Realtor.com operator Move Inc. says a new version of the listing portal that’s targeted at international buyers will help brokers and agents grab a piece of an estimated $82 billion in annual sales of U.S. residential properties to foreign buyers.
In development for a year, Realtor.com International launched today with 4.4 million listings and translation capabilities in 11 languages, including "double byte" character languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean that can pose challenges for programmers.
Like other listing portals aimed at the jet set, Realtor.com International provides other tools designed to make foreign buyers feel more at home, converting property dimensions from square feet into square meters and list prices from U.S. dollars into widely used currencies such as the euro and yuan.
Thanks to its ties to the National Association of Realtors — Move operates the website under the terms of an agreement with NAR — Realtor.com has nearly total coverage of the U.S. market, boasting more residential property listings than any listing portal, foreign or domestic.
Realtor.com already attracts about 900,000 foreign homebuyers a month, and that traffic is expected to grow now that the site allows more users to browse listings in their native language.
|Country of origin for
2. United Kingdom
English is the dominant language in three of the top five countries of origin for international visitors to Realtor.com: Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and India.
Although China is thought to be the second most common country of origin for foreign buyers of U.S. residential properties, the country is notably absent from the list of top 10 countries of origin for international visitors to Realtor.com.
"We expect traffic from China to jump dramatically," said Realtor.com President Errol Samuelson of the newly launched site, which with a click of the button can convert navigation and property descriptions into traditional Chinese characters used by speakers of both Mandarin and Cantonese.
"From a technology point of view, Russian, Chinese and Japanese are ‘double byte’ or ‘multiple byte’ languages," Samuelson said of the amount of information programmers must devote to each character. "It turns out to be somewhat complicated. I’m quite pleased we were able to go beyond the standard Latin languages."
|Top 10 cities searched by
2. Las Vegas
4. Los Angeles
6. Orlando, Fla.
7. New York, N.Y.
8. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
9. San Diego
10. Kissimmee, Fla.
At launch, Realtor.com International features listings from 10 countries outside of the U.S. — Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain.
That’s only a fraction of the 1.5 million non-U.S. listings from 93 countries on display to visitors of rival WorldProperties.com. But Move says additional countries have already signed on and will be coming online rapidly in coming months.
WorldProperties.com is the official website of the International Consortium of Real Estate Associations (ICREA), a global consortium of real estate associations that NAR helped found 11 years ago.
NAR withdrew from ICREA on Dec. 31, after the consortium developed a new listings exchange and referral system that allowed the public display of residential listings and member-to-member posting of residential listings.
NAR said its agreement with Move governing the operation of Realtor.com prohibits it from participating in another site displaying U.S. properties. Before the split, WorldProperties.com displayed framed search results from Realtor.com.
Today, in additional to international listings, WorldProperties.com also carries about 1 million U.S. listings provided by its technology partner, Proxio. Proxio syndicates listings it receives from agents and other subscribers of its ProxioPro global network, and from partners including listings syndicator Point2.
ICREA CEO Thijs Stoffer said that NAR’s withdrawal from ICREA "opened the door for individual Realtors to participate to the fullest at WorldProperties.com, an option not available to those agents before due to contractual obligations NAR has with Move.com."
Stoffer said there has been "a fair amount of misinformation out there" on this point in social media group discussions.
Since NAR withdrew from ICREA, he said, "we have seen interest (from) some local Realtor associations to opt to directly affiliate with ICREA on behalf of their members."
Stoffer said access to market data from a reliable source "is critical for investors and other foreign buyers," and tools such as translation and currency conversion tools — the "backbone of the WorldProperties.com site" — provide added value.
"We believe that the more such resources … come online, such as the international listings at Realtor.com, the better for consumers and the better for the global marketplace," Stoffer said.
Proxio co-founder and CEO Janet Case had a similarly diplomatic take on Realtor.com’s entry into the international listings game.
The U.S. real estate industry "widely acknowledges that listing exposure on multiple portals is good for agents," she said, citing Trulia and Zillow as examples. Now, Case said, there’s growing awareness that overseas buyers are "great customers … and there’s certainly room for more than one player in this space, too."
Challenge of international
Bringing listings from other countries online involves technical challenges that go beyond differences in language, currencies and measurements.
One problem is that the co-brokerage system employed in the U.S. and Canada — in which listing brokers make offers of compensation through multiple listing services to cooperating brokerages — is far from universal.
In many European countries, including Italy and France, sellers commonly list individual properties with several brokerages. The first broker to bring a buyer to a sale gets the commission. As a result, brokers tend to be secretive about sharing details about their listings, and many countries lack an MLS or licensing requirements.
It’s not unusual to see four or five "for sale" signs hanging from the balcony of a home for sale in Italy, Samuelson said, and brokers are sometimes reluctant to publish addresses when publicizing listings.
But NAR has established formal relationships real estate associations around the world, and Samuelson said Realtor.com is leveraging those relationships to bring listings to the site.
Many international real estate associations aggregate listings, and "we’ve reached out to about 40 NAR partners and signed license agreements with a bunch," he said.
Samuelson said Realtor.com will receive international listings from three other sources: MLSs in countries that have them, large brokerages that have internal listing databases, and U.S. franchisors with international operations in Europe and Asia.
Combining listings from multiple sources and mapping them to a common standard is "significantly more complicated" for international listings than for U.S. listings, he said.
Although 10 countries might seem like a modest launch, the number of participants providing data feeds "exceeded our wildest projections," Samuelson said, and there’s a waiting list of countries that have yet to go live.
