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(Above) Homes.com President David Mele and SVP of Marketing and Sales Erin Ruane (center) join members of the team for a family photo in the company’s homebase, Norfolk, Va.)

Homes.com Keeps the Focus on Agents in Changing Times

Editor’s Note: This is the cover story in the November issue of RISMedia’s Real Estate magazine. Subscribe today.

At RISMedia’s CEO Exchange this past September, it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the threats facing today’s real estate professionals: consolidation, iBuyers, venture capital-backed competitors, technology supplanting agents, etc. The message was clear: The future is uncertain…who can you trust?

But then David Mele took the stage and delivered a different message, and a promise: “We believe consumers should always work with a licensed real estate professional…and we promise not to compete against you.”

Why Trust Matters Now More Than Ever
According to Mele, president of Norfolk, Va.-based Homes.com, the time is ripe for this message. Because, while change has been discussed a lot over the past few years, it’s finally arrived.

“In the last year or two, there’s been some real disruption,” says Mele. “Real, impactful change is underway, and the brokerage is left to figure out, ‘Who can I partner with to grow my business? Who can I trust? Where do we have shared values and clear motives?’ Those things matter now more than ever.”

When it comes to choosing portal partners specifically, real estate professionals are now confronted with iBuyer programs, referral-based lead strategies and online brokerage models. Brokers and agents must decide to either get on board with these new programs or risk being left out altogether.

Mele believes that it’s dangerous new ground.

“We have some players in the industry who are pivoting from a partner posture to a competitive posture,” he says. “There’s a moat being dug around access to the consumer, and those players at the top of the funnel will control the pipeline. This could lock out agents and brokers. For a while, the industry was questioning which direction some of the large players would go in, but I think we’ve now gotten our answer.”

And it’s a direction Homes.com categorically rejects.

“Brokers and agents know that our motives and values align with theirs and, therefore, clearly see us as a partner,” explains Mele. “We don’t provide a platform that displaces agents to buy and sell homes. We are not a referral model. You can always get leads directly from us. We connect agents with buyers and sellers. We don’t compete with them.”

“We’ve always focused on keeping the agent and the broker front and center, connecting the consumer to the real estate professional,” echoes Homes.com Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales Erin Ruane. “For us, it’s always been about how we can help with this very infrequent, very stressful, very expensive transaction. When technology gets in the way of that tradition by disrupting the connection between the agent, the broker and the consumer, that’s when trust begins to erode.”

Respecting the Tradition of Building Relationships
In an industry that sometimes gets caught up in trying to remain cutting edge, the role of tradition can get pushed aside. But in reality, tradition holds a very important place in the real estate transaction, and Homes.com continues to honor it accordingly.

“We believe that innovation and tradition actually go hand-in-hand,” explains Mele. “Tradition refers to the time-tested truths that should be respected, protected and preserved. At Homes.com, as we innovated and continued to evolve through the technology process, we honored those time-tested truths, the biggest one being that the consumer is best served when working with a licensed real estate professional. The tradition we honor is that there is an agent at the center of the transaction as a trusted advisor and guide to the consumer. That’s a big one for us.”

An agent-centric tradition has always been part of the Homes.com DNA, says Vice President of Industry Development Andy Woolley. “Our competitors are only interested in the top 10-20 percent of the agent population—they only want consumers reaching those agents,” he explains. “We’re not going to start picking and choosing which agents get access to potential deals and start trying to control the market. We’re respecting the tradition of this business. We’re going to be the marketing platform that connects agents and brokers with buyers and sellers.”

Technology That Delivers on the Promise
To help deliver on its promise of connecting agents and brokers with consumers, a completely reimagined Homes.com was launched in mid-2018.

“Our new consumer search experience continues to keep brokers and agents front and center, and always part of the transaction,” says Mele. “We’ve streamlined the Homes.com site and the mobile app to remove the clutter and make it easy for consumers to search and save listings and connect with agents. The listing agent is always prominently displayed and always receives the consumer inquiry. And the buyer’s agent has the opportunity to present themselves at the time of interest through our Local Connect product.”

The recently reimagined Local Connect perfectly marries Homes.com’s focus on tradition and technology. The product connects agents with active buyers and sellers in their target market by zip code, and with the addition of Direct Connect, a consumer can immediately call an agent—and that call is an exclusive opportunity for the agent.

What’s more, listing agents always get a copy of inquiries, whether they’re paying for the listing or not. Their tagline says it all: “Your Listing. Your Lead. Your Commission. Always.”

“That’s the direct connection we provide between the consumer and the listing agent who has done the work to secure that listing,” says Ruane. “We believe it’s in the consumer’s best interest to have the listing agent clearly identified.”

As Mele explains, the Homes.com site is designed to create a fair playing field.

“Do you put a thumb on the scale for yourself, or do you commit to displaying the freshest listings regardless of deals or contracts? Today, you have to look at how leads are routed and how agents are allowed to participate,” he says. “We’re not attempting to pick the winner. Rather, we’re providing an open platform for agents and brokers to have access to consumers. We’re willing to trust agents and send them leads directly without screening or vetting or qualifying those leads. This twists against the prevailing referral model.”

