Editor’s note: This is the final article in a series detailing the results of an Inman News survey on real estate professionals’ use of smart phones and mobile applications. Part 1 focused on the popularity of smart phones and their features among different industry groups. Part 2 focused on the mobile apps respondents use the most, as well as how they use them and which they would recommend; and this article, Part 3, examines the feasibility of respondents’ ideas for a "killer app" they would like to use in their business.
If real estate professionals could design their own version of a "killer app" to help them do business, that app would grant them at least one wish: full access to the local multiple listing service, said several respondents to an Inman News smart phone and mobile technology survey.
In recent years, mobile technologies have exploded in an array of smart phones and thousands of apps. An Inman News smart phone and mobile technology survey, which ran from July 28, 2010 through Aug. 6, 2010, and garnered responses from 313 real estate professionals and technologists, explored the impact of this mobile revolution on their industry. The average number of responses per question was 247.
The survey posed the question, "If you could design a mobile app to assist your work, what function would it serve?"
That question was answered by 158 respondents. Ninety of them (57 percent) identified themselves as real estate agents or salespeople; 33 as brokers or brokerage executives (20.9 percent); 19 identified themselves as working for real estate technology companies, vendors, trade groups and MLSs (12.3 percent); 14 identified themselves as "others," including mortgage and title professionals (8.9 percent); and 2 respondents did not identify themselves.
The three main groupings of respondents will be referred to as "agents," "brokers" and "technologists" — the latter group includes employees for tech companies, vendors, trade groups and MLSs — throughout the report.
The desired functions focused mostly on enhancing productivity. A few respondents joked that the killer app would perform miraculous tasks, such as: "to wash my car, and take out the garbage," "floss my teeth," "to clone myself," and "it would freeze time!"
More seriously, about a quarter of agent respondents said they desired a mobile app with MLS functionality, with specific responses such as "online MLS" or "full" or "better" access to their MLS. That compares to about 15 percent of broker and technologist respondents. Overall, 20 percent of respondents asked for this function — a far larger percentage than any other function mentioned.
That result echoes an earlier survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors’ Center for Realtor Technology in January, which found that, among the applications Realtors are looking for but can’t find, many respondents indicated a desire to have their MLS offer a smart phone app.
In that survey, 57 percent of respondents were able to access their MLS system through a Web browser; whether that meant access through a mobile site specifically designed for smart phones was unclear. Some — 16 percent — had access to their MLS through a specially created mobile app.
Others said they were not interested in accessing MLS listings from their smart phone: 11 percent. That same percentage said their MLS did not allow access to listing via a smart phone. Of those, 94 percent said they were "very interested" in accessing listings through their smart phone, the survey report said.
Though by no means a universal subscriber benefit, some MLSs that are providing mobile access, either through apps or mobile websites.
According to the NAR survey, Realtors’ satisfaction with these offerings is mixed, however. Overall satisfaction of those who did have MLS access via their smart phone was 3.17 on a five-point scale. The results were similar in other areas: 3.21 for readability; 3.12 for ease of use; 3.08 for query options for listings; and 3.23 in the amount of data displayed.
In the Inman News survey, some users specified what they wanted in their MLS app: the ability to see all listing information, sales info for comparable properties; showing instructions and agent information; and the ability to upload listings and search for properties by location.
Real estate’s mobile app wish list: Top 4
1. Mobile tools for accessing MLS/searching for properties.
2. Customer relationship management tools.
3. Electronic document management/signature.
4. Task management/scheduling.
Source: Inman News smart phone/mobile tech survey.
One agent said, "It would track buyers, the MLS numbers we visit, and upload automatically to my e-mail." Another respondent seeks an app with "notification of new listings/price changes for watched properties near listings or for buyers." Some simply said they wanted something that was easier to use or offered more up-to-date listing information.
Still others asked for integration of their MLS with features available in other apps, including consumer real estate apps, such as automatic routing of multiple homes while driving; the ability to bookmark houses; and the ability to save, file, sign and send PDFs and other documents.
One respondent mentioned he or she would want the MLS app to be integrated with another popular desired app function: a customer relationship management (CRM) system.