Realtor.com has also signed agreements with Mexico’s real estate association, the Asociación Mexicana de Profesionales Inmobiliarios (AMPI), and with organizations in Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Caribbean.
"I think you’ll see lots of coverage in Central and South America in coming months," Samuelson said.
The opportunity to feed listings to Realtor.com International may serve as an incentive for real estate associations in other countries to move toward a U.S. model employing an MLS and co-brokerage.
The Romanian Association of Real Estate Agencies is in a position to feed listings to Realtor.com International from its launch, in part because it launched an MLS in 2009 that borrows from the U.S. system.
The Philippines is another nation that only recently launched an MLS. Samuelson said Realtor.com International is receiving a listings feed from the Philippines that hasn’t gone live on the site yet.
Shonee Henry, broker owner of San Diego-based Allegro Realty and Mortgage, also serves as NAR’s liaison to the Philippines. She said Realtor.com’s decision to launch an international site "had a strong influence" on the country’s formation of an MLS. The Philippines, she said, has a "booming real estate market" and its citizens also work in countries around the globe.
"It’s an interesting downstream effect," Samuelson said of Realtor.com’s potential effect on how the business of real estate will be conducted in other countries.
It won’t happen overnight, Samuelson said, but in four to five years the opportunity to create more consumer exposure for listings could lead to greater standardization of international listings data.
America’s neighbor to the north — Canada, the home of most foreign buyers of U.S. real estate — has a national listings portal, MLS.ca, sponsored by The Canadian Real Estate Association. Samuelson said that for now there are no plans to port Canadian listings over to Realtor.com International.
Although U.S. investors have played a role in commercial markets there, there are more Canadian dollars flowing into U.S. residential markets than in the other direction, Samuelson said.
According to NAR’s 2011 Profile of International Homebuying Activity, four states account for 58 percent of home purchases by international buyers: Florida, California, Texas and Arizona.
The survey of NAR members, conducted in April 2011, found the largest proportion of buyers were from Canada (23 percent) followed by China (9 percent), Mexico (7 percent), India (7 percent), France (4 percent) and Germany (4 percent). Argentina and Brazil together accounted for 5 percent of international buyers.
The survey suggested that a few Realtors are tightly focused on international clients — 4 percent said they accounted for more than three-quarters of their transactions. But 73 percent said foreign buyers account for 10 percent or less of their business, including 22 percent who said they did no business with international clients at all.
Referrals: the other piece of the puzzle
While the rollout of Realtor.com’s international site could help U.S. brokers and agents get more exposure for their listings, many who specialize in the working with foreign buyers say that’s only half the game. Referrals are a key to building up an international clientele, they say.
Barbara H. Schmerzler, owner and lead broker of Connecticut-based U.S. Homefinders Inc., said she’s used WorldProperties.com and Realtor.com and will continue to do so, but "neither have produced valid buyers."
"Whatever sales or rentals I have made involving international buyers have been due to relationships within my own backyard — friends who have friends, business associates who trust my judgement and business acumen," Shmerzler said. "An honest evaluation of the current real estate climate within one’s territory helps to make a buyer, local or international, comfortable working with a broker (or) agent."
To help Realtors network with brokers in other countries, NAR has established ties to more than 80 real estate associations in 60 countries around the world.
NAR assigns state and local associations to work with cooperating foreign associations, and assigns a "President’s Liaison" to work with each. President’s Liasons work under Regional Coordinators for Central Europe, Western Europe, North America, South America, Australia and the Asia Pacific region.
Juliet Six, an international relocation consultant with Long & Foster Real Estate who also serves as NAR’s liaison to Belgium, said even with the addition of international listings Realtor.com is "not a panacea for dealing in global real estate."
"An international transaction is about a lot more than currency conversion and a literal language translation," Six said. "It is first and foremost about an understanding of the cultural issues (and) why it is that your clients are asking the questions they are asking."
To that end, NAR offers a Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) designation, which allows them to use NAR’s 2,000-member CIPS Network to land referrals.
ICREA offers a similar "Transnational Referral Certified" (TRC) designation, which Stoffer said is held by about 13,000 real estate professionals worldwide. About half of those are in the U.S., concentrated in Florida, California and Arizona he said. Outside the U.S., there are strong TRC programs in place in Brazil, France, Mexico, India and Italy.
Stoffer said associations in these markets are integrating the program into their agent training initiatives. There was also "enthusiastic and growing interest in TRC" among countries in the Middle East, he said, but the "Arab Spring" uprisings have "put their entry into the organized global market a bit off course."
ICREA also provides access to the ProxioPro network to its member associations and their agents, allowing them to syndicate listings to WorldProperties.com and make referral connections.
Once a broker or agent has established an international clientele, they can be one of the best sources for referrals.
"My experience with foreign buyers is that they are a much better resource for referral business" than U.S. clients, said Katie Minkus, broker-in-charge on the "Big Island" for Hawaii Life Real Estate Brokers.
Minkus said that while Hawaii Life’s website, HawaiiLife.com, attracts a large number of buyers from Canada, Japan, and Europe, "I’m thrilled Realtor.com would want to (cater to) international buyers, it just gives us that much more exposure."
Although Minkus said she’d uploaded listings to WorldProperties.com and received some leads from the site, "I don’t think any got me anywhere." She said she hadn’t uploaded any listings lately because she doesn’t have time.
"I have an open account, and I got an email the other day asking, ‘Why haven’t you uploaded your listings,’ " she said. "For me, it’s a matter of bandwidth."