Tech must-haves for the new year

From scannable listing bar codes to texting services, experts weigh in on the gadgets brokers will need

Real estate is not for the tech-phobic. Real estate brokers “need to keep up with what their clients are doing,” said Burke Smith, founder of YourNetCoach, which specializes in Internet marketing strategies for real estate firms and agents. In a city full of BlackBerrys and Androids, that means no ancient flip phones.

Still, not all newfangled gadgets are created equal. This month, The Real Deal asked experts to weigh in on which new technologies real estate professionals should embrace — and which ones they shouldn’t bother with — in 2011.

Most important, Smith said, agents and firms need to adapt their websites for mobile phones. Right now, about 15 percent of potential buyers in the United States access property listings via mobile devices, like the iPhone or BlackBerry, he said. That’s five times as many as last year, and that number is expected to double again in 2011, Smith said.

But most websites don’t work properly on mobile devices because they’re slow to load and difficult to navigate, he noted. To address this, some industries have begun creating mobile-enabled websites that instantly identify and adapt to the device being used, whether it be a BlackBerry, iPhone, Android or something else. That way, the page appears the same as it would on a laptop.

However, “the real estate industry has yet to catch on,” Smith said. A few firms, like Halstead Property, have made their sites “mobile-compliant,” but Burke estimated that “over 90 percent of real estate websites do not work on mobile devices.”

In response to the rapid growth of mobile technology, New York City real estate firms have begun developing applications for the iPhone and other mobile devices. When a user downloads one of these “apps,” they can see all of the firm’s listings, with photos and floor plans, and can often browse nearby listings with GPS technology.

“People spend a lot of time on their mobile devices,” said Gary Malin, the president of Citi Habitats, which is rolling out an iPhone application next month. The new app is important for “making sure our information is displayed correctly,” he said.

Once Citi’s iPhone app is up and running, the company will look into an application for Motorola’s Droid. The Corcoran Group, which shares a parent company with Citi Habitats, launched an iPhone app last year and a Droid app two months ago. The listings website StreetEasy has both iPhone and iPad apps.

But Smith said creating an application for one specific device limits its usefulness.

“Having an app so [users] can search properties is like saying, ‘I only want to target half of the people who want to buy a home,'” Smith said.

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Instead, he strongly recommends that brokers — who are independent contractors — take matters into their own hands by making their individual websites mobile-enabled. They can do this with the help of mobile marketing companies like Westchester’s Mobile Card Cast, which Smith recommends to his real estate clients. The cost for individual agents is anywhere from $250 to $1,000 for a setup fee, plus a monthly fee of around $25 per month, he said.

Mobile Card Cast and other companies of its ilk can also help agents set up a text-message marketing platform, another technological must-have for agents in the coming year. For example, Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Jacky Teplitzky — one of Smith’s clients — has a system set up that allows potential buyers to text “Jacky” and receive an automatic message in return that includes links to her listings, Smith said.

Popular in other states, texting platforms — which start at about $100 per year for individual agents — are just starting to catch on in New York City, Smith said.

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Smith said agents don’t necessarily need to invest in the iPad or the new BlackBerry PlayBook, an iPad competitor slated to debut in early 2011. But “it is absolutely essential that [agents] upgrade” to the newest BlackBerry, iPhone, or Droid,” he said.

“[Agents] need to be able to do everything they can do in their office from their mobile device,” he said. “Your clients are not accessing data sitting at their desks either — they’re doing it on the go from their mobile device.”

Where the iPad does come in handy, however, is at new development projects, noted James Lansill, a senior managing director at Corcoran Sunshine.

IStar Financial, the sponsor of new condo One Rector Park in Battery Park City, created an iPad application specifically for the building, which Corcoran Sunshine is marketing, Lansill said. The app allows agents to keep track of which units a client visited, then e-mail them price and floor plans at the end of the visit, along with comments from the agent, Lansill explained.

“People go from site to site and they have all this paper,” he said. “They get home and don’t even remember which floor plan is associated with which unit.”

The new app, by contrast, “allows people to have fairly precise information about what they liked,” he said. That’s especially important in an uncertain economic climate, where buyers are nervous about new developments and “starved for real information,” he said.

For agents, meanwhile, the iPad is “a remarkable real estate sales tool,” Lansill said. When they’re with customers, for example, they can illustrate what an alternate set of fixtures might look like, or enlarge a section of the floor plan.

Another new technology on the horizon is QR (for “Quick Response”) code. QR code, which can be found on billboards and advertisements, functions a bit like a bar code: When users scan it with the camera on their mobile phone, they receive a message or web link.

Some New York firms are already starting to use it. Brown Harris Stevens has started using QR code on its window displays and in marketing materials, Elliman is using it in some listings and Halstead Property last month unveiled QR code technology that it calls “H-Tags.” H-Tags are placed on all new listings, as well as show sheets, postcards, brochures and some display ads, the company said. In addition, H-Tags are being placed on all of the listings displayed in Halstead’s office windows, so passersby can scan the properties they like and have the relevant information on their mobile devices. The firm said it didn’t yet have data to release on how much use the H-Tags are getting.

While QR codes will likely be ubiquitous in a few years, they still have a ways to go before they are standard practice in residential real estate.

Corcoran has used QR tags in print ads for open houses, said Matthew Shadbolt, Corcoran’s director of Internet marketing. “We were very encouraged by the amount of use those QR codes got,” he said. Still, “it’s not something we have baked into a larger strategy as of yet. I think that a lot of people don’t know what they are.”

Smith recommended a few other gadgets that agents should keep an eye on in 2011:

• Docusign: The official e-signature provider for the National Association of Realtors, Docusign allows contracts to be signed digitally. To use it, signers adopt a digital “signature,” then certify that it can be legally used as the electronic representation of their signature.

• Mobile Receipt: an iPhone app that lets users convert receipts into expense reports by taking photos of them with their phones. Smith said Mobile Receipt is especially useful for independent contractors like real estate agents, who must keep track of large numbers of receipts — like taxi receipts from ferrying customers around — for tax purposes.

• Rulerphone: an iPhone app that digitally measures objects after the phone’s camera has taken a picture of them, which can be helpful in estimating the square footage, for example. (Appraiser Jonathan Miller noted that it’s no replacement for the handheld-lasers used by appraisers, however.)