While in-house investment is out of reach at most sites, real estate agents are turning to technology partners in pursuit of better and faster access to their data.
For some real estate companies, investing in and implementing the latest tech gadgetry are the icing on a well-rounded, if not very elaborate, cake. But as obvious as some state-of-the-art trappings such as wide-area wireless connectivity, handheld computers and 360-degree virtual online tours may seem, some say such technology is not all its cracked up to be.
For starters, its difficult to know exactly how much revenue could be directly attributed to such an investment, real estate officials said. But even if a definitive return-on-investment proposition did exist, few small and midsize real estate companies would have the in-house technical expertise to deploy and maintain such features as a complex imaging system or robust Web site.
As a result, some are turning to what could be deemed the bare necessities of real estate technologyPCs, notebooks and digital cameras. To do it, theyre leveraging systems integrators and technology partners for everything from hardware and software procurement to Web design.
First Choice Real Estate Inc., of Queens, N.Y., is just such an agency. Though the company is well staffed with nearly 100 full-time real estate agents and brought in $300 million in sales volume last year, it maintains a small IT staff.
For the past 10 years, First Choice has turned to RealPro Training & Consulting LLC for its IT procurement, deployment and support needs. The relationship dates back to 1994, when First Choices co-owner and vice president, Jack Blumner, needed a direct-mail solution that could help him distribute advertising postcards to an entire community easily.
On cue, and ironically, Blumner received a cold call at the same time from RealPros founder and president, Joseph Sabella, who pitched him on his new venture. Blumner said he was quickly impressed with Sabellas one-two punch of real estate and technical knowledge. Sabella had been in real estate for 10 years leading up to his work as a technology consultant and partner.
Sabella didnt disappoint, Blumner said. RealPro outfitted First Choice with a database and custom software that mail-merged RealPros list of community homeowners with First Choices advertising postcards. The system automatically labeled and bar-coded the cards for mass distribution.
"Joe has been able to understand my real estate needs as well as my computer needs," Blumner said. "I dont think I could get the same results with an IBM. I need an intimate relationship with someone who has a knowledge [of my business]."
RealPro, also a Hewlett-Packard Co. reseller, has outfitted First Choice with Compaq Evo PCs running Windows XP Professional and a ProLiant ML330 server with dual 2.4GHz Intel Corp. Xeon processors and a RAID controller. The company has procured a handful of digital cameras from HP for First Choice, most recently, the HP Photosmart 735 and 850 models.
But getting the hardware and software is only the beginning of the process, according to Sabella, who currently employs six others at RealPro, in Melville, N.Y. The real value-add comes from offering custom software, online services and training to enable customers to take advantage of their new technology, he said.
To help customers prepare for and abide by the National Do Not Call legislation, RealPro offers its Registry Management Service. Through the service, RealPro helps clients purchase and manage the registry, including running their existing cold-call lists against the national registry. RealPro has signed up 60 agencies since turning on the service in December, Sabella said.
The bottom line, Sabella said, is giving real estate agents better and faster access to their data. "Real estate agents dont have a product theyre sellingits just information," he said. "They need to manage that information and keep up-to-date with that information. In the real estate business ... [this technology is] almost made for the Realtor."
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