Who’s Going to Be at This Year’s FWD Innovation Summit? One Former Judge’s Thoughts on this Year’s Contestant Line Up

Last year, when I was one of the judges on the FWD Innovation Summit, I wrote up a fairly rigorous analysis of the participants so that I could be prepared for their presentations.  This year, I won’t be judging, but I will be live-blogging the event on Tuesday here on this blog, so I did the same thing.

Basically, I looked at each app or website and wrote up a short description of what they are and how they would apply in real estate. And just out of habit, I came up with one question for each of them that I’d ask as a judge. I thought it might be helpful for those of you attending the conference, who want a thumbnail introduction to the companies and what they’re presenting.

I want to be clear that these are my own very unofficial impressions based on their site or their app. I may have some stuff wrong, because I’m not very bright.  If I’ve mis-described any business, I apologize and will update this post with any errors if you bring them to my attention.

I should also be clear that I don’t represent the FWD conference, Realogy, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, the Rand family, or really anyone else.  My observations are my own.

In the chart and the discussion below, I’ve organized the companies’ solutions according to three categories. I should note that this is my own organization, not something that came from Realogy or from the companies themselves, and that the one-line “descriptions” are just my own short-hand for what I see as the main driving purpose of the site or app:

  • Home Search (6): Sites and apps that assist buyers during the home search process, mostly portals.
  • Marketing (4): Sites and apps that help agents market homes.
  • Business (5): A bit of a catchall for sites and apps that helps real estate professionals manage their business (including apps designed for property managers and developers).

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Home Search:

Closing Time

Closing Time is a web-based service designed to help make the home buying transactional process easier.  You sign up, answer a bunch of questions about yourself and the home you’re buying, and you get a detailed checklist of steps you need to take, which are fully customized to your personal needs and the location of your home.  The site is designed for home buyers, but the company offers an integrated enterprise solution allowing brokers to create customized checklists for their clients that can, for example, promote affiliate partners throughout the transactional process. (Full disclosure: my company is talking with Closing Time about setting up the enterprise product).

Key Application: It’s a great way to manage the transactional process for your clients.  Set your buyer up with an account, and she’ll have a detailed checklist of steps she needs to take to buy her home that will prompt her with email alerts and reminders.

Key Question: How can Closing Time fully address transactional challenges in a document-intensive process without ever touching any of those documents?

 

Curb Call

Curb Call has one of those really simple elevator pitches: “Uber for real estate agents.”  Let’s say a buyer is standing out in front of a home for sale, and wants to see it right away.  She can use the Curb Call app to call up a list of available agents in the area, screen them based on their app profile (i.e., ratings, etc.), and “call” them to come by the home to show it.

Key Application: If you can get a big enough installed user base of users and agents, this provides a novel way for clients to find an agent who is available for immediate gratification: show me this house right now!

Key Question: The Uber connection is clever, but is that kind of immediate gratification possible when most home sellers require advance notice to show a home?

 

Househappy

Househappy is an image-based home search portal. When you log in, you don’t see a traditional home search screen with filtering options – instead, you see row upon row of home photos, which you can click on to get the full details and the rest of the images.  You can also use more traditional options if you want to narrow your search, but photos are front and center as the search idiom.  The listing feed comes through listhub, which provides the listing agent contact information, and agents can also set up a profile to “claim” their own listings.

Key Application. Househappy is a clever, fresh, very visual take on traditional home search, using images instead of filters or maps as the dominant criteria.

Key Question: You market the site as a free community platform for all users and agents, so where is your revenue going to come from?

 

Lasso

Lasso is a bookmarking service for real estate, an answer to the challenge posed when buyers use multiple sites to look for homes.  You install a bookmarklet on your browser toolbar, and whenever you see a property you want to save, you just click the tool and save it to Lasso. Then, when you log into Lasso, you’ll see all your saved properties in one place in a very Pinterest-type layout, where you can rate the property, take notes, and share it.

Key Application: Lasso seems to be creating a more social approach to home search, one that not only anticipates including a real estate agent, but also other people who might be interested (friends, family, spouse, etc.).  For a client who insists on using a national portal as well as the local company site, or multiple portals, agents might find it helpful to encourage the client to “corral” all those properties in one place to organize their search.

Key Question: This solves the problem of clients who use multiple home search sites, but can’t they also solve that problem by just using one site?

 

Retsly

Retsly is really something different from the other participants at FWD.  It’s not a consumer- or agent-based product.  Rather, it’s a real estate software API that was featured at Realogy’s “Hackathon” last fall at the NAR conference, giving contestants a cleaned-up database of listings upon which to build creative apps during the contest.  And now it’s available to other app and website developers as a platform upon which to build real estate related products (indeed, Curb Call, another FWD contestant, is featured on the Retsly site as a user).

Key Application: Not for agents, not for consumers.  But for web developers, the API provides a clean data feed of listings, which become their development platform.

Key Question: Who should be using this, and how much data do you actually have?

 

Zumper

Zumper is a national real estate portal site and app for home and apartment rentals.  Using traditional filter-based and map-based search, users can look for rentals submitted by landlords, brokers, and apparently through some third party sites (a number of the listings I looked at came from Hotpads).  For agents, you can set up a “Pro” account and post your listings, syndicate them to other portals, market the listings through email, and manage leads through the site.

Key Application: A dedicated rental site with good, reliable, up-to-date data would be really useful to consumers, giving them the same quality experience that home buyers currently get from any number of online portals. And agents might value a one-stop solution to marketing rentals to portals.

Key Question: What’s the value to a real estate agent with another portal dedicated narrowly to rentals when most real estate sites and portals already market rental properties?

 

Marketing:

 

Beamly

Beamly is a micro-location marketing app designed to enhance home showings, particularly for new construction, using the Apple iBeacon technology.  The app works with special Bluetooth-enable proximity “beacons” that look like hocky pucks, and which trigger informational displays when visitors come close enough to them. The app comes from BrightDoor, a specialist in home builder online marketing, and is expected to be launched this summer.

Key Application: You put the beacons in strategic spots around a home.  When visitors come to the front door, the app displays neighborhood amenities, the floor plans, or anything else you set up.  When they get to the kitchen, the app highlights special features or possible upgrade finishes.  You can even track where people are going, maybe even where they are lingering.

Key Question:  What does this app add for a typical home showing, when an agent is usually present to highlight features of the home?

 

Matterport

Matterport provides three-dimensional photography that could provide a really exciting way to market properties.  Here’s how it works.  You get a Matterport-branded 3D camera and set it up on a tripod in a room.  It spins around the room, capturing not just pictures but also dimensions and spatial relationships. You then upload the data to the Matterport site, which creates a 3D image model of the space using fancy technology that I quite frankly don’t understand.  But it looks very cool (and not dissimilar to last year’s FWD grand prize winner, Floored).

Key Application: If 3d imaging technology works the way that Matterport says, it could leapfrog video marketing as the best way to market properties online. More immersive than still photos or video, and actually easier to create than standard video.

