Looking for real estate online takes off

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Looking for real estate online takes off

Once upon a time prospective homebuyers asked their agents to search the local MLS and find the listings they thought their clients would like best. Back then only REALTORS® had access to MLS information, and buyers who wanted to be more independent had to rely on print ads, open houses or just driving through neighborhoods looking for signs, not a strategy that worked well for out-of-towners.

In today’s world buyers have many ways to search for properties and neighborhoods including popular, for-profit real estate websites such Zillow or Trulia, which offer information on which homes are for sale or for rent and for how much.  Consumers also can search for homes at realtor.com and caar.com, and those who want to visit a few listings before going out with their agent can find announcements of open houses at most of these sites as well.

The easy availability of online information has fundamentally changed the way people buy and sell homes.  Buyers and sellers are more knowledgeable about the process than they once were, and a big part of an agent’s role is now helping them accurately interpret and make sense of the enormous amounts of available information.

The accessibility of online resources also means that successful agents have to become effective Internet marketers. Whereas once the term “curb appeal” meant how the house looked from the street, today it is more about how it looks in photos and virtual tours. Many also have become adept at using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help get the word out to prospective buyers.

For better or for worse, the Internet has changed the way we do real estate, opening up the market to buyers all over the world and demanding that agents learn the skills required to take advantage of the different outlets for marketing their listings.

How Buyers Find Homes

“Most people today start their home search online, and those numbers are growing yearly” said Amy Webb with Nest Realty.  “It’s the number one place to go for anyone who is even remotely thinking about searching for a home,” she continued.

They don’t just find homes this way, Webb explained.  Buyers also go to the Internet to get information on the metropolitan area, the schools, parks and recreation and job opportunities.  They also go online to compare several different localities or neighborhoods or to look at satellite images for an overview of an area’s resources.

 “We see a much more educated and informed consumer,” who, she added, is likely to be prepared with questions about a nearby industrial facility they noticed on a satellite image, or about the potential flooding risk from a river or creek a few blocks away.

When it comes to what is on the market for sale, “often by the time they call me they have a list of homes to see and have ruled out others,” Webb said.

Unfortunately, online information may be either incorrect, incomplete, or may not apply locally.  This means a big part of the agent’s job now includes helping both buyers and sellers to correctly interpret the information they have found from online sources so they can understand how what they have learned applies (or not) to their particular situation.

Todd McGee, with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate III, agrees stating that the information out there, especially on the for-profit sites is “not always accurate or up to date,” since it is based on averages which can’t take relevant details into consideration.

Recently he received an email from a client who was excited about seeing a home that was advertised as “for sale by owner” on one of these sites.  However, the client was soon disappointed when McGee discovered it had actually been off the market for some time.

McGee has run into similar issues when working with sellers who research real estate sites for estimates of what their home is worth.  Since the figures are based on averages omitting critical details about similar sales, the result may be an inflated price or one that does not accurately reflect the home’s true value.

McGee recommends realtor.com and caar.com as having information that is more accurate and up to date, however, even these sites don’t provide complete data on every transaction.  Agents, on the other hand, are familiar with the neighborhood, have been inside many of the homes and can speak to their condition and location in a way that no third party site can do. They also have access to details that affected a home’s sales price, such as that the seller offered a $2500 carpet allowance, or it was a short sale, or the seller had already moved out and was anxious to close.

Understanding and communicating the nuances of a local market to both buyers and sellers based on experience is a big part of the agent’s job. McGee described it as helping them to “navigate, interpret and decipher the data.”

Open houses are another source of information for buyers or for sellers trying to get a feel for what their home may be worth.  These are advertised locally on caar.com, which Karen Kehoe with RE/MAX Regency agrees has the most current information on local real estate issues. However, open houses are also featured on sites like Zillow, she said.

Agents As Online Marketers

Just as buyers and sellers find and utilize online resources, agents are learning to use the Internet to provide all manner of information to their customers and clients.

