Halstead first major NYC firm to grant VOW

New "Virtual Office Web site" lets customers search all city listings in one place
By Candace Taylor | December 21, 2009 01:45PM

Halstead Property announced today that it has completed the process of instituting a VOW, or “Virtual Office Web site,” making it the first major city brokerage to do so.

According to Diane Ramirez, the president of Halstead, the company has received approval from the Real Estate Board of New York for a VOW, a new type of Web site expected to have far-reaching consequences for the industry. That means that Halstead customers may now search all of the industry’s listings — provided directly by REBNY — without leaving an individual Halstead agent’s Web site. In the past, site visitors could see only Halstead exclusives.

The result of a recent settlement between the Department of Justice and the National Association of Realtors, VOWs are a new phenomenon in Manhattan. Under the terms of the settlement, the Real Estate Board of New York is required by law to provide these listings directly to VOWs who are REBNY members, provided they agree to certain guidelines and pay a fee for an audit by REBNY.

This summer, Manhattan got its first VOW, an online brokerage known as CBS 2 Real Estate Market, located at CBS2REM.com. Halstead is the first of the city’s major brick and mortar firms to go through the process of adding VOW capabilities, according to Ramirez, who said the brokerage was informed last week that it met REBNY’s requirements, and is now just waiting for the official paperwork. The change comes in conjunction with new individual agent Web sites the company recently unveiled.

“We want our agents to really be ahead of the curve on this so that their customer wants to work with them,” Ramirez said.

The brokerage prides itself on being technologically savvy, she said.

“We like the fact that we’re doing a lot of things first these days,” she said. “We’re always looking to the future.”

The city’s largest real estate firm, Prudential Douglas Elliman, said it will offer a VOW feature to customers in spring 2010 as part of a Web site redesign, according to Stephen Kotler, an executive vice president at Elliman. The Corcoran Group did not respond to requests for comment about its plans regarding VOWs.

A few months ago, Halstead began offering individual Web sites to its agents — in addition to the bio pages they have on the Halstead site — after working on the platform for several years, according to James Cahill, Halstead’s chief information and technology officer. The company provides the technology for the Web sites, which are consistent with the company’s branding but separate from the main Halstead site, and help agents prepare videos and other content.

Originally, the company planned to allow visitors to search all of Halstead’s exclusive listings from the agents’ pages, Ramirez said. But more recently, Halstead decided to add the VOW capability as well, so a customer can search all of the city’s listings without leaving an agent’s page.

“What we already had in development was a perfect vehicle for the VOW,” Ramirez said. “It truly lets agents differentiate themselves. The buyers will want to work with our agents because of the transparency — they can get everything they need with this agent.”

In order to see all of the city’s listings, visitors to an agent’s page must sign in and provide an e-mail address, as required by law. Halstead paid to develop the site, Cahill said, but agents pay a monthly fee, which the firm would not disclose, to use it. Some 100 agents have signed up for the individual Web sites so far, and they are expected to have access to all of REBNY’s listings by Jan. 1.

Anna Kahn, a senior vice president at Halstead, said she’s gotten a good response to her new Web site at annakahn.halsteadproperty.com. When Halstead offered brokers the opportunity to have their own Web sites, she jumped at the chance, especially since “I would never have done it on my own.”

“I would rather get in now than be behind the curve,” she said. “Once it became available to us, it was a no-brainer.”

The addition of the VOW will be especially helpful in drawing traffic to her site, she said.

In the past, buyers had to jump around from site to site to get listing information, she said, noting that data available on other listings Web sites, like Streeteasy.com and Trulia.com, is not always accurate.

Now, customers “are going to look at everything we have in real time,” she said. “The VOW is going to be a real tool for them; they can really do a search.”

Most importantly, they’ll stay on her Web page while doing it. “It’s going to be much better for everyone involved,” she said.
Manhattan has been slower than other markets to embrace information sharing, and unlike other areas of the country, does not have a comprehensive Multiple Listing Service. VOWs may help make the market more transparent for consumers, according to Kotler.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s a gamechanger,” Kotler said. “There’s never really been a platform in New York City for consumers to see the entire market, and now there will be.”

While VOWs are a step in the right direction, they still don’t offer as much information as a traditional MLS, said Klara Madlin, the founder of Klara Madlin Real Estate.

“There are some problems with establishing a VOW,” said Madlin, who is president of MLS Manhattan, a group that is working to establish a comprehensive MLS for the city. “Many customers resist the requirement to register with the VOW. Also, the buyer is still not privy to all the information that the brokers see.”

Over the years, Manhattan firms have frequently resisted MLSs and other ways of sharing listings, preferring to keep their exclusive listings to themselves in the hope of finding a buyer and retaining the entire commission rather than co-broking, and having to share the commission with a buyer’s broker.

Ramirez said that’s an antiquated viewpoint in today’s market. “Consumers are too smart now,” she said. “A seller knows if you’re not bringing in large numbers of customers, you’re never going to get the best price in the quickest period of time. Any agent who is saying I’ll keep it to myself or sell it within the company, they’re not going to be hired. The consumer wants full access.”

Or, as Kahn put it, co-broking “may not be the full commission for the broker, but that’s what’s best for the buyer. If we make it the best for the buyer, they’ll come to us. Hopefully this is another step in the direction of sharing correct information that will make life easier for buyers and brokers.”