Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-part series.

What are the latest and the greatest new technologies from Real Estate Connect in San Francisco? This year there are more great candidates than ever. Here are some of my favorite picks that can help agents do a better job in their businesses.

1. Down Payment Resource
Lack of a down payment is the No. 1 obstacle to homeownership. Down Payment Resource (DPR), an Inman Innovator of the Year winner, provides buyers with access to scores of government-funded down payment assistance programs outside of FHA while working hand-in-hand with local multiple listing services. DPR displays an icon on each MLS listing indicating whether the property qualifies for down payment assistance. The system works by linking to local agencies that provide these services and then distributing this information through the MLS.

The system also allows buyers to become prequalified anonymously by completing a simple online form consisting of eight questions. Once the buyer completes the form, DPR will tell them whether they qualify for down payment assistance and then offers to connect them with a Realtor and lender in their area. The links to the assistance programs are available on the MLS IDX feed and can be posted on the brokerage or the agents’ sites as well.

DPR is a powerful tool that can open up new revenue streams for agents, brokers and lenders by helping previously untapped pools of buyers qualify for loans.

2. Houzz
The Washington Post described Houzz as the "Flickr of design idea sites," while WPMT-TV called it "the ultimate home decorating resource." Houzz is an iPad and iPhone app that allows users to make an online scrapbook of their favorite decorating ideas. This is especially important for buyers who are considering redecorating a property once they close or for those who will hire an architect to build their dream home. In either event, Houzz can help them sort through what works for them and to show contractors and decorators exactly what it is they hope to achieve.

3. MagicPlan
This is an iPhone and iPad application that measures, draws and publishes an interactive floor plan on the Web, just by taking pictures. Rather than having to pay $100 or more to have a house professionally measured, MagicPlan allows you to do this in minutes just by taking pictures. Moving the furniture is not required. The app is available in five languages and allows you to export the floor plan as a PDF, JPG, or in XML.

On the downside, one reviewer noted that the app displayed room sizes in meters rather than feet, and another noted that there were issues trying to measure rooms when there was furniture in the corners. The fee for commercial use is $5 per listing, but MagicPlan also has a subscription program for agents who have a large listing inventory.

4. Lifestyle search
Lifestyle search is one of the hottest trends in the real estate industry. In fact, it will dramatically reshape how agents market their listings in the future. Instead of searching for just three bedrooms and two baths in a specific location, Web visitors will be able to specify lifestyle factors such as places of worship, bus stops, coffee houses, and a host of other types of neighborhood features.

According to Sherry Chris, president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, the top five lifestyle search priorities are (1) ease of commuting by car (38 percent); (2) access to health and safety services (34 percent); (3) family-friendly neighborhood (33 percent); (4) availability of retail stores (32 percent); and (5) access to cultural activities (21 percent). The Better Homes and Gardens lifestyle search tool identifies which neighborhoods are the best fit and returns them in rank order by score to the buyer.

The Onboard Informatics Lifestyle Widget provides lifestyle search primarily at the brokerage and MLS level. In addition to school and family-friendly areas, it also identifies areas that are "fun and hip," areas for golfers, as well as pet-friendly areas.

For agents, SpatialMatch.com provides their buyers with a list of approximately 100 criteria that can be searched using approximately 10 criteria at a time. The properties that most closely meet the buyer’s search criteria are displayed on a map. This makes spotting which neighborhoods are the best lifestyle matches for a given client super simple.

5. Obeo vStager
Obeo’s vStager is a great advance over its previous virtual staging products. According to the Obeo website, homes that are staged sell 78 percent faster than those that are not. In fact, other than cleaning a home, staging provides the best return on your marketing dollar. Unfortunately, it’s expensive to stage a vacant property.

Obeo’s vStager now allows you to take pictures of your vacant property and then virtually stage it using up to 35 different styles of furniture. This is a terrific solution for REOs and other types of vacant property.

If you have an occupied property, you can still use the staging tool; however, you will have to remove the furniture from each room in order to photograph it vacant. Depending on how many rooms you want staged, prices begin at $99 for one room and run up to $549 for eight rooms.

This is a powerful tool that allows potential buyers to see your listing the way it would look once they move into the property. It’s also a great way to cope with that listing that shows poorly because of the seller’s taste in decorating.

Look for Part 2 on Monday for more hot tips from Real Estate Connect.

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