Of course, Homes.com can confidently send leads directly to brokers and agents because their traffic is more targeted to begin with: More than 90 percent of consumers visiting Homes.com are actually in the process of searching for a home, far further down the funnel than the typical portal visitor.

“There’s a really important mantra that we hold to: bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to home search sites and traffic,” says Mele. “On Homes.com, we have a smaller audience, but a more efficient audience in terms of transaction-ready buyers and sellers. That translates into good ROI for agents and brokers.”

For agents who would like additional help following up on leads, however, Homes.com offers the Lead Concierge program. The call-screening service allows agents and brokerages to compete head-to-head with other portals when it comes to making contact first, thereby avoiding a potential 35-percent referral fee.

“We don’t force the consumer inquiry to go through the concierge service,” Ruane explains. “The agent has the right to choose.

“What we’re trying to facilitate is a long-term relationship between the consumer who needs help and the real estate professional who can help guide them throughout this journey,” adds Ruane. “We’re building a relationship of trust. The more we can facilitate that connection, the better we can position the agent to have a customer for life.”

Listing Data You Can Trust
One of the biggest contributing factors to Homes.com’s reputation as a portal you can trust is the scope and quality of its listing data, a result of the company’s enterprise partnerships in the MLS and brokerage worlds. Woolley, in fact, has the distinguished honor of sitting on the board of directors for the Council of Multiple Listing Services (CMLS), the professional trade organization that serves to advance the MLS industry in North America, as a business partner director. According to Woolley, the success of any portal all starts with the listing.

“One hundred percent of the interaction the consumer has with our agents is driven through a listing,” explains Woolley, “and our primary and most reliable source of listing data is the MLS, which is the conduit to the brokerage. While the brokerages are in control of whether they participate, we get 85-90 percent broker adoption because they trust us. And they stay with us because we’re driving meaningful results.”

Homes.com displays more than 3 million active listings, almost 80 percent of which are sourced directly from MLSs and national franchise partners. Using the MLS as the primary source of data allows brokers and agents to easily and efficiently keep their listing data up to date through one central system, giving brokers complete control over where they want their listing data published.

Homes.com has developed this level of trust with the MLS and brokerage community by keeping its listing data pristine. Listings, which are updated frequently, clearly identify the listing source and date of the last update. Homes.com offers to send referral traffic back to the MLS or broker website, and does not force the listing agent and brokerage to register to display information on Homes.com.

“I’ll put us up against anybody when it comes to breadth of coverage and frequency of updates,” says Woolley. “Brokers know they’re going to be clearly represented, get the leads back and have meaningful engagement. Even though other portals may have an agreement with an MLS to receive data, it doesn’t mean they’re generating the share of broker participation that we’re generating; that could be because brokers don’t see them providing the results, or now, they may perceive those portals as a competitor.”

Through the Homes.com enterprise relationship with an MLS, brokers can display their listings for free on Homes.com, which then gives agents access to the Homes.com Connect dashboard where they can claim their free Homes.com profile. The profile advertises the agent on all of their listings, which includes all pertinent links and branding. Agents are also provided with the Homes.com Lead Management System to help turn leads into active customers.

“The entry-level experience with Homes.com is designed to keep the agent at the center of it all,” says Woolley. “We provide free advertising, free leads and a free dashboard as an introduction to the brand. We give people a lot of quality interaction and hope they decide to pay and expand their reach.”

Of course, the ultimate beneficiary of Homes.com’s partnerships with the MLS and brokerage communities is the consumer. “By securing our listings from the most trustworthy and reliable source, the MLS, as opposed to going piecemeal broker by broker, we have the ability to display listings on Homes.com from brokerages of all sizes. Otherwise, the 500 biggest brokerages would lock out the small guys who wouldn’t have the technical capacity to participate. Now, the consumer gets a realistic view of the market—they’re not just looking at listings provided by the big brokerages.”

A Continued Path of Connection
According to Woolley, as the future unfolds, Homes.com will be able to more clearly delineate that its technology and business model is all about trust, tradition and partnering with brokers and agents.

“There’s a lot of effort underway at RESO (the Real Estate Standards Organization) to develop MLS data standards, and we’re on the precipice of seeing those efforts start to materialize, which will give companies like us the ability to provide meaningful metrics,” he explains. “Real estate professionals will be able to see where their marketing dollars are most productive. The only way our message of trust and tradition will resonate long-term is if we can simultaneously demonstrate that we also provide better results. That’s where we’re now heading because of data standards.”

In the meantime, the dedicated team at Homes.com will stay steadfast in its promise to the industry. “Our people are some of the most tenured, passionate, experienced people serving the real estate industry today,” says Ruane. “We will continue to build products and enhance our existing products. We will continue to build upon our core values and keep our promise to the industry front and center.”

And that promise is to keep real estate professionals where they belong: at the center of the transaction.

“There are efforts underway in this industry that could lead to the alienation of real estate agents,” says Mele. “But what we see is a future where technology doesn’t eliminate agents, it enables agents.”

For more information about Homes.com’s promise to the real estate industry, please visit homes.com/always.

Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at maria@rismedia.com.

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