There are so many companies out there trying to sell agents all kinds of technology to improve our business. That’s great, except it leaves the agent with trying to wade through it all and figure out how to make is all work and what really does work. For the most part, people trying to sell us technology are NOT Realtors. They don’t know or understand our business.
Most technology companies deal with one single aspect of our business, like websites. But there are many technologies needed to make a website successful. There is the website itself, the IDX technology, the web search strategy, the lead capture and follow up, and the list goes on. Yes there are many companies that offer a so called “All in One” solution. Usually this means we are getting a bunch of technologies that are thrown together and no one of them is that great.
So I want to try and start something new and offer to answer questions from readers about real-estate technology. What works, what doesn’t? Which technologies work best together? Most importantly, what technologies actually can make your job easier and give your clients a better experience.
So while the technology developers will continue to throw new cool and neat technologies at us, I’ll be more concerned with how does that technology translate into our everyday business. For instance, one new technology I will be writing about in a future article is live mobile broadcasting. We heard about this over a year ago when companies like Bambuser began to offer live video broadcasting from your iPhone. I have been busy testing this with a few ideas on how to use it in real estate. Right now I am testing it as a live Open House broadcast.
So continue sending questions and comments and I will work them into answer in future articles.
This is the start of a new series of articles for Realtors on leveraging free technologies. If you have any questions or would like to suggest a subject for me to cover please contact me via my Google mail account at wbarrettpowell.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what to write first. There are so many great applications that are provided to us, most for free. The catch is always trying to wade through what works and how to use. I will try and make this column answer both of these questions. Now on to the first topic.
Many of us have heard about our National Association of Realtors and this new thing called RPR. RPR is supposed to be a National MLS. While NAR and the local MLS boards have gone back and forth over who is doing what, a little company named Google quietly began working on something as well. Called Google Base, this is a Google product that allows products to be added to Google. Why you might ask? If a product is in Google, it can be searched for and found. Hum, this sounds interesting. I wonder if it works for houses?
You bet it does! As I write this little article, just about every property in a MLS is now being uploaded to Google Base Real Estate. But it is not only properties from the MLS. Many property databases exist beyond our MLS. How about the many foreclosure listing sites out there or the For Sale By Owner sites. Well many of these are now being added to Google Base Real Estate. This is game changing because while we as Realtors wait for our association to deliver on the National MLS, Google has already done so. Well almost anyway.
True the Google Base Real Estate solution may not have all the information available in our MLS. It may not have all the details about the property such as all the appliances listed. But for the consumer who is starting their search, is all that data really important? Maybe, maybe not. What is important is to give the buyer what they want. What they want is to be able to search for a property. Then search for information about the area. They want to search for school information. They want to search for demographic information. They want to search for photos of the area. Guess where they can go today to find all these things, right now…Google.
So how do we harness this Google information? One way is to add a Google Base Real-Estate search to your website. There are a number of companies who have started offering an IDX type search using Google instead of your local MLS. What I especially like about these new Google Base search vendors is that also offer a really nice mashup of information about the area the house is located. For example, since you can search Google for just about anything, why not offer categories like schools, restaurants, shopping, etc. of things geographically located near the house you are interested in. That is what a mashup can do.
One vendor I really like is Realbird (http://Realbird.com). Realbird is a paid solution, similar to your other IDX vendors. But instead of pulling the property data from your MLS, Realbird pulls it from Google Base. This does a number of things. It first means you have properties now available that are not in your MLS, including properties outside your MLS’s service area or properties like foreclosures that are not listed with a member of your MLS. Another nice feature of Realbird is they offer a WordPress plug-in. This is a native WordPress type application that makes the search work much better in a WordPress environment than your typical IDX vendor can using what is called an I-Frame (don’t worry about this for now).
Another vendor that just came on the scene is RealShout (http:RealShout.com). RealShout just released their free Google Base Real-Estate Search. Like RealBird, RealShout’s search is available as a WordPress plug-in and also offers a “mashup” capability by providing additional location information on the property detail page. RealShout does offer a paid version of $50 per which is the same as the free version but with support included. Talk about a great deal. I am currently beta testing RealShout on my real estate website. So far I really like it.
Google Base Real Estate is for real, no pun intended. It is here and here to stay and will only get better. If you would like to learn more about Google Base Real Estate then…Google it. You will get plenty of information and examples.
If you have questions about WordPress, get in contact with me. I will be covering WordPress in future articles.
Last year I wrote about beta testing a new Microsoft product called Photosynth. Read the original article here. In that blog I talked about how I felt Photosynth was another option for agents to use to showcase a property. I talked about it being a new type of “Virtual Tour”. The more I learn about Photosynth, the more I like it.
