listing agent is to market the property. Part of every listing presentation is showcasing our marketing plan to attract prospective buyers. Sellers know that in today’s world, that includes Internet marketing. If we don’t include the top three most popular websites for real estate in that plan, what exactly IS our marketing plan? How can we be credible? At this point, choosing not to advertise the property on those sites fails the client. If we care about serving our sellers, we will make sure our listings are on ZTR. Otherwise, quit talking about “marketing.”

The good news is that our clients value us, even as they go to these websites and search for homes. At the last Hear It Direct event I attended in D.C., I asked a panel of buyers what value they saw in hiring an agent. Even those buyers who took full advantage of online search and access to data and information on ZTR said they appreciated the value of their agents. They valued us for our ability to evaluate the pros and cons of particular properties, negotiating terms, helping them navigate the process, and handling contracts. Sellers at the same event also echoed their desire for representation, and said they valued their agent for advice and service.

The industry at large continues to bemoan how these sites fail the consumer. That just isn’t the case. I can think of no reason not to use these sites that isn’t primarily about the self-interest of brokers and agents. If data accuracy were really so near and dear to our hearts, we’d just give them a direct feed. And, as we continue to cry about ZTR as an industry, we miss our opportunity to focus on how we showcase value. We are no longer gatekeepers of the information. It’s high time that we start spending more energy talking about our value proposition beyond owners of data.

Some agents succeed without cellphones, but better not to ‘flirt with extinction’  

Phil Faranda

Phil Faranda

Phil Faranda, broker-owner of J. Philip Real Estate in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and a member of the Zillow Agent Advisory Board, argues that agents and brokerages must “make peace with aggregators and use their superior gravity as a business building tool” to succeed. 

The smaller your operation, the more likely that you could build a practice without ZTR. There are agents in my market who, as a matter of fact, don’t use cellphones either. No one tool is a deal killer for prosperity if you know what you’re doing.

If a licensee has a strong sphere of influence, is particularly adept at networking in the flesh, and leverages his contacts, he can earn a good living. However, there are diminishing returns. One agent can work a niche that is independent of syndication’s reach. To build a thriving company, however, it gets more complicated.

Real estate licensees are struggling to reconcile all the foibles of humanity in an expensive, stress-laden process with an increasingly technocentric industry. One agent can shake hands to success. But an organization has to embrace technology over the long term to face the future as the age of the consumer trends toward Gen Y.

Society is becoming more and more reliant on the Internet for information, so the value proposition of brokerage has evolved as a trusted adviser and advocate for what is often the most expensive financial event of a person’s life. The public is getting their own information, finding their own facts, and doing their own research to arm themselves.

For an organization to eschew the growing influence of aggregators in the face of the public’s ever-increasing thirst for the information they provide is to flirt with extinction.

While our value is clearly no longer as the gatekeeper of data, the command and interpretation of data is an absolute necessity. The race may not go to the biggest, but the most agile and able to adapt will prosper in the long run. And the reason brokerage has not gone the way of travel agents, stockbrokers or dodo birds is because we have by and large adapted to changes in technology. We have made friends with the biggest kid in the schoolyard, and we have lived to work another day in the profession.

Syndicators have supplanted the broker websites and blogs as the consumer platform of choice, and the trend is continuing in that direction more each year. A smart company will recognize what the consumer wants, and if that broker wants to grow, they will position themselves to be where the consumer is looking. It makes more long-term sense to make peace with aggregators and use their superior gravity as a business-building tool rather than view them as having conflicting interests to old, outdated business models that consumers themselves view as less useful. Adapt or die.

Two out of three listing portals ain’t bad

Richard Luna

Richard Luna

Richard Luna, owner of the boutique brokerage Luna Realty in Denver, Colo., says that running a successful real estate firm without Trulia and Zillow will be challenging in the future. But realtor.com may be dispensable, he says. 

Probably, but not for much longer if you adhere to NAR’s positions that (say it like the Wizard of Oz when he worked the levers behind the curtain): “We are the keepers of the information, do not question what we do or what we charge, we know best!”

Maybe it’s denial on NAR’s part, but I don’t believe NAR grasps the fundamental changes taking place in real estate and doesn’t understand that it’s probably standing where there’s about to be a big sinkhole.

All of us consumers — not just buyers and sellers of real estate — have come to expect instantaneous and mostly free access to information through our assorted digital devices; the secreting of and attempting to be a gatekeeper of that information, much of it readily available in public records, is a business model that the public will no longer accept and a sure way to incentivize competitors in your field.

In the early days of the Internet, supremacy of online real estate was NAR’s to lose, but because the leadership couldn’t or didn’t want to see that the information age was here to stay they’re in the process of doing just that. I make a distinction between Zillow and Trulia and realtor.com; the former are taking advantage of the poor decisions made by NAR regarding the latter.

I’ve been a Realtor since 1980 and if I stay in the business this will probably be the last year I renew my membership. I welcome change — it’s overdue; I think that in the next three to five years real estate (maybe less so Realtors) will still be here but only those willing to embrace change and be innovators will survive in the business.

My answer to the question is: I think you can run a successful real estate business without realtor.com but I’m not sure that you’ll be able to without Zillow and Trulia and whatever comes after them. But, like Meat Loaf sang, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

Do you agree with any of our contributors? Join the debate by sharing your thoughts in the comments section below.


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