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RISMEDIA, June 19, 2007-(MCT)-John Williams and his team at Missouri Online Real Estate, based in Chesterfield, have given up their physical offices in favor of a virtual office, and walk-ins for “click-ins.” Almost 70% of the company’s business is generated through the Internet, Williams said, and agents use online document sharing, video messaging and BlackBerrys to communicate with each other and with clients.

“What technology has allowed us to do is go mobile, free ourselves from the office,” Williams said.

Technology also has made consumers more demanding. According to the National Association of Realtors, more than 70% of consumers do online research before contacting an agent.

Today’s house buyers, people like Michael Breer, one of Williams’ clients want instant and constant access to information and their real estate agents. Two years ago, when Breer and his wife moved to Columbus, Ohio, they looked at almost 50 houses, visiting 15 to 20 on each trip.

“Often we could tell just driving up to the house or within two seconds of walking in that this wasn’t the right house,” Breer said. Now they are looking at moving back to St. Louis. With two children, ages 11 and 9, Breer said he did not want to have to tour dozens of houses again.

Instead, the couple did their research online and found properties that matched their design parameters size, bedrooms and price as well as other preferences, such as school district. Based on that and detailed virtual photo tours, Breer said they were able to narrow their choices to just a few houses.

“With tools like an ‘online notebook’ to store my chosen properties, my agent and I were communicating even when we were not actually talking,” Breer said.

Slow to change

The real estate industry in the past has been slow to adapt to technology, said Dennis Norman, president of the St. Louis Association of Realtors. But not anymore. Active agents in the local market Norman included probably spend about $1,500 a year, perhaps more, on technology, he said.

That is in keeping with national trends. More than half the real estate professionals surveyed by the national association in May said they spent at least $1,000 on technology last year. About 25%spent more than $2,000.

Douglas Devitre, a Ladue-based broker with Prudential Alliance Realtors, spends about $5,000 just on online tools, including the multiple Web sites he runs.

Devitre runs one Web site that offers translations in 13 languages. He also started a site with a video Weblog in time for a downtown loft tour earlier this month. The blog featured interviews with Jim Cloar of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership, plus developers who have properties downtown.

Devitre’s own Realtor Web site has a recorded Flash video introduction. Devitre runs another Web site to educate consumers about predatory lending.

He also teaches technology classes to real estate agents.

“The reason I put so much time, money and effort into this platform is because this is where people are going,” Devitre said.

Other tools Eleanor Lyons, a sales associate with Prudential Select Properties in Town and Country, has been in the business for 30 years. She remembers when agents had to go to a listing agent’s office to pick up keys for any properties they wanted to show. The key had to be returned before the agent could go to the next showing.

“It was a mess,” she said. “Now we have a super key.”

Electronic locks have replaced the old ones, and a super key is a pass code unique to each agent. The computer system in the lock registers each code and maintains a record of who entered and when, she said. It provides for more efficient and more secure transactions.

Digital photography has helped agents provide much better visuals and even online video tours of houses. Many agents also use laptop and notebook computers to gather property information on-site, instead of having sellers come to their offices.

The technology also has changed how properties are marketed.

Cheryl Johnson, broker and owner of Town and Country-based Johnson Realty, spends two-thirds of her marketing dollars online. Johnson runs a discount brokerage and does not want “to get lumped with all other discount Realtors.”

So she started her own blog. It helps her educate consumers and “distinguish myself from others,” Johnson said.

St. Louis has yet to adopt other technological innovations being tried in larger coastal markets, such as podcasting and the video version, called vodcasting. But it is only a matter of time before they get here.

“If you don’t adapt to new technology, you can still operate your business, but you are going to hit a ceiling,” Devitre said. “If you want to take your business to the next level, you have to improve your skill sets and incorporate new technologies.”

Copyright © 2007, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.