Reinventing Real Estate, Part 2: Online and Empowered Consumers Are Taking Charge and Paying Less

Demanding consumers

"Internet buyers tend to be better informed on market conditions and better prepared to act on the home they want when they start working with a realtor. Luckily for realtors, these changes don't necessarily hurt, as long as they are able to adjust to the new relationship and realize that the new-style buyers value speed and efficiency over guidance when finding a home."

- E-marketer, Internet Home Buyers Changing the House Rules

Thanks to the Internet and other technological innovations, more real estate information is freely available than ever before. As a result, consumers are demanding new choices, improved services, faster transactions and lower prices. According to a recent NAR survey, the number of sellers stating that they didn't want to pay a sales commission fee rose from 46 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2004. In 2004, 23 percent of Florida home sellers opted to sell independently without an agent, up from 14 percent in 2003 and nearly double the 14 percent national average, according to Planet Realtor.

And Web-enabled consumers are demanding a high digital IQ when working with real estate professionals. In addition to being well-versed on their own industry-specific technology, real estate professionals now are expected to utilize laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras, personal digital assistants and global positioning systems to keep pace with Internet buyers and sellers.

Downward pressure

"If consumers are going to do their own home-shopping online, they expect to save some money, just as they would for using the self-service lane. That's why they are susceptible to online discount brokers and the new affinity companies that are promoting lower commissions if only the consumers will use their agents. These business models promote the idea to consumers that they ought to be paying less money in commissions."

Realty Times Columnist Blanche Evans

Traditional real estate commissions, typically around six percent of a home's selling price, are facing downward pressure from consumers and competition. Some consumers claim traditional real estate commissions don't reflect:

- Today's home prices. Years ago, when median-priced homes sold for $25,000, real estate commissions were typically five percent, or $1,250. Today, with South Florida median home prices around $300,000, the cost of a six percent full-service real estate commission becomes $18,000. Some brokers even charge additional fees to cover administrative costs. When you consider that today's average homeowner sells a home every five to seven years, real estate commissions can dramatically impact your personal savings and net worth.

- Owner equity. When selling properties, most homeowners calculate the cost of selling as a portion of sales price, though the commissions are paid out of owner equity. (Equity is the difference between the value of your property and amount of mortgages owed.) Consider this example: You decide to sell a property for $250,000 in which you hold 10 percent equity, or $25,000. After paying a six percent commission of $15,000, you are left with $10,000 before any applicable closing costs. In this example, the $15,000 commission is six percent of the selling price, but 60 percent of the $25,000 equity.

- Services performed. Under today's commission structure, selling a $100,000 house at six percent typically costs $6,000, while selling a $500,000 house costs $30,000. Does selling the more expensive home really require five times more effort? Your cost is the same whether the agent spends one hour or 100 hours marketing your home. This is one reason many real estate consumers find fee-for-service real estate so appealing.
Developing alternatives

"Consumers want what they want, when they want it and will gravitate to the most cost-effective source to obtain it. Why? Because our "one-size-fits-all" approach to working with sellers and buyers is archaic and won't allow consumers to access various segments of help they need in a timely fashion. That's why .com Web start-ups are finding a receptive audience in real estate consumers and why for-sale-by-owners are burgeoning."

Julie Garton-Good, Author of "Real Estate a la Carte: Selecting the Services You Need, Paying What They're Worth"

Until recently, you have had few practical alternatives to the traditional full-service, full-commission real estate transaction with a broker. Most sellers paid a single commission fee for a full range of real estate services, whether they needed them or not. Now traditional real estate agencies face the challenge of identifying new services that have value to today's sophisticated online and empowered consumers.

One result is an "unbundling" of traditional one-size-fits-all real estate services for consumers who want more control over real estate transactions and their associated costs. If you're willing to take on some tasks traditionally performed by agents and brokers, you could receive lower transaction costs. You might benefit from the following emerging alternatives:

Fee-for-services

"Consumers want assistance from real estate professionals, but don't want to pay for it in the form of traditional commissions," says a la Carte real estate Pioneer Julie Garton-Good. Garton-Good has been preaching the fee-for-services gospel for more than 20 years. As the name implies, you can choose which tasks you feel comfortable performing and hire qualified real estate professionals to do the rest. Many traditional real estate brokerages are beginning to offer a more menu-based service plan. For example, you may not mind listing your home and holding open houses, but you may want assistance with contracts and closings.

