Industry adaptation at the intersection of COVID-19 and real estate technology

by Jason Porterfield

Industry adaptation at the intersection of COVID-19 and real estate technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended countless industries and altered the way in which millions of people across the country work. Shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines have affected the ability of businesses to reach consumers and serve clients.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s designation of real estate as an essential business spared agents and brokers from some of the worst of the economic fallout from the statewide shutdown. However, the contagious and debilitating nature of the virus has forced agents to adjust their business practices and marketing strategies to reach current and potential clients.

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Tabitha Murphy and her husband, Adam, operate the ATM Team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Chicago. She is a listing agent and a Certified Staging Professional whose work typically involves helping clients prepare their homes prior to listing. The pandemic has scrambled her usual methods, but she has adapted to the circumstances.

“Not physically being present is pretty tough, because you can only see so much as far as the true condition of the property, virtually,” she said. On top of having sellers show her around the property using their devices, she’s also started requesting additional documentation to create her marketing plans. “I’ve asked for photos as well because that gives me some more data so that I can put together a better picture of how the house should change in order to prepare it for the market.”

Getting ahead of challenges

Sales numbers have dropped significantly across the country since the onset of the pandemic. April’s existing-home sales data from the National Association of Realtors showed a 17.8% decline from March, as well as a 20% year-over-year decrease. The numbers were slightly better in Chicago, where Illinois Realtors reported a 16% drop in home sales from March. Nationally, pending home sales also fell by 20.8%.

While many agents have had to adopt new practices in the face of this massive disruption, the slower market may also be giving them the time needed to fully implement them. Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty was preparing the company’s next level of proprietary tech tools when the coronavirus brought everything to a standstill, according to Chief Operating Officer Melissa Archer-Wirtz. Agents who might have struggled to find the time to learn how to use new tech suddenly had the opportunity.

“It just aligned with the pandemic, in the sense that it really allowed our agents to kind of fully dive into these new offerings and embrace the new technology,” Archer-Wirtz said. “It was kind of a coincidence on timing and not so much reactionary, but all of this technology and all of these products we rolled out really tied in well to having to remote work and work virtually.”

Still, there’s a strong market for people who need to buy or sell. With inventory short, prices remain competitive. Agents just have to figure out the best way to bring themselves to audiences. Some are discovering new tech tools that can help them market properties and themselves. Others are finding ways to expand a digital presence that’s already robust.

Pivoting to showings in online spaces

Connie Nadia Dornan, an agent and broker at @properties in Glenview, transitioned easily to the world of remote real estate. She has been doing 3D tours of her listings for years, as well as providing interactive floor plans, photos and videos to help her clients reach potential buyers.

“This is part of my shtick of how I sell a home,” Dornan said. “So when [the novel coronavirus] hit, it was a very easy transition for me. It wasn’t really a new type of selling for me, because I’ve been doing it.”

Dornan said that the people who are physically coming in to see her listings are already prepared because they’ve shifted to looking online first. She has those assets ready for them to see before they view the property in person.

“The only different thing that I’m doing right now is literally having masks and gloves and antibacterials,” Dornan said. “That’s available for showings, in case the buyers or the sellers or somebody doesn’t have a mask or gloves. I provide them with those. And I wipe down any surfaces that have been touched.”

Many of the tools Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty rolled out this spring were revised, updated and reorganized offerings that were already scheduled. The sole exception was a virtual open house series.

“It’s the only one that was created sort of reactionary,” Archer-Wirtz said. “We needed to pivot when open houses were effectively shut down, like most brokerages. We created this virtual Go Live campaign. Brokers who want to host live, virtual open houses can submit those through forms. We internally promote that among our agents and externally promote it into the brokerage community.”

A new take on working on the go

Agents at Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty have a new technology ecosystem called Accelerate to assist them as they work from home. The mobile-adaptive platform gives them the digital tools they need to work from anywhere, whether they are using a laptop, their phone or a tablet, according to Archer-Wirtz.

