Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note that TheMLSOnline.com app is provided by a brokerage, not a multiple listing service.
While the debate about who owns the listing data and whether agents and brokers should be syndicating their listings to third-party vendors rages on, there’s an important element almost no one is discussing: What do consumers want?
I recently interviewed Rob Hahn of HearItDirect.com. Hahn and his partner Sue Adler have been conducting in-depth consumer focus groups to uncover how buyers and sellers choose their Realtors.
What makes their work especially valuable, however, is that they have used video to carefully document consumer behavior during this process.
Hahn and Adler have uncovered some extremely important findings for anyone who advertises online. Forget about pay-per-click and banner ads on websites. Consumers ignore them.
Instead, when consumers look for property, they use their smartphones or iPads. Rather than visiting a website using a browser, they go the to app store, download one of the top-rated apps, and then use that app exclusively to do their search.
Which apps do they choose? Normally it’s one of the top three: Realtor.com, Trulia or Zillow.
Consumers select their real estate search app the same way they buy apps for other products. They search the app store, determine which apps have the highest ratings, read the reviews, and then download the app.
Once they have the app on their mobile device, they rely exclusively on that app to search properties.
What the app reviews say
I visited the Apple App Store to determine which apps were the most highly ranked as well as to read the various reviews. The reviews supported the patterns that Adler and Hahn observed.
The top third-party vendor apps
The two top-rated apps in Apple’s App Store were Realtor.com and Trulia with close to five-star ratings. Here’s what a number of consumers had to say:
1. Realtor.com (based upon 524 ratings):
"If you like to search for homes, this app is the answer. Stable and crash resistant." "This app has advanced search features and looks at almost every Realtor’s listings around!"
On the downside, "I entered the exact address of a friend’s home including the ZIP code, and the app returned more than 54,000 results … The app is great if you know the neighborhood, but not really helpful for areas I’m not familiar with."
2. Trulia (based upon 2,496 ratings):
"Very helpful," "up-to-date tool," "Love it!" "Best home app!" "Convenient, detailed, quick, perfect for on the go hunting."
I looked at the first 100 reviews and they were all four or five stars with the exception of one person who said, "Great tool, but very slow in updating, feels the need to update with every screen size change."
3. Zillow (based upon 155 ratings):
With an average rating of four stars, the Zillow app wasn’t as popular with users as compared to the Realtor.com and Trulia apps. The reviews for Zillow seemed to split into two camps. Either people loved the app or were very critical of it. The most common complaint was that the app wasn’t up to date. A number of people also cited issues with Zillow’s most recent update (5.1). Specifically, they couldn’t turn off the notifications and they could not save previously searched locations.
MLS and Realtor association apps
For all the major MLS and Realtor associations providing data to the industry, only two had apps that made the top 50:
4. Georgia MLS (based upon 11 ratings):
Apparently the earlier versions of this app had some serious issues. With the new updates, as one user put it, "This app works just as well as the website and is much easier to use on the phone." Also, "If a member of the Georgia MLS logs in, this is a priceless wireless tool for agents!"
5. Houston Association of Realtors (based upon 277 ratings):
The beauty of this app is that it serves double duty. There is a consumer-facing component, while Realtors can sign in to access the full multiple listing service. As one user said, "A necessary tool for all Realtors." Virtually all the reviews were positive; however, they were quite a few three- and four-star reviews. The major complaint was that pictures can take a long time to load on people’s phones (this may be a connection problem rather than an app issue), and there were several requests to "allow for restricted and unrestricted property searches."
Another app, TheMLSOnline.com, was miscategorized as being provided by an MLS. The app is actually provided by a Champlin, Minn.-based brokerage, TheMLSOnline COM Inc.
TheMLSOnline.com app also scored close to five stars. "The easiest app to search and find places to live anywhere in the country." Another user loved it because you didn’t have to re-enter the search criteria repeatedly. You could also change your search criteria on the fly. Several users, however, cited issues with the app crashing.
Hahn’s observation was that the virtually all the other brokerage apps fell way short in terms of the consumer’s perception of them and their ease of use. The companies with the highest scores were Redfin and ZipRealty scoring in the 4.5 range. The various Realogy company apps had ratings ranging from 1.5 to 4.0 (with the highest marks going to ERA.) A number of the large independents also had low rankings ranging from (1.5 to 3.5).
What does this mean? Based upon what Hahn observed in his focus groups so far, he concludes:
"A major change in consumer search behavior is the massive shift to mobile. If you want to be competitive, it’s suicide to not be on one of the big three: Realtor.com, Trulia or Zillow."
While the professionals in the industry continue to battle it out, consumers are voting everyday with their mobile devices about what they want and what they will use.