One-stop shopping

In response to dwindling margins and the rising costs of technology and lead generation, some real estate companies are attempting to combine traditional and Web-based services to provide consumers a single source for all their real estate needs. One-stop shopping sites generally provide or partner with lenders, insurers, title companies, real estate attorneys and others to facilitate all aspects of buying and selling. In addition, some sites are adding home-improvement and related services to stay in touch with consumers between buying and selling transactions.

Web-based discounters

Although many Web-based real estate companies flamed out in the dotcom era, scores of new companies have emerged to take their place. By offering targeted services such as flat-fee MLS listings, buyer rebates and AVM tools, these sites are appealing to independent buyers and sellers who prefer to take a more active role in transactions. In addition to listings, some sites also offer how-to articles and advice for those who choose to go it alone.
Tradition + technology + turbulence = opportunities

So, given the trends, changes and ongoing industry evolution, what can independent buyers, sellers and investors expect in this new era of real estate?

o The Web and other technologies will continue to evolve and transform the $1.3 trillion real-estate industry. Technology will continue to reduce the time, expense and complexity of manual processes, and increasingly sophisticated search and valuation tools will play a more strategic role.

o Free and low-cost real estate resources will continue to be available and even multiply on the Web. In real estate, knowledge truly is power. Consumers will try to use their power to gain more control of the real estate process and subsequently expect to be compensated in the form of reduced and fee-for-service commissions.

o The role of traditional real estate brokerages will evolve as Web-enabled consumers become more knowledgeable. This likely will trigger some restructuring and consolidation of traditional brokerages, but will also drive the development of innovative new practices targeting online and empowered consumers. Real estate professionals will focus more on promoting their local knowledge and industry expertise, while consumers will perform some buying and selling tasks on their own.

o Traditional real estate commissions and profitability levels will continue to face downward pressure from various sources. The future will be profitable for brokerages that are able to extend their core expertise of neighborhood and industry knowledge into flexible new consumer-centric offerings.

o The traditional high-touch, full-service real estate agency is evolving, not disappearing. Real estate professionals who provide exceptional service and value to their customers will always be in demand.

You now can find more real estate knowledge, tools and resources on the Web than ever before, enabling you to buy and sell with increased confidence. For real estate professionals, reinventing the industry means making hard decisions, changing processes and managing new opportunities. But for consumers, reinvention in real estate is a winner, hands-down.

Reinventing Real Estate, Part 1: Online and Empowered Consumers Are Taking Charge and Paying Less

For decades, the real estate world turned in a predictable manner. The roles of buyers, sellers and real estate professionals were fairly well defined and transactions followed a predictable path of yard signs, newspaper ads, open houses and miles of paperwork.

Recently, online and empowered consumers have changed the game. Real estate professionals now face issues similar to the ones that have transformed the retail, personal finance and travel planning industries. As technology advances and new business models evolve, the real estate industry has begun to transform itself from providing traditional, carefully controlled "agent-centric" transactions to new "consumer-centric" practices. The following is a look at some of the recent industry trends and how buyers, sellers and investors can expect to benefit. The "Five Ds" that are driving change in real estate are:

1. Disruption - Over the past 10 years, the Internet has matured into a powerful platform for delivering real estate information, forever changing the interaction between buyers, sellers and real estate professionals.

2. Displacement - The popularity and acceptance of self-service and consumer-direct business models is being felt by real estate professionals, who are striving to develop attractive new offerings for Web-savvy consumers.

3. Demanding consumers - You now have more real estate knowledge, tools and resources at your fingertips than ever before. More savvy consumers tend to be more independent and demanding.

4. Downward pressure - Traditional real estate commissions of 5-6 percent of a property's sales price are facing downward pressure.

5. Developing alternatives - The real estate industry is transforming itself to provide targeted services and exciting new options that add value for consumers.
Disruption

"We are going to see our industry go through dramatic transformation via the Internet and consolidation of agents and companies." - eRealty Times Columnist Dirk Zeller

Some industry observers have adopted Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's term "disruptive technology" to explain recent developments in real estate. Though it's easy to point to the World Wide Web and advancing technology as the main changes in real estate, that's only part of what's shaking things up. Essentially, the real cause of disruption is not just technology, but technology-enabled real estate consumers.

Web-enabled consumers

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), more than 72 percent of homebuyers now begin their home search online. The popularity of online real estate ads surpassed newspaper property listings back in 2001, and the gap is widening. Less than one percent of buyers first learned about the home they purchased on the Internet in 1995, while in 2004, that number passed 20 percent.