Key Question: How feasible, in both time and money, is it for someone to buy your camera, set it up in the living room of their new listing, and build a 3d model of that home right now – today?

 

Slide Bureau

Slide Bureau is a presentation and slideshow iPad app that provides hundreds of design templates, including dozens built specifically for the real estate industry.  You download the app, choose a template, create your customized slides, and share your final presentation through the web.  Many of the templates are interactive, meaning they pull real-time data directly from services like Google Maps and Twitter – so you won’t have to copy and paste data or use screenshots.  Users can also suggest new templates if they can’t find what they need.

Key Application: Depending on the growth of the template library, agents could find some interesting ways of presenting information to clients or doing promotional presentations.

Key Question: What do you see as the advantage of creating presentations like this on an iPad, which is generally seen more as a content-delivery rather than –creation device?

 

SmartExpose

SmartExpose is an international digital real estate marketing development company that provides white label software for iphone and iPad apps, webpages, and project pages.  You can either create your own set of multi-device apps, or advertise properties in one of the established SmartExpose marketplaces.  You can also create an individualized iPad magazine, using a mix of standardized and customized content.

Key Application: Agents and brokers might like the turnkey aspect of creating an interactive iPad-based magazine that could be used to display properties or promote the company.

Key Question: The online versions of your materials look slick, but how customizable are they?

 

Business:

CO Everywhere

Co Everywhere is an app and web service that lets you pick a place that’s important to you, and then follow social media and news content generated from that location.  You just go on a map, circle the area of interest, and then you’ll get a rich, unfiltered stream of hyper-local content from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Yelp, and other news and social media sites.  For example, I circled my hometown and was immediately inundated with tweets and Facebook posts generated by people in the area.

Key Application: Real estate is hyper-local, so anything that helps an agent tune into what’s going on in her neighborhood or geographic farm can be a real asset. I could see agents picking 7 or 8 locations to follow and checking in a few times a day to see if anything interesting pops up.

Key Question: Co Everywhere seems to pride itself on an “unfiltered” feed, which might be good for 20-somethings who want to follow the club action, but are you building curating features for professionals who want to use it more selectively?

 

Deductr

Deductr provides a streamlined way for real estate agents to track and monitor their expenses to ensure that they maximize their small-business tax deductions.  Using the website or a mobile app, you can record transactions, document your income, account for your working hours, and track your mileage to build customized reports that can help ensure you claim the appropriate deductions and monitor your business performance.

Key Application: All financial services apps require a little discipline, because you have to remember to log your transactions and all that, but agents could find this very helpful not just for maximizing deductions but analyzing their business performance.

Key Question: Real estate agents are busy and often don’t have the time to process every transaction – how much of the tracking can be automated so that they don’t have to?

 

Go Connect

Go Connect is a task management checklist app for real estate agents, designed by a practicing real estate broker in North Carolina (full disclosure: the founder Zach Schabot is a friend).  The app allows an agent to track all her leads, clients, listings, and transactions, set up customizable checklists for particular processes, and then manage those tasks through an intuitive reminder and scheduling system.  The interface is very straightforward, the CRM integrates with your phone’s contact list, and the site provides a number of helpful instructional videos.

Key Application: I’m a big checklist guy, so I love this kind of stuff, even while I recognize that this is the kind of thing that you need to go “all in” on in order for it to work correctly.  But once they’ve done the initial customization and set up, agents might really find value in a single app that provides CRM, reminders, scheduling, and task management.

Key Question: Agents are not generally going to take the time to customize their checklist templates, so is there a broker enterprise solution that would allow for a broker to create templates customized to the company’s operations and apply them for all the agents in the company?

 

Kisi

Kisi allows you to use your smartphone to replace keycards for any keyless entry access control system. Let’s say, for example, that your apartment building uses keycard access for a parking lot, you can use Kisi to replace the keycards and allow people entry just with a swipe of the app.  Even better, the building manager can control access, giving out virtual “keycards” via email from the app, track all entries, and revoke access when the need is complete.

Key Application: I could see this being a huge advance for commercial buildings that use keyless access systems, or even real estate brokers who have keyless entries for their offices. Rather than tracking who has access cards, you could turn on an agent’s key when they join the company, track who is coming in and out of your office, monitor traffic patterns, and eliminate access for agents who are terminated.

Key Question: Do you see this as having any kind of applicability to replace the lock box system that most agents use now for listed properties?

 

Remotely

Remotely is a home automation app-based service designed primarily for landlords and tenants, which allows you to control locks, lights, thermostats, home security, etc. remotely through the app.  You need to install all the home automation hardware from their vendor partners, including keyless lock systems, thermostats, sensors, and alarm equipment, but you can then monitor everything about the home remotely (I see what they did there!) through the app or the online software for a monthly fee.

Key Application: Home automation is really hot right now, and Remotely is going after a narrow segment of the market: renters, landlords, and possibly second-home markets.  I could see second-home owners loving the idea of remotely controlling their home security, lights, and keyless entry with the convenience of a smartphone app.

Key Question: The monitoring service is relatively cheap, but what is the average cost of the hardware that you need to make it run correctly?

The Upcoming Realogy FWD Innovation Summit — Advice for Participants, an Overview, and the Upcoming Live Blog

Realogy is holding its second FWD Innovation Summit the coming Tuesday. It’s a really cool event.  Fifteen technology companies make a pitch before a live audience, and answer questions from a panel of judges.  Then, the judges pick finalists, who are then presented to the audience, which votes on the winner of the $25,000 grand prize.

Last year’s event was spectacular, introducing me to some great companies, including (but not limited to) Floored (which won the grand prize), HomeZada, BuyerMLS, Updater, Lumentus Social, Onvedeo, and a host of others.

This year’s event is also shaping up to be a terrific demonstration of some really interesting technology companies that are invigorating the real estate space.  Congratulations to Alex Perriello, who had the vision to see the potential of bringing these cutting-edge companies to an industry audience, and to everyone involved in putting it together.

I’m really excited about it. I was one of the judges last year, and from that experience wrote up some advice for this year’s contestant, which was published today at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate’s Clean Slate Blog.  And I’m also working on an overview of all the participants, which we’ll be publishing here on Monday and could be useful to anyone who is interested in finding out more about some really cool technology startups in real estate.  So check check back here on Monday for that.

Finally, I’ve volunteered to write a live-blog of the event on Tuesday, providing a running commentary on each presentation.  It should be a lot of fun.  We’ll be doing that here, so again, check back.

Again, my thanks to everyone at Realogy for allowing me to do this and to Sherry Chris and her team for publishing my advice piece on Clean Slate.

Is the Real Problem With the Real Estate Industry the Clients? Maybe

I was asked again last week to contribute a response at Inman News to a provocative article from Brad Inman.  Last time, he wrote about the potential disruption of the broker-agent relationship from online portals, in the way that Uber has disrupted the traditional limousine industry’s relationship with drivers.  And in my response, I challenged the idea that technology might be as disruptive as people think it’s going to be, but then argued that if it does happen, it’s the brokerage industry’s fault for not creating a better experience for our clients.

