Editor’s note: In this three-part special report, Inman News dives into the world of mobile real estate to offer a look at how agents are using various services to connect with clients and streamline their businesses. (Read Part 1, “Agents, consumers connect with mobile technology,” and Part 3, “Real estate on the go: from GPS to ZipForms.”)
If u cn rd ths u probly hv snt or rcvd txt msgs. U myt evn b rdng ths n yr car.
Throw syntax to the wind, slam the grammar rules and topple the sentence structure. The Internet is no longer confined to a desktop, and e-mail is no longer tethered to a mouse or a keyboard. A telephone call is not necessarily the fastest, most direct or most efficient way to communicate. The whole wide world — or at least the World Wide Web — can fit in the palm of your hand.
Some real estate professionals are embracing the racing growth of mobile communications and search technologies, which includes text messaging or SMS (for short message service), photo and video transmissions, maps, Web access and location-aware technologies via handheld phones and portable digital assistants, or PDAs. And many companies seek to partner with agents and brokers in catering to an increasingly mobile crowd of consumers.
Real estate-focused mobile tools range from simple audio recordings or text messages with property details to customized mobile-friendly Web pages and map-based location-aware property searches. As is often the case, the most advanced technology has been ready and waiting for mainstream consumers to catch up.
“We certainly have the next generation of those tools ready to go. We’re certainly ready when the consumer’s ready,” said Dave Geipel, co-founder and president of CellSigns, a company that offers mobile services for the real estate industry and other industries.
Consumers are getting there, and fast.
A growing number of mobile phones and other handheld devices are equipped with digital imaging, wireless Internet and location-aware tools, as examples, and wireless companies are rolling out new data plans that feature unlimited text-messaging and data services.
An estimated 18.7 billion text messages were sent in the United States in December 2006, according to the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, also known as The Wireless Association, and the median age of consumers who use text messaging is 38 years old — the same as the Internet home buyer, CellSigns reports at its Web site: “It’s the same client.”
A television commercial for a telecommunications company’s unlimited wireless data service features a woman asking her kids and mother about text-messaging charges on the utility bill — the family members respond in acronyms that are common to text messaging: the mother says “MYOB” for mind your own business, for example, and says she sends text messages to her “BFF” (best friend forever) Rose. Geipel and other mobile tech professionals cited that ad as an example for the expanding demographic of mobile communications.
“You can’t say that the real estate agent is immune from text messaging. Everyone is communicating that way and it really is truly taking over in terms of a mass communications tool,” Geipel said. “Text messaging is the most popular feature on your cell phone after making a phone call.
“When we started, people didn’t know and understand messaging costs,” and the increased adoption and expansion of service plans for mobile messaging has made cost almost a non-issue for real estate professionals, he said. “We started to see a trend of fewer and fewer agents and brokers asking … about the cost of a text message.” And mobile technology companies expect that this text-messaging phenomenon will serve as a gateway to the widespread use of more advanced mobile applications.
CellSigns offers a Real Estate Property Marketing system for real estate professionals that includes a yard sign and mobile identification number for each for-sale property — home shoppers can access information about the properties via text message. The message they receive can include the price, property description, agent’s contact information, photos and other information. Agents who subscribe to the system can generate leads from the consumers who are using the service.
Many other mobile tech companies offer similar services that allow consumers to send a text message to receive property descriptions and photos, or allow them to view simplified Web sites that feature a fast download and clear display on mobile devices.
The company also offers Mobile Agent, a system that allows brokers to sign up their clients to search for-sale properties in an entire multiple listing service area via text messaging.
Property valuation and marketing company Zillow has launched ZMobile, a service that supplies valuation estimates to mobile devices using text-messaging technology. Another company, HouseFront, also features a valuation tool for mobile devices.
HouseFront also plans to roll out a location-based mobile mapping application before the end of the year, and the company is developing a mobile property-search system that can access MLS-based property information.
Mobile technologies can make the home-search process more efficient, said HouseFront CEO James Eberhard. “The mobile phone’s with you all the time,” he said, and consumers potentially can reach out to real estate agents and schedule showings as they are viewing properties, he said. “We connect them with a person right then and there. Our goal is to facilitate an easier process for the consumer and an easier process for the real estate agent.”
