Realtors Adapting To Change
Every segment of our economy has been challenged in different ways the last few months. Locally, real estate is a huge piece of our economic puzzle, and social distancing has presented a particular challenge for an industry that relies heavily on personal connections. We spoke to Margaret Rudd and Associates Vice President of Sales, Jim Goodman; Broker-in-Charge-Southport Main Office, George Brake; and Director of Marketing Betty Morrison about how they have been handling these hurdles.
How has the COVID pandemic affected the real estate industry, as a whole and here locally?
The pandemic is causing the real estate industry to accelerate its move to digital. We are now doing more virtual home tours. Potential buyers are sitting at home, in their own comfort zone, while an agent walks them through several homes using video call applications like FaceTime, Google Duo or Zoom. The buyers save time, keep their privacy, and ensure their health. We’re also using Facebook Live videos to conduct Virtual Open Houses. We spend one to two hours showing the property in a video broadcast, and can even include a cooking demo or a garden tour to enhance the virtual open house experience. At the same time, we’re chatting with folks in the comments, answering questions, listening to them, making that same connection, but virtually.
How has technology helped you deal with the challenges?
People are still interested in buying and selling real estate! But they may think that they can’t do it safely right now, and especially not while travel has been so restricted. Our challenge is to raise awareness of how many great tools already exist. We have been advancing the digital experience over the last several years and this pandemic has us looking to do more remotely. As we look forward, handling earnest money, signing offers, conducting closings, and recording of deeds remotely or digitally will become the new normal.
Can you look back on your experience and point to things you personally or Margaret Rudd as a company learned in the past that is really helpful now?
We invested in technology early on. In fact, our firm had the first commercial website in the entire county, back in the 1990s. Now it’s more interactive than ever, we have chat as well as search, not to mention all the activity on social media. The interactive use of technology helps us tune in to what people really want so we can go find it and present it to them. Yet, with all of our technology we still need to stress that it’s a people business. Staying in touch and being concerned about our future, current, and past clients has been our biggest success.
What have you learned in dealing with all this that will help you going forward, even once things become more “normal”?
Like so many things, it’s about meeting the client or customer where they’re at, so to speak. What are their needs in terms of convenience, in terms of social distancing, and what is their level of comfort with current technologies? The buyer or the seller doesn’t really have to be all that “cutting edge” when it comes to technology as long as their agent is and knows how to get things done! In our business there really is no normal. We deal with market downturns, mortgage rate swings, housing shortages, hurricanes, and floods all in the course of our regular duties. With the pandemic, we have learned to stretch even further, be even more resourceful, and double down on the kind of creative problem-solving that makes things work for our clients.
We love the ads with QR codes leading to video tours. How did that idea come about?
Margaret Rudd & Associates has used QR codes in our past marketing to drive consumers from street side signs to the Internet, so we already had that tool in the toolbox. Knowing consumers reading the newspaper wouldn’t be able to personally tour these properties featured in the print ad, we thought these codes would enable readers to quickly and easily see photos, videos and agent remarks, without having to leave home. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million.
Was there learning curve? Did you and your agents need to grasp anything new?
Setting up a QR Code to take you to a Facebook Live video did mean acquiring some new skills, but the main thing it requires is teamwork. It’s not hard to take video with your phone, and there are people you can hire to do it for you if you want something special. When it comes to what they call ‘the back end’ of our website and our Facebook account, we rely on staff and management expertise there. But we also have a wonderful group of agents who like working together and supporting one another, so co-hosting events and passing on tips and tricks helps a lot, too.
What’s the advantage to a potential home buyer in having these tours available? Do they help you reach a wider potential client base?
We think there are a lot of advantages, for sellers who’d like to limit traffic through their home and for prospective buyers who want to see a wide range of properties before they narrow things down to just a few properties they’ll visit in person. Of course, we can still do that, and we take every possible precaution to limit exposure when we do. But we think in the future these new techniques will continue to be very useful, especially for buyers who might be relocating from other areas.
Do you have feedback on the video tours yet?
We have had some great feedback! As a matter of fact, we had someone emailing to set up a private showing appointment about halfway through our first Facebook Premier Virtual Open House! They’re fun to do as well, since they’re interactive. We have had high levels of engagement and it’s great to have that immediate feedback. In fact, it’s easier than talking on the phone in many ways.
What other resources do you have to help people who want to start looking at houses again?
We have a great map search feature on our website that combines the functionality of Google Maps and data from the regional Multiple Listing Service. It is much more reliable and accurate than any of the well-known aggregating sites like Zillow because it pulls directly from the actual MLS database. It doesn’t re-package or oversimplify things the way some other sites do, and it includes the entire region not just our own listings. If you want to check it out, just open your phone’s camera and aim it at the QR Code below. The phone will zoom to focus and then you just tap the screen where it says “tap here!”
Anything else you'd like to add?
This pandemic is a challenge that we’ve had to adapt to, often by utilizing resources that are already in place, and sometimes by picking up something new. The trick is rather than reinvent the wheel, figure out what we have and how we can use that to meet the needs of our clients. Digital signatures, teleconferencing, working from home, and yes, QR codes – these are not new ideas – they are now just front and center. As a firm, being technologically adept, having the personnel and tools in place when it matters, and being proactive have been the keys to our being able to adapt and survive the current situation.