Although Apple’s iPhone has helped demonstrate the utility of smart phones to real estate professionals, it’s taking longer for consumers to migrate over to the the new devices.

When it comes to smart-phone adoption, real estate brokers and agents may be surprised to find themselves ahead on the technology curve. But smart-phone users are a sought-after demographic, and there are many opportunities to capture business employing technologies that cater to older phones with more limited capabilities, as well.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series examining advances in mobile-phone applications tailored for real estate. Part 1 looked at how Apple’s iPhone has revolutionized mobile phone applications by harnessing the power of independent software developers. Part 2 explores smart-phone adoption by consumers and real estate professionals, and how the industry is putting smart phones and older mobile technologies to use.

Although Apple’s iPhone has helped demonstrate the utility of smart phones to real estate professionals, it’s taking longer for consumers to migrate over to the new devices.

When it comes to smart-phone adoption, real estate brokers and agents may be surprised to find themselves ahead on the technology curve. But smart-phone users are a sought-after demographic, and there are many opportunities to capture business employing technologies that cater to older phones with more limited capabilities, as well.

According to the latest numbers from the research and advisory firm Gartner Inc., sales of smart phones in North America grew by 69 percent last year, but still accounted for only one in five mobile devices sold. Globally, smart phones accounted for only 12 percent of mobile device sales in the last three months of 2008.

But even back in 2007 — the year the iPhone was rolled out — 42 percent of brokers, agents and real estate managers were already using a smart phone such as a Treo, BlackBerry or iPhone, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors.

The survey showed phenomenal growth in smart-phone adoption by real estate professionals. In 2006, only 28 percent said they were using a smart phone with wireless e-mail and Internet capabilities. The percentage of those using cell phones without e-mail or Internet capabilities fell from 72 percent in 2006 to 55 percent in 2007.

Even more tellingly for the future, 37 percent of those surveyed in 2008 said they planned to purchase (or replace) a smart phone in the next year, while only 12 percent planned to buy a mobile phone that did not offer e-mail and Internet access.

In a recent survey of Inman News readers, 98 percent called mobile phones and handheld devices either "extremely important" (87.1 percent) "very important" (8.7 percent) or "important" (2.5 percent) in allowing them to work remotely.

Only e-mail — a capability now handled by many mobile phones — was identified as "extremely important" more often than mobile phones (90.5 percent).

But those surveyed were more likely to say they’d devoted the most resources to e-mail (27.7 percent), real estate search portals like Realtor.com (23.3 percent), broker-provided tools and services (22.5 percent), wireless Internet (20.4 percent), and multiple listing service-provided tools and services (17.6 percent) than mobile phones and handheld devices (10.6 percent).

The survey was conducted from Feb. 19 to March 3, and nearly 90 percent of the 1,330 participants identified themselves as brokers or agents.

Why they’re hot

Given the amount of time real estate professionals spend out of the office, it’s no surprise they’ve embraced smart phones. The devices are now tackling tasks once handled only by personal computers, such as lead generation and management, market research and analysis, and customer relationship management.

ERA offers agents a lead-routing and management tool, LeadRouter’s DirectAccess, which forwards leads to agents using smart phones or any mobile device.

"We all know the agents that are the first to respond to someone on the Internet is most likely the agent the consumer will use throughout the homebuying process," said P.J. Martin Smith, Senior Vice President of Marketing, ERA Franchise Systems LLC. "This device has the capability to forward leads to the agent while they are on the road, so they can get back to consumers no matter where they are."

Move Inc. offers smart-phone applications for consumers and Realtors through its Top Producer Systems and Realtor.com subsidiaries.

The company’s latest application for Realtors, Top Producer 8i, allows users to bring along their entire customer database and calendar, to-do lists, and even sophisticated tools like comparative market analyses created on a desktop or laptop computer.

"Everything I’ve ever done in working with you as a client that’s in my Top Producer system is with me on the phone," said Errol Samuelson, president of Top Producer Systems and Realtor.com, a top real estate search site for consumers. "When you call me, I have the opportunity to enter information on what the call was like, so I can see what we last talked about." …CONTINUED

As users check off items on their to-do lists, the mobile application archives a copy into the user’s main desktop or laptop system.

"It brings your entire business with you in your pocket, and the two systems synch up," Samuelson said.

For now, only Realtors with smart phones powered by Palm, BlackBerry or Microsoft Windows Mobile operating systems can take advantage of Top Producer’s capabilities.

