Five Web-based strategies for real estate agents

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If your real estate agent barely knows how to use e-mail, you might want to consider finding someone who does.

That's because many are harnessing Web-based tools to help sell homes in this tough market. After all, 87 percent of recent home buyers in the United States say they used the Internet as a resource during their home-buying process, according to a recent study by the National Association of Realtors. And, the same research found that nearly one-third first learned about their newly purchased homes from an online resource.

Here are five tech-savvy strategies agents should be using now to help sell your house:

LIST EVERYWHERE

In recent months, agents have been promoting listings through as many Web sites as possible.

Bettie Meinel, vice president in charge of training and recruiting for Century 21 Laffey Associates in Greenvale, says her agency pushes its listings onto 25 other Web sites.

The National Association of Realtors has even come up with an "E-pro" designation for agents who complete a 45-hour course in which they learn about online real estate information sources and referral networks. They're taught basic computer skills, from sending e-mail attachments and downloading photos, to more advanced techniques such as creating online home tours and hyperlinks to their Web sites. Some 40,000 agents in the United States have gotten the E-pro designation, according to the National Association of Realtors; six (possibly a few more) have it on Long Island, says a spokeswoman for the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island. Meinel, who holds the designation, says she doesn't think it has caught on in a big way here because many agents are already fairly tech-savvy. However, a spokeswoman for the Realtors' group suggests that it might be because there are no continuing education credits available yet in New York for the E-pro course.

L.P. Finn, director of corporate services for Northport-based Coach Realtors, suggests sellers ask agents for a list of sites where their home will be listed. "If they [brokers] can't cast a big net using the Internet, they're not doing their job," he says.

Amy Bohutinsky, vice president of communications for Zillow.com - one of the nation's largest real estate Web sites, with 5.5 million monthly visitors - says agents should include detailed information about a home and neighborhood as well as many, many photos. "That first impression is online," she says. "That first impression needs to be stellar. People are used to finding lots of information online."

In addition to paid sites such as Newsday.com, there are free sites, including the ever-popular Craigslist.org and newer ones such as Postlets.com, which links listings to free real estate sites and social networking sites.

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DO SOCIAL NETWORKING

Agents are placing listings on Facebook.com , Myspace.com and Twitter.com as well as the more business-oriented LinkedIn.com to promote homes to customers and other agents in their network. Sellers also can post listings on their own profile pages on these networking sites to spread the word among their friends and family members.

"Two weeks ago, I had a Facebook pizza party in my office, in which several of my agents created their Facebook accounts, profiles, etc.," says Valerie Van Cleef, branch manager of Coach Real Estate Associates in East Norwich. "Some of the agents are now using Facebook every day to promote their open houses, upload photos of properties they represent, post links to informational articles about the Housing Stimulus bill and other timely issues, and also joining real estate clubs on the site, benefiting from broker-to-broker referrals that way."

Many real estate pros also use Activerain.com , a networking site for agents. It includes blogs by professionals on timely real estate topics. Agents can ask one another questions and send each other leads, typically in exchange for a fee. Plus, they can keep their peers apprised of what they're doing, from attending industry conferences to running open houses.

"Agents from all over the country are sending me referrals," says Century 21's Meinel. "It's a way of getting leads you might not be getting otherwise."

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USE REAL ESTATE SITES

Consumers rely on Trulia.com , Zillow.com and other real estate sites to research properties and determine what they're worth, based on sales of comparable homes. Agents are enhancing their own listings on these sites to get in front of these consumers. The sites also allow agents to post their open houses. For consumers, "it's a forum to get information in an easy, friendly way with no obligation," says Coach's Finn.

Agents can provide a "feed" to Zillow.com, automatically pushing their listings to the site for free. The listings can include the agent's logo, personal photo and contact information. Each listing can have up to 50 photos and a link to a virtual tour.

On Trulia.com agents can pay a fee to have listings featured prominently.

Many agents are encouraging customers and prospects to set up an account on Listingbook.com, which has Multiple Listing Service properties for sale. The site provides updates on home listings every 45 minutes, including price changes (and a history of them), sales, homes that go to contract and new listings that fit a user's criteria. Agents also use Listingbook to promote open houses.

"Listingbook is a fabulous tool. I call it the MLS on steroids," says Coach's Van Cleef, who says one of her prospects has logged on to Listingbook 926 times in the past nine months.

Listingbook can also provide valuable market intelligence to agents. "I have a $314,500 listing in Ronkonkoma; 300 people got the e-mail but only seven showed up [for the open house]. That says they [sellers] may need to adjust the price," says Century 21's Meinel.

Other real estate sites worth checking out include Realtor.com , the official site of the National Association of Realtors, and Homeagain.com , a real estate information and marketing site.

Consumers search listings and look for agents on these sites and on the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island - MLSLI.com - which also provides recent sales.

CREATE VIDEO TOURS

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Virtual tours have been around for some time, but in the past year agents have been using videos instead of photos and putting virtual tours on YouTube, the video search engine. When a home seeker types keywords, such as "condo, Hempstead," into youtube.com, listings with video virtual tours come up. Agents are hiring specialists to create virtual tours (at no cost to the customer) or doing it in-house, says Century 21's Meinel. "Most consumers click on those first [listings that include virtual tours]," says Meinel, explaining that Web site operators monitor such activity.

Typically, a home's virtual tour on youtube.com is linked to the agent or homeowner's profile page on Facebook and other networking sites, as well as the Realtor's home page. "You have to put your pictures wherever the buyer's going to be," says Mollie Grossman, Roslyn-based director of sales for Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

TEXTING

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Many agents now offer prospective buyers the option to have listings sent to their BlackBerries or other smart phones. A text-messaging number often is listed on the "for sale" sign. Buyers can instantly receive information and schedule an appointment to see the home.

Unlike ordinary e-mails, these messages beep as soon as they arrive. "Texting is urgent and instant," says Pierre Calzadilla, senior manager of strategic partnerships for Trulia.com, who recently gave a presentation to Long Island agents at Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate. Texting buyers about a hot listing is "a great way to drive a quick response," he adds.

Century 21's Meinel says texting is also a valuable tool for her agents to communicate among themselves and expedite sales. "You can text all your agents at once. We alert agents about open houses and new listings immediately," she says. "We probably use it [texting] more for in-house than for consumers."

SELL-IT YOURSELF WEB SAVVY

Home sellers who don't hire agents are using many of the same online tools as the pros. An example is FSBO.com in Atlanta, a site where sellers can list homes "for sale by owner" starting at $69.95 for nine months and have the house put on Multiple Listing for $299.

"The old days of looking through newspapers or looking for yard signs are over," says Michael T. Malkasian, FSBO.com president.

When you list online, information is updated in real time. There's no space limitation as there is with print ads. Sellers can include as many photos and videos as they like.

FSBO.com is about to launch a text messaging service so sellers can send listings to potential buyers' smart phones. "It will use a five-digit number, like voting (for a winner) on 'American Idol,'" he says. Home sellers are assigned the five-digit number for their listing. Would-be buyers send a text message to that number to receive the information on the home.

Other for-sale-by-owner Web sites include Byowner.com , Forsalebyowner.com and Salebyowner.com

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