Real estate startups hawk their wares

A roundup of 'Start-Up Alley' tech cos.

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CORRECTION: The original article misreported the number of companies participating in "Start-Up Alley" at the Real Estate Connect conference in New York City. Over one dozen companies participated in this exhibition. This article does not present an exhaustive list of every company that participated in "Start-Up Alley."

NEW YORK — Over one dozen startups showcased their wares during the "Start-Up Alley" exhibition at Real Estate Connect in New York City last week. Products offered by the eager entrepreneurs include property and mortgage evaluation calculators, social media tools, community neighborhood forums, jazzed-up property Web sites, and prospect-to-close transaction management systems.

Many of the tech tools — which have been around for less than a year — are still in beta form and the companies are seeking consumer feedback.

Property and mortgage evaluation

Before consumers become buyers and sellers, they have to figure out what the property involved is worth and whether they can afford to take the plunge either way.

Silicon Valley-based SmartZip Inc. provides free independent investment ratings for real estate. For those willing to tolerate price volatility over time, a property’s SmartScore notes its potential for appreciation in value. For the risk-averse, an Investor SmartScore notes a property’s potential for regular cash flow.

The company’s proprietary methodology takes into account economic, market, housing, government, community, property, demographic and lifestyle data gleaned from both public and private sources, according to SmartZip’s Web site.

The site rates these factors for a property and compares them to performance at the city, metro and state level. Users can also calculate a property’s monthly cash flow and return on investment. Once the consumer makes a decision to buy or sell, the site can connect him/her to a local agent for that property.

For those wishing to refinance their homes, San Francisco-based Refinance.com is a free mortgage-finding service that aims to find the best loans for which a user qualifies.

Developed with real estate industry expert and Inman News columnist Jack M. Guttentag, the company’s definition of "best" takes into account annual percentage rate (APR), principal, lender’s fee, loan origination/discount points, optional mortgage insurance, and income tax savings over the time borrowers expect to own the home.

The site evaluates users’ credit scores and gives them a mortgage "grade." If the users don’t "pass," the site suggests quick fixes, such as paying off a small medical bill, to improve their credit score, or directs them to a related site, Home-account.com, to "work on increasing their lender attractiveness," the company said in a statement.

If the users do pass, they see offers from numerous prequalified lenders, including interest rates, monthly payments, fees and monthly savings over their current mortgage. Once users pick an offer, they can lock in that rate for 48 hours. The lender the user chooses pays the site a flat fee.

Social media

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs: For real estate professionals who want to jump on the social media bandwagon but don’t want the hassle of navigating each of these networks individually, SocialMadeSimple automatically posts to multiple networks and combines all of a user’s contacts and posts in one place. …CONTINUED

Users compose a post and click on the networks they want and the site posts the content for them. For those at a loss for what to write about, the site offers tips (i.e., "Write about your favorite part of your job") and scans news sites for relevant articles users can repost or link to.

The site also allows users to plan goals for their social network use, offers advice for fulfilling those goals, and e-mails reminders if, say, a user is not posting enough content.

After a monthlong free trial, the service is $19 per month or $178 per year. For groups or companies with five to 35 employees, those per-user fees go down to $15 per month or $139 per year.

The quest to be the go-to person for a particular community is a goal many real estate professionals hope to realize through the use of social media. Australia-based Local.net is a free, location-based social network that allows users to post and look up what’s happening in their local area.

Users can "follow" an area — a town, a neighborhood, or a local establishment such as a theater — to keep up with the places they’re interested in. The site also assigns "Local guru" ratings depending on how often users interact with the site.

Neighborhood community sites

In line with the "local expert" goal, real estate-focused community Web sites are also a way for real estate professionals to show off their knowledge of an area. StrataXL Software Inc. powers a platform of local community sites they call LiveInSites.com.

Currently, the platform’s home site is devoted to the company’s home base of Vancouver, British Columbia, and users can jump to neighborhoods within Vancouver from any page on the site. The site allows users to search for real estate listings, find local news, advertise their businesses, and connect with each other through forums.

"We wanted to create a true resource for the community and have a way to promote not just the real estate, but also the people, businesses and the community itself," the company said on the platform’s site.

The company hopes to expand to other areas and is currently seeking local partnerships. The "LiveIn" sites make their money from real estate referrals, onsite advertising, and sponsored membership levels, the company said.

