Home Front

A blog about the economy and the Sacramento-area real estate market.

May 9, 2008
Who needs real estate agents when we have laptops?

"If something can be known it will be known."
So says Jorit Van der Meulen, vice president for partner relations at Seattle-based Zillow.com about the increasingly virtual world of real estate.
Earlier today he was on a panel with Google, Realtor.com and a Houston real estate agent telling the National Association of Real Estate Editors about the fast-evolving online dimension of selling and buying houses.

Remember way back in the old days of two years ago, when it was easy to say you had never heard of Zillow? Now it is a major cultural phenonmenon, and I would argue, a major contributor in lost worker productivity in offices where people use computers.

The Zillow panelist said the popular online site now has free home estimates (Fair and balanced? You decide) on 82 million homes in the U.S.
And HALF of them have been virtually visited since Zillow started becoming a household name, he said.

Zillow might never have existed had not Realtors so closely guarded their secrets and tried to keep the nation's multiple listing services a private domain.
"Zillow exists because we had the data and we didn't give it to people," said Bob Hale, president and chief executive officer of the Houston Association of Realtors.

Now I haven't personally visited the association's Web site, HAR.com. But Hale said it provides more information that people want than any other in the U.S. He called the site a one-stop shop for open houses, virtual tours, Google Earth views of houses, price changes in all the city's neighborhoods in the past decade and a list of all the Realtors who serve those neighborhoods. It also offers all its listings in seven languages.

Hale said surveys show that most buyers believe that information they find online is more valuable than what they would get from a Realtor. Still, he said, most people who first browse online eventually use Realtors. That little fact led to his prediction about the next big thing - which some real estate agents will like and others will hate.

That's Realtor Ratings. It's inevitable, he said. Just as Tripadvisor.com collects ratings on hotels, as you can see how people rate computers at chain store Web sites, so, too, will Realtors be rated, he said. Surveys, he said, show that many buyers want to see how others rated a Realtor before they pick one.

That's Web democracy for you.

At Realtor.com, Errol Samuelson, president of the Web site (still the most popular for Web searches of houses), said that despite all the progress of the last 10 years online, virtual real estate is still far behind other sectors such as stocks. He said it takes only seconds to get the most current information on a $3 stock, but it takes 24 hours to learn that the price has changed on a $1 million house.

The guy from Google, Justin McCarthy, member of the Mountain View firm's strategic partner development team, talked, too, but darn if I could figure out what he was really saying. In Google-speak it was all about how consumers always want more and want it faster and want it free.

Maybe that was a more complicated way of saying what Samuelson of Realtor.com concluded with as the session wrapped up: "The next five years will make the last 10 years look like nothing."

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