This time, Brad suggests that the industry has been too focused on marketing and customer acquisition at the expense of a concentration on improving the customer service experience, and that technology startups might be a driver toward changing that experience:

But the current discussion should not be about revenue models, it is about who can fundamentally change the old ways of doing business. For now, everyone is focused on marketing and customer acquisition, including Zillow, Trulia, realtor.com, Homes.com, etc., not the overall consumer flow from home search to closing. Regrettably, the identity and the reality of the industry has always been about marketing, sales, recruiting and advertising. The old-school model continues to win, with the portals playing a role in the cabal.

***

But more change is needed, and opportunity and lighter technology will drive it. The company that offers a complete and superior consumer platform will have valuations more like Uber and Airbnb — $10 billion today and rising.

The winner will present an integrated combination of a stellar front end with a robust CRM and transaction management system on the back end, offering a connected, elegant and easy-to-use online place for buyers and sellers as they go through the rigorous 90-day workout.

The challenge in responding to this argument is that I essentially agree with it — I’ve been saying for years that the industry needs to be more client-oriented, that we need to change our focus from our own needs (lead acquisition) toward providing them with a better experience.  So I basically agree with him.

So my response took a bit of an angle on his argument, pointing out that the problem is not the technology — which I think already exists at some companies. Rather, the problem is that we don’t have enough good agents to implement that technology, and the reason for that is that the clients are just not choosy enough!  That is, clients are willing to work with lousy agents, and because of that they create all the wrong incentives — agents put money and time into marketing because they see clients respond to that, clients who would be better off doing a more rigorous vetting process to find a great agent, but who simply work with whoever answers their internet lead, the phone on their incoming inquiry, or sits the open house when they’re at the right point in their purchasing process.

Having read the piece now that it’s out, I’m a little concerned that people will  think I’m letting the brokerage industry off the hook. I’m not.  Basically, I think that we are the ones who have created the consumer perception that all agents are the same, that they’re all salespeople, and that they don’t need to be selective in choosing one. It’s really our fault.

It’s kind of a self-reinforcing loop: we do a bad job of differentiating our services, leading to commodification; clients see us as a commodity, so they believe all are the same and don’t feel they need to be selective; and agents see how clients respond to marketing and lead generation techniques, rather than performance and track record, and invest their time and energies accordingly.

Take a look, and if you have comments feel free to make them on the Inman piece.

If Technology Disrupts the Real Estate Business, We Only Have Ourselves to Blame

I have not been writing much recently on this blog, but Brad Inman contacted me this week asking me to contribute a response to a piece that he wrote for Inman News entitled “Real Estate Disruption May Not Be What You Think it is.”

In his piece, Brad questions suggests that disruption in the industry might not come at the expense of the agent — i.e., a for-sale-by-owner model that actually works and eliminates the agent from the transaction.  Rather, he thinks that the online portals (Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, or one still to be launched) could disrupt the agent-broker relationship, displacing the broker but retaining the agent at the center of the transaction.

It’s an interesting and provocative argument, and Brad asked me to respond because he wanted to see what a broker had to say about it.

You can read my response, “No One Can Disrupt our Industry Without Our Permission,”  at Inman News, where I argue that if the real estate brokerage industry is disrupted, it’s our own fault for not refining the value proposition that we give to agents.  But I point out that technology might not be the disruptive force that technophiles might think it is, and that even if the industry is disrupted, it’s likely to come at the expense of companies that shouldn’t be in the business in the first place.

Take a look. If you have any thoughts or comments, feel free to make them at Inman.

Rules for CORE Agents #34: Only Embrace New Technologies That Replace Old Tools With Better Tools

Consider the plight of the poor “Realtogeek” – real estate agents who embrace new technology so tightly that they leap into every new trend and buy every shiny new gizmo that hits the market.  While the Realtosaurus reacts to the intimidation of new technologies by shutting down and ignoring them, Realtogeeks respond by elevating them as centerpiece of their business in the smug belief that all the “old school” ways of doing things are dead.

But Realtogeeks make the mistake of thinking that they’re in the technology business, not the real estate business, and so they spend too much of their time doing things that don’t actually help them acquire clients or sell homes. They don’t see the point of cultivating a sphere, or contacting FSBOs and expireds, because they’re going to generate all the leads they need from their blog, their Twitter feed, or that new online system they just bought.  They don’t pick up the phone, since, well, NO ONE talks on the phone anymore.  New technologies become important for their own sake, a security blanket that tricks the Realtogeek into thinking that he had a productive day if he spent three hours posting a great answer on Trulia Voices that is generating a lot of online buzz.

Now, I’m not saying that technology is a bad thing. You need to find a happy medium between the Realtosauruses who reject all new technologies and the Realtogeeks who embrace all of them for their own sake.  The key is to recognize that technology is just a tool, and differentiate between the tools that will help you and the tools that are a waste of your time.

Here’s the key: if a new technology allows you to do something you were already doing, but to do it faster, cheaper, or easier, then it’s a productive technology and you should learn how to use it in your business.  That is, good technologies are just tools that are better than the old tools you were already using:  smartphones are better than dumbphones, online MLS systems are better than shoeboxes full of index cards, emailing is better than mailing, scanning better than faxing, a GPS is better than a map, digital photography is better than film.  All these new technologies are great because they are just tools that give us a better way to do something we were already doing.

Conversely, non-productive technologies are tools that seduce you into spending a lot of time doing things that you never did before, like blogging and tweeting and answering online questions from people who are not, and will likely never be, your clients.  You have to avoid technologies that give you that false sense of productivity because you spent a lot of time in front of the computer without actually accomplishing anything that will generate business or service a client.

 

This post is part of a series of what I call the “36-1/2 Rules for Client-Oriented Real Estate Agents,” a collection of short takes on the CORE concept that I’ve developed over the years of discussing and teaching the system.  We’ll count up to the 36th rule over the next few months, and then the 1/2 rule.  You can get the full list of rules by clicking on the “36-1/2 Rules for CORE Agents” category on the blog – scroll from the bottom if you want to read them in order.

Rules for CORE Agents #33: You Wouldn’t Trust a Doctor Who Still Used Leaches

Consider the plight of the poor “Realtosaurus” – real estate agents who are increasingly falling behind because they stubbornly resist learning how to use modern technology.  They’re so afraid of these new technologies that they’ve overcompensated by making it an “old school” point of pride that they don’t know how to use a computer or a smartphone or the internet.  They do business the “old fashioned” way!

I think we all have to acknowledge that the time has passed when someone who doesn’t know how to use a computer is charming or colorful.  It’s just silly to stick your head in the sand and pretend that you can still be as effective and efficient without taking advantage of new technology that’s available to you.  Imagine an agent 30 years ago refusing how to use a copy machine, insisting that the “old school” way of mimeographing was good enough.

Moreover, it’s not fair to your clients. Why should clients trust an agent who can’t perform some of the basic requirements of the job – taking and enhancing digital photos, pulling comps online, creating and sending PDF documents, staying in touch through email and text?  Would you trust a doctor who trumpeted the virtues of his old school approach to using leeches and boring holes in your skull to release all the evil demons?

