Aspen brokers deal in ‘virtual realty’
August 12, 2008
ASPEN ” As Michael Hefferon types “Aspen” into a search engine, the computer screen zooms from a slowly rotating Earth to North America, then the United States, and finally up a remarkably life-like Roaring Fork Valley to hover over Aspen. With a click, Aspen’s hospital appears on the screen in its proper location, followed by schools, parks, and the police and fire stations. As Hefferon moves the mouse over the screen, the view shifts, as if the viewer is actually flying over Aspen, or at least watching a realistic NASA simulation.
Except it’s not a NASA simulation. It’s the newest generation of real estate technology. Hefferon, the marketing director for Aspen Sotheby’s International Realty, calls it “virtual realty.”
On the map, icons represent houses for sale in the $5 to $10 million range, which were Hefferon’s search parameters. Each time he clicks an icon, he pulls up the property’s details, photos, brochure and video. Returning to the virtual Aspen, he can see whether the house is located on a hill, in town or surrounded by trees. With another click, the parcel lines overlay the map ” showing the size and nature of the parcel for sale, as well as neighboring properties.
The new virtual realty program ” one of Aspen Sotheby’s latest technology offerings ” is part of its multi-layered plan to serve today’s computer-savvy real estate consumer. The program is offered to those who inquire about Sotheby’s properties. A second downloadable program can sync a realtor’s virtual realty program with that of a client in New York, allowing for a “virtual tour,” if the client so desires, Hefferon said.
A recent survey by the National Association of Realtors showed that 80 percent of home buyers now use the Internet in their search. For most, that means the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), which provides consumers with basic information about properties for sale.
But Hefferon argued that many of today’s Aspen home buyers have an even more sophisticated taste for online information. At the same time, he noted, an Aspen realtor must still maintain a commitment to the traditional buyer, who wants to walk into an office, leaf through booklets and drive to properties for an up close and personal tour.
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The result is a real estate agency with one foot in both the past and the future. Aspen Sotheby’s has multiple offices and glossy brochures for those who want to buy a house in the traditional manner, and NASA-style technology for those who don’t.
Sotheby’s is gambling on predictions that real estate buyers will increasingly expect to be able to tour properties in their pajamas, from thousands of miles away.
Most local real estate agencies agree that the advent of the MLS, which allows all realtors to put their listings into a single database, was a significant step in realtors’ relationship with the Internet. Suddenly, consumers could reliably and instantly search all the listings in their area simply by going to a realtor’s website.
But since nearly every realtor’s website now offers MLS listings, many have added enhanced listings of properties they represent, complete with photo essays, panoramic tours and full videos.
The ubiquity of high-speed Internet in the last few years, and advances in technology, have made video, in particular, a popular growth area for local real estate firms, said agency representatives.
“Electronically, that’s our biggest opportunity, to take video advertising to the next level,” said Dan Bruder, a managing partner at B.J. Adams and Co.
Sotheby’s is experimenting with variations on the standard “property tour” video. For example, a recent tour of Bear Dance Ranch not only showed the property, but also featured an interview with the owners. Hefferon explained that this particular couple wanted to explain why they had protected the property with conservation easements before selling.
Sotheby’s website also uses video not only to show properties, but also to convey a sense of the Roaring Fork Valley and the local dwelling industry. A series on the Aspen lifestyle shows the Silver Queen gondola and the Dancing Fountain on the pedestrian mall. A series on home technology explains the latest in “smart homes” and how to choose a technology company. And a series on architecture explains Pitkin County zoning rules and current architectural trends.
“Our video content is not just about real estate,” Hefferon said. “This is the way to bring the community to life.”
Hefferon said that even the best website must be easily located before a buyer can use it. Search engines are all about content: “new content, fresh content, latest technology.” Hefferon argued that the more new, useful content a website has the more likely a buyer will find it.
That theory explains the ubiquity of “lifestyle content” on local real estate websites. The Mason Morse Real Estate website, for example, has a “best places” section, where it offers recommendations for dining, drinking, recreating, shopping and kid-friendly activities. The website for Morris and Fyrwald Real Estate offers articles on real estate topics of interest to Aspen buyers, such as “money leveraging,” and local real estate statistics.
At the very least, most websites offer links to sites of local interest, such as the Aspen Music Festival and School and the Aspen Institute.
Most agencies also list properties on numerous websites, in an attempt to increase the chances that a potential buyer will be driven eventually to the Sotheby’s website. Sotheby’s, for example, owns several websites of its own and also contracts with nine others, including such hip real estate upstarts as Trulia.com and Frontdoor.com.
But local real estate agencies emphasize that even as they gear up to serve today’s wired client, they don’t believe technology will replace the primacy of the client-agent relationship.
“You’re never going to get away with selling real estate in this valley without relationships,” said B.J. Adams’ Bruder.
He notes that the goal of the B.J. Adams website is to articulate what the company believes in terms of client relationships, service and execution, and ultimately to convince people, through a combination of copy and images, that they can trust B.J. Adams brokers.
“People want to do business with those they know and trust,” he said.
Hefferon also emphasized that the ultimate goal of Sotheby’s website content is to drive potential clients to agents.
Sotheby’s back-end system sends any inquiries immediately to an agent, he said. If that agent doesn’t respond within a given period of time, the inquiry goes on to another agent, ensuring a timely response.
Even programs like their “virtual realty” program ultimately are just a tool for agents who want to better serve their clients, he said.
Imagine walking up to a for-sale sign, scanning it with your smartphone, and receiving an immediate feed of information about the property.
Hefferon said such mobile technology will become increasingly popular as consumers get more accustomed to accessing information without a laptop.
“In the next five years, it’s going to be a very standard thing,” he said.
But what does this changing technology mean for the buyer? Hefferon argued that it has allowed buyers to become much more informed before they even walk into an office. Ultimately, that’s hastened the buying process.
The traditional buyer views 60 houses before making a purchase, he said. The Internet buyer physically goes to an average of 22 houses. The traditional buyer searches for six months, whereas the Internet buyer searches for only two.
As for the rapidly advancing field of real estate marketing, Hefferon said he doesn’t think it will slow down anytime soon.
“The thing with real estate is there’s such strong competition. We’re all struggling to keep ahead of each other,” he said. “We all want to have the best things to give our clients for listings and be the ones who are found by buyers.”