"With Top Producer we just made the decision to target the higher-end phones — Palm, BlackBerry, Microsoft Windows Mobile," Samuelson said. "We have not announced it, but we have a version in the works for the iPhone."

On the consumer side, Realtor.com offers two mobile applications, one for Windows Mobile and another for the iPhone, that facilitate access to the site’s listings. The Windows Mobile version allows users with GPS-enabled phones to find nearby homes for sale with one click.

There’s also a version of Realtor.com that’s optimized for the iPhone, but accessible using other smart phones and Web browsers for desktops like Firefox: iphone.realtor.com.

Samuelson said giving consumers the ability to satisfy their curiosity about a property — even when they don’t think they’re in the market for a home — could stimulate demand.

"If I’m walking the dog, I might see a for-sale sign, but I’m not going to call a Realtor on the phone because I’m not a buyer, " Samuelson said.

A smart-phone user who can retrieve information on a listing without bothering a Realtor gets "instant gratification" and is exposed to knowledge they might not otherwise have bothered to seek out.

"I might find out that a house I thought was out of my price range I could afford to buy if I stretch," Samuelson said.

David Marine, director of interactive marketing for Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, said he agrees that consumers are more likely to seek out information if they know they don’t have to talk to a person to get it.

"People want the ability to find what they want, when they want it, to the point where they don’t even want to leave voice mails," Marine said.

Optimized for mobile

In theory, just about all of the real estate information that’s available over the Internet is already accessible by smart phones. Smart phones like the iPhone can navigate ordinary Web sites. The process can be somewhat clunky, and many popular Web destinations also offer parallel interfaces that are optimized for the iPhone and other smart phones.

ERA, for example, has configured 3g.era.com for 3G-equipped devices like the iPhone, and wap.era.com, for older Wireless Application Protocol-compliant mobile phones and devices. Mobile visitors to ERA’s main site are redirected to the pages optimized for them.

Smart-phone users visiting Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC’s main site, ColdwellBanker.com, are recognized by the site as such and served up data optimized for iPhone and BlackBerry.

After the company launched the mobile interface in October, it generated 270,000 searches in its first four months, Marine said. In January, Coldwell Banker’s mobile interface began offering international listings in 28 countries including Mexico and Canada. …CONTINUED

"Our agents are just as much a consumer of the mobile Coldwell Banker site as consumers," Marine said. "They are running into the coffee shop, showing consumers their listings, and showcasing (the mobile interface) to sellers and prospective buyers."

It’s "quite an undertaking" to create a seamless experience for users across the many available mobile platforms, Marine said, but "I think we’ve accomplished that."

Eric Blumberg, co-founder and president of mobile real estate application developer Smarter Agent, believes consumers will find that many sites optimized for mobile phones are frustrating to use.

"It’s how you design and present that information that’s important," Blumberg said. "That’s why mobile hasn’t done so well to this point … if you are just taking a Web site and shrinking it to the phone, it’s not going to work."

A mobile phone’s smaller screen means not only that it’s able to display less information at once, but that users can quickly find themselves clicking several screens deep into an application to get what they are after.

Mobile app and Web designers also need to be sensitive to the fact that users are paying for data, and that some networks make downloading content like pictures agonizingly slow.

"You can’t just send up a page with 20 pictures," Blumberg said.

Custom phone apps

From a broker’s or agent’s perspective, treating a consumer’s mobile phone like it’s a personal computer also means missing out on opportunities to exploit the technology to its fullest extent. Those opportunities include additional lead-generation and customer-relationship-building capabilities.

Philadelphia-based Smarter Agent tailors applications for the mobile phones, operating systems and carriers it serves — more than 100 variations in all. "It’s an interesting design process," Blumberg says.

The company’s applications include Homes For Sale, which uses a patented technology that allows users of GPS-enabled phones to see the 10 homes for sale nearest their current locations.

"Mobile search is about location — it’s not about a ZIP code, it’s not about a city," Blumberg said. "If you have a list of properties by ZIP code, some can be five or six miles away."

Because Smarter Agent’s applications can be branded for brokers and agents, "When someone searches, it doesn’t matter whose listing it is — (the broker or agent providing the branded application) will get the call," Blumberg said.

"You are in your client’s pocket and giving them the info they want so they don’t have to go to another site and get picked up by another Realtor," he said.

