Technology

Buyers still value agents’ knowledge and negotiating skills

Tech-challenged, unresponsive agents may lose referrals, repeat business

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SAN FRANCISCO — Do buyers actually go to a neighborhood they’d like to live in, then check a mobile app with geolocation abilities to see nearby listings on the market?

Will buyers sign up to use a tech-focused brokerage’s virtual office website, and then work with an agent with another firm?

Does an agent risk making a bad impression — and losing out on repeat business — by carrying an old feature phone, and failing to respond to his clients’ text messages?

Answers to these and other questions of pressing importance to agents, brokers and companies that provide services to them were flying at today during a panel discussion, “Hear It Direct from Today’s Buyers: Live Consumer Panel.”

Jennifer Berman, regional manager of First Team Real Estate, grilled six buyers, ranging from first-timers to experienced investors.

The takeaway: Buyers valued not only their agent’s tech skills, but their experience, including neighborhood knowledge and negotiating skills.

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“Elaine,” a first-time homebuyer who closed on a home in Berkeley, Calif., in February, said she and her fiance would first identify neighborhoods that appealed to them, and then use Trulia’s mobile app to hunt for homes.

“We’d be in our car, drive to a neighborhood that looked nice, and see what houses were available,” she said. “Then we’d drive to each house that was available, look at it from the front, and if there was an open house, we’d walk in.”

An agent friend told Elaine’s fiance about apps from Trulia, Zillow and Redfin, and “we played around with all three. We liked Trulia’s the best — the ability to drop a pin, saying where I am now, and see what’s around you.”

Elaine and her fiance spend a year “casually searching … driving around looking at houses way out of our price range.”

The couple didn’t find their agent through the app, however.

“Every so often we’d contact an agent through the app, and find that by then the house was off the market,” she recalled. “They’d say, ‘Oops, that wasn’t supposed to be on there, sorry about that.”

When the couple got serious and started working with an agent, “We looked for two weeks and closed in 21 days.”

The couple’s agent sat down with them, mapped out their wants and needs, and “exed out neighborhoods” that didn’t fit their criteria, Elaine said.

“We narrowed it down to about half a dozen pockets that had inventory” the agent knew would be a good fit. The agent “helped us find the area. We found the house (in Berkeley’s Elmwood District) on our own.”

When the couple got involved in a bidding war, their agent’s negotiating skills turned out to be a crucial factor in their success, advising them to drop their inspection contingency because a report prepared for another buyer who was forced to withdraw checked out.

“They’d gotten past inspection, into closing, and the money fell through at the last second. The inspection had been cleared, they’d fixed things listed in the inspection,” Elaine recalled. “We were capped — we couldn’t put any more money in. They advised us to remove the inspection contingency, and we closed for $20,000 under what we would have had to win the house” otherwise.

When it’s time to sell, Elaine said, she and her husband will call their agent to have him list the house.

“Mo,” a financial planner looking for a first home to start a family with his expectant wife, said he was so impressed with Redfin’s website that it “really swayed me” to work with a Redfin agent.

But Mo was referred to a Redfin partner agent — an independent who receives referrals from the site — who he said wasn’t a tech maven. The agent carried an old Nokia feature phone, and “would not return my calls or texts.”

Mo got the impression that the agent “had too much on her plate,” and wasn’t keeping him informed about new listings and open houses.

“Rita,” who bought her fourth home last year — a move-up less than a mile from her old home in Marin County– said she used Redfin’s website, but found an agent on her own.

“I went to Zillow and Trulia, but Redfin was the one I found to be head and shoulders” above the rest, she said — particularly the ability to draw custom search areas using the map-based search tool.

Redfin was “the Major League Baseball player” compared to “the kid down the block,” Rita said. “I am a visual person; I want to see a map. I found a lot of real estate sites were not as friendly.”

Rita described herself as a “Redfin junky. Every morning, I would walk the dog, and if I saw a for-sale sign, I would go on Redfin. If it met my specifications, I would look at it.”

But Rita found her agent at an open house, not Redfin’s website. The agent was filling in for another agent “who really knows our neighborhood,” she said.

Rita said she decided to work with the less experienced agent, in part because “it turned out we were both from Chicago, and had mutual friends in Marin. Having bought and sold many times, I didn’t need somebody to hold my hand — it was more of a personality thing than, ‘Tell me what to do, Mom.’ ”

Rita said she’d been thinking about moving up for five years, and the downturn in the economy finally freed her up enough from work demands to devote the necessary time to house hunting.

If there’s one thing she’d like to see on listing websites, it’s floor plans.

“When I look at a particular house, it may say it’s 3,000 square feet, but with turn-of-the-century homes, they’re often chopped up into goofy little rooms,” she said. “If it’s not usable space, it doesn’t matter to me. A floor plan would save me the time of having to go to an open house and be disappointed.”

Asked by Berman if a listing with one photo is a deal killer, many buyers said yes.

But Rita said a bad photo of the house she’d set her sights on was actually a plus.

The house had a “janky deck on it that looked like the Unabomber had tacked it on the back of his shack. I think it scared people away. We figured we could take the deck off in an hour — it was not going to scare us.”

But Rita said two of the three last homes she’d purchased were brand-new, so she felt she needed an agent to negotiate, and “I didn’t know much about inspections. This was a house from the 1950s, that the owner had lived in for 45 years. We could see there were roofing issues.”

Rita said she wanted an agent who could walk her through the inspection process.

The agent she worked with “did that, and put me together with a mortgage broker who was a rockstar.”

For some buyers, an agent’s knowledge and connections are better than any website.

“Sam,” an operations manager for a logistics company, has been looking for a home for about six months.

Sam met the agent he’s working with at a party, and “what was most valuable was the off-book stuff he had, stuff that was not on the market. He has friends and other contacts who are not ready to do a full listing, but willing to consider private offers.”