MATTHEW FERRARA – A ‘business necessity’

H. Pearce Co. Realtor and Information Technology Director Alison Shaheen is pretty stocked up on technology. She’s never without her Palm Pilot, laptop or digital camera. And, this year, more Realtors across the country will be following suit.

A survey taken by the National Association of Realtors shows that Realtors across the country plan to spend 50 percent more on technology in 2004 than they have in each of the last three years.

“Realtors are understanding the business necessity to budget for technology,” said Matthew Ferrara, founder of Matthew Ferrara Seminars, a Methuen, Mass.-based company that offers tech support and training to professionals in the real estate industry.

The study showed that the typical NAR member plans to spend more than $1,300 on technology products, services and training in 2004. In 2000 and 2002, Realtors spent a median of $900. This year, they plan to spend $856 on technology products, $254 on technology services and $256 on technology training.

Sheehan has enough cutting-edge technology that she might not have to spend much money this year, but other Realtors continue to purchase new technology every year. Sheehan heads the Technology Department at North Haven-based H. Pearce that researches electronics and recommends the best models and brands of new technology available to Realtors.

“I think Pearce is really ahead of the curve,” she said.

Sheehan’s department also orders gadgets for the Realtors in the firm. With the help of the Technology Department, Sheehan has noticed Realtors spending more on technology in the last few years.

“I’m definitely finding agents are spending money on wireless laptops and Palm Pilots,” she said.

Palm Pilots, Personal Digital Assistants, laptops with wireless Internet access and digital cameras have become indispensable for many Realtors. But brand-new technology can be intimidating and confusing for some agents. Realtors are notoriously bad at returning e-mails, a trait that can sometimes be attributed to age and general comfort level with technology, said Connecticut Association of Realtors President Leanne Spletzer, a Realtor at Coldwell Banker in Darien.

“A lot of people just aren’t used to it,” she said.

Age can be a factor, she said. Younger agents are comfortable with the technology and grew up using it, but the average age of a Realtor is 55, Spletzer said.

Spletzer is an exception, though. The 65-year-old checks her e-mail every chance she gets, she said. She’s afraid that a missed e-mail or failure to respond to inquiries in a timely manner could equal a lost seller or buyer.

“More and more business is being driven through the Internet,” Spletzer said.

Realtors clearly have established a bigger presence on the Internet in the past several years.

“In 1997, only 26 percent of our members had Internet access; now about half of all Realtors have their own Web page,” said David Lereah, NAR’s chief economist, in a prepared statement. “With almost all real estate listings now available on the Internet – and seven out of 10 buyers using the Web as a tool to search for a home – we can’t even imagine a working business model today without this technology.”

H. Pearce Co. has tried to get past Realtors’ unfamiliarity with new technology by offering training every time an agent buys a new gizmo and by offering different levels of tutelage on computers and software.

“We also offer agents in-house training,” Sheehan said.

One class teaches agents how to use Microsoft Office, which has become a valuable tool, Sheehan said. Realtors create PowerPoint presentations for open houses and listings appointments and can use Microsoft Outlook for scheduling.

“It just gives them the edge,” Sheehan said.

Growing Appetite

More and more Realtors are also picking up digital cameras. Each office of H. Pearce Co. has one, but many agents are electing to buy their own.

“We research the best digital cameras we think Realtors will need in the marketplace,” Sheehan said of her department. “They’re finding it’s good to have their own [digital camera].”

Another piece of equipment Realtors are discovering is the portable printer, Sheehan said. The tiny, lightweight machines can print in color and are ready at a moment’s notice, she said. They come in handy at H. Pearce Co. – along with a laptop with a wireless Internet connection – because all of the company’s forms are interactive. An agent who is meeting with a potential buyer or seller outside of the office can fill out forms and print them out right away for the client.

The portable printers are also useful at open houses, Sheehan said. If a potential buyer decides that a particular house isn’t for them, the Realtor can quickly print out listings of homes the buyer might prefer, along with the Realtor’s contact information.

Agents are typically spending between $1,700 and $1,800 on laptops, $300 on digital cameras, $190 to $400 on Palm Pilots or PDAs and $280 on portable printers, Sheehan said.

“The good thing is, it’s a one-time, out-of-pocket expense,” she said.

Most Realtors whom Spletzer knows already have the technology they need, but spend money on upgrades, she said.

“It’s just upgrading what you already have,” she said.

Realtors can no longer be as productive without the help of technological tools, said Walt McDonald, NAR president and broker-owner of Walt McDonald Real Estate in Riverside, Calif., in a prepared statement. He cited the fact that 95 percent of Realtors use mobile phones, 77 percent use a digital camera, 41 percent have a Digital Subscriber Line connection and 40 percent use PDAs. Some Realtors – 7 percent, to be exact – use Global Positioning System technology, even though it is relatively new.

“Realtors’ appetite for technology is growing,” McDonald said. “On their wish list are wireless and PDA access to [multiple listing service] listings, online floor plans, neighborhood crime and school stats and electronic delivery and tracking of consumer disclosure statements.”

Realtors this year likely will become more interested in technology like mini digital cameras that double as video cameras, Sheehan said. Those can allow Realtors whose firms don’t already provide Web access to virtual tours of listings to use the video option and make their own virtual tours.

“I could definitely see some Realtors using those,” she said. “That’s an unbelievable tool.”

NAR’s survey was the largest the association has ever conducted. It is based on 11,800 usable responses.