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NAR Goes Global: Taking U.S. Listings beyond Our Borders

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By Nick Caruso

The National Association of REALTORS® has a renowned reputation for its consistent support of its members throughout the years. From up-to-date news, value-added offers and significant savings on products and services, the organization prides itself on delivering timely and dependable assistance to members on a daily basis. Taking its service one step further, REALTOR.com®, the official website of the National Association of REALTORS®, will soon go global by featuring listings from all over the world, translations for all listings (U.S. and foreign) in eight languages and currency and measurement conversion services. Adding to its advantage, the services are available at no additional cost for all agents whose MLSs are currently listed on the site.

Expanding into the growing international market had been an idea that came into fruition years ago, but was recently refocused. According to NAR’s 2011 Profile of International Home Buying Activity, international buyers were responsible for over $82 billion worth of purchases of U.S. residential real estate last year (ending March 2011), up from $66 billion the year before, proving the increasing demand of U.S. properties among foreign buyers and investors.

“The fact is the dollar is now worth less than it used to be, so we’re seeing increased foreign interest,” says Jed Smith, managing director of Quantitative Research for NAR.

As incomes rise in countries like Russia, China, Brazil and more, international buyers are unsurprisingly turning their heads toward U.S. properties that are seen as secure investments.

“Foreign interest and buying activity in U.S. real estate has grown steadily in recent years primarily due to the strength of the dollar and the value and desirability of U.S. real estate,” says Realtor.com® President Errol Samuelson. “In general, prices in the U.S. are more attractive to foreign investors as compared to prices in their own backyards, and homes in the U.S. are viewed as secure long-term investments as rentals or for the buyer’s own use. We’re very excited to expand the reach and coverage of Realtor.com® to the international community. We look forward to providing REALTORS® with increased global opportunities that can help grow their businesses.”

Traffic to Realtor.com® by visitors outside of the United States in the past few years has also been promising. According to Janet Branton, senior vice president of Global Business and Alliances for NAR, REALTOR.com® receives 900,000 hits from non-U.S. users each month. “The data on foreign-based traffic indicates there is broad international interest in U.S properties, and not just from one or two parts of the world. It was evident that we should go after this thing in a big way,” she says.

The aforementioned $82 billion in sales stems from buyers in 70 different countries, up from 53 countries in 2010. International buyers paid an average sales price of $315,000, compared to the overall U.S. average sales price of $218,000, making this market even more appealing to American real estate professionals. According to Samuelson, 62% of foreign buyers paid cash versus 8% of domestic buyers.

“We’re reading these stories about domestic buyers struggling, at times, to get financing. With these cash buyers, it’s a much more streamlined transaction, making foreign buyers even more desirable,” says Samuelson.

With all of these numbers currently in place, a shift in gears to modify the experience for foreign buyers was a necessary next step.

“There is already a significant audience both domestically and internationally interested in real estate that visits Realtor.com® on a regular basis. We think that by delivering a customized experience that accounts for the needs of both foreign buyers and U.S. buyers interested in property purchases abroad, we’ll create a trusted destination for this growing and significant segment of buyers,” adds Samuelson.

Now in its final stages of development, the international portion of REALTOR.com® (official URL to be announced soon) will resemble the current site, while offering many different features to its foreign clientele. Serving as a portal for listings from all over the world, seven data agreements have been signed, representing 20 countries, says Branton.

The international site will also allow foreign users to uniquely customize their personal experience through language translation and conversion tools based on their location and language. With translation, currency and measurement conversion features in place, foreign buyers can fine-tune the site for their own experience and save those preferences for future visits. Eight languages will be in place at launch (including some complex languages, like Chinese), and a plethora of currencies will be available, from the Israeli shekel and the Chinese yuan, to the South African rand.

NAR and REALTOR.com® have put forth diligent efforts to make sure the site accurately adjusts to reflect local practice. “In France, there’s a property type for ‘castle.’ We generally don’t have that here in America,” says Samuelson. “Similarly, we always search for bedrooms and bathrooms, but in Germany or Italy, consumers search for rooms—they don’t differentiate. We are adjusting the search parameters to fit local differences.”

To explain some of these differences to U.S. consumers, the site promises to have question-mark fields or pop-up balloons explaining any aberrations.

Another major difference that U.S. consumers will likely note is the lack of exclusive agency. In some countries, the homeowner may list with multiple agents, and the person who gets the commission is the first agent who brings in the right buyer. The site will take this into account as well to prevent duplicate listings from showing up in search results. “There are a lot of these subtle nuances in the consumer experience that we can simplify for the U.S. consumer,” says Samuelson.

With NAR’s international efforts hitting the market soon, there is extreme potential for the website to have a profound impact on the American housing market. “This is an interesting opportunity for tapping into the international market which, today, I think, isn’t well served,” says Samuelson, noting that none of the major U.S. real estate websites handle changes in currency, measurement or language. “In areas like Arizona, where six percent of all home sales are from non-domestic buyers, there’s lots of inventory and value. We can help open up that market to a broader global audience. I don’t think we’re going to completely change the market, but does it have the impact to drive more transactions and interest? Absolutely.”

Branton agrees about the inherent potential in pairing the American real estate market with a global perspective. “NAR’s mission is to make our members successful and there’s this huge market sitting there with $4-5 billion in commissions in the last 12 months alone,” she says. “We want to be sure that our members see that market in their local area and can connect to it with the tools and skills they need. I think we can help our members in this tough economy to identify a bucket of business that they might not know exists.

“It helps to build and stabilize an organized real estate market around the globe,” Branton continues. “The more we can find ways to work with our partners around the world, the better. Consumers will benefit.”

The Realtor.com® International site will launch during the last week of October 2011 in preparation for the annual REALTORS® Conference and Expo being held in Anaheim, California, November 11-14, 2011. They will host two audience-specific demo sessions in the NAR Theater on the Expo floor, one for the international audience and one for U.S. practitioners.

For more information, visit www.REALTOR.org/global/realtorcom_international.

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