The reason so many of us are afraid of new technologies is that we give them too much credit.  We’re too intimidated by them, and many of us respond to that intimidation by just shutting down.  It doesn’t help that the real estate industry keeps treating “technology” as some awesome, unfathomable, omnipotent force that is segregated out as its own discrete category – we have whole conferences just devoted to “real estate technology” and whole training courses dedicated to teaching “technology” as a standalone subject.  Having a whole conference dedicated to social media is as ridiculous as a conference 25 years ago devoted to teaching people how to use answering machines, copiers, and the white pages.

Technology is not our job, it’s just a tool that we need to use in our job.  And like any tool that’s important for our business, you need to learn how to use it if you’re going to stay relevant.  Refusing to learn how to use a computer is like refusing to learn how to use a fax machine.

So stop being intimidated by new technologies. Learn how to use them, not for their own sake, but so that you can figure out how they can help you do your job.

 

This post is part of a series of what I call the “36-1/2 Rules for Client-Oriented Real Estate Agents,” a collection of short takes on the CORE concept that I’ve developed over the years of discussing and teaching the system.  We’ll count up to the 36th rule over the next few months, and then the 1/2 rule.  You can get the full list of rules by clicking on the “36-1/2 Rules for CORE Agents” category on the blog – scroll from the bottom if you want to read them in order.

Book Review: Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life (1998).

I blame Who Moved My Cheese for the slew of copycat animal parables that followed through the last decade. I also think that Cheese is a seriously overrated book, not only because the message is simple – not deceptively simple, just plain simple.  I also found the parable itself confusing and poorly written, trying to figure out which were the people and which were the mice (seriously, the mice!).  Nothing I’m going to say is going to bother authors who’ve sold millions of these books, but the bottom line is that Cheese is really a terrible book that somehow caught a headwind and became an undeserved business classic.

So Who Moved My Cheese? has become a staple in modern management bookcases, a parable about management inexplicably involving a maze, some cheese, some mice, and some people. The whole fairy tale is distracting and strained – it doesn’t really work to explain the concepts of the book, so I’m just going to ignore it in this review.

The purpose of the book is to educate the reader on the choices we have to deal with change in our lives.  The concept is fairly obvious, namely that we become attached to the status quo, particularly where a particular methodology has been successful for us.  Therefore, the more successful we become, the more attached we get.  The more attached we get, the more we resist the possibility of changing – “why change something that’s been working for me for so long?”  Moreover, we become blind to the need to change, because we view new experiences through the prism of our past experiences.

How to avoid this?  The authors suggest the following:

1.  Accept that change happens, and that it’s unavoidable.

2.  Anticipate potential changes, by keeping your eyes open and avoiding becoming blinded by your own success.

3.  Monitor change, by carefully attending to signs that your way of doing things is becoming outdated.

4.  Adapt to change quickly, and take control of your reaction to change.

5.  Change when needed, and don’t let your attachment to your old ways inhibit your ability to change.

6.  Enjoy the experience of changing.

7.  Repeat the process.

That’s it.  Those are the lessons.  If you can read through those seven bullet points, I just saved you from having to read the book.

Takeaway

Even though I don’t like the book, the lessons are valuable for real estate agents who confront massive technological change in their business every year.  Essentially, the book tells us that we have to adapt to changes in our business, and that we can’t be tied to the old ways of doing things. I’m not sure that’s a lesson that people haven’t learned, but maybe it’s worth repeating.

Reviewing the iPad Apps from Realtor.com, Trulia, and Zillow: The New Home Search Paradigm

I love my iPad. Seriously. I find myself curling up in bed with it, with no particular idea of what I’m going to do with it other than that I want to play with it. I read my books on it, surf the web, read blogs, and I’ve even started reading comic books again because they look so cool on the display.

But what I’ve been doing recently is looking at real estate. Not just because I’m a broker, but because, like a lot of people, I just like looking at real estate.  When I started using the iPad2 for home search, I used the Zillow app because it was the only one available, then tried out to Trulia when that came out, and immediately test drove Realtor.com’s app when I saw Brian Boero’s post that it had finally been released.

Having used an iPad2 to look for a home, using all the major iPad apps, I can tell you that tablets are the future of real estate search. It’s really a new search paradigm, built from the Godlike perspective of looking down on an area and seeing what’s available on a big map, rather than setting up a set of criteria and reviewing a list of responsive properties.  Right now, most people start a home search online by building up — identifying what they want (location, price, bedrooms, bathrooms), generating a list, and then reviewing the list.  On a tablet, you don’t build up, you narrow down — you start by looking at a map and seeing every property for sale on that map screen, then you winnow it down by putting in restrictive criteria.  The tablet flip the search experience from a building to a narrowing process, and that is bound to change the kinds of homes that buyers end up becoming interested in.

Moreover, tablets provide a gamechanging experience for most consumers through GPS search, something that most consumers never had on their laptop.  My wife and I drove through the New Jersey shore with an iPad2 in her lap, using Realtor.com’s app to constantly refresh homes for sale that met our basic price and size criteria.  We did drive bys of about 25 properties, something that would have been impossible to set up using more traditional real estate sites.

Finally, the iPad experience is much more immersive than a laptop or computer.  It’s just seductive, almost addictive, to poke, prod, and swipe the screen looking at properties on the big map.

Having spent so much time playing on them, I thought I’d put together a review of the Realtor.com, Trulia, and Zillow apps (the only other major company with a search app is Coldwell Banker, but as of now it only has CB listings on it, which is pretty limited to most buyers who don’t say to themselves, “I really just want a Coldwell Banker listing”).

I broke down the reviews like so:

  • Overall Impressions
  • Main Display
  • Property Details
  • Search Experience
  • Other stuff I liked and didn’t like.

To test the apps, I not only had my experience searching for shore properties, but also looked at properties in my market area. I didn’t find a major difference in the inventory, although I didn’t really look that hard at the issue.

Overall

Overall, I will say that I liked all the apps.  They all provide truly immersive experiences, to the point that just looking at random real estate is one of my favorite things to do on the iPad.  The extent to which I’ve elaborated on differences is a little bit of hair splitting, because any one of them would be great for most home buyers looking for a home.

In my experience, though, I found myself liking and using Realtor.com the most. Realtor.com has the ugliest main display, and I don’t understand why they are still using those thumb-tacks on the map to display properties when a house icon indicating price is so much more effective. But the drawing tool in the search function is a game-changer, and so far only Realtor.com has it.  I thought Trulia provided a terrific experience, but the lack of saving features kept it from being a contended. And I was a little disappointed in Zillow, which had the best overall display but was too heavily about Zillowish stuff (i.e. Zestimates and agent advertising) and not enough about what the client actually wants in a search app.

 

Main Display

All three sites follow the same basic format, with the main display a map that shows properties for sale and a list along one side of the screen with more details about the the listings. All three allow you to view the map either as a street view (like a map) or a satellite-hybrid view (a Google Earth photo view with streets superimposed on it).