Individual property Web sites

For those interested in jazzed-up individual property Web sites, several startups offered a range of options. Home on the Tube provides Web pages that showcase for-sale, rental and vacation properties solely through video. Users can either upload their video, type in a description, and refer people to the page on the Home on the Tube Web site, or embed the video into their own Web pages.

The service is free to view and free to those who post one property at a time. For unlimited postings, the fee is $19 per month. …CONTINUED

For sellers who prefer to stand out through photos, Planomatic offers an interactive, dimensionally correct, 3-D floor plan of their property with photos scattered throughout and viewed by clicking on camera icons.

Users can also add furniture to their floor plan to see how a certain piece will fit and look in a desired room. The photos and floor plan are created during one 30- to 45-minute appointment per 1,000 square feet, and the company guarantees a two-business-day turnaround.

Service costs depend on the square footage of the property. Consumers can embed the plan on their own Web site or make it a dedicated Web site for the property. They can also add narration and music to the plan, make it downloadable, and, with the click of a button, advertise it on major social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

Planomatic can also post the plan to Web sites including Craigslist, Trulia, Zillow, GoogleBase and Realtor.com.

For those looking for a full-service marketing content provider, Australia-based IMAGEination opened its first U.S. office three months ago, focusing on Manhattan and Long Island. The company offers property Web sites and virtual inspections similar to Planomatic’s floor plans, but also offers video tours, professional photography, detailed two-dimensional floor plans, and slideshows dubbed IMAGEcasts.

"We focus on quality, retouched photography. We spend a lot of time styling a property, showing it off in the best light, putting fires in the fireplaces, etc.," said CEO Gerard Lynch.

Everything is turned around in 48 hours after the material is captured, Lynch said. The company hopes to expand to California, Florida and Colorado in the next five years. Costs for services vary. The cost of a 30-second video is $275, Lynch said.

For the luxury market, Platinum Sales Systems helps Realtors cater to clients selling homes valued at $500,000 and up. The marketing company offers individual property Web sites with professional photography. Sellers’ agents can describe the property, add links to neighborhood information, add property documents such as floor plans and surveys, and add a virtual tour should they have one to post.

"(Realtors) provide information that the buyer wants to see, but also raise the perceived value of the home," CEO Curt Warner said.

For agents, the company offers property sites linked to a personal listing site in which all the agent’s properties are back-linked to each other and all properties are listed on the company’s listing database.

"It creates a big net to catch leads," Warner said.

For full customization of a site with six property sites listed, the company charges a $499 activation fee plus $99 per month. For one with two property sites listed, the activation fee is $99 plus $19.95 per month. …CONTINUED

Transaction management systems

Transaction management systems keep track of a deal, from start to close, helping to ensure that everyone involved is doing their job.

Pulse Realty Software is a Web-based application that creates an electronic checklist for a given property and allows brokers, agents and clients to view it and keep track of every step of a transaction. The checklist cuts down on administrative costs, the company said.

"Clients today have just as much information as agents, but they’re not getting it from agents. (Agents) have to organize their information so they can prove the value of their services," said Brian Friemel, Pulse Realty Software president.

The software can generate operations and productivity reports for managers, and service updates for clients.

Dwellify is a network for businesses and consumers in real estate, including consumers, agents, escrow officers, appraisers, inspectors, etc. Agents set up a site for a specific transaction, add contact information for everyone involved in that transaction, and then these actors can send each other messages, share files and photos, and find out status updates for steps of the transaction.

The appraiser can share an appraisal with the lender, for example, or the inspector can schedule a home visit with the agent.

Actors can also see their mutual connections and ask each other for recommendations for particular providers. The site also includes feedback forms that potential buyers can fill out anonymously through e-mail so that the seller’s agent can find out what they think of a particular property.

Agents also have the ability to build leads and share leads with each other through Dwellify so that names and e-mail addresses are kept private.

"Dwellify sends an e-mail to them saying, ‘You looked at "X";"Y" is for the same price around the corner,’ " said CEO Bill Gaskill.

When the transaction closes, everything is turned into a compressed file that the agent can store, Gaskill said.

Dwellify will launch in beta form Feb. 1, before a full launch in May or June.

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