Now Bing and added an extra twist. Within Photosynth you can do what is called “geo-code” the location of the content. Geocoding actually places the content, a Photosynth photo tour at a location on a map, in this case the Bing map. When you pull up Bing you will notice on the left side a “Map” option. Selecting this brings up a map that looks very similar to Google Maps. Once the map is loaded you will see another new feature in Bing on the left called “Explore the New Bing Maps” with a “try it now” hotspot.
Clicking on the “try it now” brings up a Bing with some new features turned on. You will notice the left side now features the current weather for the area you have centered on the map along with some other interesting content, such as photos, AND any Photosynths in the area. Clicking on the “Map Apps” button on the left brings up a window where you can turn on additional features. One of those features is Photosynth. Turning this feature on now places location pins on the map where a Photosynth is present. By doing a Photosynth of your listed properties you now add another marketing tool to your arsenal and get more exposure for you and your listings.
Try Microsoft Photosynth on your next listing. http://photosynth.net
Whether your a Realtor, property owner, buyer, developer, or even a hunter…there were probably times you would like to have a handheld GPS with the property lines of the land you are walking on displayed. This would allow you to know exactly where the property lines were, and more importantly where YOU were in relation to the property boundaries.
This short video demo will show you one solution I have come up with using Open Source (free) software.
· Want To Own a Community? Try Sponsoring a Neighborhood Website
by Barrett Powell
community websites have taken on more of an “active referral” role for the savvy firm and agent. Using a community web can allow an agent and a firm to become part of the community by offering services and information the property owners see as useful. This type of website offers the most upside of any online strategy taken on by the agent and firm, especially if the agent and firm has already sold homes to clients in that neighborhood. The old saying “it cost a lot less to sell to an existing customer than it does to get a new one” still holds true today. The focus of an existing client after all is not just selling them another property or listing their home, it is getting them to tell others about you and recommend you to them. In other words, to become an “active referral” for you and your firm.
Community websites can be categorized as one of four basic types; Homeowner’s Association type sites, marketing sites, discussion boards, and the newest hybrid that includes aspects of each called “Community Web”. Each has characteristics that exist based on the specific job the site was designed to do. Let’s take a look at each.
Homeowner Association sites such as those offered commercially by companies like AtHome.net and CAMS are directed at the property owners and are what we call serial in nature. These sites are Web 1.0 in terms of features and functionality and most go unused if used at all. These sites usually go up after a certain percentage of the development has been sold. This is more than enough time for another firm or agent to come in and establish themselves as the “resale” agent of choice. We have seen this time and time again once a new home development is sold out.
But these Homeowner Sites again are not meant to drive business to a firm or agent. They are there to perform a service of providing an online information brochure and offer access to community documents, and a rudimentary communications platform that relies mostly on e-mail blast as a method of communication. The content is static for the most part, and we find most of the time information is out of date or not posted at all. These sites are usually controlled by the association and the elected officials of that board and do not act as referral or business basis for an agent or firm. They were not created to benefit a firm or agent.
For the most part, marketing sites are online brochures. They are typically designed by a local web firm. The lifecycle of the traditional marketing site consist of a startup at the opening of the development and then remaining up and unchanged for the duration of the neighborhood’s new home sales. We are not going to spend time on this type of community site because I think everyone is already pretty familiar with
them and their purpose. Let me just say that there is an excellent opportunity to own the referral base of the development by simply transforming the marketing site over time.
In other words, by adding more of the features we will discuss in the next two community sites the marketing site can transform into the community web. And since time and effort have been used to brand the site and market it to begin with, it would be a natural progression for homeowners to begin to leverage the same site they used to purchase their home to securely find a babysitter in their new neighborhood.
A fairly new phenomenon is neighborhood discussion boards. These boards can range from open boards which resembles more of a wild west interaction to more helpful neighbor to neighbor type that are closely monitored and keep conversations positive. The key to these type of sites is that for the first time, members can participate in a more parallel format where they control when they communicate and are communicated with verses an e-mail blast. Information can be posted and read and responded to in a more natural language progression of back and forth. These sites create more of an actual sense of neighborhood, even on a small level for an individual development. The key is to restrict access to property owners only and to monitor the site for inappropriate content.
members may choose to “follow” content such as neighborhood updates or can simply go to the community web where the neighborhood Twits are posted in a community news and updates section. Either way, these create more of a dynamic Web 2.0 environment and much more likely to be visited, thus more likely to offer the sponsoring firm or agent better access and more “impressions” to be view.
The Hybrid or “Community Web” Site
Now let’s take the best of the all the other sites and add things like widgets from such sites as Trulia and Zillow real-estate. Property owners can get instant updates on home values and other property related information on their neighborhood and access to real-estate reports. Coupled with continued property listings from the
Marketing Site, the homeowners will feel more empowered concerning when and if they should sell and they will be more thankful to the agent or firm providing them with this key information.