I thought that Zillow’s layout was terrific, very clean and easy to follow, with more space given over to the listing details rather than the map. That allowed for larger pictures and important information like property address to be included in the list of properties.

Trulia’s display was laid out the same way, but less space was given for the actual property details, including not providing the property address in the list unless you click on the property. That’s a pretty serious omission. The pictures were also significantly smaller, making the list view less helpful.

Realtor.com’s list view provided address information along with other pertinent sales information, but its pictures were even smaller than Trulia. I also didn’t like that Realtor.com’s default view of the map showed the listings as virtual “thumbtacks” without displaying prices. The other sites show the listings as tiny houses showing the price of the home, which is much more helpful. (You can see the tiny houses with prices on Realtor.com in the “scout” view, but I don’t know why that’s necessary). I did, though, like that Realtor.com allowed for a “gallery” view if you want to see the properties laid out for you rather than see them displayed on the map.

The Winner: Zillow

This was a close call.  All the displays are inviting and intuitive, but I thought Zillow found the best balance between space given over to the map and detailed information on the property displays.

Property Details

Although the main display of the apps are similar, the way they display actual property details is very different. In Trulia and Realtor.com, clicking on an individual property takes you to a new “property display” that shows the pictures of the property and all the details in a tabbed format. But Zillow works entirely through the list view along the right hand side of the screen, so if you click on a particular property the list view disappears, replaced by the property view. You then scroll through the details from top to bottom.

The Winner: Realtor.com

Realtor.com has the best property display, hands-down. When you click on a property, you default to an “overview” that has the property description, listing date, and the broker information along with a reasonably-sized picture. Realtor.com also gives you a large section (probably too large, frankly) to take notes, give a rating, or send the listing and a separate details tab to look at a bunch of jumbled details about the property (I wish it were organized better, and highlight the more important areas of taxes better). Most importantly, Realtor.com allows you to save the listing, which is crucial during a home search and is something that Trulia does not have yet (but promises at some point).

Trulia has the prettiest display, making the pictures more prominent than Realtor.com, and it has a great section on Tax and Price History that Realtor.com should add. But it is missing some really important property details that are included in Realtor.com. Most importantly, the inability to save a listing makes the app a nice way to surf around, but unusable for a prolonged property search. They indicate they’re working on that.

I really did not like Zillow’s property display. They limit you to looking at the property in the narrow bar that normally contains the property list view. That’s okay, since you can scroll down to get details rather than touch on different tabs. And you can save favorites, which is so important. But some property details were missing, and the setup was a little awkward when looking at individual properties. You use the same motion to swipe through photos as swipe through properties, and the display is narrow, so people like me with fat fingers are likely to accidentally swipe out a property when they’re just trying to swipe through pictures. Also, Zillow’s silly Zestimate functions are too prominent. Zillow’s “zestimates,” particularly the “Rent Zestimate,” might as well be a random number generator for all of their accuracy.  They’re a waste of valuable real estate (ummm, forgive the pun) on the app.

Search Experience

All three apps need some work refining the search experience, at least in my opinion. They all want you to search on the map, to the detriment of traditional searches based on parameters like town location that are often important to buyers. For example, a buyer wanting to stay in the town of New City (which is where our main headquarters is) in order to get the local school district will have difficulty limiting her search to just New City using all the apps, since the apps want you to use the map to define your search area.

My feeling is that map searching is an amazing thing, and one of the reasons to use these apps, but many buyers still define their searches primarily on town lines. I would suggest they make the location search easier and more prominent to accommodate those users.

The Winner: Realtor.com

Realtor.com wins for its overall more nuanced search capability, including being the one app that allows for restricting searches by area designations. Realtor.com not only has more detail based searching (such as restricting searches to homes with pools), but it was the only app that you could use to search for a particular town, and which would only show you homes in that town even if you moved off the map.

But it not only has the best area-based search, it also has the best map-based searching, simply because it has its “drawing” function that allows you to literally trace a circle on a map and search only for properties within that circle. I love that function. Although I think you need area-based searching, I think that if you’re going to have map based search, the best way to do that is to actually define your area by hand when looking at a map.  I think that it’s enormously helpful to buyers who are really just looking in a neighborhood.

For example, I was doing a search for near-beach properties at the New Jersey shore, and was able to use the drawing function to only show me properties that were near the beach, as opposed to using a town-based search that would show me everything in the town. This is the perfect application of map-based searching, and it seems to be a Realtor.com app exclusive.

My problems with Realtor.com? I found some oddities in the location-based searching, including properties from out of the area. It’s also unclear to me why Realtor.com won’t show you all the properties responsive to the search, instead giving you a prompt to “Show More Listings” without any indication of how many listings you’re not seeing.

Trulia

Trulia’s search function was great if you want to start with a map-based search. As you move on the map, the search refines itself to show you responsive properties to your search terms (price, size, etc.) within the map space. My problem is that if people want to limit a search to a town, they can’t move around on the map without refining the search to the map space. So I started a search in New City, got only New City properties, then moved south on the map only to find that the search terms automatically refined to include the map area, which included areas outside of New City.

Also, Trulia doesn’t allow you to save properties that you find in the search, or to save your searches. That’s a deal-breaker. You can’t do a rigorous home search without the ability to save properties or save your searches. Hopefully, they’ll fix that soon, because the map interface is great.

Zillow

Zillow search function is the weakest of all the apps, because it is entirely map based. You can’t search for particular towns, you can only set the map for an area and then “filter” the search for your basic parameters (price, type, size, etc.). This can be a little limiting. If you want to search for homes in Town A, you can put “Town A” in the search bar above the map and the map will go to Town A. But if the map also happens to include part of Town B, Town B listings will also show up on your search. That’s not as useful to most buyers, who often need to limit their searches to particular towns (to stay in a school district, for example).

The search (really, the “filter”) function is also littered with typical Zillow nonsense like viewing “Zestimate Homes” or “Make Me Move” homes. I’m surprised they ported those over to the app, since they’re deemphasizing them on the site.

Miscellaneous

Here are some other things I liked and didn’t like about the apps:

Realtor.com

  • I liked the prominent placement of the listing agent on the property detail page.  I just feel like these apps should reward the listing agents that provide them with the inventory that drives their sites. From the service perspective, it also makes sense to direct interested buyers to the person who knows the home best, rather than to someone whose primary qualification is the willingness to purchase advertising space.
  • I liked the ability to take notes on the listing, or assign ratings. Very prominent.  Maybe a little too prominent, because it takes up a lot of space on the property details display. But a serious buyer will like that feature, particularly to share notes with a co-purchaser (i.e., like a spouse sharing the account).
  • I liked the ability to go to a “gallery view” of properties, which the other apps did not have.
  • I liked the ease of saving and going back to saved searches.
  • I liked sharing shortcuts available on the settings section, which allowed me to set up my wife as my sharing “friend,” so I didn’t have to put her email address in every time I wanted to send her a property.
  • I didn’t like the necessity to go to “scout” view to see the home prices listed with the icons on the map, and didn’t understand what scout view even was.
  • I really didn’t like that the app would not show you all the properties on the map, but simply indicate that “more listings were available.”  That’s not helpful.  Put them all on the map, even if it creates a big mess, and I’ll zoom in to clear it up.

