Special to The Post and Courier
In the days before the internet, the bible of the real estate business was thicker than the good book itself. Now an online database, the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) was then a massive binder stuffed full of information on homes for sale. Pages were removed and replaced as properties sold or came onto the market.
“Those 50 and older remember when the Multiple Listing Service was an unwieldy, several-inch-thick catalog that required a small forest to update on a weekly basis,” said Susan Matthews of the Mount Pleasant office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. “Homebuyers had to rely on real estate agents to get listing information. Now that the MLS is online and syndicated to thousands of consumer search sites, listings are at a buyer’s fingertips.”
Real estate is one of countless industries altered irrevocably by the rise of the internet. Gone are the days when homebuyers needed an agent for everything—now they can search listings themselves, becoming familiar with properties before transactions even begin. That’s forced agencies to keep pace and develop their own digital tools to both remain essential and streamline the process.
“A real estate agent really needs to know the homes he’s looking at,” said Drew Grossklaus, sales director and broker in charge at the Mount Pleasant office of William Means. “Trust me, the consumer knows these homes inside and out when they come to you. They’ll know right away if you’re not educated about the products you’re showing them.”
That sea change has prompted agencies to roll out new digital features: for example, William Means has debuted an enhanced website with curated home selections, while Coldwell Banker has unveiled a “listing concierge” that automates property marketing. In the internet age, using a Realtor entails much more than a handshake and a home showing.
“Over 95 percent of people searching for homes start their search on the internet,” Grossklaus said. “The amount of knowledge a consumer has before even speaking to a real estate agent is really amazing.”
The digital toolbox
Digital tools have become crucial to the real estate business, foremost among them the online MLS and its associated app. The MLS remains the bedrock of the industry and includes some proprietary information available only to agents—which means clients leaning on sources sites like Zillow (the top internet tool used by homebuyers) aren’t getting the full picture.
“We’ll get leads from a client who saw a property on Zillow, they’ll give me an address. I’ll put it into the MLS, and we’ll find it’s not even on the market,” said Helen Hudson of Realty One Group. “I don’t want to bash Zillow. It’s a good tool. But it’s not the MLS. It’s not as accurate.”
For agents today, the MLS is one tool in the digital toolbox. Given all the new construction in an expanding Charleston market, Grossklaus said apps like Google Maps or Waze are important. Matthews shares her Coldwell Banker “Zap” app with clients, allowing her to receive notifications about properties they’ve searched. And Hudson uses digital lock boxes like those from SentriLock, which come with an app that note when an agent is showing a home.
“It knows that Helen Hudson was at 123 Main Street to show that property,” she said. “Then I walk up to the lock box, put in a code, and it opens.”
As part of the industry’s digital evolution, agencies are offering an improved online presence for clients. The new William Means site catalogues homes not just by area, but also by features like gardens or water access, or whether they’re new construction or near schools. The photos are bigger, the videos brighter, the access to floor plans easier.
“Customers all want an up-to-date website that can answer all their questions, and give them as much of a feel of a home as they can get online,” Grossklaus said.
Coldwell Banker’s listing concierge allows agents to launch an integrated marketing hub in under an hour, saving them days of work. “This is not a cookie-cutter solution,” Matthews said. “... Homebuyers gain faster access to my listings through social media advertising, email campaigns, postcard mailings, print advertising, and so much more.”
Leveraging social media
Two years ago, Hudson was showing a property when a truck drove up into the yard and two people jumped out of the vehicle and onto the porch. She feared for her safety, and the experience led her to develop Safe Showings—an app which takes an image of the customer’s driver’s license, a standard precaution used in apartment showings.
“Just like a doorbell camera or security system, it lets a potential criminal know you’re in control,” Hudson said. “I have an image of your face. It wouldn’t take long to track you down if you harm me or the family that owns the home.”
It’s yet another in a growing list of digital tools available to agents. Clients have their own toolkit—and although Zillow is the industry leader, some use sites like Trulia or Realtor, while social media has emerged as a major player.
“Social media apps have become increasingly relevant,” Matthews said. “Buyers discover homes on Facebook community group pages. They attend open houses they see promoted in Instagram stories. Maybe a friend shares a walk-through video on YouTube. Even Pinterest boards and LinkedIn showcases can lead to closings. It’s important for Realtors to know how to leverage social media to help both sellers and buyers.”
Clearly, the internet has been a game-changer for real estate. But agents stress that a digital presence can show only so much; there are still things a buyer can only learn by seeing a home themselves.
“Even though we have photos and videos online today, you still need to be in a home to really feel the difference,” Grossklaus said. “From the views to the smells to the history, rubbing your fingers across woodwork, things like that. How a neighborhood feels, what the homes next to you look like—you’ll never be able to get that through a website.”