Listen to this article
At Delray Beach in Florida, one of the many locations in the sunshine state benefiting from a post-recession building boom, the sales centre for a new development called The Bridges is keeping the details of its groundbreaking new sales device close to its chest.
Designed in-house by the developer GL Homes, the software allows buyers to see how their chosen home will look and fit on specific lots. If that sounds similar to what is already out there, it’s not. The difference here is the 360-degree view prospective buyers can get of their individual home before it is built, designed to give them a real sense of the property’s aspect, feel and context within the community. Indeed, GL Homes claims that the technology has proven so popular that other builders have offered to buy it. The developer has declined to sell.
Property agents have always loved a new gadget. And as estate agents in the US and the UK compete to take advantage of property markets emerging fast from the global downturn (house prices rose by 8.4 per cent across the UK in 2013, according to the Nationwide Building Society, and by far more in certain areas) they are having to come up with increasingly innovative ways to differentiate themselves from the competition, hence the current demand for new gadgets, gizmos and sales devices.
These can range from improvements to the standard estate agency app, something most people are by now wearily familiar with, to low-tech offerings, such as John D Wood & Co’s floor-plan dial. This transparent guide, which can be placed on floor plans, either on screen or on a hard-copy brochure, allows buyers to work out what time the sun will rise and set in relation to the property, and therefore which areas of the house and garden will be best suited to afternoon tea or a pre-dinner drink, and where a conservatory or herbaceous border might best be located.
The brains behind the device, Richard Page, marketing director of John D. Wood & Co, says that 70 of the dials were requested and sent out to buyers and sellers within just a few days of launching, and that there has already been one instruction where the vendor cited the floor-plan dial as the reason for choosing the agency.
“It’s a highly competitive market, so anything that helps you stand out is great,” says Page. “People have suggested to me that perhaps the dial is only useful if you have a south-facing garden, but good agents know that every property has a buyer. So, for example, artists like north-facing houses, because they like the light. So the dial would also be beneficial in that scenario.”
Estate agents should be careful of gimmicks, he adds. “Over-selling standard agency apps as amazing new technology would have an adverse affect on our clientele. It would cheapen the brand. Additional offerings have to be genuinely useful.”
By standard apps, Page is referring to the glut of downloadable tools now available from most agents. There is nothing wrong with them, but in most cases, they are just search tools. To stand out, agents must do more, and there are at present two directions in which real estate-related web technology is moving.
One is the augmented reality app, recently launched by British developers including Grainger, Weston Homes and St James, which allows buyers to view brochures in 3D form. Essentially you wave your smartphone or tablet over a brochure and see a 3D version of the building pop up on the screen. These look set to be increasingly popular over the next year and, like the GL Homes sales centre device, are designed to give buyers a more cohesive sense of how the development will look and feel.
Then there is software that allows buyers, sellers and vendors to conduct business out of hours. VTUK supplies software to estate agents such as Haus in west London, allowing transactions and checks to take place 24/7. A vendor can check in to read feedback from viewings and see real-time updates of similar sales in the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, landlords can check payments and upload necessary documents such as deposit registration certificates, without having to check in with their agent.
“Most people simply don’t have time to chat regularly with their property manager. This is just like shopping online – of course, you’re going to need the shop front from time to time, but this is far more convenient for most people on a daily basis,” says Adam Rackham, VTUK’s chief investment officer.
However, according to Ed Mead, of estate agency Douglas and Gordon, “people need to get away from relying on the internet. It’s a 2D utopian environment and we’ve all had let downs from seeing a picture on the web and arriving at the property and realising instantly it’s a no-no”.
Instead, Mead says, the next big thing may well be Google Glass, the wearable computer device, which could enable prospective buyers to do their first few viewings remotely by watching video transmitted by an agent wandering through the house and seeing the property as if through their own eyes – far more immersive and, potentially, more informative than just looking at photos, or even the “virtual tours” that currently exist on property websites.
The expense of Google Glass means widespread use may be some time away, but, in the meantime, the marketing potential of video has been embraced by Barton Wyatt, an estate agent in Surrey, southeast England, which is developing the first “video brochures”. On the outside these look like regular high-end property brochures, but on the inside there is a screen that can play video tours of the house. If the development sells out or the property goes under offer there’s a quick fix – the agent can simply change the video.
In the end, says Page, the most successful gadgets used by agents are not the swanky ones but the ones “that make you feel at home”.
“I think one of the reasons people liked the floor plan [dial] was because it felt both modern and retro,” he says. “There is nothing more off-putting to a buyer than a gadget that makes them feel stupid.”