Trulia

  • I liked Trulia’s contact page, which provides a simple contact form that goes to the listing agent (at least on the properties I checked).
  • I liked Trulia’s property display, putting the pictures in a more prominent place and displaying them in a larger size. The other apps give you smaller pictures, but allow you to click on them to go into a slideshow mode.  Trulia starts in the slideshow mode.
  • I liked the tax and price history, although the data was often incomplete or wrong.  but when it was there, it was very insightful.
  • I liked the idea of Trulia’s research-y sections, involving cool shaded overlays on the maps to show you different average price ranges, and the ability to see neighborhood lines, restaurants and other amenities, and school locations.  Most of that stuff didn’t work for the areas in which I searched, but I figure they’ll build it out.
  • I didn’t like Trulia’s separation of core “property facts” from the agent-written “property description,” or the need to toggle tabs from one to the other.  They really should be combined in some way.

Zillow

  • I liked the prominent placement of “last sale” and tax info, which was tougher to find on the other apps.
  • I liked Zillow’s provision of comparable sales, which if available I could not find on the other apps.
  • I liked that Zillow allowed me to search by sold properties, which I could not find in the other apps.
  • I didn’t like Zillow putting “Zestimates” above the property description in the scroll list of information about the property was a ludicrous, self-serving choice. In particular, including a rental “Zestimate” on most properties is a waste of space, and probably should be an option for people who self-describe as investors.
  • I really didn’t like Zillow’s business model of putting competing broker advertising on a listing, directing consumers to approach buyer agents simply because those agents are paying for advertising on Zillow. Typically, Zillow suggested three “buyer agents” with contact information and a picture, then buried the actual listing agent’s name and contact information at the bottom without a picture. It’s simply wrong to take listing data from participating brokers, stock your website with that data for free, and then sell advertising space on that broker’s listing. It’s why many brokers will probably pull their listing data from Zillow, which will make Zillow a much less useful search tool in the future, although probably too late to impact their public offering.

Conclusion:

I should disclose that I have absolutely no idea what, if any, relationship my real estate company has with any of these organizations, although I am pretty sure that we give at least some of them a good deal of money to enhance our listings. I have no connection with anyone at the sites or the apps, and didn’t tell anyone I was writing this to get their insight into the app. I just used them the way consumers would use them.  So if you think I’m completely wrong, I came to my misjudgments honestly.

Also, if I have gotten something wrong factually, or if the apps are updated such that I can amend some of this, I hope someone will let me know. I’m happy to discuss this in comments.

UPDATE: this post has been modified slightly from the original.

The Guide to the Best Smartphone Apps

A good smartphone is really a mini-computer in your pocket, capable of doings things that computers even five years ago could not do.  But you’re not getting the most out of your smartphone if you’re just using it for making calls, checking email, and surfing the web.  Those are all good things to do, but if you really want to take advantage of your smartphone you need to learn how to use your apps.

What is an app?  Simply put, it’s a mini-application.  You use applications all the time: Microsoft Word is an application, so is Powerpoint, so is your mail program.  Traditionally, applications are big complicated pieces of software that can cost hundreds of dollars. But Apple pioneered the idea of an application as an “app,” a high-powered but simple application that you can get for free or purchase for a relatively small amount.   Some apps are simply smartphone versions of websites or programs that you can use on your computer, while others were created simply to use the power of your smartphone in interesting ways.

What follows is a very unofficial, incomplete, and totally personal Guide to some of the best apps out there for the iPhone and Droid smartphones.  There are hundreds of thousands of them out there, and lots of places where you can get advice about what to buy, but these are the apps I use all the time.  Amazingly, the Android operating system for Droid phones has caught up with the iOS operating system for iPhone, and almost all major apps are available on both platforms.  I also included iPad apps that are specifically designed for the iPad.  I did not include Blackberry apps, because I have not used them and the Blackberry is still very far behind in establishing its app sales.

You can find iPhone and iPad apps at the  App Store, and Droid apps at the Android Market. Just search for the name and you’ll find them.  This is a work in progress, so if you have suggestions of new apps to add to the list, just email me.

Here is an outline of the organization for the apps that follow

  • Business and Productivity Apps
  • Communication Apps
  • Information and Reference Apps
  • Leisure Apps
  • Entertainment Apps
BUSINESS APPS: Productivity, Social Media

Google (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
The Google app is a must, if only because it gives you quick access to the Google sites you might be using, like Docs, Calendar, etc. Unfortunately, Google does not have dedicated apps for most of its services, so this is the collective “hub” for getting to them without going through Safari.
You can also do a search through the app. Just convenient to have it directly.

Google Voice (iPhone, GV Connect for iPad, Droid) (free or $1)
If you don’t use Google Voice at all, you should check it out.  You can set up a universal phone number that will ring all your phones (i.e., mobile, work, home office) at once, so people can call you at one number and get you wherever you are.  And then Voice can also transcribe your voicemail (although the transcriptions are not great) and save it as an audio file link that you can access with a click.  If you use Visual Voicemail that comes with the iPhone, this is a slight upgrade.  Also great because your text messages are all available on Google Voice wherever you are (any internet computer, and your phone), which can be helpful. For the iPad, Google doesn’t have a dedicated iPad app for Google Voice, but you can buy GV Connect that provides a good app experience to review your messages and texts.

Evernote (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
A terrific notetaking app that can sync your notes between your mobile device, computer, and any other device, accessible anywhere you can get on the internet.

Social Media Apps (iPhone, some on iPad, Droid) (mostly free)
All the big social media sites have apps for your smartphone that are very useful and often better than the computer experience: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin Foursquare. They’re all free, and what’s great about them is your ability to check out social media updates in your downtime, without interrupting productive work. For example, surfing social media is a fun and easy thing to do when you’re waiting on line, which turns out to be a lot of my day. Not all of the sites are on the iPad with apps (no Facebook app?), but they all have third-party services that let you check out your social media fees (fyi, the best Facebook iPad app is Facely HD).

Dragon Dictation (iPhone, iPad) (free)
People that don’t type well will love Dragon Dictation, a free app that will transcribe what you say into it, turn it into text, and allow you to save it as a note or send by email.  Very effective, and pretty good with transcription.

WordPress (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
Wordpress has a dedicated app for reviewing your WordPress blogs.  You won’t want to write a blog post, but you can review comments, approve them, do some little things.

Real Estate Search Apps (iPhone, some iPad) (free)
The real estate search apps are all pretty good and free.  The best smartphone  are Realtor.com’s and Trulia.  Great for searching on maps, so you can see where the properties are. The best iPad app available right now is Zillow, which I don’t love (seems like the inventory is incomplete) but does provide a big screen experience for home browsing on the iPad.