You can also add RSS feeds from other complimentary sites such as county or town government. If you don’t have a feed available from your local government of local news site, create your own feed using sites like Feed43 (www.feed43.com). By creating a space where property owners can go to get information in one place they cannot get elsewhere about their particular neighborhood, you create more of a sense of community and a sense of loyalty, and thus the site becomes an “active referral site” for you and your firm.
You don’t need to spend a bundle to start your own community web. There are two ways to do this for little or no money. One is to host a site that you build using all these free tools. The other is to leverage free sites that are “ad” funded. Let’s look at both of these options.
Hosting Your Own Site
by using tools available to you at no cost.
The first thing to do is go out and shoot some photos of your community. There may be “canned” photos available and as long as you have permission to use them that is fine. You want to gather as much information about your community to add to your main page so that visitors can read a little about the community or development. Leave space to add news feeds, widgets, or other items that might make the main page more interesting.
You want to use have a secure discussion board for your site so property owners can ask questions and provide answers in a neighbor to neighbor sort of environment. You don’t have to make this secure if you don’t want. You can open the discussion board up to the public as well. Just make sure you use the administrative feature of your board to approve any postings before they are posted. Either way, you want to make sure improper content doesn’t end up on your site and that neighbors feel comfortable posting for things like babysitters or someone to do yard work.
With regard to discussion boards, there are a number of options here. Most of your hosting companies offer some type of message board feature for free with your hosting contract. For instance, the hosting company Hostway offers free InterActives Forums with every hosting account. This gives you much more flexibility and provides for a no additional cost “ad free” BBS.
Another option is what are called “ad supported” message boards. An example of one of these is ProBoards (www.proboards.com). You can setup as many message boards as you want, and the advertising is actually very unobtrusive. Most of the time you don’t even notice the ads and what ads you do see are many times applicable to message board visitors. Each one of these boards does have a “for fee” version that removes any ads, and the cost is very small.
If you have your own web server or you have a hosted account that for some reason does not include a message board feature, you can also use public domain message board code that is free and readily available for download from sites like Sourceforge. Examples of these are PHPBB which is one of the most popular to Mombaboard which works in conjunction with Momba, another public domain web site application. There are literally hundreds of such applications that are literally drop in your website or hosting site and begin administering the board.
Regardless of which ever message board tool or technology you choose, they are each designed to be easily inserted or embedded into your community web site in a seamless way.
Adding blogging and mini-blogging to your community site is just as easy. Again, most hosting companies offer blogging as a free or low cost add-on to your account. If they don’t, there are many options here as well.
Two of the most popular free blog sites are Blogger and WordPress. Both offer free sign up and design and you can start your own custom blog in just a matter of minutes. The result will be your own web URL for your own web blog site. You can now insert or embed either of these via your URL into your community web site. While it is not required, by registering your own blog domain name, you can use a custom url, such as ChathamDownsBlogByBarrett.com to navigate to your blog page separately. Your blog is a great way to announce events or news updates for your community. You can even provide community leaders, such as the president of the HOA with their own user login to allow them to post to the blog as well. And the results get posted to your blog site and to the embedded spot on the community web site.
If you have little tidbits of information that need to be shared with the community why not think about setting up a community Twitter account. You can post up to 240 characters of information in little info bites that can be posted quickly and read quickly. You can even post and read Twits on a mobile phone. Homeowners can “follow” the post via e-mail or on Twitter. Twitter also provides code that allows you to insert or embed the Twits, Twitter post, into the community website. These could be inserted on the main page as a Community News section. Links can even be included in the Twits so visitors can click on the link in the Twit and be taken to the linked page to read more information. One example I use is to post short little bits about local government events or news and then include the link to the full article on the town or county website.
Building this type of “hybrid” community web portal is more difficult to do than just paying for a commercial HOA website. But it gives you much more flexibility with regard to branding and content and includes the social networking aspects not available in the commercial sites. If you have the ability, or can find a tech type or web development company to help you put together this type of community web portal the payoff will come in the form of more listings and sales as you become the “embedded” realtor of the community.
Finally, if you just don’t have the ability or time to do any of the above, there is one more option. Sites like Ning have just come out that allow you to sign up for free and create your own social networking community site. The sites don’t do everything, but hey, it’s free and its quick, what do you expect. That said, the sites that can be created are still very interesting and done right and kept up to date can still become an “active referral” site for the agent and firm.
Now get out and start building your own community!
A lot of people are Twittering. But how many are using the Twitter Apps to add feeds to your website? If you’re not, you’re missing out on an excellent opportunity. You can even have multiple Twitter accounts for different personalities. Let me explain.