"I desperately need a cross-platform CRM that would work with BlackBerry, iPad, Windows — the Holy Grail. (There’s) too much proprietary stuff out there," said one agent.
In addition to MLS integration, some said they would want CRM integration with e-mail and social media marketing platforms.
Other desired features, not necessarily integrated with a mobile MLS, included listings information that would show up on an augmented reality layer when the smart phone’s camera was pointed at a property; voice-activation; text-to-voice dictation; comps for "short sales, and REOs (bank-owned properties) analyzed separately from the non-distressed market"; "a to-do list and lead list that could simultaneously be seen and used by myself and several other staff and agents"; and an app that "allows me to put in the contract date and spit out all of the contractual deliverables as tasks/calendar reminders."
Many of these features are feasible or already available as individual apps, but the integration of multiple features to make one "killer app" has several barriers, according to mobile applications company iKenex. The company has built agent-facing and consumer-facing mobile apps for San Diego-area Sandicor MLS.
The first barrier is technological, the company said. There are multiple smart phone devices available and each one has its own requirements. The age of the phone is also a factor, as older phones can have more limited capabilities. There is also the problem of screen size.
"A mobile device has limited (screen) ‘real estate,’ so the barrier is how good a user interface designer you have," said Brian Lonchar, vice president of iKenex. "(Having a lot of features) can become useless because it’s so tedious to do everything."
Dave Borrillo, chief technical officer of iKenex parent company, DoApp, said, "The integration piece is technologically feasible, but doing it correctly, so that it’s really helping the agent help their clients solve their problems," is key.
The Sandicor mobile MLS app has many of the same features available on the desktop version of the MLS, and others that take advantage of the mobile platform — however, not every desktop feature needs to be available on a smart phone, Lonchar said.
"Honestly, would I really add a listing in my car?" Lonchar said. "But I would take photos and videos to add to listings in my system. Do I really need every feature mimicked in the field or to enhance what I do in the office?"
A similar barrier is data consistency. Some respondents asked for access to public information or the integration of their MLS with property tax records. The technological/design problem with those requests is that property tax information is kept in a myriad of formats across the country.
Another barrier is dealing with proprietary information. An app to integrate an MLS and a CRM, for example, is feasible, but would require the cooperation of the respective organizations, iKenex said.
"The proprietary nature of MLS data could end up restricting access. We will always have apps like Trulia and Zillow. Agents can’t really utilize those for their business — they can’t show showing instructions, commissions, things like that. The only way to get that data is to get it from the MLS company," Lonchar said.
In that same vein, even though house hunters may cross several MLS boundaries in their home search in a single day, an agent cannot offer a client a non-third-party, location-aware app that is not specifically tied to their one MLS, he said.
"We’ll have to see if that opens up. If we can somehow figure out how to get these feeds (from multiple MLSs), (developers) can combine them so consumers could do what they need to do and agents could be more effective as well," he added. However, "as this continues to grow, I don’t see (MLS protectionism) going away," he said.
One survey respondent hinted at what may usher in a new wave of mobile innovation: "Mapping in conjunction with my contact manager. That way I could be alerted that I was near a prospect, past client, etc., who I could then contact in person."
That kind of geo-location feature is even closer to reality with the launch of Facebook Places, according to Lonchar. Facebook Places is a location-based service that allows you to see where your friends are at any given moment, and there are other mobile tools, too, with location-aware features.
"As this technology continues to mature it could change the way agents and buyers interact. Agents could monitor their buyers’ house-viewing selections and make comments in real time. They could help coordinate a showing with the nearest ‘available’ agent in the area. It could even help sellers with time management when they have to leave their home in order for it to be viewed," he said.
Clients who use iKenex consumer apps’ already have the option to share their current location with their agent, and the company is looking to expand this functionality by letting clients share not only where they are, but the notes they’ve made on homes and the pictures they’ve taken in real time.
"I think (Facebook Places) could be a game-changer. I don’t think what that technology could do for the real estate industry has really sunk in to the real estate industry yet," Lonchar said. "It think it will explode: how to utilize geo-location services to improve customer service."