SAN FRANCISCO – Technology has inexorably changed the real estate industry and its business models, a panel of industry professionals said Friday at the National Association of Realtors annual convention.

“Title insurance companies have become technology companies,” said Travis Wright, CEO of Stewart Realty Solutions, a software shop that is a subsidiary of Stewart Title.

According to Wright, the mass of paperwork involved in title insurance was “out of control,” the transaction process was chaotic, and the title process was tedious, time-consuming and all-around “too manual.”

“So we built technology to automate the process,” said Wright, whose company licenses its SureClose online real estate transaction management system for title agencies, Realtors and lenders.

With SureClose, home buyers and sellers, agents and others involved in real estate transactions can work on and share documents and communicate on a passworded Web site.

“Our platform is AIM. That is the production side; we put 13 silos of data there. SureClose is the customer side,” Wright said.

Title offices need efficiencies to make profits, the Stewart Realty Solutions CEO said, because they have high overhead. “Title offices are paper intensive; they have expensive staff; there is pressure on insurance premiums,” Wright said. “Technology can help speed up the per-person production.”

Title insurance isn’t the only real estate industry whose business model has changed, according to David Charron, CEO of Maryland multiple listing service Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, or MRIS, which is owned by shareholder Realtors.

“We were formed as a cooperative and have become an advertising vehicle,” Charron said of multiple listing service.

Russell Capper of Prudential Real Estate Services, which provides technology exclusively for Prudential, said the real estate industry is out of synch with consumers.

“In 2004, only 57 percent of consumers felt Realtors use technology effectively,” Capper said. “The industry needs to proactively use information technology to align with today’s consumers. The modern consumer wants information.”

John McWeeny of Inman Stories said consumers expect high-tech Web sites with “less gatekeeping and paperwork.” (Inman Stories is a division of Inman News that produces videos of high-end real estate, among other things.)

As an example, McWeeny displayed results of a Google Maps search for a property, which included a street map of the immediate neighborhood, a satellite view and a three-dimensional aerial view.

He then showed a listing from that included only a set of static photos.

“Echo boomers are looking for more than they can get online,” McWeeny said.

According to McWeeny, 50 percent of consumers have broadband access at home, 80 percent at work, and hence have the capacity to view online videos. “Every Web page can be a TV channel,” he said.

McWeeny aired an Inman Stories video of a home in New York’s Central Village neighborhood. Realtor Leonard Steinberg shows the home and narrates the video as the camera pans through the apartment. “The elevator opens directly into the suite, which is convenient,” says Steinberg.

As a brown dog approaches Steinberg, he comments, “A nice touch. The dog is color-coordinated with the apartment,” drawing laughter from the audience.

During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked, “What is your opinion of sites like that index content so buyers can find listings? Who owns the content?”

Wright replied, “I think it’s an interesting service and has legs, but they don’t have authorization to use content without the broker’s okay. With appropriate permission, Trulia could be great.”


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