January 31st 2013
The New York Times
Looking for a real estate agent who loves dogs? You’ll find 314 results for “dog lover” on Corcoran’s redesigned Web site.
Want to know how locals rate the suburb you’re considering moving to? What if during Sunday brunch you get the sudden urge to go apartment hunting? Warburgrealty.com offers an app that offers up nearby listings based on your current location.
Recognizing that it’s no longer enough just to present real estate listings based on price, location and the number of bedrooms, many New York brokerage firms are redesigning their Web sites as glossy one-stop shops with new tools to help guide buyers and sellers through the deal.
Uncluttered pages with eye-catching full-screen photos that translate well to iPads and other mobile devices are now de rigueur. And on many sites, video walk-throughs of apartments are on the way out. They have made way for tours of neighborhoods and advice pieces on everything from timing the sale of a home to deciding whether it’s better to buy or rent.
Sites are also providing more comprehensive searches that make it easier for buyers to sort through new offerings and connect with agents through social media.
The idea is to give potential clients a reason to cleave to a particular site rather than shop the competition. After all, with apartment data made ubiquitous by sites like Trulia, Zillow, NYTimes.com and more, brokerage firms can no longer rely on listings alone. And while agents are still featured prominently on most sites, they have generally been recast as neighborhood specialists as opposed to the listing gatekeepers they once were.
Online consultants say that what is happening to online brokerage firms is not unlike what happened to brick-and-mortar travel agencies.
“Once all flights were made available on Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak, what’s the travel agent’s unique value proposition?” said Marc Davison, a founder of 1000Watt Design, a creative digital agency for real estate in Portland, Ore., that worked with Houlihan Lawrence on its recent redesign. “Real estate brokers are grappling with that same problem. What compels you to come to my site, what else can I offer?”
Corcoran.com is betting that less is more. In November it unveiled a new site with streamlined searches designed to uncover a smaller but more relevant number of listings based on what the consumer is looking for.
Visitors to the site still select a neighborhood, a price range and a number of bedrooms and baths. But there is less of the clicking back and forth and redoing of searches that the site previously required. It now offers all results on one page and has turned its agent search into something of a matchmaking service, allowing customers to look up agents not just by the properties they represent, but by the languages they speak, hobbies or other interests. Signing in with Facebook or LinkedIn will turn up a list of agents who may be known to your friends or contacts.
Consumers can also use keywords to search apartment listings and agents. Want a view of the Chrysler building? A recent search produced more than 300 listings. You could even search for the word “sexy,” just to make sure all your expectations were met. Such a search turned up 75 results, mostly listings in the Hamptons and links to related articles.
Corcoran also has a nifty feature that shows the number of listings meeting your criteria and ticks down as your search narrows. For example, the site offered a total of 1,262 available listings in New York early last week. A search for two-bedrooms in Brooklyn brought the count to 69 “matching homes.” That number dropped to just 24 when the search was limited to two-bedrooms with two baths.
Clicking on a listing produces full-screen photos and a neighborhood map showing restaurants, grocery stores, shopping and schools. Want more recommendations? Click a link to tips and data compiled from Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Foodspotting and Foursquare, the location-based social networking site.
Instead of “just putting forth hundreds of search results,” said Christina Lowris Panos, the chief marketing officer of the Corcoran Group, “we’re the curator of the information. We’re not just giving you volume.”
HoulihanLawrence.com, which revamped its Web site about the same time as Corcoran, has taken a similar approach. It also allows customers to search by keyword and offers more robust information on neighborhoods, including “community videos” of local historians, residents and small-business owners discussing favorite aspects of a given town.
A new “community conversations” section, powered by StreetAdvisor, invites residents to review their neighborhoods. For example, a snapshot of the stately Westchester town of Bedford, N.Y., ranks it 7.8 out of 10, noting who lives there (“country lovers, families with kids, professionals, retirees, gay & lesbian”), positive aspects (“peace & quiet,” “safe & sound,” schools) and what it is “not great for” (night life, public transport, cost of living, shopping and medical facilities).
You can pose a question to the forum, read answers to popular questions like “where is the closest mall?” or peruse reviews by residents.
“When looking for a home on a real estate Web site,” said Chris Meyers, the chief operating officer of Houlihan Lawrence, “very often people are shopping for a community more than an individual home. Where do I want to live that feels right for me? How do I understand that, in a market I haven’t been in before?”
Halstead Property, which is refreshing Halstead.com, already offers video tours of 23 neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The site also taps into New York Magazine’s best restaurants, shopping, night life and salons.
Other firms are not making the neighborhood a focus. Stribling & Associates, for example, has pared down its site to offer a cleaner presentation.
“We are focused on showcasing the property,” said Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan, who was recently named president. “It was determined during our Web testing with focus groups that users preferred not to rely on real estate Web sites for neighborhood information.”
When it redesigned its site about a year ago, the company made listings easier to scroll through on mobile devices and highlighted its presence on Twitter and Facebook.
Brown Harris Stevens similarly has no plans to add advice sections or neighborhood recommendations to its site, bhsusa.com.
“Our Web site and all our marketing is all about listings,” said Hall Willkie, the president. “Our clients look to us as brokers to help them with their real estate needs. They don’t need us to tell them about what’s my favorite and where you get clothes at a discount. That’s not our job.”
Doing so, Mr. Willkie added, is akin to a restaurant’s offering the weather report and selling theater tickets at the table.
Town Residential, a two-year-old brokerage, is trying to keep customers coming back with a new online feature called TownSquare. The first phase went live earlier this month.
After registering an e-mail address at Townrealestate.com and choosing an agent, potential buyers and sellers can leave notes for that agent as they sift through and save favorite listings. For example: “Loving the kitchen in this two-bedroom. Do you have anything similar in the West Village and can I see it tonight?”
Those notes are immediately e-mailed to brokers, to speed up response time.
Town and Douglas Elliman are among the few Manhattan brokerages that allow visitors to search all of the city’s listings — including those of competing firms. The new TownSquare forum makes it easier to communicate with a Town broker about any listing in Manhattan.
Douglas Elliman, which redesigned Elliman.com in October 2011, has added a section called AskElliman. Roughly 750,000 visitors come to the page each month for answers to questions ranging from what you should know about titles and liens to how closing an old credit card might affect your credit score.
“Most people start their searches online well before they want to buy anything,” said Dottie Herman, the chief executive of Douglas Elliman, who personally answers some of the questions. “My vision two years ago was to position our company as experts in real estate.”
Knowing they can turn to the site for information, she continued, helps build trust among potential clients. The hope, she added, is that “when they are ready, they will come to you.”