Let’s say you’re looking for a quick way to add personalized updates to your website. Did you know you can add a Twitter update feed right into your site using the Twitter Apps? Look at your current website and figure where would be a good place to have a small Twitter feed added to the page, or another separate page in your site. The feed will be a small square whose length is dependent on the number of feed items you choose to have shown at one time without scrolling. Keep this space in mind. Now let’s go to Twitter and get our feed.
Located at the bottom of the page in Twitter, is a menu item called Apps. Clicking on this will take you to a page with many little programs called widgets that you can add to various websites. By selecting the very first widget, the one offered by Twitter, you can then select the HTML option on the next page and pick next. Then you can select how many Twitt feeds you want displayed at one time and what if any title you want. Don’t worry that you have more than the number of Twitts shown in your account. It just means the rest will be available with a scroll bar that is automatically added to the feed widget. The result will be code that Twitter offers you to copy into your clipboard. Once you have copied the code, you are ready to past it into your site.
If you do your own websites like I do, you simply figure out where you want the widget to be placed on your site. If you use one of those canned websites, you can probably use the code on them to. My company website is provided by e-Neighborhoods through my affiliation with RE/MAX. The default site had a nice little text box that was just sitting there not really helping my site or my site ranking. I simply replaced that static text box with my Twitter widget. You can see the results here http://barrett.powell.remax.com, and follow my postings on this site on Twitter under the name “barrettp”.
If you setup your Twitter account with your mobile phone, under the Devices tab on your Twitter settings, you can even send Twitter updates via your mobile phone. Because the feed is real-time, any updates sent via your phone show up immediately on your website now. Once I was sitting in a restaurant waiting on my order and remembered some bit of news I wanted on my website. I pulled out my Treo 700wx phone and posted the news on my Twitter account and it showed up right then on my website. How cool is that?
I like to post little short news headlines and then past the link to the full story in the post. As you know, Twitter will convert really long URLs into what it calls “tiny urls” so your post will fit the 240 character limit. So it’s a great place to post news about a new post in your larger Blog with the link to the full blog posting.
let’s say like me, you have a fairly large market for “Green” type construction and homes. You could do like me and create another Twitter account that focuses just on topics of “Green” real-estate. In my case, my “Green” Twitter account is “GreenHomesandLand”. Not only are my topics focused on “Green”, but my Twitter theme reflects this “Green” branding as well. I even setup a separate website, http://www.GreenHomesandLand.net, which features links, resources, and even listings for my area that are Energy Star compliant and focus on “Green” living.
So get out there and start “Branding” yourself with customized Twitter feeds about your area and area of expertise. And don’t be afraid to have multiple Twitter personalities to cover the vertical real-estate markets, such as Green, or New Homes, or Retired Living, or whatever area you specialize in.
· Living and working as a Realtor in rural North Carolina, one of our rites of passage has always been walking land with buyers and sellers. While this all sounds easy enough, notwithstanding the needed exercise, it can really turn into AN EXCERSISE if the property lines are not clearly marked, which is the case most of the time. If you are a rural agent or property owner, you know exactly what I mean. Sometimes you may be able to locate a corner marker or two and then try and draw an imaginary line between them. Knowing about where the property line is can be extremely helpful for obvious reasons. But other less obvious reasons to know where property lines are become even more evident when you get right down to it.
One good example for knowing where property lines are would be to locate items on the land and know whether the item was on your property or your neighbor’s. Things like trees, easements, and roads are the obvious. Things like setbacks, stream buffers, and such are less so. In rural areas, we typically have no county water or sewer so we have to have wells and septic systems located on the property. Many times you have to provide your local government with the location of the house and well to have a septic field located on the property. This is to assure a minimum distance between the house and well from the septic field. So there are many reasons for having a good way of knowing where property lines and other features of the property are located.
There are also good reasons to know where YOU in relation to boundaries and other features on a piece of property too. I have walked many a parcel that was heavily wooded. If you are walking a heavily wooded tract that is 10 acres or more it is not difficult to get turned around and not know which was is back to the truck. Don’t ask me how I now this. You especially don’t want to try this at the height of the tic season. It is especially good to walk the property with the current property owner and not simply rely on their recollection of where the property runs. You would not believe how many incorrect boundaries are handed down generation to generation. A buyer will appreciate knowing where they are on the property to help them visualize where they might want to build their house, or locate a barn or other facility.
Over the years, I have found solutions using free public domain software to get property data into my handheld GPS. Today, all my agents use the system to walk property with sellers and buyers. It has become a competitive advantage. My agents get asked all the time about how to get the same capability. So I have put together a link with the software you download and install along in instructions on how to use it. Contact me and for a nominal fee I’ll send you the link to an application you can download and install along with instructions on how to find the parcel or parcels you need and upload them into your GPS.
There is no longer a reason to walk land without confidence.