DropBox (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free for 2GB storage)
DropBox is an amazing app that allows you to store your big files so you can share them between computers, and now between your mobile devices.  Great way to move big files from one computer to another (like, from work to home), or to keep them available wherever you are.  You can also share files by putting them into a public folder, and sending people the link, which is better than emailing them that 10MB PDF.  It’s a great service, and the apps are terrific. Perfect for moving movie and picture files from computer to computer, and then having access from your smartphone.

COMMUNICATION APPS: Messaging, Calling

FaceTime (on iPhone, $1 app for iPad)
Facetime is not strictly an “app,” because it comes on the iPhone 4 standard and can be found when you pull up a contact, but you should make sure you know how to find it. When you pull up a contact in your phone, you can  click on the number to call the number, the email to email the contact, but at the bottom of the contact are buttons for text message and facetime.  For iPad, you can get an app for about a dollar that works great.  Remember Facetime only works when you’re on a wireless network.  (I don’t know that Droid has anything similar.)

Speed Dial (iPhone) ($1)
A must for the iPhone, which does not have dedicated buttons for speed dials.  There are lots of variations on this.  You can get a free app called “Speed Dial #1,” “Speed Dial #2”, and so on, which gives you a dedicated button for a one-touch dial, but you’ll have to memorize the order.  A better choice is “Speed Dial,” which provides a yellowish version if iPhone’s “Phone” app and leads you to up to 24 programmable buttons that you can label for your speed dials.  Takes about 10 minutes to set up, and then you have two-touch speed dialing: hit Speed Dial, then hit the name you want. Very quick.

Meebo (iPhone, Droid) or Imo.Im (iPad, Droid) (free)
If you use computer-based instant messaging (as opposed to text messaging on your phone number) on services like MSN, Yahoo Messenger, Facebook messenger, Google Chat, or lots of others, you can consolidate all of them on Meebo on the iPhone/Droid or Imo on the iPad and have one site to check for your text messages.  Set up all your accounts, and lot onto all or some of them at any time.

INFORMATION APPS: News, Sports, Reference

Pulse News (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
Zine (iPad only) (free)
Pulse is a great app that aggregates news based on the preferences you put in, and then gives you news feeds that fit your preferences. If you use Google Reader, for example, it pulls in all your RSS feeds. If you don’t understand that last sentence, don’t worry – the basic idea is that it customizes a news feed. If you do nothing else other than set up a real estate news feed on Pulse to keep up with the news, it’s a great use of the app. And looks amazing on iPad.

NYTimes (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free for now)
A great app for checking out top stories, even if you’re not a subscriber.  You get it free if you’re a subscriber, but soon they’ll be charging heavier users. It’s not clear what the apps will cost, but it will probably allow for some access to top news with payment if you want deeper coverage.

Sportacular (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
For sports updates, Sportacular is quicker than any of the ESPN apps, which are slow and laden with a difficult interface.  Sportacular just gives you the scores by sport, easy to look up.

Wikipanion (iPhone, iPad) (free)
Wikidroid (Droid) (free)
A great app for looking stuff up without having to go to Google.  Wikipedia is a user-generated encyclopedia that is surprisingly effective, and I find myself looking something up on it once or twice a week and always being entertained and informed. Wikipanion and Wikidroid are great apps for getting into Wikipedia in a customized setting without going through the browser.

The Weather Channel (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
The iPhone and iPad come with a very cute weather app, but it doesn’t give you a lot of information.  The Weather Channel app isn’t ideal, but it provides a lot of information for your area with cool graphics.

Google Earth (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
I already mentioned the Google app, but the Google Earth app is so good that I want to highlight it separately.  Google Earth on the computer has been around a while, but the experience on the mobile device is just great because of the location search and just the visual of watching the globe zero down on where you.  A must for real estate people that need to know their terrain and maps.

Maps (iPhone, iPad) (installed)
All smartphones come with the Maps app, but it’s worth pointing out just how great it is and how you need to become familiar with how to set your location and get driving (or walking!) directions.  The idea that years ago you bought a specialized device for this service, and now the your phone has it, is just amazing.

LEISURE APPS: Books, Movies, Food

Yelp (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
Yelp is a great business directory website with user-generated reviews, mostly of restaurants but growing.  This is the kind of website that is geared for mobile device, because you can literally be standing on a corner, go on Yelp to look for nearby restaurants, and choose them based on cuisine and user reviews.  Vastly superior to the Zagat app. I use it all the time, and constantly when traveling.

OpenTable (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
My wife swears by this app, which allows you to find restaurants and then make restaurant reservations right from the app.  No phone calls, no waiting on hold, and you can find the right time by yourself.  Has location-based searching, so you can look for restaurants near where you are.

Kindle App (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
If you have a Kindle, this is a must – all your Kindle books can be loaded onto your Smartphone.  You’d think it would be difficult to read on the phone, but once you get used to reading your email, news, and other items on it, books are not much of a reach. And with the iPhone 4, the resolution is so clear that you don’t get eyestrain. The books also look amazing on an iPad.  Tip: you can store your Kindle books on up to six devices (your Kindle, your iPhone, iPad, etc.), which means that you can get just one Kindle account and share your books on multiple devices with other members of your family (i.e., you get a Kindle and an iPhone, your spouse has an iPhone and an iPad, and your kid has a Droid, all sharing the same book account).

Epicurious (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
The best recipe app, with tons of recipes searchable in a lot of ways.  It also lets you create a shopping list, a great use for your mobile device.

Movie Apps: Fandango and “Movies by Flixster” (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
If you like movies, you need these two apps.  Fandango is the app for the website that allows you to buy tickets online for movies, and Flixster has content from the Rotten Tomatoes movie-reviewing site.

ENTERTAINMENT APPS: Music, Video, TV, Radio
Pocket Tunes (iPhone, iPad) ($6.99)
A great app for people that like to listen to the radio.  Virtually every radio station you can think of in very good audio.  Great for getting local news and sports stations on your iPhone, superior to traditional radios because you don’t get static.

SiriusXM Premium (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free app with subscription)
If you have either Sirius or XM in your car, you can get access to the satellite radio service on your iPhone or iPad and listen anywhere.  Audio is slow, though, if you’re not connected to a wireless network.

MLB.com At Bat 11 (iPhone, iPad, Droid) ($14.99, lite version for free)
If you are a baseball fan, this app is amazing. You can get updates on any game, with highlight videos that look great, and in many cases can actually watch an out-of-market game right on your device.  Fantastic if you’re a fan of a non-New York team and want to watch the games, and better than getting the cable service that provides access to games because it’s more portable on your device and less annoying to the non-baseball fans around you. If the $15 is too pricey, the free version has some great features also.

Slingplayer Mobile (iPhone, iPad, Droid) ($29 plus Slingplayer)
Slingplayer is a device that costs about $200 which connects to your television and lets you watch THAT television from any internet-connected computer.  This app lets you do it from your Smartphone or iPad, great for traveling if you want to watch something on your DVR. A little pricey, but it allows you, as I have discovered, to watch TV in bed with the headphones on and your spouse happily sleeping.

