Three decades ago, homebuyers were completely reliant on their real estate brokers to get information about properties that may be of interest to them. Before the internet, they couldn’t see pictures or listings of homes or gather data on their own about homes or the communities in which they were located.
To say that everything has changed is an understatement. Welcome to the brave new world of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Consumers now approach brokers loaded with data from a variety of listing sources and are much more educated about what they want in a home and community. Brokers have new tools to help clients pinpoint just the right home, or help sellers market their properties to just the right potential buyers.
Amanda Zick is a broker with Compass in Winnetka, and she says that while consumers have direct access to more data, that doesn’t mean many of the traditional rules that drive the relationship between brokers and clients don’t apply.
“Consumers have more information at their fingertips than ever before, and I find that most of my clients have done a lot of housing research on the web,” Zick says. “However, as amazing as AI is, it cannot supplant human knowledge and insight.”
Zick says that as an agent she understands how to analyze the market and a home with a deeper understanding of what gives a home its value, she’s able to advise her clients with her knowledge of the market and trends, quality of construction or finishes, and how best to negotiate on their behalf. Also, as a local agent, she can share her knowledge of the local communities, including schools, neighborhoods, and businesses.
“Some feel that all of the advances in technology eliminate the need for a personal approach,” she says. “However, quite the opposite is true. AI is amazing, but human communication is more critical now than ever to help clients navigate and understand all of the information coming at them.”
Compass provides a technology platform through which Zick can create individually tailored collections of listings for buyers and sellers and digital Comparative Market Analysis (CMAs) that allows her clients to compare rooms and finishes. She also uses digital ads on Google, Facebook, and Instagram and customized videos for clients and potential buyers.
“Technology doesn’t make a broker great, but a broker can’t be great without technology,” Zick says. “So, I use the best technology platform there is to help my clients succeed and that gives me time back to spend with my clients or working on their behalf.”
Louise Eichelberger of @properties in Winnetka says technology has been essential as brokers and clients have had to navigate the landscape during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic is just interesting. You think you’ve seen it all? No, you haven’t seen it all. And you have not changed at all either,” Eichelberger says. “But when everybody had to stay at home it was a huge reset in a lot of different directions, and what that meant was that people who wanted to buy a home stayed home and they spent a lot more time online looking at properties.”
As with Compass, @properties offers unique technologies to its brokers and agents that can aid homebuyers with their search. A platform called Zenlist offers access to the increasingly important Private Listing Service, in addition to the public MLS, for both agents and their clients. With many for-sale properties on the North Shore listed privately, Zenlist provides @properties’s clients an edge.
“@properties is the exact place to be if you’re interested in being in the forefront of technology, and I’ve been doing this long enough that I remember when people were able to only get information from real estate agents,” she says. “Things change when you get more and more listing information or buying information online and off.”
Eichelberger says that in addition to the information that technology can help provide, it also serves the role of keeping her on her toes.
“I feel like it’s made me as a broker stay on top of all the different technology opportunities that I would have to bring to a client,” says Eichelberger. “You’re picking and choosing because some people might want a digital listing presentation and other people want to sit there and talk to you for two hours and look at your book.
“So, what we do is figure out what that client wants and needs and present it and support them in the very best way. You just immerse yourself in all the opportunities to make you more useful and helpful to your clients.”
Gloria Matlin, a broker with Compass in Glencoe, says that while technology has created efficiencies for brokers and clients, in a sense it’s made the broker’s role more vital.
“With consumers having so much access, I feel our job is to help decipher through all the massive data and pare down and guide our clients to make sound decisions,” Matlin says. “Technology is wonderful and a great tool, but our personal knowledge and our guidance has always been our motto to helping our clients,”
Coldwell Banker’s technology platform, MRED, provides brokers and clients with information in real time and also documents information, such as listing histories, over time.
“Because buyers and sellers have easy access to so much information, an agent’s access to information must be, on the whole, better—more complete and timely—if brokerage services are to be of any real benefit to clients,” says Linda Barbera-Stein, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Highland Park.
Barbera-Stein says she sees technology more as a partner than just accessing a platform or the web for information. And it’s still important to tap offline sources.
“Technology and personal agent networks work together in a fast, competitive market. The Prospecting Manager and Private Listing Network programs of the MLS prove very helpful in a fast market, especially if specific searches for clients are set to run multiple times per day,” she says. “Also beneficial is agent networking, calling, or texting to find out if anything new is coming on before it comes on, and then acting on that information.”
