Tech in Real Estate: Not a Replacement for Agents, but Another Tool in the Toolbox - 27 East

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Tech in Real Estate: Not a Replacement for Agents, but Another Tool in the Toolbox

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The Zillow Immerse experience with an Apple Vision Pro. COURTESY ZILLOW

The Zillow Immerse experience with an Apple Vision Pro. COURTESY ZILLOW

Deborah Srb of Sotheby's International Realty

Deborah Srb of Sotheby's International Realty

Brendan J. O'Reilly on Feb 15, 2024

Associate broker Deborah Srb has been in the real estate business for 30 years and remembers handwriting listings, putting the hard copies in file drawers, and pulling out old listings to determine comps.

“There wasn’t that much information available on the computer, and now we have AI-powered tools to analyze market conditions, evaluate property values and identify investment opportunities with greater precision,” she said in a recent interview.

Srb, of Sotheby’s International Realty’s Southampton office, noted that, today, there are companies that buyers rely on, such as Zillow, that are very user-friendly, while in the past information got around only by word of mouth, and if buyers wanted to learn about a property that had sold, they would call a broker.

Agents had a tougher job then and were very reliable for information, according to Srb.

“The broker is the most knowledgeable about whatever market,” she said, “and, today, buyers have it all at their fingertips. They can do all their own homework.”

She said it still takes the skill of a broker to help buyers understand the nuances of a region they are looking to buy in.

“It’s not like buying an apartment in New York, where you can compare one apartment in a line to another,” she said of the Hamptons. “Here, every street, the location is critical, and every street in a neighborhood can influence whether a price is more or less.”

The Sotheby’s International Realty 2024 Luxury Outlook report notes that the challenges of remote life during the pandemic have brought about an unprecedented advancement in tech tools for real estate.

“Along with the rise of artificial intelligence and data analytics, smart-home technology, and sustainable construction, the real estate industry’s tech acceleration is providing unparalleled opportunities for agents willing to adapt, helping homebuyers and sellers research and make moves more seamlessly — and, in some cases, dynamically — than ever before,” the report states.

Just this month, Apple debuted its “spatial computer” headset, dubbed Apple Vision Pro, with a starting price of $3,499. In tandem with the release, Zillow put out Zillow Immerse, an app made specifically for the Apple Vision Pro that offers virtual walk-throughs of listings and interactive 3D floor plans.

“Apple Vision Pro enables Zillow shoppers to fully experience homes as we envisioned when we first introduced Listing Showcase,” said Josh Weisberg, Zillow’s senior vice president of artificial intelligence, in a statement. “This advanced spatial technology allows users to explore homes in a way that is the next best thing to being there in person.”

Zillow Immerse can be an alternative to touring a house remotely with an agent over FaceTime — a practice that became popular during the days of social distancing and that still persists in the industry to an extent. But a major difference is Zillow Immerse doesn’t require an agent to be present for a potential buyer to virtually experience a home.

However, so far, as technology has progressed, fears that it would make real estate agents less relevant haven’t materialized.

“To a degree, it’s disrupting, and I think it makes a lot of brokers nervous that you’ll need or depend on a broker less,” Srb said of tech and the ready availability of information.

However, she added that, ultimately, when a potential buyer is making a critical decision, an experienced broker is still going to be the one who will help to weed through that available knowledge and guide buyers and sellers in the right direction.

In the old days, to tell homeowners what their house is worth, a broker would rely on comps — comparable sales — and data that was inputted into county records, Srb explained. Brokers also would consider market fluctuations, both what’s going on globally and locally, and what’s going on in the financial markets.

Today, brokers use all that information and supplement it with a number of helpful apps.

Srb likes the app LandGlide. Immediately, she can find a seller’s address, what the taxes are, who the neighbors are, etc. It can be used to pinpoint a property while driving down the street and get information about it.

Then come the tools for marketing the property. “The marketing tools are absolutely phenomenal,” Srb said.

One of the first marketing tools Sotheby’s introduced to her, she said, is Matterport, which creates 3D home tours. It is quite like a precursor to Zillow Immerse.

“You could walk yourself through the house and look at it from every angle — from high, from low — and then you could just use your fingertips to maneuver around the space,” Srb said. “And so you can imagine it as sort of a virtual reality. You could be standing in the space, you could walk through the doorway, you could walk out the back door.”

Drones outfitted with cameras also became an asset to agents, though Srb recalls that soon after drone photography became available, licenses soon became required.

“It caused quite a snafu with the FAA, with all these drones flying up in the air,” she said. “If you hire a licensed drone operator, they can take pictures at roof level, overhead, virtually can even buzz through rooms. They can fly through rooms if the house is large enough.”

Roof-level shots can show off rooftop amenities and views of fields or the ocean. “It is the best way for you to actually see everything in proximity to something else,” Srb said.

Another relatively new marketing tool is virtual staging, in which digital images of furniture and decorations are added to a real photo of a room or outdoor space. This can also include adding a fire to a fireplace or making a pool that is closed for the season appear as if it is open with sparkling blue water.

Srb explained that she asks for a style and vibe she wants to exude — and the virtual stagers create it.

“It takes some back-and-forth, but eventually you get a home as if you imagined designing it down to the rug and light fixtures, which is great, because a lot of these large spaces in these open floor plans are really hard to visualize for people,” Srb said.

Several AI companies have recently popped up that promise to virtual stage a photograph of a room in a house in a matter of seconds for just a few dollars.

Another recent addition to agents’ toolkits is ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot.

Srb said ChatGPT can help in marketing a home by writing listing text, and it’s fascinating what ChatGPT comes up with when asked, for instance, to describe a five-bedroom, four-bathroom house on an acre in an up-and-coming neighborhood near the water.

It can be hysterical, actually, she said, when ChatGPT uses “ridiculously flowery language” to describe a home. “So it requires editing but is still a powerful tool,” she said.

Not every new tool that is introduced will prove useful.

“We’re living in a world where things are changing so fast,” Srb said. “You decide whether it’s helpful or not. I think some things fade away and some things take off and evolve and become an even more elaborate version of however it started. You just have to decide whether it works for you.”

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