Shazam (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free, or $5)
Soundhound (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free, or $5)
The classic apps for people that like music.  Hear a song you like, just hold your device up and it will identify the song for you so you can buy it. Both are free for a limited number of songs per month, and a few bucks to get unlimited use. They also have other features I haven’t tried (like lyrics)

Pandora (iPhone, iPad, Droid) (free)
Last.FM (iPhone, Droid ) (free)
Slacker Radio (iPhone, Droid) (free)
Pandora was the first breakthrough app on the iPhone, the idea that you could create your own personalized radio station based on very specific music or artists you like, and have the station play similar music.  For example, you can tell the app what artists you like (e.g. “Jack Johnson”), and it will create a virtual radio station for you – not just of that artist, but artists with similar styles.  And if you don’t like a song, you can “skip” it or give it a “thumbs down” and the system will learn your taste. Great for finding new artists that fit your taste.  Pandora has started running commercials, so a number of competitors have gained popularity.  They all have positives and negatives, but having one of them is a must (or all of them, then decide if you want to upgrade one of them).

 

Again, if you have additions or corrections, or if you would like to contribute a list of Blackberry apps, I would welcome that. Just feel free to contact me here.

Book Review: Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right — Achieving Operational Excellence in the Real Estate Industry

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto is a  powerful book, one of the best and simplest articulations of how to achieve operational excellence that I have ever read.  Gawande’s message is simple: the world has become increasingly complex, and we need to actively create systems and processes that will simplify the tasks that we have to complete in our everyday lives.  His deceptively modest proposal: use a checklist.

Now, I know that seems almost stupid and simplistic at first glance.  We’re all familiar with checklists, and generally associate them with rote tasks, not with complicated procedures.  And we resist the idea that our professional performance could be improved by something so jejune as a checklist, almost as if a checklist would trivialize the important work we do.

As Gawande points out, though, that’s exactly the way a bunch of doctors felt the first time that a hospital administration tried to incorporate a checklist into one of the most common of medical functions — putting in a central line.  He recounts how a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital devised a checklist to try to avoid incidences of infenctions in the placing of a central line.  Doctors all knew the basic steps for central lines: (1) wash hands with soap; (2) clean the patient’s skin for the placement; (3) put sterile drapes over the patient, (4) put on a mask, hat, sterile gown, and gloves; and (5) put a sterile line over the insertion site after placing the line.  Gawande called these steps “no-brainers,” the type of things that doctors know they are supposed to.  But the hospital found that in one third of cases, doctors were skipping at least one of the steps.

So the hospital initiated a simple checklist procedure to ensure that all the steps were taken.   Since the doctors were resistant to the intrusion, nurses were enlisted to ensure compliance with the checklist.  What were the results?  According to Gawande, they “were so dramatic that [the administrators] weren’t sure whether to believe them.”  The ten-day line infenction rate went from 11% to 0%.  Over a fifteen month period, the administrators projected that the checklist had prevented 43 infections and 8 deaths, saving over $2 million in hospital costs.

This was not an isolated result.  After the success at Johns Hopkins, Gawande recounts how hospitals in Michigan initiated a project to use a central-line checklist in intensive care units (ICUs) in hospitals throughout the state.  Here are the results:

Within the first three months of the project, the central line infection rate in Michigan’s ICUs decreased by 66%.  Most ICUs . . . cut their quarterly infection rate to zero.  Michigan’s infenction rates fell so low that its average ICU outperformed 90% of ICUs nationwide.  In the …. first eighteen months, the hospitals saved an estimated $175 million in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives.  The successes have been sustained for several years now — all because of a stupid little checklist.

These are among the powerful illustrations of the effect of checklists on operational performance included in The Checklist Manifesto.  In addition to the medical field, Gawande shows how pilots use checklists to ensure safe operation of aircraft (including an engaging description of how checklists impacted the famous “Sully Sullenberger” flight that landed in the Hudson River in 2009).  And he demonstrates how hedge fund investors use versions of the checklists to protect against making poor investments, including one vivid illustration of an investor turning down an opportunity when a checklist item turned up that the company’s owners had been divesting their personal holdings.

So how does this impact the real estate industry?  I think that our industry could learn a lot from The Checklist Manifesto about operational excellence.  The role of the real estate agent is significantly task driven, but those tasks can sometimes be overwhelming.  Just getting a listing on the market can require dozens of discrete operations: taking pictures, uploading pictures, writing descriptions, checking paperwork, ordering signs, inputting property data, double-checking taxes, etc.  We need to do these things every single time, but rarely do we see a company articulate a simple checklist to ensure that every listing gets that quality service.  The same holds for the far more complicated but necessary task of maintaining ongoing listings, when agents tend to get lost in the frenzy of daily activity and neglect the day-to-day communication and updating responsibilities they have to existing clients, leading to poor client experiences.

For the last year, my company has been working on identifying the “best practices” in the industry — the practices that ensure a quality client experience for both buyers and sellers,  with the idea of coordinating those practices into a series of checklists and a comprehensive  “Project Plans” that cover particular aspects of the real estate transaction.  The goals is to provide with a set of plans that can guide them through the transaction.  The point is not to limit them — people can always do more than is on the plan.  Neither is the point to demean their professionalism– it’s not that we think they’re NOT doing some of these things, but we believe that in a given case they might not be doing ALL of these things because of the overwhelming complexity of the entire task.

Most importantly, we think that these kinds of checklists make a job easier, by simplifying our lives.  Just like computers, we have only a certain amount of “RAM” in our heads.  Computers gain efficiency if they can move information from “RAM” to hard drive memory.  Similarly, most of us become more efficient if we don’t have to store tasks in our memory, but can reduce them to a hard copy that we can refer to anytime we need them.  An agent with a 30-item checklist for getting a listing on the market is going to be more efficient than an agent who has to remember all 30 tasks and whether she’s already done them.  (And it’s definitely more efficient for the agent sitting at the desk next door, who keeps getting a tap on the shoulder asking, “hey, what am I supposed to do next?”)

Finally, real estate professionals should recognize that if checklists can improve execution and performance in life-and-death situations involving surgery and airline flight, and in million or billion-dollar financial investing decisions, then they certainly can be used in the much less urgent field of real estate.  A real estate agent who feels that checklists are “beneath” her should be at least a little chagrined that pilots and doctors are using them to great effect.

Essentially, I think that The Checklist Manifesto should be required reading for real estate professionals; indeed, I would recommend the book for anyone who cares about achieving operational excellence in his or her field.  If you need proof, I’ve already purchased 50 copies of the book at my company’s expense for distribution to our management team, and have saved others as gifts for colleagues in the industry.  It’s a great book.  You should read it.

If you’re interested in some other information about the book, here are some links:

Atul Gawande’s home page for The Checklist Manifesto

144 Reviews (average 4.5 stars out of 5) on Amazon.

Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outlier.

New York Times review

Washington Post review.

Interview in Time Magazine.

Gawande interviewed on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

The Safe Surgery Checklist illustrated in a terrific clip from NBC’s ER.