Today 90 percent of buyers start their property search online, so it is critical to use the Internet for marketing, explained Rick Walden with Virginia Estates, adding “we were one of the early companies to have an online presence.”  He described their website as very user friendly, with five or six ways to search for properties, making it accessible to people with all different styles of acquiring information.

Kehoe’s business also benefits from her online presence.  “I can’t imagine not having a website,” she said.  She believes prospects are looking for data and will gravitate to sources that provide the most complete information.  For example, at one time it was common to market homes via brochures that intentionally excluded the price to give prospects an incentive to call the agent for more info.  Today, however, if an online description doesn’t include a price, the prospect will just call another agent, Kehoe explained.

Many of Kehoe’s prospects find her online and send inquiries.  “I live off emails,” she said, which she uses to stay in touch with her clients and answer their questions.  She lets buyers know what new properties are on the market and keeps sellers informed about recent sales and listings that may impact the price on their home.

Part of having an effective online presence is showcasing each property appropriately, Webb said.  This means using excellent professional photos.  First, though, homes must be in their best condition, since in most cases consumers will see pictures online before they ever go inside, and if they don’t like the pictures they may choose to look elsewhere.

Before the photographer arrives, sellers need to declutter as cameras are “distracted by small objects,” Webb said.  Cameras also like natural light so open all the drapes and let the light in before taking photos.  Sprucing up the landscaping is also a must as the first view will likely be of the home’s exterior.  Even if it is an older home, it still needs to look “clean, bright and appealing,” Webb said.  She likened the process to finding a date on match.com where everyone always presents himself or herself in the best possible way.

At the same time, it’s also a good idea to “keep it realistic,” Webb said.  For example, photos should give a true idea of the home’s size and not be too “photoshopped.”  Otherwise, she said you are just “setting prospects up for disappointment.”  She gave the example of buyers coming in from out of town who only have 48 hours to look at houses. Neither these buyers nor their agents appreciate wasting time with homes that aren’t realistically represented online.

Occasionally buyers even purchase a home based only on online resources and assistance from their agent. McGee once sold a listing to some clients who were out of the country when they purchased the home.  They based their decision on the virtual tour photos and didn’t actually visit the house until after it closed.

One Stop Shopping

As consumers rely more and more on information they find from online sources, agents are responding with websites that are one-stop shops.

McGee recently refreshed his personal website, which allows consumers direct access to the database of homes for sale as well as a list of resources such as a neighborhood’s walk score or school information.

REALTOR® blogs can also be an important consumer resource. McGee blogs regularly on topics of interest to homebuyers and sellers including updates on listings and neighborhoods as well as consumer information such as how to clean a jetted tub, or how to spot termite damage.

Another local blogger is Jim Duncan with Nest Realty (realcrozetva.com) who has maintained his site for years, regularly updating it on local issues and information that impact real estate.  He explained that an important part of Crozet’s appeal is that it is near Charlottesville, but it still maintains a small town feel.  On his blog he regularly describes Crozet as a place where residents can breathe clean air, enjoy mountain views and appreciate the “slower pace of life.” He added that out-of-town buyers looking for those qualities in a place they want to live often call him, having read all about it on his blog.  “It’s nice to know that people are doing this kind of research,” he added.

Webb maintains a personal website where consumers can search for homes using filters such as neighborhoods or schools districts. She also blogs on real estate topics, such as understanding your credit score, or the ins and outs of wells and septic systems.

While people accustomed to living in a rural area may be familiar with well and septic issues, she explained, someone relocating here from a big city is grateful for information that lets them evaluate the costs and benefits of living out in the country and what that means in the way of inspections and upkeep.

A New Way to Do Real Estate

The Internet is changing the way REALTORS® do business making them into what Webb calls “curators of great information,” as they help their clients sort through the vast amount of data available online.  The result is consumers who are better informed and better able to make decisions about some of the most significant financial decisions of their lives.  Call your REALTOR® today to get started.

Celeste Smucker is a writer, blogger and author who lives near Charlottesville.

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