According to a California Association of Realtors (CAR) survey, 97 percent of respondents said the Web helped them understand the buying process better and 100 percent said using the Web helped them understand home values better. Web-enabled homebuyers like you are taking a more active role in researching homes and neighborhoods. You also now spend less time with real estate professionals once you have completed your research. Internet homebuyers also used the Web effectively to filter out properties that did not interest them, visiting 6.1 homes on average versus 15.4 for traditional buyers.

Today, you can view photos and detailed information for hundreds of properties in the time it used to take to visit a single one. And the Web provides much more opportunity than simply moving print listings online. The growing availability of residential high-speed Internet connections has boosted the popularity of virtual tours and interactive maps, providing consumers with powerful and flexible visual search tools.

In addition to making home searches easier, automated valuation model (AVM) software is making a big impact in how properties are evaluated. AVMs, which generate valuation estimates by analyzing and comparing property information data, are becoming increasingly sophisticated and accurate. While not considered a substitute for human appraisals, AVMs are gaining popularity because they are inexpensive, easy to use and produce valuation estimates in minutes. Now AVMs, used extensively in electronic mortgage approval processing during the recent refinancing boom, are becoming available on real-estate Websites aimed at consumers. This is a significant development for independent sellers, who often find it challenging to price their properties correctly when selling on their own.

The MLS goes public

"In real estate, MLS data sits at the apex of the change, specifically the MLS information that is pushed to the Internet every minute of the day." - Bradley Inman, Publisher of Inman News

Once an exclusive tool for real estate professionals, the multiple listing service (MLS) has in recent years become a very public platform for real estate listings. The MLS is the nation's most comprehensive database of properties for sale - four out of five homes sold in the United States are listed on the MLS.
MLS properties are available to agents and brokers worldwide, and are now accessible via consumer Web sites such as Realtor.com, WSJ.com, Excite, Netscape, AOL and MSN. MLS listings also appear on local, regional and national brokerage Websites through Internet Data Exchange (IDX) agreements that allow participating Realtors to share listings and display them to consumers. Even though only licensed realtors can list property on the MLS, the system has begun to figure prominently for the $110 billion independent seller (for-sale-by-owner or FSBO) market. About 13 percent of real estate sales are now FSBO, conducted without a broker's assistance.

Type "flat fee MLS" into any major search engine, and you'll see dozens of real estate professionals willing to list your property in the MLS for a fee. If you are willing to pay a commission of 2-3 percent, you can attract the attention of thousands of agents who will show your property to prospective buyers. You can then reduce the cost of the sale to about half a traditional 5-6 percent sales commission, plus the cost of the MLS listing. If you find an independent buyer working without an agent, you could make a sale with no commission at all and pay only an MLS listing flat fee.
Displacement

Currently, about 2.4 million real estate licensees operate nationally, according to the Association of Real Estate License Law officials. The NAR has more than one million members, up from about 760,000 members five years ago. Many real estate professionals and industry observers expect a significant decline in this number because some tasks traditionally performed by agents and brokers can now be done more quickly and easily by Web-enabled consumers.

"Historically the fundamental driver of the real estate industry was the control of information. The real estate agent and the real estate office were the only sources of comprehensive information on which properties were for sale and those who might be interested in buying them. With this control revenues were practically guaranteed.

Moreover, because this exclusive control was akin to a monopoly by virtue of the multiple listing service (MLS) any firm of any size could serve the customer equally well. As a result, the number of real estate companies grew without regard to market efficiencies.

Simply put, the traditional model is too inflexible. Consumers are seriously questioning the value of a real estate agent. They frequently feel that many of the traditional tasks undertaken by the agents are now either no longer required or can be done by the consumer themselves."

- Swanepoel & Tuccillo, Real Estate Confronts Profitability

The quotes above, from a popular report on emerging real estate business models and dwindling profit margins, highlight a number of issues traditional real estate professionals are now facing. And if the real estate industry has grown historically without regard to market efficiencies, the issue has only been compounded since 2001, as new agents signed on in droves, lured by low interest rates and skyrocketing home prices in many areas. It's likely that the number of traditional real estate agents will decline, while new types of real estate jobs will be created to deliver value to Web-savvy customers.

NEXT in Part 2 of 2: - Demanding Consumers, Downward Pressure and Developing Alternatives