“It really helps our agents get their listings to market earlier and gain the insights necessary to sell those same properties faster,” she said. “We can create marketing plans right in the pre-listing stage, utilizing any of the strategic marketing plans that we’ve already outlined or defined. And it allows transaction management and marketing management at the touch of a button.”

Zoom’s teleconferencing tools have served the ATM Team well. Prior to the pandemic, Adam Murphy led monthly seminars for first-time homebuyers at their Chicago and Oak Park locations. When the statewide shelter-in-place order took effect in March, the team moved those meetings to Zoom in a webinar format. Their first such call featured the attorney and the lender that the team typically uses in their transactions.

“[Adam] had quite a few buyers that we had been working with for quite a while come on that call,” Tabitha Murphy said. “After this happened and people started pulling back, they had a lot of questions. ‘What does this market look like?’ and ‘Where are we going with this, and what should I be doing? or ‘How could I take advantage of what’s happening right now?’ They had a really great meeting.”

Capturing an audience

The trick to taking advantage of the existing demand for homes is attracting an audience. It’s still necessary to reach clients, and live showings, video walk-throughs and virtual floor plans have filled some of the gap for agents who ordinarily would have held open houses.

This may mean agents are directing more of their marketing dollars away from traditional print media, such as brochures and mailings. Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty second major tech rollout this spring was the replacement of the company’s email marketing system with ActivePipe.

“The editor of ActivePipe integrates really nicely with one of our Sotheby’s platforms called Dash,” Archer-Wirtz said. “Basically that allows all of an agent’s listings to populate straight into that ActivePipe email marketing system. Agents can create an e-blast at a drop of a hat. Everything is integrated. You don’t have to pull in properties. All of your listing details are in there. It incorporates showing notifications, and you can get dashboard reports.”

The ATM Team generates the majority of its sales through a strong referral network, rather than by spending on advertising or creating an online presence.

“Because we’ve been able to grow organically, we haven’t really ever put that effort in,” Tabitha Murphy said. However, she is considering investing in search engine optimization techniques in order to reach more people. “Now, knowing that so many people are going to be spending even more time online rather than in person, we don’t get referrals from people who are hanging out with their work friends and hear, like, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s moving.’ ‘Oh, do you need a Realtor?’ We need to make sure that we’re implementing some new types of strategies to continue to grow our business.”

Dornan also increased her online presence as the pandemic took hold. “More people are at home, obviously,” she said. “They’re looking on their phones, iPads, computers. I’ve increased my social media presence and my web and mobile presence. People are at home; they still want to buy a house or they’re getting tired of the house that they’re living in. When we entered this COVID economy, the housing sector was actually healthy. It was performing very well. We don’t have a housing issue, so the market has been extraordinarily busy.”

Returning to nearly normal

By many accounts, a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus is likely months away at best. Even as Chicagoland and the rest of the nation open up, civil unrest sparked by police brutality in many cities has added another layer of uncertainty to housing markets. In all likelihood, some aspects of the homebuying process have changed for good.

Dornan sees potential in more people becoming comfortable with remote conferencing and video communication, particularly in setting up the regular meetings she likes to have with clients.

“With all the conference calling going up on Zoom or Google Hangouts or Skype or FaceTime, that’s been wonderful,” she said. “We can totally arrange to meet no matter where they’re at, like we’re meeting in person.”

Tabitha Murphy enjoys the camaraderie of being in the office with her husband and their three licensed assistants. But while she’s looking forward to returning, the stay-at-home order has shown her how smooth the transition can be from working on-site to doing the job at home.

“To be with them in person is really helpful, but it doesn’t have to be five days a week,” she said. “If our assistants need to work from home a couple days a week, that’s not an issue. We were kind of heading towards that anyway. Even more so now that we’re seeing that how productive they can be without being in the office.”

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