When buyers log on to the web and start searching the various real estate sites for properties, the first thing that grabs their eyes are photos. Ted Pickus of @properties in Highland Park says the advance that technology has brought to photography has been a gamer changer.
“The thing that I feel is most important is pictures because our first showing nowadays is online. Everyone first sees a house on their computer,” Pickus says. “If you don’t have good pictures, then people aren’t going to come to your house.”
Pickus says he pays a premium for a photographer that can take the right photos at the right angles. His photographer takes multiple pictures with different lighting and then blends the photos together, so it gives clients the feel of being in the home.
“It’s crisp and clear, both inside and outside,” Pickus says. “It makes it easier for the consumer, and it makes it easier for us.”
Pickus says virtual staging is a relatively new technology that has emerged, particularly during COVID, to help buyers better picture a lived-in home. The only caveat is that the website must disclose that the staging is virtual.
Jena Radnay, broker with @properties in Winnetka, says there’s no denying the efficiencies that technology is offering brokers and consumers and the data they can get quickly. It saves time and money.
“As a whole, technology has just made data very easy to get and it has created an efficiency within our business,” Radnay says. “To me, where the game changer has been is in the gathering of information that used to take a longer time. We can do it as we’re in the drive-through at Starbucks.”
Radnay says having been in the real estate business for 15 years, she’s had access to technology her entire real estate career, but there’s a downside, too. You can automate some pieces of the process, but you can’t replace the human touch. She cites online services that don’t just provide access to listings, but also offer a service to match you with an agent.
“Here is the problem where technology fails an agent that comes to the house and doesn’t know if she’s in Palatine or Schaumburg,” Radnay says. “They have no idea what the comps are and now this buyer who wants to see a house is asking this agent who is not an expert in that market for recommendations. Can’t do that.”
While technology and the personal side of the business are both important in today’s real estate business world, they don’t need to operate separately. In fact, sometimes brokers can use technology to make their clients’ lives easier. Docusign, for instance, can speed up the transaction process, and brokers can offer real time virtual tours that can help cut down on the number of showings.
“In a fast-paced market where homes are selling shortly after they’re listed. I’m able to use technology to go into a home and make a video or do a FaceTime tour without my clients traveling,” says Laura Fitzpatrick, with @properties in Wilmette. “Whether it’s someone from the city or from out of state, we’re able to make a decision on a home much quicker.”
Fitzpatrick remains cognizant of the tendency to rely too much on technology and find the right balance to create the best experience for her clients.
“I think there’s a fine line between using technology effectively and also maintaining a strong client relationship,” she says. “I don’t think we can rely on technology to replace us. Nothing will beat a phone call or a face-to-face meeting.”
Winnetka @properties broker Chris Veech recalls the good old days when technology was just starting get a foothold in the real estate business. It was occasionally awkward.
“In 1991 when I started in real estate, car phones were popular for realtors and I got one of the first purse sized portable cell phones and it was fabulous,” Veech says. “But back then if your phone rang in the grocery store everyone stopped and stared at you like you were crazy.”
While she was an early adapter, Veech says there are still pros and cons to new technology and brokers need to understand one from the other.
“Realtors used to be the only way to find out about homes and we were entrusted with pairing people with homes they would love—we were the matchmakers,” she says. “Now the public can “swipe” like dating apps for homes. There are pros and cons to this as some folks are good at selecting homes they might like, and others are pretty terrible at it.”
Veech says there is a world of difference between walking through a home and looking at it online, and that photos can sometime over deliver or under deliver on the essence of the house. Buyers don’t usually understand this and can swipe past homes they might actually love.
“There’s an old real estate saying that ‘buyers are liars,’ meaning a buyer will tell their agent what they are looking for in a home, but later walk into a place and fall in love, and it’s nothing like the home they described wanting,” Veech says. “Heart strings come into play and details that feel familiar and beloved to them can draw them magically to love a house they wouldn’t have expected to like.”
For Jenna Radnay, as much as technology has brought change to the real estate industry—most of it good—it still gets back to doing what she does best.
“It’s not just technology. Where can I add value to the transaction? Where else can my professional relationships bring value to make sure that my seller or even or my buyer knows that I’m going to get whatever needs to happen done by me,” Radnay says. “It’s not always just about how a house is selling or what the price is. It encompasses so much more.”