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The 21st-century broker

How savvy real estate agents are using virtual sales techniques to move brick-and-mortar homes.

(Illustration by Christoph Hitz)
By Vanessa Parks
May 1, 2011

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Before an open house, real estate broker Joanne Paleo Taranto runs through a mental checklist: Make sure the clutter is gone, put out the glossy brochures, turn on the lights, and, oh yes, compose an intriguing Tweet.

Just five years ago, no one used Twitter to sell real estate. But it’s quickly becoming a must-have element of the increasingly Internet-enabled toolbox of savvy real estate brokers. “For the average Massachusetts homeowner, Internet marketing is really where it’s at,” says Paleo Taranto, a broker with Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty in Weston. “There’s been a paradigm shift, because we’re really in an information-hungry society right now. Buyers want information, and they want it a minute ago.”

And the speed with which realtors can get information into a prospective buyer’s hands is almost that fast. Lisa Johnson Sevajian of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Andover now includes QR (“quick response”) codes on most of her “for sale” signs. When scanned by smart phones, these codes will upload a combination of photos, video, and text about the property to the house hunter’s phone (plus, they let green-minded buyers avoid picking up all that printed material). Bill Gassett of RE/Max Executive Realty in Hopkinton now includes a rider on all of his lawn signs that says “Google This Address.” When they do, searchers usually find a YouTube tour of the house among their top results. In addition, Gassett runs two blogs and a Facebook page and cultivates his more than 8,000 followers on Twitter.

Why all the online effort? Because these days, nearly 90 percent of home buyers conduct research online, up from only 2 percent in 1995, according to the National Association of Realtors. To give customers the kinds of information they now demand, brokers have had to bulk up their online presence – by blogging, Tweeting, creating Facebook pages for themselves and their companies, and, in some instances, creating individual websites for their listings where buyers can link to information about the town in which a property is located, its schools, and quality-of-life metrics such as walkability.

The purpose of advertising used to be simple: Entice buyers into the open house. “Years ago, there was a lot more impulse buying,” says Gary Rogers of RE/Max on the Charles in Waltham. “They’d fall in love with a house and just buy it.” But since so many buyers now do their due diligence before a showing, brokers are putting as much information as possible online – sometimes down to when the furnace was last serviced – to minimize the chance that a prospective buyer will encounter a deal breaker of a nasty surprise. The Multiple Listing Service Property Information Network, the largest clearinghouse of homes for sale in this region, now allows brokers to upload up to five PDFs for things like plot plans, septic system information, and lists of improvements to a home.

Gibson Sotheby’s Paleo Taranto likes to know that when potential buyers walk through the door, they already like what they’ve seen. That gives them the freedom to use a visit to gauge their gut reaction, she says. “Now they want to feel it, to breathe it, to sit on the sofa for 10 minutes and see what they think.”

Brokers say the most important element of online information sharing is good-quality digital photos. And lots of them. Laurie Cadigan, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and owner of Barrett & Company in Concord, Carlisle, and Lincoln, uses a professional photographer because, she says, “photography is really critical” to making online listings stand out. (So dedicated to online marketing is Cadigan that her company recently acquired Clayton Realty Group of Bedford specifically for their tech-savviness; Jacob Clayton is blogging and working on implementing QR codes.)

To prepare for the photo shoot, sellers should make the beds, banish clutter, and take those family portraits and Justin Bieber posters off the walls. Being ready for the day the photographer comes is the most important day a seller will have, says Paleo Taranto.

In addition, Paleo Taranto says, don’t forget that the photos left off a website say as much about a home as those that are on it. “If [buyers] don’t see the kitchen and bath pictures online, they assume something’s wrong,” she says. “A lot of times, that is not the case – it could really be a case of poor marketing or lack of photography skills.” Do you still show a bathroom in need of a makeover? Opinions among brokers differ, but Paleo Taranto believes realtors should – prospective buyers like to know what they’re getting into, she says.

But online marketing can only accomplish so much. Two things still take precedence: price and condition, in that order. “All the marketing in the world won’t matter if the house isn’t priced right,” says Judy Moore, a director of the National Association of Realtors and an agent at Higgins Group Realtors in Lexington. Moore uses photography to show how she arrived at her pricing, asking sellers to look at pictures of comps on the large flat-screen television in her office (if they can’t make it, she brings her iPad to them).

Nor will the most high-tech online marketing help a brick-and-mortar home that’s in rough shape. That doesn’t mean sellers need to undertake expensive remodeling; they just need a willingness to attend to the basics. “It’s the little things we don’t notice in our own homes,” Moore says. “I encourage sellers to walk through their homes as if it were the first time, even drive up to the house: How does it look? What do you notice?” (Kitchens and bathrooms need particular attention because most buyers won’t want to live through the disruption of remodeling them.)

When Dennis Ng was getting ready to put his Northborough house on the market earlier this year, he got in touch with Julie Sprindzunas of ERA Key Realty Services in Worcester. At Sprindzunas’s urging, Ng spent about $20,000 on mostly cosmetic improvements, including repainting the kitchen cabinets and bath vanities, installing new granite countertops, and adding stainless-steel appliances. “It was an unbelievable transformation,” Sprindzunas says, and it persuaded her to boost the asking price of the home by close to the cost of the work, to $440,000.

“Move-In Ready!” reads Sprindzunas’s new online listing. “New Granite & Fixtures in the kitchen & baths, fresh paint, gleaming HW floors & central AC.” The virtual tour features three kitchen photographs, where before the makeover there might have been just one. “I feel comfortable that the things I did, I will get the money back,” says Ng, an engineering director who has already moved into his new home in Lexington. Even if he doesn’t recoup 100 percent of the cost, Ng believes he has “gained the advantage. The real estate market’s been tough. You really do need to make your house stand out as much as possible.”

Now that things like virtual tours are becoming commonplace, some brokers are upping the ante, adding narration and soundtrack to short videos of homes for sale. “I recently started doing pretty expensive video tours,” says Coldwell Banker’s Lisa Johnson Sevajian, adding that those tours feature not just the house, but also the downtown, schools, and local parks. She says she just spent $600 on a video tour of a $349,000 house because it was unique: A builder bought it in foreclosure and did a ton of work that was worth showing off. (Who pays that $600? It’s not uncommon for the broker to foot the bill, but sellers should ask during the review of the marketing plan.)

A particularly tech-savvy agent, Johnson Sevajian also makes prodigious use of Twitter. She tries to keep her Tweets 80 characters or less so somebody can re-Tweet it as theirs and add a link with the remaining 60 characters. And when she gets an offer on a house she’s listing, she’ll sometimes send out a Tweet saying as much – to prod fence-sitting prospective buyers into submitting their own offers before it’s too late.

Most brokers today are using social media – some more, some less – but for sellers in search of agents, the important thing is to know that they do use it. As of 2010, four out of every 10 buyers first stumbled across their new homes on the Internet (only one in 10 were lured in by a yard sign or an open house sign), and that number is likely to go nowhere but up. If you want social media to be part of your marketing plan, it’s worth putting a prospective broker to the test. “Send them a message on Facebook and see how long it takes them to respond,” says Johnson Sevajian. “Anything longer than a few hours is kind of delayed.” She suggests also doing a bit of online research: checking for LinkedIn accounts and Twitter feeds, spending some time on their websites. “In 20 minutes, you can learn a lot,” she says. “You can tell if someone is 2011 market savvy or if they were doing a great job five years ago, but today maybe not.”

Vanessa Parks writes the On the Block column in the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.