RALEIGH Tom Gongaware remembers when the Internet first came on the scene in the real estate business. “I think the fear started in the early ’90s,” he recalls.
It didn’t help when the president of the National Association of Realtors gave a speech in the mid-1990s that “scared the bejesus out of everybody,” says Gongaware, general sales manager at Allen Tate Realtors. The speech warned that Microsoft and the Internet had crippled travel agents and real estate agents could face the same fate.
Mary Kay Pendergraph, general manager of Fonville Morisey Realty, saw the same concern. “We had MLS [Multiple Listing Service] and there was no way to get to that information unless it was through an agent. One friend said that email was a passing thing. It’s not going to last,” she says.
Ed Willer of Prudential York Simpson Underwood Realty heard the same: “There were predictions that the Internet would put Realtors out of business.” It didn’t happen.
Instead, says Phi Jacobs and others, “The Internet has provided Realtors the opportunity to establish trust, value and personal rapport with their buyers.”
She demonstrates with her iPad, clicking quickly through contacts including one in Japan ready to buy a house without an on-site tour.
The Internet has made such a sale possible because an agent today can reach a client now no matter if the client is overseas or down the street, on vacation or working late, as long as the client is connected to the Internet.
Phyllis Brookshire recalls that the new technology was absorbed in “baby steps.” Brookshire, senior vice president with Allen Tate Realtors, looks backs and says, ”One of the first things we were able to do was to share information with fellow brokers. Next thing, you had to create a set of rules and build websites.
“It was everything across the board,” she says. There remained many doubters, but Yorkshire believed, ‘No, I think this is going to fly.”
One of those doubters was Jim Allen, president of The Jim Allen Group, now the top producing team in the Triangle. “We asked, ‘Why do we need this?’” he says.
“We had only one computer in the office and the printer wasn’t fast enough. It was quicker to look in the [MLS] book.”
What turned him into a true believer was his bottom line in sales volume. “I was doing $6 to $8 million in sales a year,” he says. “Then in 1995, this Superhighway came along. I saw an explosion in growth. In three years, I went to $39 million!”
While few agents can see such results, they now consider the Internet and the technology to use it as essential. It has been equally useful for real estate buyers and sellers. Many buyers walk into an agent’s office now with a list of homes they want to see having downloaded details and photographs from the Internet.
“In the old days,” says Willer, “they’d come in and ask us what do you have to show us. Now, buyers go on the Internet and they pick out houses they want to see.”
It saves time for both parties, too. Says Phi Jacobs, “We had a buyer who googled us the address they wanted to see. I showed the property that night and they made an offer the next day. “Everybody is on the Internet. I haven’t met a buyer in my nine years who is not connected,” she says, noting that even her older clients have email.
Brookshire adds, “The Internet is an agent’s best partner if they learn how to use it. You absolutely have to have it.”
Sometimes, it’s difficult to keep up with the moving technology, but Fonville Morisey’s Pendergraph lists what she considers essential for an agent today: “You need a smart phone with GPS, a laptop and iPod.”
Ed Willer agrees. The list contrasts amusingly with what he tallied for The News & Observer in the 1990s. He said then, “Standard equipment today is an office phone, a pager, voice mail, a cell or mobile phone, a home Fax machine, a home computer and email. We need them because we have to communicate.”
That personal communication and building a relationship with clients are as important as ever. Or as Tom Gongaware notes, “The computer can’t open the front door.”