Technically, Smarter Agent’s branded applications are distributed by cell-phone carriers, via the agent’s or broker’s Web site. After applying at the agent’s or broker’s Web site, homebuyers receive a text message with a link to download the branded application from their mobile-phone carrier, or the iPhones App store. …CONTINUED

While some Web sites and mobile applications get listings from Google Base or by scraping data from other sites, Blumberg said he thinks it’s crucial for mobile applications to access a more complete set of MLS data via Internet Data Exchange (IDX) systems, which are agreements among brokers for sharing and displaying property information online.

If you are in a neighborhood standing in front of a house with a for-sale sign in the front yard, and you don’t see that house (in a mobile real estate application) because it has a limited set of listings, that’s frustrating to the consumer," Blumberg said.

Many mobile-phone applications targeted at consumers will also be able to access even more detailed information from the MLS that was previously off limits to the public, such as listing history, tax data and sold listings, thanks to a settlement between the Department of Justice and the National Association of Realtors.

The settlement, finalized in November, resolved a 3-year-old antitrust lawsuit alleging NAR approved policies governing the sharing and display of property listings information that were illegally restrictive.

Although NAR maintained the policies did not violate federal antitrust law, it agreed to adopt a modified policy on "Virtual Office Web" sites, or VOWs, allowing member brokers who participate in MLSs to offer consumers who register to use the sites a more extensive set of information.

The settlement doesn’t allow brokers to opt out of sharing listings with VOW sites, although brokers participating in IDX sharing agreements can still choose to withold property information from other MLS participants.

"With the new rules, all this information can be exposed when you know who the person is" and they have completed the registration process necessary to access VOW sites, Blumberg said.

Smarter Agent offers another application, Recently Sold Homes, that shows Sprint-Nextel subscribers the nearby home sales going back three years, serving up last sold price, last sold date and square footage.

No phone left behind

While smart phones are all the rage, Smarter Agent also supports phones with more limited capabilities. Users whose phones aren’t GPS-enabled can search for home information by entering addresses, ZIP codes and communities, for example.

"You don’t want to sell to a small percentage of the market," Blumberg said. "It saddens me to see people only working on iPhones and BlackBerrys, and leaving so many people on the table."

That’s a philosophy shared by QWASI Inc., a company that designs mobile-phone applications for the real estate and other industries.

The Philadelphia-based company has jumped into iPhone application development, but isn’t giving up on devices with more limited Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) Web browsers, and text capabilities like SMS (short message service) and MMS (multimedia messaging service).

"The first consideration (for real estate professionals) is, ‘What do my buyers have in their hands?’ " said QWASI co-founder and Chief Operating Officer David Geipel. "Not everybody is driving around with a broadband laptop in their hands, but the majority have text messaging. That’s our philosophy: Start there and work (toward) higher touch."

Geipel likens the company’s Mobile Agent real estate application to an "SMS MLS."

Users send a text message to Mobile Agent that includes an address, neighborhood or street name. Through QWASI’s partnerships with brokers, the text message returns search results of the local MLS’s IDX feed. The company claims access to more than 1.3 million listings. …CONTINUED

Mobile Agent also includes tools for managing the home-search process. Buyers can schedule showings and agents can track where buyers are searching, generating new clients with text-message codes on signs and print ads.

QWASI also offers a marketing tool, CellSigns, that allows users to send a text message that includes an identification number on a listing’s yard sign to receive information on the property.

Salt Lake City-based BlueRoof360, which provides custom-built Web sites and lead management for brokers and agents, says many of its Web-based tools for managing listings are also accessible to agents and their client via mobile phone.

Sellers, for instance, can see a checklist that shows how an agent is marketing their property, including where it’s been advertised, e-mails sent to other Realtors, and scheduled open houses. Everyone involved in the marketing and sale of a house can access the information through a desktop or mobile phone.

"It goes beyond mobile search to become a real communication hub," said BlueRoof360 founder Greg Tracy.

Unlike personal computers, which are frequently shared and used to browse the Web anonymously, mobile devices are usually associated with a single user — which can help real estate professionals generate leads and build customer relationships.

"Not only does (a GPS-enabled) phone know where you are, it knows who you are," said Jim Secord, president of Most Home Real Estate Services.

Most Home’s Kurio application provides access to MLS data through relationships with 120 Realtor boards in 35 markets, Secord said, or about 320,000 Realtors.

"The key number we look at is the number who actually use the system," Secord said. "When we launched in 2006, that number was in the hundreds. Today, we’re at just over 45,000 Realtors using Kurio on a fairly regular basis."

A new generation of inexpensive "netbook" computers with smaller screens have location-tracking capabilities like mobile phones, and investments made today in iPhone applications and other mobile applications should "scale up very well" to those devices, Secord said.

***

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