by Chicago Agent

By K.K. Snyder

Better, faster, smaller. It’s what the majority looks for when purchasing from the mountain of technological gadgets on today’s market. Many of these here-today, improved-tomorrow items are ideal for the fast-paced world of real estate, and most would agree they make us all better at what we do.

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Whether it’s Bluetooth technology that wirelessly interconnects mobile phones, computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs), not to mention a broad selection of other devices, or the basic efficiency of directing clients to a plethora of information on an agency Web site, technology has revolutionized the way we do business.

Samantha “Sam” Powell, a Realtor with Baird & Warner who joined the industry four years ago, is an advocate for using technology to make life simpler and more efficient. She shuttles an inventory of technology about the city in her bright yellow VW Beetle and is an admitted “tech junkie.”

“I can’t survive without knowing I can tap into the Internet from my immediate location, be it on my [smartphone] to grab any text messages or emails, or knowing that I‘ve got a fax that I can pull up on my laptop through my email,” she says. “I use the technology available to me as a Realtor to give me the freedom to have a life and take care of my clients at the same time.

Among her favorites are a lightweight, wireless laptop; wireless Internet access through Verizon; a handheld Treo cell phone with contact management, calendar, Internet access, MLS property search access, email, camera and text messaging; a wireless printer for her home office and – a must – a USB 120-gig hard drive “to back up my life.”

Also a favorite for Powell, the Sony Mavica digital camera, which burns to CD and allows her to take photos and immediately have the disc ready to hand off to anyone who has a computer. She uses the camera frequently on showings to capture property details when virtual tours are not available for her buyers. She also uses it for listing presentation prep work to show what marketing materials will look like before she has secured a listing.

In addition, a small electronic measuring device allows her to verify the size of a room on a showing without being intrusive. She can be more detailed and accurate about listings without having to move furniture or deal with a traditional tape measure.

Powell tries to be as much of a “mobile agent” as possible, writing documents to PDF and backing up electronic files of things many of us still cling to in paper format. She even submits all of her contract offers electronically using PDF forms she created for that purpose – a task that keeps her from having to hand-write a single document throughout an entire transaction. She submits all of these transactions to her office via email, making hers a rare face within the agency walls.

“I do not have to step into my company’s office but to drop off an earnest money check and pick up my commission check after a closing,” she says, adding that all 32 Baird & Warner offices have wireless Internet access. “I work so much smarter with technology than I could possibly do in an all-paper system. I have the ability to de-junk and streamline as the technology continually improves around me, and I am always looking for a way to trim down the number of gadgets I need to have to be successful.”

Joining Powell and others in the need for speed and convenience, Sussex and Reilly Sales Manager Yuhdua Cohen still has flashbacks to the gargantuan bag phone that lived in the passenger’s seat of his car in the 1980s. Cohen, with 25 years in the industry, moved to a PDA about 10 years ago and has since joined the legions of businesspeople who rely on the Blackberry.

“For me it’s about moving around information with colleagues and clients quickly at all hours,” says Cohen, whose company relies heavily on the Internet and had over $100 million in Internet business last year. Likewise, the majority of agencies rely on their own Web sites or other real estate sites such as HomePages.com, SafeMLS and Google Earth to be more efficient and productive.

“Business today begins with consumers looking on the Internet before getting in touch with a Realtor,” says Cohen. “We need to learn to have email conversations and get a feel from it. It’s different in cyberspace: People expect immediate response. It’s not like it used to be with returning a phone call when you might not hear from someone again for two weeks.”

Cohen believes if you’re good at real estate, the technology simply serves to make you more productive. “I get up and have email coming in at six in the morning,” he says. But he adds there is a lot of room for improvement and advances in technology.

Cohen would like to see a “heads up” display like those in jets, where his morning paper or email messages could be projected in front of his car windshield for easy access. Next, and he thinks we’re close to seeing this one, improved speech recognition software that would allow him to dictate and send email from his phone or Blackberry. The final item on his wish list is simple: a cell phone that works and sounds as good as a landline.

Not all agents agree that technology is essential to success in this industry. Peter Cummins, a Realtor with Prudential Preferred Properties, says technology is “a little overrated,” and wasn’t an essential part of his $38 million in sales last year.

“This is a person-to-person business, and technology isn’t critical to facilitating that…I know I’m very successful at what I do and I know there are agents that use Web sites to draw clients, but I don’t see it as a great generator of quality leads,” says Cummins, who does not have a Web site and believes giving people too much information makes it more difficult for them to make choices.

“Success is in getting them to the closing table, not moving them around a Web site,” Cummins says. “There’s too much emphasis on gadgets and Web sites. At the end of the day, what makes it work is to connect with an agent who can find what they’re looking for.”

That said, Cummins hasn’t sworn off technology, but he doesn’t allow it to replace the old-fashioned, face-to-face exchange with clients. Among the technology that he does rely upon is a Verizon wireless Internet card in his laptop, so he’s always able to access market listings services. The laptop keeps him working even during downtime, such as between visitors to an open house.

Cummins says the inaccuracy of some technology, such as Zillow.com, which professes to be a single resource for homeowners who want to know the value of their home, has actually increased his business. He explains that people find it so inaccurate that they call him looking for help.

Likewise, Cummins says GPS technology is like “cheating,” and using it can send a message to clients that “I don’t know the neighborhood I’m showing you.”

Cummins’ philosophy is simple: “At the end of the day, why people buy is on a very subjective, emotional level, and there’s no technology that replaces that.” C.A.

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