Real estate professionals can purchase location-triggered ads, featuring their contact information, that are displayed when consumers are searching for a property in a specific ZIP code or neighborhood area, Eberhard said.
Smarter Agent, another mobile technology company, is “sitting at this intersection of mobile and real estate and local search,” said company CEO Brad Blumberg. Smarter Agent holds patents to location-aware technology for real estate searches and the company has plans to launch a service before the end of the year that will allow users of GPS-equipped mobile devices to view for-sale homes based on where they are standing.
The company has already launched a similar GPS-based service that features apartments for rent. Smarter Agent partners with real estate brokers who can pay to become a featured broker for a given market area.
Blumberg said that the company has been anticipating more widespread use of GPS technology on mobile phones. “People change phones every 18 months, on average. 2008 probably becomes the inflection point for this stuff,” he said.
“Consumer adoption is going to outstrip the professional’s adoption,” Blumberg said, and he expects that mobile GPS technology will provide “another channel for consumers to research (homes) and then contact agents.” He said “all-you-can-eat,” unlimited-use data packages for mobile devices are a key to the growth of advanced mobile technologies. “A lot of carriers already (offer) that.” The GPS-based homes-for-sale application is due out in December.
Taggart Communications has taken another approach to mobile communications, allowing consumers to access property information by dialing a toll-free number to receive property information, photos or mortgage information, for example.
The company has plans for mobile-enabled virtual tours and videos, though the company is waiting until the technology and audience are ready, said Jon Norris, Taggart founder.
“The cell phone itself is kind of holding a lot of things back,” he said. “We are kind of waiting on the cell phone itself to evolve, along with the battery.”
Although text messaging is growing in popularity, Norris said, “There is just a lot of apprehension for the older people to try something like that, but everybody knows how to dial a phone. We’ve made it so it’s extremely easy to use for everybody.”
Taggart, like many other mobile technology companies, captures data about the phone numbers that consumers are calling from and forwards that information to real estate and mortgage professionals who subscribe to the service.
The subscribers also receive information about which properties the consumers are calling about, the date and time they called the service, their contact information and in some cases the name association with a particular mobile phone number, Norris said. “It gives the agent a good, solid base to follow up from,” he said.
Mobile tools are like “a natural extension of their Web presence” for real estate professionals, said David Wachs, founder of Cellit Mobile Marketing. His company delivers property information to real estate professionals in the form of text and photo messages or customized mobile-friendly property Web sites through its House4Cell service. Also, consumers can request property information via fax or e-mail, and can sign up for alerts for individual homes or neighborhood areas.
Text messaging has accelerated dramatically over the last year, Wachs said. “People know how to text message — they’re familiar with that.” And sophisticated mobile devices that can access the Web are becoming more popular, he said. “Basically, we’re finding that phones are more and more capable of these rich experiences.”
Plato Zorzy, broker for Pro Team Real Estate in Fullerton, Calif., designed a simplified property-search Web site, MLNOW.net, to allow consumers to search for properties in his company’s market area using their mobile devices. He also has launched a mobile-friendly online search tool for foreclosure properties that can be accessed for a fee.
“Everything is going to the cell phone,” said Zorzy. “Prices (for mobile data plans) are just going to keep going down.” Also, he noted wireless companies are launching faster Internet connection speeds for their networks.
Some popular online services for real estate professionals, including those offered by electronic forms provider ZipForms and customer relationship management company, TopProducer, can be accessed via mobile device. The popular property-search site Realtor.com also has a mobile version.
Not all real estate professionals are up to speed with mobile technologies, said Steve Loper, founder and president for Zoglist.com, a Florida-based mobile technology company that offers text-messaging tools for the real estate industry.
“It’s not an age issue — it’s how technically savvy the (real estate professional) is,” he said. During presentations of his mobile services at a real estate conference, Loper said the reaction was mixed. “Fifty percent absolutely loved it and said it was great — another way for Realtors to give information. Others ran away from it like it was the plague — they wanted nothing to do with it,” he said.
So it appears that some real estate professionals are still deciding whether mobile technology is a “BFF” — text-messaging shorthand for “best friend forever.”