Handhelds increasingly popular with brokers

Real estate is traditionally slow to adopt technology.

But adopting the newest high-tech devices today is not about gimmickry. It’s about being effective and competitive. In increasing numbers, brokers are signing on for the latest communications tools to enhance their business.

What’s hot right now, and what chief technology officers at Manhattan residential real estate companies seem to think most promising, are handheld devices which allow users to check e-mail, make phone calls and store and access information, all wirelessly.

“Most of the brokers don’t subscribe to the high-tech thing,” said Charles Olson, Corcoran’s chief technology officer. “But some of them have to have the latest technology.”

“A lot of the top agents, they’re the ones you see using technology heavily,” said William Hunt III, a President of Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy. “But in general, our agents are all over the map.”

While Wi-Fi has been getting a lot media attention lately, it’s the handheld devices that have been around a while and are constantly improving, that companies say brokers are using in the greatest numbers.

Such devices include BlackBerry handhelds which fit in a jacket pocket and allow users to check e-mail, and on newer models, make cell phone calls. Also popular are combination cell phone/PDAs like the Kyocera 7135 Smartphone, which work slightly differently but offer much of the same services, including address books, calendars, notepads and other features.

At the most basic level, the devices enable users to store information and monitor their e-mail when they’re not at the office something that is essential considering how people communicate today, said Hunt.

Hunt notes that the average buyer nationally is in his or her early 30s, and is more likely to be reliant on e-mail than the average broker, who is in his or her early 50s.

“Some clients expect people to deal with them mostly through e-mail,” Hunt said. “They’re expecting that agents will check their e-mail every 45 minutes.”

Overall, the number of agents using handheld devices is still small. Olson estimates that about five percent of agents at Corcoran are using them.

Kim Klever, director of strategic development at Douglas Elliman, said around 10 percent of agents at her company are using BlackBerry devices now.

However, Klever expects that number to double soon. Douglas Elliman is about to introduce a program that will help agents pick out the right devices for them based on what features they are looking for. Agents buying through the program will be able to get discounts on devices and connection services.

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Corcoran doesn’t offer a similar program, but provides technical assistance. “We support anything that will keep agents in greater contact with their clients,” said Olson.

Douglas Elliman has also come out with other features to help make the company more competitive. Within the last couple of months, the company launched mobile.elliman.com, which enables clients to search a company Web site from a mobile device. The site contains listings and open house information.

Eventually, the company will add floor plans, photos and other downloadable information, Klever said. Douglas Elliman is also looking to create an internal company system that is accessible via mobile handheld devices.

Another hurdle that will soon be overcome is the problem of not being able to transfer one’s phone numbers from an old cell phone to a new handheld device.

“It’s supposed to happen sometime this fall, where you’ll be able to transfer your number,” Klever said.

Partly as a result of not being able to transfer phone numbers and partly because they want to embrace any new technology, some brokers walk around with many devices at a time. “Some top agents carry around a PDA, cell phone and BlackBerry,” Klever said. “They try all sorts of technology.”

Costs are not usually prohibitive, said Klever. “Generally, devices are under $500, so for a top agent, it’s like pocket change.”

So with all the options out there, what to use?

Olson of Corcoran said he prefers the cell phone/PDAs over BlackBerry devices. He said he personally uses the Kyocera 7135 Smartphone. Storing and accessing data on the device is not as difficult as with the BlackBerrys, he said.

“In terms of organization the calendar and the contact manager it’s easier to use,” he said. “Also, BlackBerry coverage is spotty, especially in Manhattan.”

Klever of Douglas Elliman, by contrast, spoke more highly of the BlackBerry devices. She described the differences between BlackBerrys and the cell phone/PDAs as the difference between “push” and “pull” technologies.

“With the BlackBerry, it notifies you of e-mail right away,” said Klever. With the cell phone/PDA, “you have to look and check if you have e-mail,” she said.

But Olson seemed to express some skepticism. “With the BlackBerry, theoretically you get immediate notification of e-mail,” he said.

Finally, earlier BlackBerry devices didn’t start out as having cell-phone capabilities, and some of the later models still feel and look like the phone component has been tacked on. Some observers have noted that the Kyocera is a trimmer device that integrates both the PDA and cell phone functions well.